This article features in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

Between 1930 and 1961, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina ruled the Dominican Republic under a regime that has often been described as one of the bloodiest in Latin America. The dictator created a cult of personality in the Caribbean nation, awarding himself the titles of “Father of the New Nation” and “El Jefe”, holding excessive parades in his honour, and even changing the name of the capital city Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. In this environment of severe oppression, the Mirabal sisters were a symbol of courage and resistance. 

The three decades of Trujillo’s rule were characterised by fear and violence. In 1937, the dictator was responsible for the brutal massacre of thousands of Haitians along the Haitian-Dominican border in a racially fuelled attack intended to rid the nation of Haitian immigrants. Throughout the dictatorship, Trujillo’s extensive military intelligence service oppressed and controlled the Dominican population, with any action deemed to be subversive resulting in arrest and torture at one of the regime’s infamous prisons. The intelligence service was notorious for murdering its enemies and announcing the deaths in state controlled newspapers as road accidents or suicides. 

The regime was also characterised by patriarchal power and machismo, and Trujillo used sex as a means of control. The wives of his collaborators, the daughters of those who had wronged him, and many young girls were forced into his bedroom, unable to refuse for fear that their families would be tortured and executed.

Trujillo’s spies closely watched the population during the 30 years of the regime, searching for the slightest hint of opposition. Even failing to display a portrait of the dictator in the home was considered subversive. In this environment of fear and oppression resistance was extremely difficult, and the few attempts that were made to assassinate Trujillo were immediately shut down. However, underground resistance groups were organised, and personal sacrifices were made in order to fight for the freedom and liberation of the Dominican people.

Minerva, Patria, Dedé and María Teresa Mirabal were four Dominican sisters and political activists who played an important role in the underground resistance of the regime. Minerva, the most politically active of the four sisters, along with her husband, was a leader in the Movimiento Revolucionario 14 de junio (14th of June Revolutionary Movement), a resistance organisation planning for an armed rebellion to oust the dictator. Her sisters, Patria and María Teresa also joined the movement after witnessing increased violence from the regime and Minerva’s commitment to the cause. They distributed pamphlets and transported and hid weapons for an eventual guerrilla movement. The sisters’ nom de guerre during their participation in the resistance was Las Mariposas (The Butterflies).

Minerva Mirabal had first become a target for the regime in 1949 when she refused the sexual advances of the dictator at a party that she had been ordered to attend. She went on to study law at the University of Santo Domingo, but Trujillo denied her licence to practice because of her refusal. This was the first in a long line of oppressions for Minerva, who was imprisoned multiple times for her involvement with the resistance. María Teresa was also arrested after joining the movement, along with her husband, Leandro Guzmán and Minerva’s husband, Manolo Tavárez Justo.

In the final years of the dictatorship, amid growing international criticism of the regime, Trujillo is said to have confessed that he only had two political problems to resolve: the church, who had finally declared their opposition to the violence and injustices of the regime, and the Mirabal sisters. 

On 25th November 1960, Minerva, Patria and María Teresa were driving home along the coast after visiting their husbands in prison when their car was intercepted, and they and their driver, Rufino de la Cruz, were murdered by members of Trujillo’s intelligence service. Their bodies were put back into their car which was then run off the road in an attempt to claim their murder was a road accident. 

The murder of the Mirabal sisters was a turning point in the regime, and resistance increased in the months following their deaths. The Dominican population could not accept that the regime had murdered three women, particularly as the Mirabals had become a much loved symbol of resistance during the final years of their lives. The increased opposition to the regime led to the assassination of the Dominican dictator on 30th May 1961. His car was intercepted on the highway outside Santo Domingo by a group of former collaborators and he was shot and killed.

The Mirabal sisters were three among thousands of Dominicans who were murdered in the brutal 31-year rule of Rafael Trujillo, but their names became a symbol of the resistance and have been written into Dominican history for their courage and personal sacrifice. Their sister, Dedé, lived to share their story.In 1994 she opened the Mirabal Sisters Museum in the house they grew up in in Salcedo Province, which has since been renamed “Hermanas Mirabal Province”.

The legacy of Minerva, Patria and María Teresa Mirabal is remembered every year on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which is held on 25th November, the date of their murder.

By Rhiannon Chilcott