ODE TO THE MIRABAL SISTERS
Four Dominican women from Salcedo, Dominican Republic (as of Nov. 2007 the province is officially named Hermanas Mirabal), who followed their convictions with bravery and selflessness to fight against Dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Three of them - Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa - gave their lives for their cause. They were killed savagely by some of Trujillo’s henchmen.
Minerva Mirabal was the first of the sisters to become involved in the underground movements to overthrow the government. She made friends at Inmaculada whose relatives had been arrested, tortured, and killed by Trujillo’s men. Even as a young girl, Minerva was very rebellious, and based her actions on her own judgements of right versus wrong. Minerva, a patriotic liberal, understood politics and aspired to study law. In the 1940’s, she met Pericles Franco Ornes, the founder of the Popular Socialist Party. He was a known anti-trujillista and had been jailed various times for his political activities. Other influences on Minerva’s growing anti-trujillo sentiments included leftist literature and the illegally intercepted radio stations from Cuba and Venezuela that objectively discussed the political situation in the Dominican Republic.
On October 12, 1949, Trujillo held a party in his mansion in San Cristóbal. It was to commemorate Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and honor the people of the Espaillat province. The Mirabals’ invitation was taken to them personally by Antonio de la Maza, the governor of Moca, and Juan Rojas, the senator of the Espaillat Province. The celebration was attended by Don Enrique Mirabal, Patria, Patria’s husband Pedro Gonzalez, Minerva, Dedé, and Dedé’s husband Jaime Fernandez. The outdoor party was soon interrupted by a storm. Amidst the chaos of the downpour, the Mirabals took the opportunity to make their exit.
Trujillo was angered by this “lack of respect” (nobody was supposed to leave a party of Trujillo’s before El Jefe himself) and he had one of his men call a military post and order that the Mirabals’ vehicle be stopped. It was too late, however; Don Enrique’s party of six had already passed the post.
Juan Rojas, the aforementioned governor of the Espaillat province, suggested that Enrique send a letter of apology to the dictator. Don Enrique obliged, but this didn’t appease Trujillo. The next day, Don Enrique was jailed in the capital Santo Domingo (renamed Ciudad Trujillo during his regime). Minerva and Doña Chea were both arrested a day after Don Enrique. They were held in the Hotel Nacional. Minerva was taken to the Fortaleza Ozama every day to be interrogated about her political activities while Doña Chea remained in the hotel. The interrogations were conducted by two of Trujillo’s men, Fausto Caamaño Medina and Manuel de Moya. Minerva was accused of being a communist and told to write a letter of apology to Trujillo. She refused.
Some friends of Minerva’s — Violeta Martinez and Emma Rodriguez — were detained a few days later. Being a well-to-do family, the Mirabals had their connections. Friends and family appealed to Trujillo’s brother to talk to him and soon Don Enrique, Doña Chea and Minerva were all released.
Thelma Benedicto & Minerva Mirabal.
Two years later, all three were detained again. Enrique was taken to the Ozama Fortress while the women were placed under house arrest in the Hotel Presidente. The reason given by the regime for the arrest was that Enrique had failed to buy a book about Trujillo. In actuality, El Jefe most likely wanted to put Minerva in her place. Her obvious contempt for the iron-fisted dictator angered him. The three prisoners were freed a few weeks later.
The constant fear and frequent arrests proved to be too much for the Mirabal sisters’ aging father. Don Enrique became sick, and his health continued to deteriorate until his death on December 14, 1953. A year later, Minerva began attending the University of Santo Domingo. Despite her good grades, Trujillo ordered that she be barred from attending the university, in large part due to her thesis paper, “The Principle of the Irretroactiveness of Laws and Dominican Jurisprudence,” in which she suported basic human rights and made suggestions for changes in the government. Despite this roadblock, Minerva returned to the university years later and graduated on October 28, 1957. The university was where she met Manuel Aurelio Tavarez Justo, the man she would marry.
After time had passed without conflicts between the Mirabal family and the Trujillo regime, the sisters were able to lead somewhat normal lives and begin relationships. The ever-religious Patria abandoned ideas of becoming a nun to marry Pedro Gonzalez, a farmer, on February 24, 1941. She abandoned her studies to go live with him on a plot of land in Conuco. One year when Minerva was in Jarabacoa helping her uncle run his pharmacy, she met up with Manuel Tavarez (or Manolo as he was often called). Minerva and Manolo had much in common; both were ardently anti-Trujillo and both desired liberty and social change. Minerva was by now a well-known anti-trujillista, and Manolo had acquaintances in the Popular Socialist Party. Minerva and Manolo married on November 20, 1955. Meanwhile the youngest sister Maria Teresa was developing a relationship with Leandro Guzmán, an engineer and anti-trujillista. The pair married on February 14, 1958.
THE 14TH OF JUNE MOVEMENT
On June 14, 1959, troops from the Dominican Liberation Movement, made up of exiled Dominicans living abroad, were sent to the northern towns of Constanza, Maimón and Estero Hondo under Commander Enrique Jimenez Moya. Dubbed the Luperon Invasion, this attempt to topple the dictatorship was halted by Trujillo’s army and air force, but it did manage to plant a seed of rebellion in the Dominican people.
This was the inspiration for the name of a political group organized for internal resistance: The 14th of June Movement. Manolo was the president of this group. A man by the name of Pipe Faxas was its secretary general, and Leandro Guzmán was the treasurer. A short time after the failed Luperon Invasion, the Dominican Liberation Movement organized another conspiracy which continued in the 1960’s. On January 10, 1960, they met on a farm in Mao, Valverde belonging to Conrado Bogart. The regime apparently knew of this meeting because all who attended were arrested.
