Throughout history, women have often played a pivotal but underappreciated role in political resistance. Traditional gender norms of the mid-20th century placed women in less political roles; they were subservient housewives. In reality, many women have been crucial in the fight against totalitarian regimes, the Mirabals illustrating as such.
Rafael Trujillo created a regime of violence and terror, inhibiting civil liberties in the Dominican Republic and displaying a dangerous hatred for the Haitian people. He created a network of informers called caliés, employed by the ‘Servicio de Inteligencia Militar’ – a secret service. Every aspect of life was controlled; historian Nancy Robinson wrote that “every Dominican family had a victim of Trujillo in its closet”. Trujillo exhibited high levels of machismo, viewing women exclusively as objects for his enjoyment and pleasure. Women were to please and serve the dictator as he saw himself as inherently superior. Reportedly, families hid their daughters from ‘El Jefe’ as he was notorious for sexually harassing younger women. A defiant woman – a revolutionary – had no place in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic.
Yet, Las Mariposas (the Butterflies) were defiant women. The code name referred to three of the four Mirabal sisters: Patricia, Minerva and María Teresa. Their sister Dedé was supportive but largely politically uninvolved. The sisters came from a Catholic, middle-class family; they grew up on a farm in the town of Ojo de Agua, and all received a good education, which was unusual for women in this era. Patricia, the oldest, married at 17 and had three children. María Teresa, the youngest, studied at the University of Santo Domingo, married and had a daughter. Minerva is reported to have been the “true” revolutionary behind the ‘Catorce de Junio’ (Fourteenth of June) movement. She studied law at the University of Santa Domingo, married at 28 and had two children. They were well-educated, independent women, mothers, and wives. Their upbringing inherently subverted the traditional ‘ideal’ woman of the 20th-century Dominican Republic.
The sisters were crucial in resistance efforts. Patricia and her family reportedly made explosives together and their home was the place where the Fourteenth of June Movement was officially established on January 10th, 1960. The sisters hid weapons in their homes and gave food and shelter to those hiding from the government. They blatantly opposed Trujillo, hurting his machismo by not conforming to his regime. Minerva boldly rejected Trujillo’s advances by smacking the dictator in the face during an event – she and her family swiftly exited, further hurting his sense of masculinity. Trujillo became practically fixated on the Mirabals, primarily Minerva and even the smallest acts of defiance would be reported.
The Mirabals were instrumental in devising the plan to assassinate Trujillo at a cattle fair. But the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar imprisoned the Fourteenth of June supporters only a day before the plot was to be executed. Mass arrests and torture followed, and the Mirabals and their husbands were captured. Yet fearing an international backlash, Trujillo released female prisoners, as he believed that having women in prison made them seem a viable threat to his regime and therefore a threat to his masculinity. The sisters actively embarrassed the dictator by making frequent visits to their imprisoned husbands and speaking out against his authority, continuously bruising his ego. The Mirabals lack of conformity put their lives at risk and Minerva had to repeatedly dismiss her allies’ concerns for her safety.
On November 2nd, 1960, Trujillo publicly observed that he was now only facing two problems: the Catholic Church and the Mirabal Sisters. Trujillo moved Patricia’s and Minerva’s husbands to a prison complex in Puerto Plata, yet the sisters chose to move there to be closer to their husbands. On November 25th, 1960, Minerva, Patricia, María Teresa and their driver – Rufino de la Cruz- were overtaken on an empty stretch of road by Trujillo’s agents. They were dragged to a sugarcane field and violently murdered. In a feeble attempt to cover up the murder, the agents put their bodies back into the car and pushed it over a cliff. But before her death, Patricia managed to alert another driver to what was happening, and word quickly spread. Devastatingly, Patricia was only 36, Minerva was only 33, and María Teresa was only 25, adding further travesty to the injustice.
Historian Bernard Diederich wrote that the assassination of the sisters ‘had a greater effect on Dominicans than most of Trujillo’s other crimes’. These were women – daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. Their brutal murder deeply affected the people of the Dominican Republic, especially the men. Women and children are socially seen as the most vulnerable members of society. In murdering the Mirabals, the people of the Dominican Republic felt they had failed these mothers and an even deeper hatred of Trujillo pervaded society. Six months after their deaths, seven men ambushed and shot the dictator.
The Mirabals’ legacies represent a dynamic shift in gender roles and a catalyst for growing female involvement in politics and political resistance. They have become feminist, revolutionary icons. Thirty-seven years later a crowd gathered at the Trujillo Obelisk. It had been painted over and dedicated to the monument to Las Mariposas. There is a deep adoration for these women felt across the Dominican Republic; they were more than just women who were murdered for rejecting ‘El Jefe’s’ advances, but political activists in their own right.