La Homenaje Santos Lolita Lebron!

 

Pastor Lydia Rivera Welcomes The Supplicants

 

The memorial mass for Lolita Lebron held at the elegant little church – which was originally built by Germans – called “La Resurrection,” was both a celebration of the life and struggles of this great Puerto Rican patriot as well as the Afro-Latin Caribbean people and culture from which she sprang and was the abiding love of her life.  And before it was over the ceremony evolved into a celebration of the beauty and strenght of Puerto Rican women collectively.  There were many testimonials to Lolita’s life and its meaning offered up in praise poems and compelling prose, in Spanish and English.  One of the myriad virtues of this celebration is that the speakers had mastered the idiomatic nuances of the language they spoke; an art for the orator and a pleasure for the listener.  Thus the elegant sanctuary was filled to the rafters with eloquent and moving oratory. 

Part of the service was in Spanish – which was rightfully given pride of place – and part was in English.  Although I understood little of what was said by those who spoke entirely in Spanish, the sheer sonic beauty of this lyrical mellifluous language was a joy to hear.  Without understanding much of the vocabulary I could nevertheless understand the basic tenor of the message by studying the body language and intonations of the speaker’s voice.  Not to mention the tales the eyes tell.  The Pastor is a wise Latina in so many ways, but one her most moving and thoughtful gifts to this memorial was the marvelous music she assembled for the service.

“Music gives resonance to memory” wrote the great Afro-American Novelist and essayist Ralph Waldo Ellison; and so it was on this occasion.  This is because music, especially the best popular music, is a sound portrait of the soul of a people. It is the literature of the masses; it is both a refuge from the troubles of the world and a means of rejuvenating the spirit through joy. It is the soundtrack of our lives.  I don’t know for sure that Lolita was a music lover, but being a Latina and a daughter of the working class I’d bet my bottom daughter she loved to dance. 

When I think of Lolita it is not always about firing a pistol in the House chambers; often I fantasize dancing the Mambo with her at the Palladium.  For during the 1950’s, when she was toiling in the garmet center in downtown Manhattan and living in The Bronx,  New York City was engulfed in a Mambo craze, and the Palladium at 52and Street was the Mecca.  In those days Machito and his Afro-Cuban’s was the premier dance band, but there were Puerto Ricans in the group. One of the longtime singers with the band – who has just completed a book on her experiences traveling with the orchestra and singing with the great Gracella – was at the memorial, and she reminded me that we had met at Gracella’s home on her 90th birthday.

I was fortunate to attend this fascinating congregation of Latin musicians at the invitation of the legendary Puerto Rican broadcaster Malin Falu, and notice the longtime friendship and joyous camaraderie amon the Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians.   The relationships between Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians – which became essential once the seminal Puerto-Rican bandleader Rafael Cortijo orchestrated La Bomba and  substituted  conga drums for the barrales – reflects the much deeper political relationships between the two Spanish speaking Caribbean island nations.  This relationship was expressed on the highest level of solidarity when several thousand Puerto Rican revolutionaries volunteered to fight in Cuba during their war of national liberation against Spain in the 19th century.  And it was reiteratied in Che Guevara’s impassioned tribute to “El Maestro” Albizu Compos, President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and Lolita’s comrade and mentor.

Like the African cultures from whence the drums in Afro- Caribbean music derived, dance in Afro-Latin Creole cultures is often a part of religious ritual rather than the sinful thing Protestant fundamentalists preach against and often seek to ban. All of the music at the memorial mass, which was recorded by great Puerto Rican artists, is dance music.  Anybody who thinks dance music cannot achieve the spiritual gravitas to accompany religious ritual should stop and listen to “Mi Bandera” by Richie Ray &Bobby Cruz. In this celebration of Puerto Rico you can hear the perfect blend of a robust rhythmic statement that commands the body to dance, combined with a triumphant spirituality that inspires the spirit to flight.   Hence I felt an otherworldly sensation as I listened to this music while my body sat still and my spirit danced. 

