Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, March 12, 2010

No chains for Mirabal Sisters

Women's History Month

A woman will be twice bound when her chains feel comfortable. (Egypt)

The Mirabal sisters

What price freedom? Three of the four Mirabal sisters paid with their lives. Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic (Dom Rep) ordered them killed.

I can understand why lots of women have limited their activism to stirring a pot of black beans and rice, or ackee and saltfish. Sometimes the rule of a husband is enough, so why challenge the state?

The Mirabal sisters must have wanted to just mind their own business. Patria and Minerva knew only Trujillo from the time they were little girls, and “Teresa was born when Trujillo (also known as El Jefe) was the ruler of their country. They could have accepted their fate like thousands of other people. They could have believed that they had no choice, because anyone who opposed El Jefe met death after imprisonment and torture. Everybody had to be a member of his party. If you worked for the government, you had to contribute a tenth of your salary to his party. If you were caught on the street without your party care, you could be arrested. If you had a daughter and she was biracial with boobs and hips, you had to keep the daughter locked away from el Jefe. As he grew older, his tastes in sex partners grew younger. And you couldn’t say no when he came calling or. More usually, sent one of his men for your young daughter.

But Minerva told him no. She would not be one of his throwaways after an episode or two. Nor would she be one of the women who was his sex slaves, held with golden chains studded with diamonds. She said no, and then he had his eyes on her for other reasons - she must be punished. Still, he played with her, the way my dog will play with a lizard he intends to kill. Minerva wanted to see an end of tyranny, and she studied law. Trujillo allowed her to graduate, but not to get her certificate as a lawyer. So she knew law, but could not apply what she knew to help her people.

How did Trujillo have so much power?” Well, the United States invaded Dom Rep in 1916, and remained there till 1924. Trujillo was prominent in the army the US created, and Trujillo “won” Dom Rep’s presidential elections in 1930. A judge ruled that the elections were fraudulent, but he had to run away to save his life. Immediately he took office, Trujillo assumed the powers of a tyrant.

The Mirabal sisters must have wanted to mind their own business, looking after their husbands, having babies, and waiting for grandbabies. But they chose sure suicide. They knew that El Jefe’s spies would report on them, and that they would put themselves and their families in big trouble. This is one of the reasons that many women take the safe route. They may end up frustrated wives and miserable mothers, but they die in their own beds. They don’t get sent to prison and don’t know who is taking care of their children. They don’t have to wait for a few minutes of visiting time just to get word about a first step or a new tooth. They don’t have to have to be beaten up or raped in prison, or get cigarette burns in delicate places.

The Mirabal sisters became part of the resistance to El Jefe. They grew up privileged, and presumably they could have migrated to a safe place, But they joined a secret group and their code name was “Mariposas”, “Butterflies.”

And, predictably, El Jefe crushed the butterflies. Several times he had locked up Minerva and Teresa and tortured them. He locked up three of the sisters’ husbands. Finally he decided to eliminate them. He ordered them killed when three of them were on a journey to visit their husbands in prison. They and their driver were shot dead, and the car thrown over a cliff so El Jefe could say it was an accident. Dedé, the fourth sister, became an only child in a day.

The sisters were murdered in 1960, almost two years after Fidel Castro ousted the dictator Batista from Cuba. The Castro regime showed the people of the Dominican Republic that a dictator could be overthrown. Besides, Castro supported the people’s desire for freedom, and Trujillo was bitterly opposed to Castro, especially as many Dominican exiles found protection in Cuba.

Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. He at first received a state funeral, but the people were so fed up with him, that ultimately they threw out his family and voted for Trujillo’s remains to be taken out of the Dominican Republic.

In 1994, Dominican author Julia Alvarez published, “In the Time of Butterflies”, a novel about the sisters’ struggle for freedom. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly made November 23 (the date the women were assassinated) the International
Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Today, Dedé, the remaining sister,keeps alive the memories of the Mirabal sisters.

Were the Mirabal sisters right to choose freedom? Was the cost worth it? You be the judge – and share what you think.


Barbea said...

Great article.... info.... Blessings to these women.... and their family..... Great courage....

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Thanks for your comment, Barbea. I feel an affinity to these women, perhaps because my area of activism - human rights - makes governments uncomfortable all over the world. So their courage under such trying circumstances helps me stay focused despite the risks.

I much appreciate your visit.




When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at