Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."


Nov 25, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“When injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” Minerva Mirabal

Casa Museo Hermanas Mirabal (opened 1994)

Tenares, The Dominican Republic

     A Hans Christian Anderson story proved prescient in the lives of the Mirabal sisters. In his fairy tale a butterfly stated, “Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” The sibling’s childhood home, the Casa Museo Hermanas Mirabel, resonates their courage. 

     The women who achieved international respect were from the village of Ojo de Agua, near the city of Salcedo, the Dominican Republic.  The family members were Enrique Mirabal Fernández, Mercedes, and daughters, Patria Mercedes, (1924), Bélgica Adela, (Dedé) (1925), Minerva Argentina, (1926), and Maria Teresa, (1936). They lived on a prosperous farm where Enrique operated a coffee mill and general store. 

        Tragically, their homeland had been rife with turmoil ever since Christopher Columbus had set foot on their Caribbean homeland. When the sisters were young, the island nation had come came under the control of Generalissimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Due to his control of his country, he was called “El Jefe” (The Boss); due to his voracious sexual appetite he was also known as “El Chico” “The Goat.” He glorified in his self-proclaimed formal title: “Father of the New Fatherland.” The megalomaniac rebuilt the capital he renamed Ciudad Trujillo, and christened the country’s highest mountain, Pico Trujillo. The consummate narcissist mandated every home display his photograph with the slogan, “In this home, Trujillo is boss,” and churches had to hang a sign: “Dio en Cielo, Trujillo en Tierra.” (“God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth). The government censored El Cáribe, the national newspaper. Enemies of state received a visit from the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, (SIM) Trujillo’s trigger-happy goon squad who arrived in black, Volkswagen Beetles.

     The MIrabol’s path of activism ignited when Minerva attended college in Santo Domingo and heard from fellow students of the human rights abuses that plagued the country. The national horror turned personal when the beautiful Minerva caught the eye of the Goat. He attempted to exercise his Dominican version of droit du seigneur and ordered her to attend his 1949 San Cristobal gala. As the dictator danced with Minerva, he suggested retiring to his hotel room for a romp, an offer she refused. Terrified at how the evening was unfolding, the Mirabals immediately left the party. Their early departure further enraged Trujillo as protocol demanded no one departed before el presidente.

     Enrique’s letter of apology failed to smooth the waters and he spent the next two years in prison. Fifteen days after his release, he passed away from unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and beatings. The family farm suffered financial loss as customers were fearful of reprisals. Despite Minerva graduating at the top of her law school, the university denied her a diploma.

       Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa married democracy-seeking spouses who shared their vision of a free Dominican Republic. Dedé married Jaime Fernandez whom she described as “a violent and handsome man.” Of their thirty-four-year long relationship, eighteen years proved happy. As Jaime insisted that his family take the stance of the three proverbial monkeys, Dedé never engaged in anti-government activities. In contrast, Minerva and her husband, Manolo, were organizers of al 14 de Junio, the Fourteenth of June, that received its name after the date of a failed coup against the dictator by Dominican exiles living in Cuba. The siblings went by the code name “The Butterflies.”  In Dedé’s memoir, Vivas en Su Jardín, Alive in Their Garden, she wrote, “We lived in fear, and there is nothing worse than living in fear.” News of the sisters’ resistance reached Trujillo that led to his pronouncement, “The only problem my government has are the Catholic Church and those Mirabal sisters.” Paranoia fueled his violence, and human rights’ violations escalated. The police arrested Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa, as well as their husbands. In a move to curry favor with his people, Trujillo ended up freeing female political prisoners. Their husbands received sentences ranging from twenty to thirty years; the authorities interred them in different facilities to prevent the Underground from organizing their escape. Then, in a surprising move, the three brothers-in-law ended up in the same penitentiary in Puerta Plata. Just as inexplicably, their wives received permission to make a joint visit. Did the Goat have a heart after all?  

