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The Paradox of PaternalismWomen and the Politics of Authoritarianism in the Dominican Republic$

Elizabeth S. Manley

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780813054292

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813054292.001.0001

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Intimate Violations

Intimate Violations

Gender, Family, and the Ajusticiamiento of Trujillo, 1944–1961

(p.93) 3 Intimate Violations
The Paradox of Paternalism

Elizabeth S. Manley

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 looks at women’s resistance activities on the island and in exile during the Trujillato, as well as the rhetoric that surrounded mothers and wives within the movement and argues that it was precisely the increasingly intimate violations of women and traditional gender roles that ultimately doomed the regime. The chapter advocates for not only a physical inclusion of women in the narrative of anti-dictatorial politics, but also a consideration of the role of traditional familial and feminine “protections” in the upending of a thirty-year regime. Women pointed out—to both domestic and international audiences—the failure of the regime to protect femininity and national morality and, as a result, led the way to the regime’s demise.

Keywords:   women’s resistance, Trujillato, anti-dictatorial politics, femininity, national morality

ON THE AFTERNOON OF AUGUST 10, 1959, several dozen Dominican and Cuban women gathered in the streets of Havana.1 Dressed in black as though headed to a funeral, they mourned the political situation in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Specifically, they targeted the dictator Rafael Trujillo, calling him the “Jackal of the Caribbean.” As they paraded through the streets carrying placards and visiting newspaper offices, they focused attention on their specific struggles as women and mothers. Their posters read, “Dominican Women Support the Revolutionary Government”; “We Ask for the Expulsion of Trujillo from the OAS”; and “We Represent the Mourning of the Assassinations Committed by Trujillo.” They told the Cuban newspaper Información that their actions symbolized “the mourning of our beloved Dominican people, every day more oppressed, humiliated, and enslaved by the crimes committed by the tyrannous regime of Rafael Trujillo.” At once internationally savvy and domestically focused, Dominican women and their allies were central to the resistance movement that developed over the three-decade dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Drawing on the regime’s own maternalist discourse of the nation as family, these female resister-activists consistently pointed out the failures of the Jackal to protect women, children, and the Dominican home; their vigilance was essential to the termination of the regime.

The story of the fall of the thirty-one-year regime has been told almost exclusively through the eyes of its male protagonists.2 As the most visible members of the resistance that led to Trujillo’s ajusticiamiento, Dominican men have taken near-exclusive discursive possession of the last years of the infamous dictatorship, with one major exception—the story of the martyred Mirabal sisters. However, women were far from absent from the (p.94) larger narrative of political transition that led up to the Trujillo assassination on May 30, 1961.3 Dominican female activists demonstrated that the promises made by the leader—to protect the traditional family and national morality—not only were dubious but that through the direct violations of the regime their homes and loved ones were being evermore trampled upon. In an altered reflection of the regime’s own gendered framework, these women demonstrated their skill in political engagement and created a discourse of resistance grounded in their specifically maternal contributions to civic life in the Dominican Republic, contributions that persisted well beyond the demise of the infamous leader.

For many Dominicans, the assassination of resistance activists and sisters Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria Mirabal in 1960 by the regime stands as the beginning of the end for the Trujillo dictatorship, yet the extant scholarship on the regime fails to fully interrogate this fact. This murder of three women activists was the breaking point of the regime precisely because it challenged deeply embedded beliefs of what the regime, even at very minimum, could do for the Dominican people. Not simply because it was enacted on supposedly weak or defenseless women or because it was a tremendously shocking action even for Trujillo, the assassination of the Mirabals exposed the regime’s failure to protect the sanctity of the home, embodied symbolically by women and mothers. As a result, it was an assault on Dominican national morality.

Moreover, while it is readily acknowledged that the assassination marked a significant turning point in Dominican history, the idea that women other than the Mirabal sisters participated in the resistance movement is only beginning to enter into the Dominican narrative. As Myrna Herrera Mora points out, many women were actively and valiantly involved in the revolutionary movements of the 1940s and 1950s.4 Expanding the narrative beyond the three martyred Mirabal sisters highlights how women’s activism, operating through local, national, and international channels and engaging the gendered discourse of conservative politics, is central to the toppling of authoritarian leaders. The historiography of the resistance has only begun to incorporate the contributions of women, and the martyrdom of the Mirabal sisters less than a year before the regime’s dissolution further obscures the contributions of Dominican women to the end of the dictatorship. Yet in reality, as Trujillo actively created broken homes and orphans in his persecution of opponents, women more readily entered the movement (p.95) as engaged resisters, and Dominican society mobilized around these very intimate violations committed by the regime. Though the fall of the Trujillo regime was a complex process indebted to multiple forces, one of the most significant factors was the resistance movement’s ability to highlight the regime’s failure to maintain its promised link between traditional family values and national stability—and with the women who so vociferously made that failure part of the public debate.

