On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists, including a former beauty queen wearing bright lipstick and high heels, made their way to an upstairs spectators’ gallery in the U.S. Capitol. From there, they shouted pro-independence slogans while unleashing a volley of pistol fire that sent more than 240 members of Congress scurrying for cover. No one died in the attack, though five congressmen suffered injuries. The assailants, meanwhile, were all arrested at the scene or shortly thereafter. They ended up spending a quarter-century in jail before being released as part of a purported prisoner swap with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The United States took control of Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island located about 1,000 miles from Miami, in 1898 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. After two years of military rule, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory with a popularly elected legislature. Puerto Ricans then became U.S. citizens in 1917. More rights followed, including the ability to elect their own governor. Nonetheless, many residents bristled over the direction of reform. One law even made it a crime to display the Puerto Rican flag or to speak out in favor of independence. Crackdowns on the pro-independence Nationalist Party, led by Harvard-educated lawyer Pedro Albizu Campos, were commonplace and occasionally deadly. In 1935, for example, four nationalist demonstrators were killed by police at the University of Puerto Rico, and in 1937 19 were killed and more 100 wounded in another clash in the city of Ponce.
The Nationalist Party retaliated with violence of its own, including a failed uprising in 1950. That same year, two party members tried to assassinate U.S. President Harry S. Truman at the Blair House, the president’s official guest house, where he was staying during a White House renovation. Truman emerged unharmed, but a Secret Service officer and one of the assailants died in a shootout. Not long afterward, Albizu Campos reportedly tasked Lolita Lebrón, a seamstress and former beauty pageant winner who had moved from Puerto Rico to New York City in the 1940s, with leading an assault on the U.S. Capitol. “I had all the secrets, all the plans,” Lebrón later told the Washington Post. “Me and me alone.”
On March 1, 1954, Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodriguez took the train from New York to Washington, D.C., where they ate lunch at the station and met up with a fourth co-conspirator, Rafael Cancel Miranda. They then apparently got lost walking to the Capitol, arriving there only after receiving directions from a pedestrian. Once inside, they entered the so-called Ladies’ Gallery, a spectators’ area overlooking the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, which was engaged in a debate of a bill on Mexican farm labor. A security guard asked if they had cameras but did not check for weapons. Whipping out pistols, the nationalists squeezed off about 30 shots into the mass of lawmakers below. “Viva Puerto Rico libre (Long live free Puerto Rico)!” Lebrón cried while attempting to unfurl a Puerto Rican flag. As the bullets flew around them, slamming into marble columns, walls, tables and chairs, House members threw themselves to the floor or fled for the exits.
Having injured Representatives Alvin M. Bentley (Michigan); Ben F. Jensen (Iowa); Clifford Davis (Tennessee); George H. Fallon (Maryland); and Kenneth A. Roberts (Alabama), the Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to escape. They did not get far.
Spectators immediately began subduing them with the help of police, gallery attendants and a congressman, James Van Zandt (R-Pennsylvania), who reportedly rushed upstairs, snatched one of the assailant’s guns and then kicked another assailant in the back. Cancel Miranda, Figueroa Cordero and Lebrón were arrested at the Capitol, and Flores was apprehended soon after at a downtown bus station. Lebrón, who later explained that she expected to die during the attack, carried a note in her purse accusing the United States of “betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country.” “Before God and the world,” she wrote, “my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico.”
At trial, Lebrón was cleared of assault with intent to kill charges because she had apparently fired all of her shots at the ceiling. Nonetheless, she still received a 56-year prison sentence. Her compatriots’ sentences were even lengthier. In 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter granted clemency on humanitarian grounds to Figueroa Cordero, who was dying of cancer. Then, two years later, Carter likewise commuted the sentences of the others. It has been suspected but never confirmed this was part of a deal in which Castro released some jailed CIA agents. After gaining their freedom, Cancel Miranda, Lebrón and Flores traveled to Cuba as guests of Castro and received a hero’s welcome from some in the Puerto Rican community in New York and Chicago, as well as in Puerto Rico itself. Most of their countrymen, however, did not share their zeal for independence, preferring instead for the island to remain a territory or become a state. In a series of plebiscites going back to 1967, the pro-independence camp has never gained more than 4.4 percent of the vote.