How the Mirabal Sisters became national heroes of the Dominican Republic.
When most of us think about the 1950s, we think of the end of World War II, Elvis Presley and his swinging hips, or two love birds sitting in a diner sharing a milkshake. The last thing we would think of is a totalitarian regime or a vicious dictator who resembles an evil villain in a Netflix movie rather than an actual historical figure. Unfortunately, for the Dominican Republic in the 1950s, this was very much a reality.
In the middle of the 20th century, Dominican Republic was a dystopian nightmare controlled by the sadistic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had gained control of the island from 1930 to 1960. Trujillo managed to eliminate his rivals and seize control through a rigged presidential election which he won using intimidation tactics and violence. He was described as “a man for whom no slight was too small, no grudge too big.” This became known as the “Era of Trujillo,” also known as the bloodiest era ever in the Americas. This horrifying period would result in a powerful uprising against Trujillo that would martyr three women, who, at first glance, seemed like the most unlikely of revolutionaries but whose deaths would outrage an entire nation.
The “Era of Trujillo” began in 1930 with a coup which exiled the previous president of the Dominican Republic, Horacio Vásquez, who won the presidency in an election supervised and influenced by the United States. At the time Trujillo was a military general and assisted in the coup by preventing the Dominican military from defending their president. Immediately after the coup, Trujillo ran for president unchallenged because he had assassinated all political rivals that tried to oppose him.
During his tyrannical reign, Trujillo committed a number of atrocities in the thirty years he was in control:
- He placed the Dominican Republic under martial law.
- He controlled the mail, press, air travel and passports.
- He arranged kickbacks and monopolies in a series of industries in the Dominican that increased economic prosperity and disproportionately gave it to his family and supporters.
- He had a secret police force and spies that assisted in the censorship of the press as well as the torture and murder of hundreds of people that were made to look like suicides.
Trujillo’s most notorious crime occurred in 1937 when he had his police force brutally kill over 20,000 Haitians who lived in Hispaniola, a 224-mile border which separated the island between Haiti and the Dominican. The police force used machetes to murder the Haitians to make it seem like the military was not involved. This became known as the Parsley Massacre because the pronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley (perejil) was used to divide dark skin Dominicans from Haitians. During the massacre, the police would test the people living in Hispaniola and if a person was unable to roll the letter “R” when pronouncing perejil, they were assumed to be Haitian thus killed. These were just a few examples of the barbaric crimes that occurred during Trujillo’s occupation.
During most periods of tyrannical rule, there are those who resist their oppressors. They see the inhumane crimes being committed either against themselves or others and they choose to fight back. Trujillo faced many instances of revolt during his rule, then managed to systematically kill and erase a plethora of these heroic individuals from history. Three sisters, however, were able to escape this erasure and instead became a symbol, representing every single person who had been killed by Trujillo. Their murders galvanized the people of the Dominican Republic and inspired them to finally put an end to Trujillo’s oppressive rule in 1961. They are the Mirabal Sisters.
Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal were three sisters, wives and mothers living in the Dominican Republic during the “Era of Trujillo” and would eventually become National Heroes of the Dominican Republic. The sisters grew up in Ojo de Agua – the northern area of the Dominican – along with their other sister, Dedé. Their parents operated a farm and a general store as the sisters were brought up in a middle-class family while attending Colegio Inmaculada Concepción, a Catholic Boarding school. The sisters’ childhood was relatively uneventful but that ended once the women became adults. The eldest sister Patria married in 1941 and shortly after, the Mirabal family caught the attention of Trujillo and were invited to a party at his estate, an invitation that would have been “deadly” if refused. Trujillo was instantly attracted to the sisters, Minerva more so than the others.
Besides being a cruel dictator, Trujillo was also a sexual deviant. He had his own unit of “beauty scouts” that traveled all around the Dominican in search of attractive young girls they would then kidnap and deliver to Trujillo where he would rape them. Trujillo’s sexual appetite for these young girls was so frightening that families would hide their female members out of fear they would be taken.
The accounts of Trujillo’s party vary but the general belief was that Trujillo spotted Minerva and made sexual advances but she turned him down, leading to a loud argument. Some accounts suggested that Trujillo would not take no for an answer and attempted to force the issue. Some say, Minerva slapped him, and others say there was no physical violence at the party, only an argument. Either way, this rejection spurned Trujillo and would result in a vicious campaign against the Mirabal family that lasted years. Even after the Mirabal sister’s father repeatedly sent letters of apology to Trujillo for the incident, they fell on deaf ears. Instead, Trujillo imprisoned their father. After a period of being subjected to horrific treatment, their father was eventually released but died shortly thereafter. At another point Trujillo put Minerva and her mother under house arrest in a hotel until Minerva agreed to meet with him. He then tried to coerce Minerva into having sex with him to secure her and her mother’s release which she refused. Minerva and her mother eventually escaped the hotel. Trujillo’s retaliation against the Mirabal family was endless and eventually affected the family’s income because no one wanted to buy from a family that had upset the dictator. The last straw came for Minerva after she graduated from law school and was prevented from obtaining a license to practice law even though she graduated at the top of her class.
Patria and Maria Teresa quickly became incentivized as well, following the 1959 exiled Cuban revolutionaries’ failed attempt to overthrow Trujillo. This incident influenced the name of the Mirabal sister’s revolutionary movement which would become known as “The 14th of June Movement,” established in 1960. Although the Mirabal sisters were specifically affected by Trujillo, their main reason for opposing him was a unified desire for the Dominican Republic to become a peaceful democracy.
Within their movement, the sisters became known as Las Mariposas (the butterflies.) The sisters handed out pamphlets that contained the names of people killed by Trujillo, obtained materials for constructing guns, there are even stories of the sisters, their husbands and children making bombs out of firecrackers around Minerva’s kitchen table. The sister’s movement met its premature end after they formulated a plan to assassinate Trujillo with a bomb at a cattle fair. The day before the assassination was supposed to occur, the plan was exposed. Most members of the movement were arrested. Under international pressure, Trujillo eventually released the women. After their release Trujillo’s economic success dropped significantly. Although there was no evidence, Trujillo blamed the Mirabal sisters for his failures and put a kill order on them. Like many of his ordered assassinations, the planned murder of the sisters was a disorganized one. Trujillo transferred the sister’s imprisoned husband to a jail that could only be accessed if the sisters traveled across a mountain range. The Mirabal sisters knew this was a trap, friends and family begged them not to go. But they went anyway.
On November 25, 1960 while on their way back from visiting their husbands, the sisters’ car was stopped by Trujillo’s henchmen. The assassins first killed the sister’s driver, Rufino de la Cruz, and then kidnapped the sisters at gunpoint. They were then strangled and beaten to death with clubs. The henchmen placed the sister’s bodies back in their car, pushed it off a cliff to make their deaths look like an accident. The Mirabal sister’s assassination served as a final catalyst for overthrowing Trujillo who was assassinated six months after their deaths. There were many instances that led to Trujillo’s demise but no other incident during Trujillo’s reign solidified his downfall more than the murders of the Mirabal sisters. Dedé Mirabal, the last surviving sister who had not been involved in her sister’s movement lived to see Trujillo’s regime fall. She went on to raise her children and her sister’s children after their deaths.
Today, almost every Dominican town bears a commemorative marker of the Mirabal sisters. The story of the sisters garnered more fame after a historical fiction novel about their lives was published in 1994. In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez was able to bring international attention to the sisters’ story. The date of their assassination, November 25th, officially became known as UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and is celebrated annually in their honor.