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Post Magazine: When Terror Wore Lipstick

Post Magazine Cover Story

Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Miami Bureau Chief
Monday, February 23, 2004; 1:00 PM

On March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebron led a terrorist attack against Congress. Fifty years later, she is not only alive, free and well, but celebrated.

The Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia, whose cover story about the Puerto Rican independence activist appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.


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Roig-Franzia is The Washington Post's Miami bureau chief.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Wheaton, Md.: Do most Puerto Ricans want independence from the US? Without the US presence, what would stop Puerto Rico from ending up like Haiti?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Good question. The pro-independence party is tiny, but talk to many Puerto Ricans and they will tell you that they are independents on the inside, "statehooders" or "commonwealthers" on the outside. There is much debate about the way previous votes on status have been worded. Surely, there is an important U.S. presence on the island now and without it, many fear Puerto Rico would suffer economically.

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Henderson, Ky.: Lebron failed to live up to the ultimate responsibility, that of a mother to the children God gave her. She is not a great person, she is a miserable failure. Puerto Ricans who admire those of her ilk, reveal their ignorance. Sincerely, J.Sutton

Manuel Roig-Franzia: The panorama of Lolita's home life is largely mysterious. It's interesting that she is often referred to in maternal terms---the mother of the independence movement, the mother of puerto rico---but she chose to leave her own children behind. People who love her view this as incredible sacrifice. Those who revile her view her as you do.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you get the feeling that many people abhor terrorism, except when it advances a deeply held cause or conviction of theirs? We've seen many examples in this country where terrorist acts were not strongly denounced by otherwise peaceful, law-abiding citizens. A prime example are abortion clinic bombings. While leaders of the pro-life organizations say all the politically correct things in denouncing them, I know several people who are ardently pro-life and yet have no problem reconciling the deaths of doctors, nurses, and patients from bombings if the results are fewer abortions. Are many people in this country (and world) extremely hypocritical about their stance against terrorism?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: You're hitting on one of the most fascinating nuances of Lolita's life and of the larger question of terrorist acts associated with political causes. Certainly, as I pointed out in the article, Lolita's admirers have edited out the gunshots and focused on the years of religious mysticism and the evolution into a peaceful protester. Does that absolve her for those moments of violence? Probably not. Imagine if one of those congressmen had died. Could we forgive and forget?

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Elmhurst, N.Y.: In your article you listed the various political groups in Puerto Rico according to their votes in plebiscites on the island's political status. You mentioned that the Nationalists, of whom Lolita is a part, have "nearly disappeared" but you failed to mention that since the 1932 election in Puerto Rico, Pedro Albizu Campos, then President of the Nationalist Party, created a new tradition in which members would no longer vote in any election functioning under the colonial government. In other words, these plebiscites are an inaccurate indication of the number of Nationalists still present on the island.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: These plebiscites are incredibly controversial. Few people in any of the political parties like the way they are worded. They gripe about mass confusion at the ballot box. Sound familiar? Reminiscent of Florida, maybe?

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Casper, Wyo.: Many thanks for your excellent feature on activist Lolita Lebron. it was so well done. I have sent it on to other writing friends of mine.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Thanks. I couldn't have asked for a more fascinating subject. I was also lucky to collaborate with Lynda Robinson, one of the greatest editors around, and she deserves to share any compliments on this piece.

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Herndon, Va.: I thoroughly enjoyed the article that your wrote about Lolita Lebron.

I am currently writing an article about a woman who was tried and convicted of a crime in 1953. I have been sent at least 400 pages of FBI file materials. Since you have researched and written a story during the same time era about a notorious woman, I am wondering if you have any advice that you can give to me? Are there any other resources available? Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hunter College at the City University of New York is compiling an amazing archive of FBI surveillance dossiers related to important figures in Puerto Rican history. The archive, which is still in the process of being compiled, should be a tremendous resource for anyone trying to understand the complicated relationship between the U.S> government and Puerto Rico. Think about, Puerto Rico was a colony of the U.S., then its leaders and the leaders of the U.S. government set about redefining their relationship. Anything was possible. A lot of options were considered, including sovereign nation status for Puerto Ricans. Historians are just beginning to uncover a trove of material that gives insight to this period. My guess is that you'll be able to find more material than you could ever use. Good luck with the project.

