Title

Rhetorics of Defiance: Gender, Colonialism and Lolita Lebrón's Struggle for Puerto Rican Sovereignty

Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Writing Program

Advisor(s)

Eileen E. Schell

Keywords

activism, cultural rhetoric, social movement, sovereignty, third world women, transnational feminism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities

Abstract

This dissertation theorizes rhetorics of defiance by focusing on a transnational feminist rhetorical history of Lolita Lebrón’s decolonial struggle for sovereignty. As a Puerto Rican nationalist, Lebrón engaged in a variety of decolonial forms of dissect in the form of direct action, in oratory, and in writing. Her history as an iconic Puerto Rican nationalist has been memorialized and circulated since her mid-twentieth century assault on U.S. Congress, but also through her writing and activism, contributing to her influence over other freedom fighters who struggled against imperialism and colonialism. Using archival research, interviews, and auto-ethnography, my dissertation proposes an intersectional theoretical framework of rhetorics of defiance to U.S. empire based on Lebrón’s activism, as well as the solidarity networks built around her as a Puerto Rican political prisoner and third world woman.

To unravel Lolita Lebrón’s genealogy as a Puerto Rican nationalist, I provide an intersectional rhetorical cartography across oceanic borderspaces. Tracing her genealogy and history within the Caribbean and New York Puerto Rican diaspora, I analyze Lolita Lebrón’s rhetorics of defiance during her most notorious performance of dissent, her 1954, armed assault on the U.S. Congress. Delineating how Puerto Rican nationalist rhetorics developed is to account for neocolonial effects on Puerto Rican survival. Following the iconic images of her arrest into the twenty-first century illustrates how the figure of Lebrón as a lipstick-wearing revolutionary is used to advance solidarity in a human rights cause (the ceasing of U.S. Navy target practice in Vieques, Puerto Rico), as well as figured as post-9/11 terror spectacle in a Washington Post cover. Reflexively tracing my own encounters with Lebrón's image inside and outside of digital space, I argue that rhetorical circulation can work in favor of those whose histories have been oppressed, and those who strive for liberation in its myriad facets, even as it is simultaneously used in the service of empire. Studying Lebrón’s writing, and writing about her legacy, I illustrate how her coalitional networks of struggle crossed boundaries of race, gender, ability, ethnicity and nationality, based on relational identifications as a third world woman critical of U.S. empire.

This feminist rhetorical history of Lolita Lebrón not only recovers women’s roles in Puerto Rican nationalist struggles for sovereignty, it also provides an example of the transnational networks that women revolutionaries have formed around the liberation of third world peoples, most notably during the 1970s. Shifting her rhetoric of defiance from armed action to non-violent protest later in her life, Lebrón maintained her critical attention on struggles against multiple oppressions, including work with students protesting austerity measures and against U.S. military occupation of Puerto Rico.

The logics of liberation and self-determination that informed Lolita Lebrón’s rhetorics of defiance continue to prevail in a long history of third world women’s resistance to neocolonial crises within and outside the United States—endeavors enacted through performance, writing, and visual rhetorics. To document these rhetorical histories scholars must account for digital space, as diasporic populations in various geopolitical locations circulate rhetorics of resistance online. This dissertation, then, offers a rhetorics of defiance that is multimodal and multifaceted, but ultimately aims to connect the struggles for sovereignty in Puerto Rico with that of other geopolitical and sociopolitical locations affected by U.S. empire.

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