Reflections On The Passing Of Lolita Lebron

 Lolita in the Clutches of D.C. Cops

 

 “If the men don’t fight for the liberty of P.R., we,

the women will.  Tell your men!”

 I first heard of Deloris “Lolita” Lebron Sotomayor from Queen Mother Moore, one of the great African American freedom fighters of the twentieth century.  Queen Mother and Lolita lived lives that made them sisters in struggle and kindred spirits.  An activist since the days of the Universal Negro Improvement Association – a mass Black Nationalist organization of the early twentieth century led by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey –  she later joined the communist Party,  because they were leading a militant fight against the Scottsboro decision condeming nine innocent young black men to death on a false charge of raping two white female bums hoboing on freight trains.

Audley “Queen Mother” Moore stayed on in the party after the Scottsboro struggle because the communist took the position that the former states of the Confederacy was actually a “Negro Nation;” paid for with black blood, sweat and tears within the United States.   and that nation had the right to “self-determination.”  This was the 1930’s,  at the height of white supremacy and racial violence aggraviated by the economic chaos of the Great Depression.  Hence Queen Mother was a natural ally and admirer of the fearless Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalist Lolita Lebron, who was fighting the same enemy.

Audley Moore: Queen Mother of the Afro-American Struggle 

Like Lolita: a revolutionary activist into her Eighties!

That sense of comradeship with the Puerto-Rican nationalists was enhanced when Queen Mother married Jose Cuevas, an activist in the Puerto Rican Independista movement who was forced to leave his beloved Island and seek refuge in the US.  She was with Jose when I first met her.  It was they who schooled me on the Puerto Rican revolutionaries. This was in 1962; only twelve years after revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalist had tried to deliver a letter from Dr. Albizu compos – the President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party – to President Truman at Blair House in Washington, and got into a shootout with the guards; killing one of them.  And it was a mere eight years after the Nationalists shot up the US Congress, wounding five Congressmen!

To those of my generation who had grown disillusioned with the non-violent Gandhian tactics of the US Civil Rights Movement in the face of unremitting white violence, the Puerto Rican nationalists were heroes – as were the victorious Cuban revolutionaries. The two most compelling figures among the Puerto Rican nationalists were Dr. Pedro Albizu Compos and Lolita Lebron. After serving as an officer in a segregated black unit of the United States Army, Albizu acquired an engineering degree from the University of Vermont and a law degree from Harvard.  Spurning offers to Clerk for a Supreme Court Justice, and opportunities to practice law in the US, Albizu Compos returned home to defend the poor in courts of law.

Lt. Albizu compos

 He was Lolita’s Comrade and Mentor

In 1930 Dr. Compos became the President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and he soon emerged  as the most powerful leader in the revolutionary movement; combining oratorical virtuosity with a brilliant mind to inspire the people to action.  And they would honor him with the title: “El Maestro,” “The Teacher.”  By creating the first Women’s Nationalist Committee in the city of Vieques, he paved the way for Lolita Lebron Sotomayor; who would become one of his most trusted field commanders and led the daring 1954 attack on the House of Representatives.

Lolita was as beautiful as Jennifer Lopez and absolutely fearless. In the press conference held after they were taken into police custody for shooting up the Congress, she said the whole action was her idea; an ideal she shared with her comrades. And she had no regrets because their pleas for liberty and justice for Puerto Rico had too long gone unheeded. Like Martin Luther King and Fidel Castro, Lolita concluded that justice too long postponed is justice denied!   Studying the news coverage from the American media after Lolita and her comrades were captured on gets no sense of this; the dominant theme that emerges when the motives of the Nationalist are discussed is that they were insane in the brain.  They are repeatedly describes as crazed fanatics.

As one who has studied race relations for half a century now, and the European-American attitude toward peoples of color, it is not surprising that even professional journalists, the people whose job it is to interpret reality for the masses, perceived this as a wholly unjustified act carried out by unthinking deranged fanatics.  Surely these white – and they were all white – commentators did not know about the myriad crimes committed against the Puerto Rican people by the US government in their name, and with their tax dollars.

For instance, did they know how the US government invaded Puerto Rico and  brutally annexed them as an American protectorate without their consent; suppressing the Puerto Rican flag and attempting to negate their national identity?  Did they know how the Puerto Rican people were fleeced of their wealth by American economic policies that drove indigenous businessmen out of business?  Did they know about the armed suppression of the will of the Puerto Rican People, and the horrendous massacre at Ponce in 1937?

