Rafael Cancel Miranda, Opened Fire On U.S Capitol, Dies At 89

Mar 4, 2020
Originally published on March 4, 2020 11:38 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists smuggled guns inside the U.S. Capitol and opened fire on a session of Congress. The attackers wanted Puerto Rico's independence. On Monday night, the last surviving gunman from that group died. He was a controversial figure for some a hero for others. NPR's Adrian Florido has this remembrance.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Rafael Cancel Miranda was born in 1930, three decades after the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico, then a Spanish colony, and took it for itself. Cancel Miranda's family fiercely supported Puerto Rico's independence. So when Congress let the territory form its own government but with limited authority, Cancel Miranda and other nationalists were outraged.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In Washington, D.C., ruthless, fanatic violence erupted in the halls of Congress. Three men and a woman believed to be members of the Puerto Rican nationalist gang opened fire from the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives.

FLORIDO: One member of the group, Lolita Lebron, shouted, free Puerto Rico, as Cancel Miranda fired at lawmakers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you sorry you attacked these fine congressmen?

RAFAEL CANCEL MIRANDA: I'm not sorry for what I did. I'm not sorry.

FLORIDO: Cancel Miranda and his co-conspirators got sentences ranging from 50 to 75 years. They always maintained their intent was not to kill, rather to send a message, as Cancel Miranda told a filmmaker many years later.

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CANCEL MIRANDA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We went to Washington to tell the world that we were still a colony," he said, "and that there were Puerto Rican men and women willing to do whatever it took to gain our independence."

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted the shooters clemency after they'd served 25 years. It was a controversial decision, Puerto Rico's then-governor said releasing the group would be dangerous. But when Cancel Miranda and the others returned to their island, they got a hero's welcome.

SOPHIA GALLISA MURIENTE: Rafael Cancel Miranda was a really powerful symbol.

FLORIDO: Sophia Gallisa Muriente is a Puerto Rican artist whose family was close to Cancel Miranda. She said though many Puerto Ricans disagreed with what he did, they shared his frustration over Puerto Rico's lack of political power.

GALLISA MURIENTE: A lot of Puerto Ricans understand and empathize with that desperation to create a sense of urgency and visibility about our struggles.

FLORIDO: In recent years, the island's independence movement has fractured and shrunk. Most Puerto Ricans support full statehood or the existing territorial status. But Cancel Miranda never wavered in his cause for independence.

He died Monday night at his home in San Juan at the age of 89. He had asked that flags not be lowered for him, as is tradition for prominent figures on the island, because he'd always said Puerto Rico's flag should fly as high as possible.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.