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Frederick, Md.: Do Puerto Ricans see a correlation between DC's desire for statehood and their hopes for independents? What do they cite as the major reasons for wanting dis-involvement with the USA.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: No one mentioned D.C. to me. But I know independence backers have traveled to Alaska and Hawaii to study their path to statehood. They have concluded, whether rightly or wrongly, that Alaska and Hawaii did not have cultural traditions equivalent to those in Puerto Rico, and therefore could more easily meld into the U.S.

Given the strong traditions of indigenous peoples in both of those states, I can't agree with that conclusion.

The reasons cited for extricating Puerto Rico from the U.S. often tend to be emotionally and psychologically based. To independence backers, Puerto Rico has suffered from a "colonial mentality," a sense of dependence on the U.S. government that has stifled cultural and political creativity, and entrepreneur-ship. These views, of course, are not shared by "statehooders", many of whom are concerned about the possible economic impact of disengagement with the U.S. Clearly, the question of identity in Puerto Rico is huge. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say the island exists in something akin to a state of limbo.

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Baltimore, Md:. How can one be for independence on the inside and for statehood on the outside?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: this gets at the question of complicated notions of identity and to the matter of practicalities. if you subscribe to the belief that puerto rico suffers from a colonial mentality, then it follows that a person could yearn for a separate identity (independence), yet settle for the real, or perceived, comforts of a commonwealth relationship with the u.s.

i'll leave it to you to decide whether that kind of reasoning holds up to intellectual scrutiny.

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washingtonpost.com: A Terrorist in the House (Post, Feb. 22)

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San Juan, Puerto Rico: How do you think U.S. authorities view the standing Mrs. Lebron enjoys among Puerto Ricans here and in the U.S.? What was your personal experience like in your interaction with her?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: No doubt about it, Lolita's fame makes some people in the U.S. uncomfortable. During the Vieques protests, her name was raised during debates in the U.S. Congress by those who thought the U.S. should take a more aggressive stance with demonstrators.

Paul Kanjorski, the former page turned congressman, probably said it best when he compared Lolita to Rosa Parks, and found her lacking in the comparison. But I think Lolita gets an emotional pass from many people because she has evolved and the direction she has moved toward is one of peace and fellowship.

My personal contact with Lolita was stimulating, to say the least. She is still a dynamic person, quick witted, utterly self-assured. She can be domineering, stubborn, imposing. Then, seconds later she will say something completely charming or warm the room with her grace. She did not seek attention. In fact, she was exceedingly reluctant to meet me and the people who love her were extremely protective, both of her time and of her legacy.

Lolita will tell you emphatically that she does not hold journalists from the 50 United States in high esteem. She will tell you they are nice to her and respectful, then hurt her with their words. I believe that she ultimately agreed to meet me because she and her friends were persuaded that I was interested in trying to understand her deeply, that I wouldn't fall back on cliched notions of March, 1, 1954, and that I was curious about her life since the shooting, which in many ways, is more fascinating than the events of that long-ago day.

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washingtonpost.com: Correct link to URL: A Terrorist in the House (Post, Feb. 22)

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Washington, D.C.: I always had the impression that during the 50's and 60's many Puerto Ricans in the mainland turned nationalist because the experiences the endured while in the states. Nevertheless, I personally have not had any experience that might make me hate the U.S. or steer me toward a independent movement.

Do you think that people like Lolita and Albizu are basically history, or have you seen anything to believe this type of feeling is being developed in Puerto Ricans living in the states. washingtonpost.com: A Terrorist in the House (Post, Feb. 22)

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I'm not sure how old you are, but I found it very interesting that the movie, "West Side Story" which explored the experience of young Puerto Ricans drawn to join New York gangs, came out just a few years after the shooting. The prejudices of that time, seem almost implausible sitting here in 2004, but surely they existed. I was floored to hear Lolita and her husband, the cerebral Sergio Irizarry, talk about signs in the U.S. that said "no dogs, no blacks, no Puerto Ricans."