The Ponce Massacre

 The soldier continues to fire in spite of dead bodies at his feet

Whether they knew these things or not I cannot say, but there are two critical points we need to understand today.  The first is that it really doesn’t matter if they knew or not,  because the interests they served would not have cared.  Thus willful ignorance on their part was an act of self preservation.  Secondly, it is important that we understand these issues now because only then can we properly asses the morality of theirrevolutionary  acts.  There is raw film footage of the actual Ponce massacre on You Tube.  It is presented without comment because the inhumanity and moral depravity of the slaughter is self-evident.

However there is much learned commentary on this event on other atrocities on You Tube videos, especially the discussion on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now,” hosted by Amy Goodman and the brilliant Nuyorican journalist/Author Jaun Gonzales, who has written an authoritative book on US /Puerto Rican relations.  Among other things we learn that the Ponce massacre occurred during a celebration of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, which took place on that date.  The celebration had also turned into a demonstration against the jailing of Albizu Compos, who had just begun a ten year sentence for “sedition.”

Thus the massacre was intended to teach the Puerto Ricans a lesson about the danger and futility of challenging white American power. The American exceptionalists would prefer to forget this history as it fucks up their master narrative.  That’s why they are so pissed at President Obama because he did not attempt to defend and justify the historic crimes of American imperialist policies in Latin America  Which are, in any event, indefensible.   Some well meaning but misguided folks – Puerto Ricans among them  – would prefer to forget this blood stained  past and just “let bygones be bygones.”  I beg to differ!

I agree with the outstanding Afro-American historian, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, that in order to fully understand contemporary events “one needs the added dimension of historical perspective.”  Viewed from the perspective of the victims of a brutal American occupation, the Nationalists revolutionary acts take on a radically different meaning than when viewed from the perspective of the colonizer, the exploiter.  This is why in spite of all the outrage among North Americans, Albizu Compos and Lolita Lebron are heroes to the masses of Puerto Ricans, just as George Washington, Patrick Henry, Tom Jefferson and the other colonial rebels – whom George III would surely have hung if he could have caught them – are heroes to US citizens.  And the revolutionary American patriots would have been roundly applauded if they had knocked off the British King!  One man’s subversive is another man’s patriot.  And that’s the long and the short of the matter!

When I look at Deloris Lolita Lebron Sotomayor, standing tall in shackles, unintimidated by her armed white male captors towering over her, staring defiantly into the cameras and saying yes I did it and I regret nothing!  I see not an unthinking fanatic, but a brave and nobel soldier and patriot that was motivated by the same pride and passions as those that fired George Washington and Nathan Hale; who said “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.

She was moved by the same fierce love of country as John Paul Jones, who shouted  as his ship was sinking under British fire: “I have not yet begun to fight!”  And she hadn’t.  Even after doing 25 years in America’s hellish prisons, upon receiving a pardon from President Jimmy Carter she went back to Puerto Rico to a hero’s welcome and rejoined the struggle. She can be seen leading demonstrations against the US Navy conducting maneuvers in Vieques, and plunging into other struggles on behalf of the Puerto Rican people well into her eighties.  After a life time of struggle her body might have been tired but her soul was at rest.

 The Lioness in Autumn

 

Queen mother of the Puerto Rican  Struggle still  active in her Eighties!

The most interesting and telling portrait of Lolita that I have read is to be found in the autobiography of Conrad Lynn, her African American lawyer titled “There is A Fountain.” A brilliant radical lawyer who had reversed the death sentence against the Scottsboro boys in Alabama, Lynn was no stranger to difficult cases involving race and class issues.  And he speaks of both Albizu Compos and  Lolita with reverence.

He paints Lolita as a kind of revolutionary saint, who once told him that men were always after her body, wanted to praise her beauty, but that none of that mattered to her at all – she only had eyes for the liberation struggle.  Lolita remained a committed revolutionary until she danced La Bomba last Sunday and joined the ancestors after 90 years in this world…a consequential life indeed.  In the pantheon of great freedom fighters, Martyrs  and revolutionary nationalists of the twentieth century she belongs sight up there with Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Mihn, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Enersto Che Guevarra, et al.   Viva Lolita!  Que viva Puerto Rico Libre!!

 

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 Playthell Benjamin
Aughust 3, 2010
Harlem New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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