Four sisters made history in the Dominican Republic by fighting for equal rights during the Trujillo dictatorship. 

Sometimes sisters share more than just gossip and clothes. Sometimes, they talk about important ideas that can change the world. Four such sisters in the Dominican Republic did just that.

Minerva, María Teresa, Patria, and Dedé Mirabal grew up on a farm that grew cacao and beautiful orchid flowers in shades of violet, pink, and cream. Those flowers and chocolate graced the girls’ tea parties, where the table was set with antique pieces from Patria’s teacup collection.

After eating, the Mirabal sisters practiced embroidery under the shade of the tall trees, a cool escape from the tropical sun, until the fireflies began to wink in the garden at dusk. They enjoyed their childhood on the farm, unaware that others in their country had much harder lives and unaware also of the role they would eventually play as civil rights activists seeking a better future for their country.

At that time, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a vicious tyrant named Rafael Trujillo who had controlled the country for over three decades. People called him El Jefe, “The Boss.”

No one publicly disagreed with how El Jefe ran the government; those who did speak up often disappeared in the dark of night, never to return. Historians estimate that over  50,000 people were murdered during his years as president.

El Jefe also took all the money the country collected from taxes or foreign aid from other countries (like the United States) and put most of the money in his personal bank account. The rest he gave away to his family and friends instead of putting it back into the Dominican Republic’s infrastructure.

The Mirabal sisters knew little of this until they left the shelter of the farm and went away to school in the city of La Vega. There they heard horror stories of what El Jefe had done, even jailing and torturing some of their classmates’ family members.

Minerva, was a teenager when she went to a party with her mother at which Trujillo was the guest of honor. Her meeting with Trujillo has been told in many variations, but it’s safe to say that Minerva turned down the dictator’s romantic advances and departed shortly thereafter.

People were not allowed to leave a room before El Jefe. Trujillo was so insulted that he had Minerva and her parents arrested and thrown in a jail cell. Every day Minerva was interrogated by Trujillo’s men and she refused to write a letter of apology to Trujillo, which made the dictator even more furious.

After the family was released, Minerva went to law school seeking to become the first female lawyer in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, after she graduated, Minerva learned that El Jefe hadn’t forgotten her rejection and refused her license to practice law.

With time on her hands and a fire in her heart, Minerva began to listen more closely to the stories of Trujillo’s abuses and joined a group of revolutionaries who vowed to overthrow El Jefe and take back their country. Patria joined Minerva shortly thereafter, saying:

“We cannot allow our children to grow up in this corrupt and tyrannical regime. We have to fight against it, and I am willing to give up everything, even my life if necessary.”

The youngest sister, María Teresa, had always looked up to Minerva and also joined the rebels. The three sisters plotted with a team of revolutionaries (which included their husbands) to get rid of El Jefe, no matter the cost. 

The fourth sister, Dedé, did not join the rebellion because her husband told her not to, though Dedé would still have an important part to play in the Mirabals’ story.

The women revolutionaries, along with their rebel co-conspirators, went to work passing out brochures about overthrowing the government.  They held meetings in each other’s houses, always on the lookout for the secret police. They even stopped using their real names and used code names instead. The sisters were called Las Mariposas—The Butterflies—and gained a reputation as warriors committed to the cause of human rights within their country.

Despite their caution, Las Mariposas’ rebel group was discovered, and many of the members were thrown in prison, including the sisters and their husbands. The sisters were eventually put on house arrest where they were only allowed to leave to attend church or visit their husbands in prison.

El Jefe suspected the sisters’ larger involvement in the conspiracy to oust him, so moved María Teresa’s and Minerva’s husbands to a different prison. The new prison, Puerto Plata, was far up the coast on the other side of the island and only accessible by a steep, twisting mountain road.

On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were at Puerto Plata prison saying goodbye, when their husbands shared a rumor that El Jefe’s secret police had laid a trap for the women. The men begged their wives to spend the night nearby the prison rather than take that isolated road in the dark, but the sisters wanted to get back to their children and set off into the night.

They hadn’t gone far and were crossing a bridge when they found their way blocked by El Jefe’s secret police. The women were dragged from their car and taken to a nearby sugar cane field, where they were clubbed and strangled to death. The secret police then put their bodies back in the car and pushed it off the mountain to make the deaths look like an accident.

A message arrived for their sister, Dedé, that said there had been a car wreck. She held out hope for a time that her sisters had survived, but a second message arrived soon after. Her three sisters were deadthe Butterflies had flown free of this life.

The Mirabal sisters’ deaths angered so many people on the island that a group of them shot El Jefe to death less than six months later.

Dedé, the last surviving Mirabal sister, took in her sisters’ children and raised them as her own. Then she opened a museum in their childhood home honoring her sisters’ memory.

Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa became national martyrs and symbols of activism and feminist resistance around the world. Their faces were put on a postage stamp and are engraved on the country’s money on the 200 peso bill. Even the province where they grew up was renamed after them in recognition of their sacrifice.

But the sisters’ lives and deaths didn’t just help to free their country from tyranny; they helped change the way the world thought about violence against women and the role women played in the fight for equal rights. The Mirabal sisters’ warrior spirit would become an inspiration for future women activists and popular resistance movements everywhere.

On December 17, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25th as the “International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women” in honor of Las Mariposas. The act states that “gender-based violence that results in …harm or…deprivation of liberty” against women or girls must be ended.

On the 40th anniversary of their deaths, the Mirabal sisters’ remains were moved to rest under the orchids and cacao trees of their childhood.

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