History blends with myth when it comes to the first encounter between Rafael Trujillo and Minerva Mirabal. He was the man who had come to power in a rigged election and used a culture of terror and brutal oppression to turn the Dominican Republic into his Trujillato. She was a 23-year-old law student from a rural village in the Valle del Cibao, born into a middle-class family of landowners. Invited to one of Trujillo’s parties, Minerva was asked to dance by the Colonel himself, a notorious womanizer 35 years older than her. There are many different versions of how things went, but it is often said that she rejected his inappropriate advances by famously slapping ‘El Jefe’ in the face on the dance floor, to the horror of everyone present.
It was both the end and the beginning. Minerva’s father was thrown into jail and the Mirabal family eventually lost their land, house and properties. Together with her sisters, Patria, Maria Teresa and Dedé, Minerva Mirabal helped to organize and promote the anti-regime movement 14 de Junio and they became known affectionately by their underground name Las Mariposas. In the following years, the three sisters and their family members were repeatedly arrested and tortured for their activities against Trujillo’s dictatorship.
“Iconizing them only robs them of the real meaning of their resistance to violence”
On a rainy night on November 25, 1960, as the Mirabal sisters returned from visiting their husbands in prison, they were stopped, taken into a sugar cane field by a team of Trujillo’s most trusted henchmen, clubbed and strangled to death. Their bodies were placed in a jeep and dumped off a cliff in order to make their deaths look like an accident. They were thirty-six (Patria), thirty-four (Minerva) and twenty-four (Maria Teresa) at the time. Their brutal assassination shook public opinion and helped propel the movement which culminated in Trujillo’s demise. Only six months later, El Jefe was ambushed and shot to death on a public road just outside the capital. The Trujillato, now acknowledged as one of the bloodiest dictatorships in the history of the Americas, was finally over.
Since their deaths, the fame of the Mirabal Sister spread internationally, also thanks to the memory work of Dede’, the only surviving sister. In 1994, Dominican novelist Julia Alvarez commemorated their story with her historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies, eventually adapted as a movie starring the Hollywood actress Salma Hayek in the role of Miranda Mirabal. The date of their assassination was also designated in 1999 by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Every year, 25 November and the ensuing 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence which follow (ending on 10 December, Human Rights Day) are commemorated around the world, providing individuals and groups with a chance to mobilize and call attention to the urgent need to end violence against women and girls.
Remembering the life story of the Mirabal sisters on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women means much more than narrating the story of how this specific date came to be chosen. It is about re-claiming the real lesson of the life and death of the three Dominican sisters. Revered as martyrs in the Dominican Republic, they have often been wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, but iconizing them only robs them of the real meaning of their resistance to violence. If anything, they were ordinary women with a lot to lose. They were young, educated and beautiful, they had career ambitions and landowners’ privileges. They had families with husbands and children, and yet the cost of their principles was never too high a price to pay.
UN Women has denounced an increase of violence due to lockdown and social isolation measures.
Remembering the Mirabal sisters, we can say that 25 November is a day to bring to light violence against women and girls as one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. As the world retreated inside homes due to the lockdown measures introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, reports showed an alarming increase in the pre-existing pandemic of violence against women. UN Women has denounced an alarming increase in multiple forms of violence against women and girls, especially physical, psychological, sexual and economic forms of domestic violence fuelled by unemployment, household economic and food insecurity, and confined living conditions due to lockdown and social isolation measures.
November 25 also marks the return of the “Orange the World” campaign launched by UN Women. Orange has been chosen as symbol of a brighter future where women won’t fear violence. As in previous years, iconic buildings and monuments of the world will be ‘oranged’ and global citizens are being encouraged to wear orange and share their photos and videos on social media with the hashtag #orangetheworld.
The choice of such a bright colour is not a coincidence. A big part of the problem, and a major obstacle to its solution, is characterized by the fact that most cases of violence remain largely unreported as a result of the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding them. While the story of Miranda Mirabal slapping Colonel Trujillo on the dance floor may be an apocryphal myth, more than seventy years later her lesson of resistance to power abuse and violence is still there for us to learn and make it our own.
Author: Eleonora Esposito, Marie Curie Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society