The recent premiere of news writer Emilio Herasme’s documentary La 40: Peor que el Infierno celebrates the memory of the Dominican Republic’s national heroes: Minerva, Patria, and María Teresa Mirabal. These three sisters stood up against the brutality of the dictator Rafael Trujillo at the cost of condemning themselves to execution at the hands of his death squad.
Faithful Roman Catholics, Minerva and Patria attended parochial high school, there encountering the children of families torn apart by political oppression. Minerva, moved by their stories, decided to study law and subsequently joined the anti-Trujillo underground. The first clash with the dictator resulted from what is often called popularly “an act of God”—a sudden downpour of rain at a party organized by Trujillo. The Mirabal family seized the opportunity to leave, deeply offending the dictator, who always insisted on leaving first. He had all of them arrested and forced letters of apology from them. Minerva refused and was interrogated for several days about her antagonistic attitude. The family was “well connected,” however, and Trujillo’s own brother interceded for them, securing their release.1 When Minerva subsequently enrolled in the University of Santo Domingo, the dictator had her watched and soon blocked her progress because of her work on human rights and Dominican law.2 A failed revolt by the Dominican Liberation Movement on June 14, 1959, led to the three Mirabal sisters, who were now all active in the underground and married to other anti-Trujillo patriots, forming the “Movimiento Clandestino 14 de Junio,” the sisters being known by the code name “Las Mariposas” (The Butterflies).3 Trujillo had all three of their husbands arrested and tortured. When the sympathetic Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt supported their cause, Trujillo attempted twice to assassinate him. In the meantime, on the domestic front, among other atrocities, Trujillo reportedly ordered 30,000 dark Haitians living in the Dominican Republic murdered in an attempt to lighten the complexion of the Dominicans.4 The Mirabals stepped up their campaign, even reportedly enlisting the priest of their home church to join their movement and oppose the violence of the government.5
By the evening of November 25, 1960, Trujillo had had enough from the Mirabals. Dominicans claim that the fatal rebuff came when Minerva (and, according to many, her two sisters as well) refused to succumb to sexual demands that the dictator (known for his constant adulteries) was making upon them while their husbands languished in prison, an aspect emphasized in Julia Alvarez’s award-winning novel and the subsequent film In the Time of the Butterflies.6 Accosted on the way home from visiting their husbands in prison, the women were taken to a field of high cane and beaten to death. Their bodies were put back into their vehicle, which was then rolled off a cliff to simulate an accident, according to the recorded confession of one of the executioners.7 Patria was 36, Minerva 34, María Teresa 24. Their sole surviving sister, Dedé, who was not involved politically, afterwards, with their mother, reared all of their children8 and began the Mirabal Museum in their honor. According to the museum’s Web site: “The public did not believe the government’s story of an ‘accident’ claiming the lives of the Mirabals. Historians consider the murder of las Mariposas a turning point in the downfall of Trujillo: popular support of the dictator waned, the resistance movement gained momentum, and the Catholic Church became more openly critical of the regime.”9 Bishops began openly denouncing the dictator.10 Six months later, Trujillo was assassinated by his own guards.
Today, the Mirabal sisters are honored as symbols of purity and courage in the face of frightening oppression. They are honored on a stamp and on the recently minted 200 peso bill. A number of books have recounted the story of the Mirabals, from their sister Dedé’s Vivas en su Jardín to Jacob Kushner’s children’s book How the Butterflies Grew their Wings. Several films also recount their story, from documentaries such as Nombre Secreto: Mariposas by Chile’s Cecilia Domeyko to fictionalized features such as Michelle Rodriguez’s Trópico de Sangre. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25, the day of the murder of the Butterflies, as “the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.”11 Global events in their honor are impressive. For example, in March 2008, the Icelandic National Committee for UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) held a “Butterfly week,” culminating in a celebrity-served, butterfly-masked, fundraising dinner. Spokeswoman
Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir explained they were creating “a butterfly effect” to stop violence in honor of the “butterfly” sisters. The week raised $1.1 million to combat violence against women and children in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.12
Honoring heroic women whose deeds have set a standard in such public ways keeps their example before a nation. When an example is such a moral one, it impresses a message upon a people that purity and courage and a love of justice are prized as nationally honored virtues; the significance cannot be minimized. When women are honored both for their achievements and their heroism, the right message is sent out to both genders.
