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Friday, November 25, 2011

Butterflies On My Mind

Today, the 25th of November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As a development worker, I have commemorated this day for almost fifteen years as it is the first day in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which culminates in Human Rights Day on 10th December. You can follows the 16 Days of Activism Facebook page here.

What I did not know until July this year is that the 25th of November marks the day the Mirabal sisters were savagely murdered for their part in trying to overthrow a brutal dictator and liberate their husbands, their people and their country.

Who were the Mirabal sisters?

The Mirabal Sisters - source

The Mirabals were four Dominican political dissidents who opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Three of the sisters were assassinated by persons unknown on November 25th, 1960. The Mirabal women grew up in an upper class, well-cultured environment. Their father was a successful businessman. All became married family women. Minerva became particularly passionate about ending the dictatorship of Trujillo after talking extensively with an uncle of hers. Influenced by her uncle, Minerva became more involved in the anti-Trujillo movement. She studied law and became a lawyer, but because she declined Trujillo's romantic advances, he ordered that while she would be issued a degree she was not to receive her practitioner's license. 

Her sisters followed suit, and they eventually formed a group of opponents to the Trujillo regime, known as the Movement of the Fourteenth of June. Within that group, they were known as "The Butterflies" (Las Mariposas in Spanish) because that was the underground name that Minerva was given. Two of the sisters, María Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal, were incarcerated and tortured on several occasions. Three of the sisters' husbands were incarcerated at La Victoria Penitentiary in Santo Domingo [from Wikipedia]. 

The Mirabals died in a ruse where their husbands were deliberately moved from Santo Domingo to a prison on the outskirts of Puerto Plata, so that when their wives went to visit them, the sisters were lured into a trap, specifically so they could be brutally murdered without witnesses. The sisters, with their driver (Rufino de la Cruz), were strangled and clubbed to death. To hide the murder, the bodies were placed in the jeep they had travelled in and rolled off a cliff.

The Dominican public did not believe the government's story of the "accident". Historians consider their murder a turning point in the downfall of Trujillo's dictatorship. Following the Mirabal murder, support for the dictator waned as the resistance gained momentum. The Catholic Church became openly critical of the regime. On May 30, 1961, six months after the Mirabal's death, Trujillo was ambushed and assassinated [SourceSource].

The Mirabals on the 200 note Dominican peso - source
While 25th November had been commemorated by women's activists in the Americas since 1981, on 19 October 1999, at the 54th session of the General Assembly, the representative of the Dominican Republic on behalf of itself and 74 Member States introduced a draft resolution calling for the designation of 25th November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The purpose of commemorating this day (the anniversary of the Mirabal sisters' death), was to invite the world to raise public awareness of the problem of violence against women. The draft resolution expressed alarm that endemic violence against women was impeding women’s opportunities to achieve legal, social, political and economic equality in society. The Assembly reiterated that the term "violence against women" would refer to acts capable of causing physical, sexual or psychological harm, whether in public or private life [UN].

A commemorative stamp from 1985 - source

So, by now you may be wondering how on earth I ever even came to learn about these amazing women. 

Earlier this year (2011), in The Lusaka Book Club, we read a book entitled, 'In The Time Of The Butterflies' by Julia Alvarez. I had never heard of the author, but I had come across some of the issues covered in the book while reading another book club title in 2010 called 'The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao' by Junot Diaz. Both of these books concern the Dominican Republic and the tyrannical reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo. As someone who prides herself on being pretty well informed, I was rather disturbed to find that prior to reading Oscar Wao, I had never even heard of Trujillo and the many evil and wicked things that he did. I never gave much thought to the Dominican Republic, aside from that it shared the island of Dominica with Haiti, it's much poorer and oft-maligned neighbour.

In this excerpt from a New York Times review of Oscar Wao, the protagonist, a lovable, overweight, self-confessed Tolkien geek and second generation Dominican-American living in New Jersey describes life under Trujillo in his home country from 1930 to 1961 as follows:

“Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor; not only did he lock the country away from the rest of the world, isolate it behind the Plátano Curtain, he acted like it was his very own plantation, acted like he owned everything and everyone, killed whomever he wanted to kill, sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, took women away from their husbands on their wedding nights and then would brag publicly about ‘the great honeymoon’ he’d had the night before. His Eye was everywhere; he had a Secret Police that out-Stasi’d the Stasi, that kept watch on everyone, even those everyones who lived in the States.”
His 30 years in power, to Dominicans known as the Trujillo Era (Spanish: La Era de Trujillo), is considered one of the bloodiest ever in the Americas, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when monuments to Trujillo were in abundance. It has been estimated that Trujillo's rule was responsible for the death of more than 50,000 people, including 20,000 to 30,000 in the infamous Parsley Massacre. The brutal murder on November 25, 1960, of the three Mirabal sisters, Patria, María Teresa and Minerva, who opposed Trujillo's dictatorship, further increased discontent against his repressive rule. [from Wikipedia].

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez's book that inspired my decision to learn more about the Mirabals is part fact, part fiction. In order to tell their story, she has had to fictionalise many scenes.'s review states that: 

"Alvarez breathes life into these historical figures--as she imagines their teenage years, their gradual involvement with the revolution, and their terror as their dissentience is uncovered.Alvarez's controlled writing perfectly captures the mounting tension as "the butterflies" near their horrific end. The novel begins with the recollections of Dede, the fourth and surviving sister, who fears abandoning her routines and her husband to join the movement. Alvarez also offers the perspectives of the other sisters: brave and outspoken Minerva, the family's political ringleader; pious Patria, who forsakes her faith to join her sisters after witnessing the atrocities of the tyranny; and the baby sister, sensitive Maria Teresa, who, in a series of diaries, chronicles her allegiance to Minerva and the physical and spiritual anguish of prison life".
In the Time of the Butterflies is inspiring, heartbreaking and educative. It is definitely the highlight of my book club year and well worth reading.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is probably one of the most original books I have read in years. It is witty, funny, entertaining and educative. I highly recommend it. Did I mention it won the 2008 Pulitzer prize for fiction?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz


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