Seizing power in a military revolt in 1930, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years in what is seen as one of the most brutal periods in the history of the Caribbean nation. Remaining in absolute control of the Dominican Republic through his command of the army, anyone who dared to oppose him was either imprisoned or killed.
But he helped modernize the Caribbean nation and ensure economic prosperity for many people while at the same time working to keep his numerous heinous crimes secret, including the killing of the thousands of Haitians on the border dividing the island of Hispaniola between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Sources say he ensured an increase in the general standard of living for the Dominican people, but the Dominican people had to pay for this prosperity with the loss of their civil and political liberties.
Amid Trujillo’s dictatorship, exiled Dominicans abroad and those at home started building resistance to his regime. Many of those involved in the resistance movement were men, but there were also women, and that included the Mirabal sisters.
Raised in Salcedo, a town in the northern region of the island known as the “Cibao” in the Dominican Republic, the Mirabal sisters — Patria, Minerva and María Teresa — were from a large family of middle-class farmers. Apart from farming, their parents also owned a coffee mill and general store. While the three sisters earned college degrees, their other sister, Dedé Mirabal, preferred to remain at home to take care of the household, according to VIBE.
Even though all the sisters were against the regime of Trujillo having seen the injustice meted out to citizens, it was Minerva who began the sisters’ resistance movement against the dictator. Minerva attended a Catholic boarding school in the city of La Vega, before studying law in Santo Domingo, the capital. By 1949, she had been arrested for “suspected opposition activities,” according to HISTORY. She also reportedly rejected Trujillo’s sexual advances, and this was something most women were afraid to do.
Minerva married another activist Manolo Tavárez Justo in 1955 after meeting him at the University of Santo Domingo. The couple became resistance leaders. Not long after, Patria, María Teresa and their husbands also joined them, and together, they helped form the 14th of June Movement in 1960. The movement was named for the date of a 1959 failed insurrection against Trujillo led by some exiled Dominicans with the help of the Cuban government.
Soon after the movement was officially organized, Trujillo started arresting resistance leaders, including the Mirabal sisters and their husbands. During this period, the sisters were labeled with an underground name, Las Mariposas (“The Butterflies”). Having described himself as an advocate for women and mothers, Trujillo later freed the Mirabal sisters and other female resistance leaders.
The 1937 Parsley Massacre in which Trujillo ordered the killing of thousands of Haitian immigrants dented his image but it was only after his failed assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in 1960 that the Organization of American States (OAS) finally voted to sever relations with him. Attempting to kill the Venezuelan leader angered many world leaders such that economic sanctions were also imposed on the Dominican Republic. At the same time, Trujillo started losing support at home.
On November 25, 1960, the Mirabal sisters were on their way back from visiting their husbands who were still in prison in Puerto Plata when their car was stopped by Trujillo’s henchmen along a mountain road. The henchmen killed the sisters’ driver and kidnapped the sisters at gunpoint. They beat and strangled them before putting their bodies as well as the body of their driver in the car. The henchmen then pushed the car over a cliff to make their deaths look like an accident.
But everyone was aware that the deaths of the Mirabal sisters were no accident. The revolution against Trujillo’s regime went on in their name. People were extremely angry that a man who called himself a women’s rights advocate had actually killed three lovely sisters for political reasons. People became more active in the movement to topple him.
On May 30, 1961, amid domestic opposition and the loss of support from the army, Trujillo was killed by a group of rebels while he was driving to his San Cristóbal farm.
Dedé, the last remaining Mirabal sister who was not too much involved in the resistance, raised the children of her sisters as well as her own children. Minerva’s daughter, Minou Tavárez Mirabal, became a congressional representative and vice foreign minister. Dedé’s son Jaime David Fernández Mirabal also became vice president of the Dominican Republic, from 1996 to 2000.
In 1999, the United Nations named November 25 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in honor of the Mirabal sisters. Dedé continued to keep her sisters’ names alive, turning their Salcedo home into a museum before her death in 2014.