Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once upon a time, four sisters led their country to freedom. Their names were Minerva, Patria, Maria Teresa, and Dedé. Though they lived in a beautiful country, it was ruled by a cruel and arrogant dictator. Minerva wanted to do something about the injustices she saw, so she recruited her sisters, hosted secret meetings, and gathered weapons for a revolution. Tragically, three of the sisters did not live to see their plan enacted. But Dedé lived on to tell the story of her three brave sisters known as Las Mariposas, The Butterflies.
Get to know the Mirabal Sisters a little better with writer Julia Alvarez! She wrote the book In the Time of the Butterflies all about the sisters and she tells us more about their incredible impact on the Dominican Republic and why they’re a personal inspiration to her.
Born in New York City in 1950, Julia Alvarez’s parents returned to their native country, Dominican Republic, shortly after her birth. Ten years later, the family was forced to flee to the United States because of her father’s involvement in a plot to overthrow the dictator, Trujillo.
Alvarez has written novels (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, ¡Yo!, In the Name of Salomé, Saving the World, Afterlife), collections of poems (Homecoming, The Other Side/ El Otro Lado, The Woman I Kept to Myself), nonfiction (Something to Declare, Once Upon A Quinceañera, and A Wedding in Haiti), and numerous books for young readers (including the Tía Lola Stories series, Before We Were Free, finding miracles, Return to Sender and Where Do They Go?).
Alvarez’s awards include the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award. In 2013, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
(Headshot photographed by Bill Eichner)
Once upon a time, there were four sisters who led their country to freedom. Their names were Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa—and they were known as “the Mirabal sisters.”
The Mirabal sisters grew up in the Dominican Republic, a beautiful island nation in the Caribbean Sea.
From the time they were small children, their country had been ruled by a man named Rafael Trujillo. He was a soldier who had schemed his way into the presidency and was determined to keep it. The Mirabal sisters, like all Dominicans, lived with the knowledge that they had to watch what they said and did, to avoid consequences.
Most people were petrified by Trujillo and his spies. Many despised him but did not have the courage to speak out. The Mirabal sisters, on the other hand, would stop at nothing to win back their country’s freedom — even if it meant paying with their lives.
I’m Jackie Cruz. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: the Mirabal sisters.
<END THEME MUSIC>
The first three Mirabal girls were born one right after the other: Patria in 1924, Dede in 1925, Minerva in 1926. The baby of the family, Maria Teresa, came along nine years later.
The Mirabals were a respected and wealthy family. Their father, Don Enrique, owned a farm and a shop in their hometown Ojo de Agua, not too far from the island’s north coast. Unlike many families at that time, the girls’ parents believed that their daughters deserved an education.
It was there, at school, that they began to see how their country really worked.
When the nuns handed out history textbooks, Trujillo’s face was stamped on the cover. The school had to hang up his portrait in their hallways; the girls’ parents, like all other Dominicans, were required to put up his picture at home. Everywhere you looked Trujillo’s eyes were watching.
He even changed the name of the capital, Santo Domingo, to Ciudad Trujillo—Trujillo City. To mark this occasion, he had workers build a monument in his honor, a giant white tower 137 feet high.
Minerva’s school friends told dark stories about family members thrown in prison or shot for criticizing the president.
Each day, more and more reports emerged of Trujillo’s cruelty.
His tyranny and arrogance bothered the sisters—Minerva most of all. So, from a very young age, she had become the most outspoken of the sisters—even when that meant getting into trouble.
Why should she have to grow up under a dictator’s thumb? Minerva wondered. Why should her sisters?
Minerva made a promise to herself: she was going to end his regime.
One day, an invitation arrived at the Mirabal home for Minerva, Patria, and Dede. Their presence was requested at a grand ball at the home of Trujillo himself.
The sisters didn’t have much choice—an invitation to one of Trujillo’s parties was as good as a court order. So they put on their finest clothes and drove to Trujillo’s estate with their father Don Enrique. In the ballroom of Trujillo’s mansion, they tried to blend in with hundreds of people gathered in their finery, sipping champagne and making small talk.
But suddenly, Trujillo appeared beside Minerva, asking—demanding, really—that she dance with him. He held her in ways she didn’t like. He breathed into her neck. He treated Minerva as if she were not her own person, but an object he could control.
Some people say Minerva slapped him, right there on the dance floor. Others say that she simply refused his advances. Whatever happened, the Mirabals left the party quickly. And from that night on, Trujillo had it out for the Mirabal family.
Soon after that party, authorities showed up at the Mirabal’s home and took their father, Don Enrique, for questioning. While the other sisters waited anxiously at home, Minerva and her mother, Mercedes, drove to the capital because Don Enrique had been thrown in jail—but when they tried to visit him, Minerva and her mother were put on house arrest in their cramped hotel room with armed guards outside.
