“If they kill me, I’ll take my arms out of the grave and be stronger.”
ith these words, Dominican activist Minerva Mirabal responded in the early 1960s to all those who warned her of what seemed to be a secret known to all: the regime of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (1930–1961) would kill her. Then, on November 25, 1960, her body was found at the bottom of a ravine, inside a jeep, with two of her sisters, Patricia and María Teresa, and the driver of the car, Rufino de la Cruz.
More than half a century later, Minerva’s promise seems to have come true. The work of the Dominican secret police and the sisters’ death are considered major factors that led to the fall of Trujillo’s regime. The Mirabal sisters’ name has become a global symbol of women’s struggle, as, since November 25, has been celebrated around the world as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Brutally murdered for doing what’s right
Known as “Las Mariposas” (The Butterflies), the Mirabal sisters were born in the Dominican province of Salcedo. The Mirabal sisters were women with university careers, married with children, and at the time of their death had ten years of political activism in the Trujillo dictatorship. Two of them, Minerva and María Teresa, had already been in prison several times due to their actions as activists. The fourth sister, Bélgica Adela “Dedé” Mirabal, who died this year, played a less important role in dissent and therefore managed to survive.
“They had a long history of resistance and conspiratorial activity and many people knew them,” Luisa de Peña Díaz, director of the Dominican Resistance Memorial Museum, told the BBC.
On that day, November 25, several secret police officers stopped the car in which the Mirabal sisters were. The women were suffocated and then beaten, and the car was pushed into a ravine to simulate an accident. Patricia Mirabal was thirty-one years old, Minerva was thirty-four years old, and María Teresa was twenty-five years old.
“It was a terrible day because even though I knew what was coming, I didn’t think this crime would really be committed,” said the sister of the three, Ángela Bélgica “Dedé” Mirabal, who says she spoke to several police officers who mentioned that it was not an accident, that her sisters were murdered.
The popularity of the three women, along with a large number of murders, tortures, and disappearances of those who dared to oppose the Trujillo regime, made this assassination a turning point in the country’s history.
“This crime was so horrible that people began to feel that they were no longer safe at all, even those close to the regime; because they kidnapped three women, beat them to death and threw them into a ravine to simulating an accident is an absolutely terrible fact,” explained Luisa de Peña Díaz.
According to Julia Álvarez, an American writer of Dominican origin, the key to explaining the importance of the Mirabal sisters’ story lies in the fact that they gave a human face to the tragedy generated by an extremely violent regime, which did not accept dissent and had three decades of assassinations. This story tired the Dominicans, who said, “when our own sisters, daughters, wives, and fiancées are no longer safe, what’s the point of the rest?”
In this regard, the director of MMRD (Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance) notes that all those involved in the execution, known in the Dominican Republic as the death of Trujillo on May 30, 1961, when he was also murdered on the side of the road, say that the killing of the Mirabal sisters was the last straw.
A fight with no end
“The Mirabal sisters pulled their arms out of the grave strongly,” says Peña Díaz. Although initially, the tributes in their memory were delayed by fear, today, Minerva, Patricia, and María Teresa are true symbols of the Dominican Republic.
In this Caribbean country, a province bears its name, and there is, in their honor, a monument on the main street in Santo Domingo, as well as a museum that, every November 25, turns into a place of pilgrimage.
In addition, since 1981, the date of their death has turned Latin America into a day dedicated to the fight against women’s violence, when the first Feminist Meeting in Latin America and the Caribbean was held in Bogotá, Colombia. Domestic abuse suffered by women, as well as sexual harassment and rape, were reported here. Since 1991, the UN has made November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Julia Álvarez says that if the Mirabal sisters were still alive today, they would still have to fight. “All over the world, women’s rights are still not respected, and many women do not even have access to education.”
In Latin America, gender-based violence has come to be described as a “pandemic”, because between a quarter and a half of women suffer from domestic violence. According to the United Nations, violence against women in their own homes is the leading cause of injuries suffered by women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. In the case of Latin America, a UN survey found that between thirty and forty percent of women were victims of domestic violence, and one in five women was absent from work at least once due to physical assault at home.
That’s why, says Álvarez, even though more than half a century has passed since the Mirabal sisters’ deaths, they are still needed.