Imagine the scene: disgruntled foreign nationals, armed with semi-automatic pistols, storm the doors of a well-known public institution and begin firing on the surprised, and trapped, crowd. Their goal is to make a point. To bring their cause the attention they believe it deserves.
Scenes similar to this are filling newspapers and newscasts all too frequently. But the scene I have in my mind isn’t from last week. Or last month. It’s from March 1, 1954. The foreign nationals are not from the Middle East, but from Puerto Rico. And the public institution was the United States House of Representatives.
Puerto Rico had been struggling for independence for years, finally achieving free status, they believed with the approval of the 1898 Charter of Autonomy with Spain. Shortly thereafter, the United States defeated Spain and received the island in the Treaty of Paris.
How could a previously free country be handed over for rule by a country that no longer owned it? That’s a good question and one that fueled the creation and rise of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.
Throughout the next half-century, Puerto Ricans continued to bristle at U.S. rule. According to Federico Ribes Tovar’s book “A Chronological History of Puerto Rico,” America’s influence on and power over the country’s sugar production led to increasing conflict, to the point that on several occasions, blood was spilled. Protesters were killed by authorities in a 1937 parade and in 1950, Dr. Pedro Malavet writes, attacks by protestors were thwarted by officials but not before 28 died, including 16 Nationals, one National Guardsman, and seven police officers.
There is even belief that two men with Nationalist Party affiliations attempted to assassinate President Truman in 1950.
In 1952, Truman himself supported a referendum that would grant Commonwealth status to the island. It passed easily and for most Puerto Ricans, was seen as a measure of progress. But for the Nationals, it wasn’t good enough. They wanted to bring attention to their fight for true independence.
Tovar continues by writing that the Nationals chose the date of March 1, 1954 for their attack, the opening day of the InterAmerican Conference in Caracas, Venezuela. Leader Lolita Lebrón argued that rather than attempting to coordinate multiple shootings, the group’s best chance of success came with an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives.
A group of four–Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Lebrón–travelled to Washington, D.C. by train to carry out the plot.
Lebrón led the group into the chamber and sat down in the visitors section. They recited the Lord’s Prayer before shouting “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” (Long live free Puerto Rico!) and opening fire 15-30 times on the unsuspecting politicians.
The New York Times reported that Lebrón, fashioned in high heels and bright red lipstick, emptied her Luger pistol before attempting to unfurl a Puerto Rican flag, which she waved wildly in the air.
Doug Stanglin wrote in the USA Today that a congressman used a tie as a tourniquet and Pennsylvania Republican and Navy veteran James Van Zandt rushed upstairs and captured one of the shooters.
Paul Kanjorski, a 16-year old page at the time, explained that that he first thought the loud cracks were firecrackers, until being hit by a sandy substance when a marble column he was standing near was hit. He dropped to the floor and was one of several pages who helped carry out the injured. Kanjorski was a Pennsylvania representative until 2011.
History.com writes that three of the shooters were arrested at the scene with the fourth apprehended later.
A story in the Holland Sentinel archives from 2004 states that none of the 240 representatives present at the time were killed. Representatives Alvin M. Bentley from Michigan, Clifford Davis from Tennessee, Ben F. Jensen from Iowa, George Hyde Fallon from Maryland, and Kenneth Roberts from Alabama were injured, though all recovered. Majority Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana was narrowly missed, but hit with flying splinters.
The four were swiftly convicted of murder and conspiracy, each receiving 76 years in prison for their actions.
Cordero was granted release in 1978, a year before President Jimmy Carter controversially pardoned the other three. All four returned to Puerto Rico and never set foot on American soil again.