Featured Illustration: ‘The Mirabal Sisters’ by Ruby Schwa
Disclaimer: This is a piece I wrote for a memoir class.
. . .
The Dominican 200 bill holds the faces of not one, but three women. Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria. Three sisters, to be exact. The bill bleeds different shades of pink throughout, but the women are historically in black and white. One is staring directly at you, while the other two view a world further away. In between them, there’s a butterfly, resting on their shoulders before taking flight. Flowers blossom on the bill, creating a pillar near the center. It exudes the image of a garden, and the four butterflies waiting to drink its nectar. This bill, globally, is worth around three dollars. To the goddesses that are born from the water, to the deities that create life for their offspring, to the divinity that wakes up in brown skin and knows the hate that brings, the value is worth more than your Statue of Liberty. She stands still in the water, clutching a torch for a fire that has long burnt out. The sisters, unlike the static statue, are ready to take flight.
Those sisters are known in the small island that is attached to Haiti like a newborn child as the image of bravery. Commonly referred to as the “Mirabal Sisters”, they were also known as the “Las Mariposas”, or the butterflies. In a field full of rot, decay, and fogs so thick it filled the lungs, they flew. In a dictatorship that began in the 1930s, where women were confined in their cocoons, they flew. They saw their country bleed, and saw the government drink it, not a single drop wasted. In response, the butterflies shed their fragility and did everything possible to show the bodies after the massacres that the government issued. To show the blood on Trujillo’s hands that no clear stream, hot under the sun’s anger, could wash off. Trujillo, who took power over their country and took, took, took then hid what he did. The three sisters sacrificed their lives for the future of their country. Emerging from the chrysalis, they didn’t stop until a field of butterflies erupted throughout the island. Until their colors merged, fireworks of orange, red, and yellow cutting through the skyline.
I’ve only been to the Dominican Republic once, very young to the point where all my memories look like a sea of light waves. My mother didn’t like talking about that time, and she pushed that dynamic any time I asked her about her heritage. She was proud, but in a way that felt like she had to be — in a way that suggested there wasn’t actually anything to be proud of. Her patriotism felt forced. I wanted to take a seashell, dip it into that sea of light waves, and watch real pictures form from inside the shell. The colors would swirl, hesitantly at first, then simply tell me what I wanted to know. My mother didn’t want that. So I stopped asking, and it all froze over.
One day, in the back of my father’s scarlet KIA, my grandfather opened the secret to me. Seemingly out of nowhere, he said, “Trujillo was my president.” The oasis in my dessert, so I started drinking more.
“Your president?” I asked. At that time, I heard briefly about Trujillo during history classes when we had to read about dictators.
“I was six when he was in power. Everyone called him president,” and it all closed again. He changed the subject, and my dad followed. It felt like they were speaking a different language, a tongue made only for those who’d witnessed it. I wasn’t born there and it’s been fifty-eight years since the era ended. Naively, I wanted to know. Why did everyone call him president? How had things changed?
I looked at my grandfather’s brown skin, not quite leather but tight nonetheless. The gold chain he’d always wear around his neck, and I always wondered if the glittering light singing against it meant it was real, and the brown dress shoes. I’ve seen my grandfather so many times, and that’s it. The initial sensory descriptions were always enough for me; the strong cologne, his casual formal outfits, his energy. I never knew why he left the Dominican Republic to move into a quaint neighborhood in Reading, Pennsylvania. I never asked why they were against me feeding stray cats. I never asked why they hardly had any flags around the house.
In an oasis, is there any end? How far can I dive before I can no longer see the light that stabs through the water and illuminates particles floating? At the time, at the rattling age of 18, it didn’t matter. I began researching on my own, from how the Dominican Republic was once an economic masterpiece to the struggle it faces today to feed most of the citizens. On a hot, boring summer day I found Trujillo. There was only one picture of him in color, where his hair was slicked back, his smile looked like a crack on the earth where you could see the pits of hell, and he had a small mustache. Then, I found them. They were women that looked like me, acted like me, and brought down Trujillo in a way that I never imagined was possible. The Mirabal sisters meant more to me than any president, fictional superhero, and otherwise. Minerva, in the face of one of the deadliest dictators, challenged him.
“What if I send my subjects to conquer you?” Trujillo asked Minerva after she didn’t show romantic interest in him.
“And what if I conquer your subjects?” was her response.
Reading about that felt like I’ve found a real tie to the culture I grew up around. Three women clawing in a patriarchal society by receiving information and using those skills to bring justice to their country empowered me. I felt emotional for a country that wasn’t mine.
My mom didn’t view it that way. When I first asked her, she feigned ignorance and told me to go to sleep. When I asked her again, she told me she’d learned about it a long time ago, and doesn’t know enough. When I desperately begged, she finally told me.
“I know they saved us. But Trujillo or presidents, it doesn’t matter. We’re still hungry.”
It took me a long time to process what my mom said. I didn’t know whether to feel disappointed that she didn’t seem to care about the sisters like I did, or upset on behalf of her country that’s sucked up completely. If things were better, maybe she would’ve stayed. If the sisters never fought for our freedom, though, she probably wouldn’t be alive today. By extension, neither would I.
I wouldn’t feel so safe either. I never had any sisters, always brothers, and they never understood me but to be fair, neither did I. Now, I have sisters. When I feel treated unfairly, I have sisters. When I feel like the world is against me, I have sisters. When I feel alone in my brown skin amongst a fleet of snow, I have sisters. I’m not a Mirabal, and the last of them died in 2014, but I feel ready to take flight every time I think of them.
Women cannot be conquered. I cannot be conquered. My mother, who refuses to cut open stitches to look at old wounds, cannot be conquered. The sisters, even after their bloody deaths, continue to exude aura today. I feel them in my coffee, swirling around with the cream as I stir in the sugar. I feel their strength when my eyes are heavy, weighing tons when I want to be awake. I feel them when I talk to my mom, and she listens, and we both realize that we’re women in a society where a woman is disposable, replaceable, and never good enough. Where they are the most fragile of butterflies, but ones that can bite.
Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria are not the kind of butterflies that one can crush up in their palm. The kind that you can step on. What they did freed a country, but also freed the soul of women. Souls that can be trapped in a sea, crashing against each other with no end. I thought by knowing this, I wouldn’t be one of those souls. I’d be taking flight, and replace the blanks in my life with sprinkles of color. However, I’m not Minerva, Maria Teresa, or Patria. I’m a girl cocooned from the cruelty that one man can bring. Whether I emerge as a butterfly or not depends on if I’m willing to learn to fly.