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Truth trumps fiction

Julia Alvarez brings noted Dominican activists to Middlebury College

By Mary Elizabeth Fratini | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted November 17, 2006

On the eve of the exceptionally active mid-term election, Middlebury College hosted two legends of social activism from the Dominican Republic.

Dedé Mirabal Reyes and Minou Tavárez Mirabal are the surviving sister and a daughter of three sisters murdered in 1960 for resisting the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Their story was memorialized in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies, by author and Middlebury College writer-in-residence Julia Alvarez. The United Nations now marks the anniversary of their assassination — Nov. 25 — as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Their lecture, titled “Violence against Women and the Example of the Mirabal Sisters” drew a crowd of more than 100 people to Middlebury’s Mead Chapel as a preview to the college’s “Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign, which will run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10.

“It is not every day that an author gets to introduce her fictional characters in flesh and blood,” Alvarez noted as she began her introduction, but quickly turned to the darker topic of 20th century dictators in the Americas. “Dictatorships were the rules, many put in place and kept in power by the United States,” she said. Alvarez herself had fled from the Dominican Republic in 1960 when members of her father’s resistance cell were arrested.

As Trujillo’s reign faltered and the Catholic clergy, formerly stalwart supporters, joined the resistance, Trujillo sought to stamp out the network of freedom fighters. On the way back from visiting their imprisoned husbands, Minerva, Maria Theresa, and Patria Mirabal, and their driver Rafael, were ambushed. They were clubbed to death and their bodies placed back in the car and run off the mountain to look like an accident.

“Six months later, the dictator was brought to justice — and Dominicans call it that, not an assassination, a bringing to justice,” Alvarez said. “He was gunned down on a country road one night visiting his mistress. Historians say what brought him down was the murder of the Mirabal sisters. The deaths of three young women helped free the incarcerated spirit of the Dominican Republic.”

The surviving sister, Dedé, raised her sisters’ children, including Minou who was four when her mother Minerva was killed. Minou’s father survived his imprisonment and became a leader following Trujillo’s demise, but he was later gunned down in the mountains, “by an army coup that had toppled the first democratic government in the Dominican Republic with the help of the United States,” Alvarez said.

Minou went on to study Hispanic American literature and linguistics at the University of Havana and has served as a Congresswoman since 1998, recently winning reelection for another four-year term. One of her cousins, Dedé’s youngest son, also served as vice president in the previous administration. “Dedé has accomplished her mission of raising freedom-loving public servants,” Alvarez said, “and I’m not the only one encouraging Minou to run for president.”

Minou’s speech discussed, briefly, the political and legislative realities of women in the Dominican Republic today, before describing the lives of her mother and aunts and the lasting impact of their murder at home and abroad.

“Unfortunately, the representation gap in our country can be seen not only in popularly elected people and positions but chiefly in the platforms of parties and public policies. For political equality remains out of reach without a formal machinery for representation and women forging alliances to work against a system dominated by male dominance,” she said.

In addition, the growth of gender and intrafamily violence has become a more prominent issue. Police statistics indicate that domestic violence affects six out of every 10 homes in the Dominican Republic, that a woman is raped every 5.5 hours, and that 40 percent of children have suffered some form of physical, psychological, sexual, or multiple types of abuse in the home. “Given the underreporting of these incidents in public institutions, the true numbers are necessarily higher,” Minou added.

The Mirabal sisters, born in the 1930s and 1940s to a prosperous peasant family in the central region of the country, received an unusual amount of education for women at that time, Minou noted. All three sisters completed secondary school, and two went on to the university despite initial resistance from their parents.

“I am often asked why they took on roles of social and political leadership. The traditions in the collective imagination envisaged women confined to domestic roles,” Minou said. “Perhaps the answer lies in that they came from a family comprised mainly of women and that made it possible for them to fill those roles at that time.”

Minou concluded by noting that the feminist movement in Latin America didn’t really begin until 1981 and it has taken many more years to reach the successes of today. “The process has been long, but above all I want to emphasize that it has been the fruit of our ability to seek consensus, to agree with each other over and above partisan factions and controversies, and step-by-step — often having to take a step back — that gaining access for more women is made.

“And on occasions which bring us together like today, it is a consolation to me that when my mother would hear warnings about how dangerous it was to stand up to Trujillo, she would always reply with the same words: ‘If they kill me, I shall reach my arms out of the grave and I shall be stronger.’”


The event was sponsored by the Middlebury College Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Chellis House, the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, the Alliance for Civic Engagement, the Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, Brainerd Commons, and the History and Spanish departments. For more information about the college’s Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign, visit