A large number of young middle-class Dominicans were now opposing the regime. Trujillo had evidence of this and proceeded to arrest them one by one. Manolo was arrested, then Maria Teresa and Leandro, and later Pedro Gonzalez. More than 100 members of the 14th of June Movement were arrested. The majority were taken to La Cuarenta, Trujillo’s infamous torture prison. The arrests of so many young people generated anti-government feelings. The arrests were even condemned by the Catholic Church. Trujillo was aware of the growing anti-regime sentiments and in order to stave off some of the criticism he freed all the women he had jailed. Later on, he also freed the men who had been jailed only for suspicion. However, Manolo, Pedro and Leandro, the husbands of Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa respectively, remained in jail.
THE EARLY 1960’s
As the 1960’s began, the Trujillo regime was facing increasing criticism, as people both inside and outside the Dominican Republic denounced the despotic government. One of the more vocal Trujillo critics was Rómulo Betancourt, then the president of Venezuela. Trujillo ordered two failed attempts to assassinate Betancourt. This only served to increase international criticism. As the world entered this new decade, the Dominican youth had been overtaken by a desire for political change.
In 1960, the Organization of American States condemned the actions of the Dominican government and sent representatives to observe the situation in the Dominican Republic. Because of this, many female prisoners were freed by Trujillo’s government, including Minerva and Maria Teresa. Their husbands, however, remained in prison. They were held in La Victoria in Salcedo a few weeks; later Manolo and Pedro were transferred to the San Felipe jail in Puerto Plata while Leandro remained in La Victoria.
THE DECISION TO KILL THE MIRABAL SISTERS
There were quite a few factors that possibly led to the ever-arrogant and self-important Trujillo’s decision to have the Mirabal sisters killed. They posed a great threat to his regime, as they had become well-known and admired all over the island. No matter how many times Trujillo jailed them, no matter how much of their property and possessions he seized, Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa refused to give up on their mission to restore democracy and civil liberties to the island nation. The married Trujillo was known to have an inclination for romancing young girls and had his many mistresses housed in mansions scattered all over the island. At the 1949 celebration in San Cristobal, Trujillo failed in his attempt to seduce Minerva. In his book Tres Heroínas y un Tirano, Miguel A. García cites this exchange between Minerva and the dictator as they danced:
TRUJILLO: Do you agree with my political ideology?
MINERVA: Politics don’t interest me.
TRUJILLO: And what if I send my subjects to conquer you?
MINERVA: And what if I conquer your subjects?
The secret police, called the Military Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, or SIM), had been organized by Trujillo back when he was still making his way up the army ranks. His experience with the U.S. Marines had taught him about military intelligence, and he had formed various agencies that would spy on the Dominican people, as well as on each other. Dominican citizens had to carry identification cards issued by the secret police.
The mafia-like disappearances of Trujillo’s critics as well as rumors of tortures and killings carried out by the SIM earned them a fearful reputation throughout the island. The participation of Victor Alicinio Peña Rivera, Trujillo’s right-hand man, and some members of his secret police force, Ciriaco de la Rosa, Ramon Emilio Rojas, Alfonso Cruz Valeria, and Emilio Estrada Malleta in SIM activities led the aforementioned assassins to carry out the murder of the Mirabal sisters.
On November 25, 1960, three of the four Mirabal sisters — Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa — traveled north from Salcedo with driver Rufino de la Cruz to Puerto Plata to visit Patria and Minerva’s jailed husbands at Prison La Cuarenta. It was nighttime when they left the jail, and a rainstorm was already underway. As they drove along the Carretera Santiago-Puerto Plata, a road between the two cities, their Jeep was stopped by the aforementioned henchmen of Trujillo. As it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person who was not present at the murders to accurately tell this part of the story, a narration of the act as recounted by one of the actual murderers is more appropriate. This excerpt, as narrated by Ciriaco de la Rosa, is from the Dominican Encyclopedia 1997 :
“After stopping them, we led them to a spot near the chasm where I ordered Rojas to pick up some sticks and take one of the girls, he obeyed the order and took one of them, the one with the long braids [Maria Teresa]. Alfonso Cruz chose the tallest one [Minerva] and Malleta the driver, Rufino de la Cruz. I ordered each one to go to a sugar cane grove on the edge of the road, each one separated so that the victims wouldn’t sense the execution of one another. I ordered Perez Terrero to stay and see if anyone was coming who could find out about the situation. That’s the truth of the situation. I don’t want to deceive justice or the state. I tried to prevent the disaster, but I couldn’t, because if I had, he [Trujillo] would have killed us all.”
In this manner, the Mirabal sisters and Rufino de la Cruz were clubbed to death alongside a mountain road between Puerto Plata and Santiago. Patria was 36 years old at the time, Minerva was 34, and Maria Teresa was 24. This horrific act did have consequences for Trujillo. Their Jeep was pushed over a cliff to make it seem like an accident, but everyone knew Trujillo was involved in the killing. The murder of three defenseless women was the last straw for the Dominican people. This was the beginning of the end of the Trujillo regime.
Although the sisters Mirabal haven’t yet gained such international recognition as to become household names, they have had their share of memorialization in the years since their horrific murders. In recent years, especially, the Mirabals have been recognized for their courage in the face of such a totalitarian and paranoia-inducing tyranny.
The 25th November was chosen as the date for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to commemorate the murder of the Mirabal