And the fact that the opening selection, “Olas DE Yemaya” by Tiempo Libre, is a celebration of Yemaja: the Yoruba Goddess of the water, mother of the other dieties and patron deity of women.  This is the Goddess that sustained African women through the long ordeal of slavery throughout the American diaspora.  Yemaja would eventually syncretize with catholic saints manifesting similar virtues and become an object of veneration for women of all races in Latin America.  It is this cultural Mondongo that produced the unique character of the Puerto-Rican people and their marvelous music.  And obviously the wise Latina who put this together understood all of this.  No wonder Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, sang their praises to the consternation of ignorant racist and Anglo- Saxon cultural chauvinists like Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Employing the structured improvisation of the music and dance, the ceremony was free flowing and offered opportunities for personal participation and self expression from the audience.  As the floor was opened up for anyone to offer their thoughts on Dona Lolita we heard a variety of moving testimony that revealed aspects of her character that were unknown to the general public, and even admirers, this writer included.  One of the most interesting things I learned was that Lolita was very religious; as a speaker told us how she attended the ceremonies for the elevation of a Puerto Rican Archbishop at the Vatican.  She carried with her a parcel of soil from Puerto Rico and asked the Pope to bless it.  There were many magic moments – such as when a Hostos college Professor who had known Dona Lolita spoke with great poignancy and passion about the great lady, and the Poet “La Bruja” evoked her spirit in a moving recitation that rocked the house of the Lord.  The revolutionary vibes became so powerful that I was first moved to silent tears then compelled to testify.

The high point of this moving ceremony however was unquestionably the sermon preached by Pastor Lydia Rivera. A woman of intellect and vision, her love of country and admiration for its patriots inspired and informed her magnificent sermon.  As one who was trained as an orator by my Aunt Rosa – an English teacher who sponsored an oratorical team – and heard my Uncle George, a learned and eloquent preacher of the Gospels who was a Presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preach on many occasions, I know a great sermon when I hear one. 

Reverend Rivera fashioned a sermon, which she delivered in elegant Spanish and flawless English, which gave Lolita the imprimatur of the church.  And we were made to understand that her love and sacrifices for the liberation and human dignity of the Puerto Rican people was the amazing grace of a saint…not the actions of a criminal! As she spoke in the rolling cadences of sacred incantations designed to call forth the spirit of God so we could feel the presence of the divine, I reflected on the Afro-American novelist, essayist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston’s observation: “A preacher must be a poet to survive in a Negro pulpit.”

And I knew that this preacher, with her fire and eloquence, who wielded words like a sword to slay the enemies of the people and a salve to heal their spirits, would not only survive but thrive in a pulpit that is the incubator for the greatest orators in the world.  In her revolutionary spirit and love of her culture and country, Reverend Rivera is a true daughter of Dona Lolita.  When I left that little community church in the South Bronx – where the common people she served and her comrades in struggle gathered to pay their last respects to Lolita – I knew that this was my tribe too, my familia.  And my soul was fortified for the fight ahead.  The struggle continues.  Que viva Puerto Rico Libre!

 The Flag Bearers

 Carrying The Symbols Of The Puerto Rican Nation

 

Icons Of A Patriot

Saint Lolita Gazes At Her Comrades

 

It Was A Joyous Occasion!

 Rev. Lydia Lebron Rivera Celebrates The Life Of Lolita

 

The Sanctuary Was Filled To Capacity

When The Saints Came Marching In

 

Telling Lolita’s Story

 

Let The Praise Songs Begin

 

A Poet Of The People Leaves The Church

Supported By Strong Women

La Bruja!

Spouting Words Of Fire!

 

This Speaker Burst Into Song

Singing From The Heart

  

A Hostos Professor Spoke Movingly Of Lolita

Bursting with Pride and Passion

 

And We Heard From Conscious Youth

 Keeper Of The Dream

 

La Bruja And El Chocolate!

  

 Exchanging Salutations

 

Standing With The Courageous Pastor

Lolita’s Daughter In Struggle

 

La Bruja Communes With Venezuelan Ambassador

 

Revolutionary Notes

 

Passing On The Tradition

A Conscious Father Schools His Daughter

 

The Celebrants Were Multiracial

 

 Comrades In The Struggle

 

The Joy Of The Occasion

Was Etched On Their Faces

 

An Afrocentric Woman

 Representin!

 

A Mother And Son

Attorney John Price And His Revolutionary Mom

 

Lions In Winter

Still in The Struggle after all these years

Down Wit it and can’t Quit It!

 

A Musician And Author

 

 This Former Singer with Machito’s Orchestra paid her respects

 

Conscious Photographers Turned Out

Preserving The Homage For Dona Lolita

 

Brother Stewart Sang Lolita’s Praises…

And Brought Grettings Of Solidarty from his falsely Imprisoned Wife Lynn

 

A Stalwart Soldier Stood On Point

The Struggle Continues!

 

A Big Surprise and a Very Special Honor

Words From My Commentary Completes The Program

 

*************

 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 10, 2010

*Pictures and Text by Playthell Benjamin

Except for pictures in which he appears.

 

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