Irvin Flores' return to his beloved Puerto Rico was greeted by a wildly cheering crowd. Flores, Rafael Cancel, and Lolita Lebrón had served 25 years in prison for their attack on Congress in 1954. At the airport, the welcoming crowds waved Puerto Rican flags, joined in the national anthem, "Borinquen, the land where I was born," and raised clenched fists.
Crowds followed the Nationalists from the airport to the cemetery where Pedro Albizu Campos was buried. As a thousand people entered the cemetery, the gates were closed. Hundreds more stood on the walls.
I met Irvin Flores only a few months after his release in 1979 at the International Conference in Support of the Independence of Puerto Rico, held in Mexico City. I came to know him better in Puerto Rico as we met at patriotic observances and in the "land rescue" community of Villa Sin Miedo. By then he was married and living in Bayamón, where I was able to pin him down to an interview over a lunch of rice and beans.
Born into a poor family in Cabo Rojo, Flores was orphaned at the age of eight by the death of his mother. He and five brothers and sisters were raised by an aunt.
After high school he attended a vocational school, where he studied electricity and tailoring. While there, he chanced upon a group of students discussing independence. Among them was Rafael Cancel, who invited him to join "Puerto Rican Youth for Independence."
Later he joined the Nationalist Party and became a member of its cadet corps. His first meeting with Albizu Campos he described as a very emotional experience. Sensing his zeal for independence, Albizu encouraged him to take up public speaking.
In the 1950 uprising, he joined the Mayagüez contingent in their attack on the police station. Though 3,000 Nationalists were arrested, Flores escaped to the mountains.
Holding to the Nationalist policy of refusing to cooperate with the United States government, Flores declined to register for the draft. To avoid conscription, he went into hiding, moving from one farm to another one step ahead of the FBI. Eventually they caught up with him. He was imprisoned, and found himself again in company with Rafael Cancel. Upon his release, the Army refused to accept him, considering him a subversive.
Flores left Puerto Rico for New York City in order to escort his nephew. He remained there, working in a TV cabinet factory. Again he met with Cancel, and also with Lolita Lebrón and Andrés Figueroa Cordero, with whom he prepared for the attack on Congress. It was planned as a cry of outrage over the Congressional Law 600 which declared that since Puerto Rico now had its own constitution, it was no longer a colony. To the Nationalists it was clear and evident that the political status of Puerto Rico had not in reality changed. The group reached Washington, D.C. on one-way tickets.
Entering the House of Representatives as tourists, they seated themselves in the gallery. At a signal by Lolita, they began firing. The congressmen scrambled to cover. Some were wounded. In the confusion that followed, Flores walked away, stopping to look at statues of American patriots who had fought for the independence of their country, left the building, and taxied downtown. At the bus station, however, he and some Mexicans were picked up by the police, who had just learned that four Nationalists were involved but only three were apprehended. A loose bullet in his pocket was a giveaway.
Los Indómitos describes his prison experience. He spent his time studying English, and reading biographies and books on history and philosophy. He learned to play the guitar and tried his hand at painting. For the first thirteen years he had no visitors and very little correspondence.
He was fifty-three years old when finally, through national and international pressure, President Carter commuted the sentences of the Nationalists, including that of Oscar Collazo. Public opinion indicated an awareness of the farce of feigning support of human rights while detaining political prisoners. Andrés Figueroa had already been released because of terminal cancer, and later died.
The Nationalists were reunited in Chicago at the home of Rev. José Torres, whose wife, son and daughter-in-law are now serving sentences in prison for the cause of independence. There, in the emotion of a boisterous reception, Flores delivered his first public speech. He in no way repented his actions. "Independence will come when the people resolve to fight for it and not just wish for it."
In New York City they were scheduled to appear at the Church of the Apostle San Pablo. A hundred or so were expected. Instead, seven thousand crowded into the church and overflowed onto the sidewalk.
Then, on to Puerto Rico. His work there was now to seek to unify the independence movement. He set about interviewing its leaders in an attempt to find issues on which they could all agree, despite the wide range of ideology from revolutionary and socialist to bourgeois. Response at first was negative, but gradually, meeting together united them on such issues as national liberation, use of natural resources, military conscription, the militarization of Puerto Rico. Celebrations commemorating patriotic holidays also brought them together. In time, the Comité Unitario Independentista swelled to twenty-one chapters throughout Puerto Rico.
Wherever Irvin Flores goes, he is greeted with handshakes, hugs, requests for autographs and the greeting, "Thank you for your sacrifice."