Women’s History: The Incredible Mirabal Sisters

For as long as there has been human history, women have been making it. This March, HAI wishes to share with you a few stories of exemplary women who changed their worlds. 

Sometimes, freedom is a family affair. So it was with the Mirabal sisters, three national heroines of the Dominican Republic. Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa’s defiance, resistance, and martyrdom remain one of the defining stories of the Trujilo regime – and one of the reasons it finally fell.

Las Mariposas grew up in a nation ruled by a dictator. Rafael Trujillo seized power by military coup in 1930, when the eldest, Patria, was only six years old. Under his brutal regime, civil liberties were strictly curtailed, and his secret police force used “intimidation, imprisonment, torture… and murder” to ensure compliance. Tens of thousands died. 

Despite the despotism of the Trujillo regime, the Mirabal sisters grew up in a comfortable life. Their parents were farmers and shop owners in Ojo de Agua, Salceo Province, and were prominent enough that in 1949 the family was invited to a party hosted by Trugillo himself. It was there that Minerva, already radicalized by the accounts of a classmate, would set her family against the dictator. 

The dictator was intrigued by the pretty, brilliant young Minerva, and danced with her several times.6 Reportedly, he also made sexual advances on her, but was rebuffed.7 In retaliation, Minerva and her parents were arrested, and their property seized. Eventually, the Mirabals were released, and Minevra attended and graduated law school, “becoming one of the first women in the country to receive a law degree” in 1957. But she would never practice; she was “denied state authorization to practice likely because of her opposition to the dictatorship”, not to mention her personal defiance of the dictator himself.

Undaunted, Minevra and her husband, Manuel Tavárez, as well as Patria and María Teresa and their husbands, continued their opposition to the regime, and in January 1959 joined other “elite activists … to forge a resistance campaign to end the dictatorship.” Around the same time, exiled Dominicans supported by the Cuban government attempted an armed expedition into the country. It failed, and the exiles who survived the initial attacks were “brutally tortured and murdered.” After the failed invasion, the organization the Mirabal sisters founded took the name “Fourteenth of June Movement” in commemoration.

The brutal suppression of the failed expedition was a sharp turning point in resistance to the Trujillo regime. As pressure mounted, the government arrested huge numbers of suspected resistors. This included Minerva, María Teresa, and their husbands, though the sisters were freed when Trujillo ordered the release of female prisoners “as a supposed gesture of his leniency.” 

Even imprisonment could not daunt the sisters, however, and they “continued to threaten the stability of the dictator’s regime and his ego.” Finally, he could stand it no longer, and he ordered their deaths. 

On 25 November 1960, the three sisters visited Minerva’s and María Teresa’s husbands, still imprisoned in Puerto Plata. On the way home, they were ambushed by armed men. They beat las mariposas to death in a cane field, then stuffed them back in their car and pushed it over a cliff, simulating a car accident. 

No one believed it. 

The end came quickly for Trujillo, after that. The martyrdom of the Mirabal sisters instantly helped “solidify resistance to Trujillo both at home and abroad”. Facing growing pressure from all sides, Trujillo lost the support of the military, and was assassinated himself on 30 May 1961, less than seven months after the death of the Mirabal sisters. 

Afterwards, one sister remained. Dedé, “who had largely maintained her distance from the resistance”, dedicated her life instead to raising her and her murdered sisters’ children, and to promoting their legacy. Today, their childhood home is a museum, La Casa Museo Hermanas Mirabel, and there the three martyred sisters are buried. They remain national heroines in the Dominican Republic, but their fame was to spread far beyond.  

The story took on a new life in 1994, with the publication of Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies. Alverez herself is the American-born child of Dominican exiles, her father having been a member of the resistance. The novel introduced the story of the Mirabal sisters to new audiences and a new generation, fulfilling Minerva’s promise that “if they kill me, I’ll reach out my arms out from my tomb and I’ll be stronger.” Their story, both the heartbreak and a triumph, was also a promise – it’s worth it, to give your all to freedom. 

The Mirabal sisters’ legacy lives on in another way. In 1999, the U.N. announced that henceforth, 25 November would be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This itself is the start of the 16 Days of Activism, a time meant to “raise global awareness of the violence endured by women and girls around the world”26 and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day. Today “violence and against women and girls remains on the most prevalent and pervasive human rights violations in the world.” And while less well studied than some other gender-based violence issues, it is believed that violence against women in politics remains “pervasive and global.” As the current generations strive to make progress in this and other arenas of social, civil, and political justice, they can do far worse than look to the example left behind by the three Dominican daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of Ojo de Agua.

The Mirabal sisters were remarkable, but they were far from unique. The first century CE saw the Trung sisters revolt against Chinese occupiers in northern Vietnam. The Grimké sisters were early advocates of abolition and women’s rights in the United States. The Cooney sisters fought for Irish Independence even through Bloody Sunday. And the year the Mirabal sisters died, the Lee sisters began their activism career that would see them labeled the most arrested Civil Rights family in America.  

As you keep one eye out for the shifts of March weather, and mumble invectives against the dreaded “spring forward” of the clocks, take a moment to learn about these or any of the myriad other inspirational, triumphant, tragic women who dedicated their lives and efforts to freedom, so that others might enjoy the blessings of liberty. 

Works Consulted:

Alter, Charlotte. “The Brutal Triple Murder Behind the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women”. Time Magazine. 25 November 2014.

Britannica. “Rafael Trujillo”. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rafael-Trujillo accessed 08 March 2024.

Britannica. “Julia Alverez”. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julia-Alvarez accessed 08 March 2024. 

Figueredo, Manuel. “Dominican activists challenge Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship (Fourteenth of June Movement), 1959-1960”. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/dominican-activists-challenge-rafael-trujillo-s-dictatorship-fourteenth-june-movement-1959-1 

Pruitt, Sarah. “How the Mirabal Sisters Helped Topple a Dictator.” History.com. 08 March 2021. https://www.history.com/news/mirabal-sisters-trujillo-dictator 

Ramos, Marlin. “Institutional Spotlight: The Mirabal Sisters House Musem.” https://caribbeanmuseums.com/mirabal-sitsters/ 

Time Magazine. “1960: The Mirabal Sisters”. 05 March 2020 https://time.com/5793594/mirabal-sisters-100-women-of-the-year/ 

United Nations. “International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women”. https://www.un.org/en/observances/ending-violence-against-women-day accessed 08 March 2024.

UN Women. “Guidance Note: Preventing Violence Against Women in Politics.” July 2021. pg. 6 https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2021/Guidance-note-Preventing-violence-against-women-in-politics-en.pdf  

For more blogs about incredible women, see our other two blogs here: Two Amazing African Queens  and A Laudable Literary Lady

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