I count myself lucky that I never had to walk by such a sign.

It is a well-held belief among many Puerto Rican intellectuals that the process of radicalization in the 50s and 60s grew out of a reaction to experiences on U.S. soil, not on the island. Something to think about, and learn from.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico: In your experience researching this article, did you find Puerto Ricans on the island to view themselves as Americans, or was Garcia Passalcqua's statement that Puerto Ricans are not hyphenated Americans, but view themselves as a distinct people?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: There is a strong sense of separation in many parts of the island. The preferred language is Spanish, and that means a lot. At the same time, the culture of the United States in the 1950s is pervasive. You can't help but feel like many people who live with one metaphorical foot in the U.S. (their kids, aunts, uncles are there) and another metaphorical foot is on the island. Ultimately, some are just fine with that.

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Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: In one of your answers, you assert that reasons for independence "often tend to be emotionally and psychologically based." How about history, sociology, and economics? Nationalities are certainly not all organized into sovereign states, although that is the usual outcome; but didn't you find any Puerto Ricans willing to argue what scholars from Brown and MIT recently published in "The Size of Nations" (MIT Press) that 9/10 most prosperous nations today have fewer than 7 million people, and 6 of those fewer than 1 million?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hey, no way I would discount history, sociology and economics. Let's throw in religion, gender, sexuality and the environment while were at it.

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Takoma Park, Md.:
I have visited Puerto Rico many times and talked with the people about independence. They put on a show of wanting independence, but they know better. All one has to do is travel the neighboring caribbean to see some real poverty. Puerto Rico by comparison has it much better and this is from U.S. economic support, a generalized welfare for the island. Puerto Rico could possibly maintain its standard of living without the U.S., but it would be extremely hard with only a tourism industry.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Perhaps we should forward your email to the pro-statehood party, you could become their spokesperson.

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Washington, D.C.: Nice article. Most people seem to forget that event the USA fought for its independence as a colony. The people we now portrait as the father of the nation where describe as "terrorist of their time." Although I believe in statehood for Puerto Rico, I have to admit that every country deserves the right to be free and chose his destiny. What Lolita did then, can be described as an act of terrorism now, but no in 1954 when Puerto Rico was under a semi military government (US military) and people seem to just "disappeared" or die under "strange circumstances. I believe, it was a reaction to the situations and circumstances of the time, and for those that did not live in the era is barely impossible to understand. El color depende del cristal con que se mira o "the color will depend on the crystal you're looking through. Good article.


Manuel Roig-Franzia: Thanks. It sounds like your, "cristal" is a very clear one.

You seem to be saying terrorism can be in the eye of the beholder, or the person who has all the ink.

I don't think I can go so far as to call George Washington and the boys at Valley Forge terrorists, certainly that would not be accurate, but I understand the point you are trying to make. It's a point about semantics, and history being written the winners, and the word terrorism today is different than it was three years ago, or then again, is it?

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Frederick, Md.: First, I really enjoyed your article (it's well written), but I wish the subject, not subject matter, had been more worthy of your efforts. I say this because at the end of the article Lolita talks of having visions of "The Capitol...in flames" which contradicts the admires she has who are able to forgive the violence in 1954 because of her new stance of peaceful protest. It appears she hasn't really changed. Or, is this an attempt to get us to uh and ah over how strong/great she is even at 80+ years of age?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Well, that's kind of the way it goes with mystic visions, isn't it? You can read them different ways.

One way would be to view it as a warning, albeit an apocalyptical one, to the United States to be mindful of the consequences of war. Remember, Lolita is actually worried about nuclear weapons and we have lots.

Of course, we could also look at the statement as a fierce, threatening one.

I'll let you decide.

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Manuel Roig-Franzia: Well, time's up. Thanks for all the thought-provoking questions, and for reading the article. Bye.

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