Months passed. At last, Don Enrique and his wife and daughter were released. Minerva put her arm around her frail, trembling father and bundled him up into their car for the long ride home. But the man who came out of prison was not the same as the one who went in. Injured and weakened from his torture and suffering in prison, Don Enrique died a few years later.
The heartbroken sisters tried to move on with their lives. Maria Teresa went to the University of Santo Domingo, just as her beloved older sister Minerva had. Patria and Dede started families.
But life couldn’t go on as normal.
The cruelty Trujillo had dealt to their family was too much to overlook.
At night, Minerva wrapped a towel around her radio to muffle its sounds and then snuggled under the covers to listen to secret channels. At last, she was ready to join the resistance.
They could not change the country through the law: Even though Minerva had studied hard to get a legal degree, under Trujillo’s orders she was denied the license she needed to practice. Dominicans would have to take their country back by force.
The resistance had to be a secret. In a dictatorship, anyone could be a spy: a friend who seemed trustworthy or a waiter clearing away a dinner plate. Minerva could only ask for help from the people she trusted most: her sisters.
“Join me,” she said to each of them, privately.
Maria Teresa, who always admired her brilliant older sister, immediately agreed.
Patria refused, at first. Then, when she was at a church retreat, she saw Trujillo’s soldiers open fire on a group of men and boys, killing them instantly. With the horrible, bloody scene fresh in her mind, she came to Minerva and said, “I’m ready.”
That left Dede.
The three sisters approached her at home. She knew what they had come to ask her. A part of her desperately wanted to join them, to fight side by side for something she believed in. But she thought of the furious arguments she’d had with her husband, how terrified she was of risking her life and endangering her children.
She shook her head. “No. I cannot join you.”
Patria, Maria Teresa, and Minerva passed out pamphlets and held secret meetings. Dede helped in her own quiet way — they would send their children to Aunt Dede’s when it was time to host a meeting. And under the floorboards of their homes and buried in the soil of their farms were things no one could have imagined young wives and mothers hiding: bombs and guns, ready for an uprising.
They were fighting for freedom, and people began to call them Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.
Word eventually reached Trujillo that the women were plotting against him. He had Minerva, Maria Teresa and their husbands thrown into prison.
Back at home, Dede, Patria, and their mother weren’t safe either. Trujillo’s spies were everywhere, even in their family home! The family found pieces of recording equipment around the house. Sometimes they would see a bush rustling, and they knew a member of the secret police hid nearby.
When, Minerva and Maria Teresa were released, they moved with all their children into their mother’s home with its tile-covered floors and lace bedspreads. It was like they were children again, all the sisters together under one roof.
One day, word arrived that Minerva and Maria Teresa’s husbands had all been moved to a different prison. It was far away, and it could only be reached by traveling a winding, lonely road over a mountain pass.
So, they kissed their mother, their sister Dede, and their children goodbye, and got in the car to go visit them.
Their husbands had urged them not to come, but, ever defiant, they visited anyway.
After a tense afternoon, the Mirabal sisters and their driver began the long trip home again. At the top of the mountain, Trujillo’s henchmen stopped the car.
They dragged the sisters and their driver kicking and screaming from the car, and murdered them. Then they put the bodies back in the car and pushed it down the mountain to make the deaths look like an accident.
The butterflies were no more.
And as Dominicans shared the news of the sisters’ deaths in angry whispers and voices broken with sobs, something began to change in the Dominican Republic. The resistance was too powerful to stop.
Killing three women whose only crime was speaking out against injustice was one step too far.
For just six months later, as he drove along a dark, winding highway, Trujillo too met his death—killed by people who believed their country would never be free while he lived.
It took years to heal the wounds Trujillo had inflicted on the country and its citizens. But slowly, a government chosen by the people replaced a system built on violence and fear.
Over the years the statues and tributes to Trujillo were smashed and torn down. The white obelisk in Santo Domingo, however, still looms over the city that once bore Trujillo’s name. But if you look up at the monument today, you would see an explosion of color, and a mural with the faces of four national heroes: Minerva, Patria, Maria Teresa, and Dede.
A BUTTERFLY IS BORN
Through the years, Dede always kept alive the memory of Las Mariposas.
After her sisters were murdered, Dede took in their six children and raised them as her own. She turned their family home into a museum, honoring her sisters’ lives and sacrifice. She traveled the world telling their story.
And the world listened. Every November 25th—the anniversary of the Mirabals’ death—the United Nations observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Dede lived to be an old woman, and she felt the most joy when she invited people into her home to hear the story of her three sisters. Most of the museum’s visitors were schoolchildren, many of them girls, as full of dreams and passion as the Mirabal sisters had been. Someone would always ask: “Why did you survive?”
And Dede would reply, with pride in her voice: “So I could tell their story.”