God has given humanity gender for sacred reasons. Together, we make up an entire humanity. We are valued beyond understanding in God’s sight—so greatly, in fact, that God, in the fullness of the Godhead (Col 1:19, 2:19), came to us in Jesus, God-Among-Us, to give up his life, as many years later the devoutly Christian Mirabal sisters sacrificed their lives, following Christ’s example, to rescue the oppressed of this fallen world.
In this issue of Priscilla Papers, we examine issues of gender within the struggle for mutual freedom against varying degrees of repression and exploitation. Médine Moussounga Keener counts the cost of war specifically on women, as it exacts its toll in Congo Brazzaville, while Zablon Bundi Mutongu shows us the alternative option: the positive effects when women’s gifts are utilized to help alleviate the problem of poverty in Kenya. CBE President Mimi Haddad then takes us back to the genesis of good and evil actions, exploring the fact that all action begins with ideas that have consequences.
Three pertinent book reviews follow. Twin reviews find John DelHousaye assessing the secular bestseller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and Cynthia Davis Lathrop exploring the Christian counterpart, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women. Chip M. Anderson then analyzes Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook as we match positive ideas with effective suggestions for action. Our poet, Joel Boehner, brings us back to the theme of marriage, warning us of the paradox of a hierarchal beginning with a poignant word picture for us to contemplate.
Applying godly sense to matters of gender creates a climate that allows men and women to work together in mutual support and cooperation, each having the opportunity to actualize the gifts God has given to edify the body of Christ and assist God in reconciling the world. Letting fallen attitudes of sexual domination dictate our relationships to one another, on the other hand, creates a climate that is perhaps only implicitly repressive at the outset, but may end in setting the context for a Trujillo to develop. We Christians should attempt to set our lives in symbiotic directions “beyond the curse,” as my wife so aptly named her classic book,13 not simply continuing the curse’s ramifications. Our hope at CBE is that all our readers are able to thrive within the freedom won for us by Christ and will work with us to extend this freedom to those oppressed around the world.
- Las Hermanas Mirabal/The Mirabal Sisters, http://www.colonialzone-dr.com/people_history-mirabal_sisters.html, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- See Mujer Palabra’s Web site, http://www.talkingpeople.net, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- Las Hermanas Mirabal/The Mirabal Sisters, http://www.colonialzone-dr.com/people_history-mirabel_sisters.html, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- The number is drawn from In the Time of the Butterflies, a film based on Julia Alvarez’s novel. TMPman, “In the Time of the Butterflies,” http://everything2.com/title/In+the+Time+of+the+Butterflies, accessed Jan. 27, 2010. My wife, who was born in the Dominican Republic under the regime of Rafael Trujillo, remembers as a small girl seeing him with his face powdered white to make himself appear lighter in skin color.
- TMPman, “In the Time of the Butterflies.”
- Interview with Dr. Hilda Cabrera, Jan. 20, 2010, in Santo Domingo, R.D.
- Ciriaco de la Rosa in the Dominican Encyclopedia 1997 CD-ROM. See a transcription at Mujer Palabra’s Web site for EOI Students, “The Mirabal Sisters: November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women,” http://www.talkingpeople.net.
- Ivette Romero, “New Book: Dedé Mirabal’s Vivas en su jardίn,” Repeating Islands, http://repeatingislands.com/2009/08/20/new-book-dede-mirabal%C2%B4s-viva…, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- Mirabal Museo, http://semdom.50megs.com/mirabal_museo.htm,accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- TMPman, “In the Time of the Butterflies.”
- “International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women,” http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/un/eliminate-violence-against-women-day, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- UNIFEM, News: “Icelandic National Committee for UNIFEM Donates US $1.1 Million to UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, http://www.unifem.org/new_events/story_detail.php?storyID+664, accessed Jan. 27, 2010.
- Aída Besançon Spencer’s Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker: 1985) is also available in French as La Femme et le Service dans L’eglise (Longueuil, Quebec, Canada: Diffusion Vie, 1996), and has just appeared in a Spanish edition: Más Allá de la Maldición (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).