      In 1170, King Henry II had cried out, “Can no one rid be of this meddlesome priest?” The remark resulted in the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. A similar scenario took place in 1960 in the Dominican Republic. As the government had confiscated the sisters’ cars, Rufino de la Cruz, a fellow fighter in 14 de Junio, offered to serve as their driver. On their return, driving along a desolate road, a black, Volkswagen Beetle forced their Jeep into a sugarcane field on the outskirts of Puerto Plata. Members of the SIM strangled the sisters and Rufino. Afterwards, the thugs placed the bodies back into the Jeep and sent it tumbling down La Cumbre Cliff. To commemorate the site of their murders, three bronze busts of the sisters mark the spot, each bearing a plaque with their names, date of birth, and testimony as to how they died. The wings of the butterflies had been removed, but their spirits lives on. When the caskets’ arrived at a funeral home, there was an official mandate demanding they remain sealed. Dedé defied the order, thereby confirming the deaths had not been accidental.

       When her friends and family had voiced concern over Minerva’s activism, she had responded, “If they kill me, I’ll reach out my arms out from the tomb and I’ll be stronger.” Posthumously, David slayed Goliath. Trujillos’ assassination of the sisters who had been devoted to their country, their church, and their families-was the straw that broke the populace’s back. Six months after the murders, at 10 P.M., as Trujillo’s chauffeur-driven limousine made its way along a remote road heading towards San Cristobal for a rendezvous with the dictator’s mistress, instead of a black jeep, a Chevrolet emerged from the shadows carrying four-armed men. They made manifest the biblical admonition, “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” El Jeffe’s enemies pronounced his death an ajusticiamiento-a bringing to justice. The thirty-one-year reign of Trujillo-terror was at an end.

     The Butterflies-as their country remembers them- became symbols of democratic and feminist resistance.  The Dominican Republic made the date of Trujillo’s assassination a national holiday. In 1999, the United Nations designated November 25, the anniversary of the sisters’ murder, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The country honored their famous daughters by placing their images on a postage stamp and paper currency. Another tribute was the place of their birth changed from Provincia Sallcedo to Provincia Hermanas Mirabal. The Dominican American novelist, Julia Alvarez, 1994 novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, dedication page reads “For Dedé,” as she was the keeper of the flame of her siblings’ legacy, and who raised, in addition to her own three children, her six nieces and nephews. Minerva’s daughter, Minou Tavárez Mirabal, became a congressional representative and vice foreign minister. Dedé’s son, Jaime David Fernández Mirabal served as vice president of the Dominican Republic for four years.

     Dedé founded the Museo Hermanas Mirabal in Salcedo situated in the family’s 1954 home where she conducted tours that explained how her martyred sisters toppled a brutal regime. When asked why she did not suffer the same fate as her siblings, Dedé responded, “I stayed alive to tell their stories.” She served as docent until her death at age eighty-eight. On display Patria’s teacup collection, Maria Teresa’s embroidery, Minerva’s law degree. The Fourteenth of June Movement flag hangs in Minerva’s former bedroom, along with the sewing machine that had stitched the original. Two mementoes of Minerva’s incarceration in La Victoria prison are a sculpture of her daughter, Minou, and a three-leaf clover fashioned from the jail’s stone. Teresa’s former bedroom has a glass case that holds her glass-strewn braid alongside her photograph. On a table are the contents of the sisters’ purses from the fateful night: a prayer card, a memento from Enrique’s funeral, a hair roller. Next to the purse display is a kitchen towel stained with the sisters’ blood. The garden houses the graves of the sisters, as well as Manolo’s, arranged in the shape of a cross with a fountain in the center. Three busts of Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria rest on stones. Across the street is the Plazoleta Hermanas Mirabal that showcases a monument that displays three butterflies. Another artifact is the remnant of the Jeep that bears the damage from the assassination. The over-riding symbol found on the walls and the gardens of the museum, and interspersed through the province, is the image of brightly colored butterflies, reminiscent of the Mirabal sisters Code name: Las Mariposas.

A View from the Window: Hopefully, when Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa looked out the window of their family home, they did not see the web that had descended on their homeland. Hopefully, they recalled the bucolic days of their youth when Enrique and his daughters walked the fields of their farm.