Like similar resistance movements, the Trujillo opposition that developed in the Dominican Republic in the early 1940s and the 1950s sought to debunk the regime’s own argument that it alone was best suited to defend the traditional home and family, and women were a central part of that movement. As the regime’s pressures on the island mounted and the resistance transitioned into exile from the mid-1940s through 1961, women emphasized increasingly the need to bear witness against the abuses of the regime. Drawing on a legacy of feminine political engagement at the national and international levels, these female resistance activists knew that claims against the dictator needed to be made before both domestic and inter-American audiences and to focus on the home and family. As tensions on the island increased and international attention to the Dominican situation grew during the mid-1950s, some of the most intense resistance again developed at home. Many women who had not been forced into exile continued or renewed their commitment to revolutionary opposition work, while demonstrating a parallel dedication to defending the dignity of the mother and the family. These demands to protect women, wives, girlfriends, and children proved essential to the final push in the anti-Trujillo campaign.

Revolutionary Women and the Anti-Trujillo Movement, 1944–1950

Women’s activism in the earliest years of the resistance movement found acceptance among many because it did not upend the traditional gender roles of mother, wife, and daughter; rather, early female resisters argued that the only way to preserve these formulations was through the termination of the rapacious regime of Rafael Trujillo. Given the growing presence of women at the universities of the region in the 1940s, several key female activists began clandestinely encouraging others to protest the increasingly violent tactics of the regime.5 The group was predominantly middle- to (p.96) upper-class, educated, and from a few urban areas across the country. They utilized the democratic opening afforded by World War II to mobilize and came to serve as the inspiration for a larger group of women who would become the vanguard of the protest movement as it moved into the 1950s and 1960s.6 The efforts of these women were foundational to the movement as it grew, and they conveyed the avenues to political participation available to women through the consistent defense of the stable home and family.

Grey Coiscou Guzmán, a young child in the 1940s, documented the memories of her mother, Rita Violeta Guzmán Gonnell, from the winter of 1944, and her words emphasize how women had come to revolutionary stances out of their anguish over destroyed families. Guzmán Gonnell recalls that “the resistance against the tyranny became more intense with the increase in losses of human lives. The mourning in many homes, as much in the interior of the country as in the capital, blanketed the bodies of mothers, wives, and children of those opposed to the regime.”7 Coiscou Guzmán’s study, in providing the testimony of a self-proclaimed “faithful witness,” helps reconstruct a movement that at the time was meant to go unrecorded or at least undetected. Though most of the voices are male, the tales of a few women do come through, proving if nothing else that the Mirabal sisters were not the only female figures in the struggle to end the dictatorship. However, what the memory of Guzmán Gonnell so pointedly illustrates is that women within the movement engaged in discussions of familial destruction as the primary justification for their resistance to the regime.

Although Coiscou Guzmán talks little about her own involvement in the resistance, the work of Josefina Padilla illustrates the role of women in pushing the regime’s rhetoric in service of revolutionary change. Padilla, a young woman from Santiago, enrolled at the Universidad de Santo Domingo in 1943, which afforded her the opportunity to make contact with other young adults in opposition to the dictatorship. The timing was propitious, as 1943 was also the year the Partido Democrático Revolucionario Dominicano (PDRD, later the Partido Socialista Popular, PSP) formed in the capital and assumed its closed Marxist-Leninist ranks.8 As a result, Padilla found herself amid many young adults who were questioning the existing state structure and authority and refusing to abide by the single-party system. The year following her enrollment at the university, Josefina Padilla joined the recently formed and clandestine Juventud Revolucionaria (p.97) (JR), initially the youth wing of the PDRD and the driving force behind the youth resistance movement. She remembers that it was a fellow student in medicine, Bolívar Kunhardt, who introduced her to the group, which she described as a “movement of youth trying to raise consciousness about the reality of the dictatorship” and attempting to inculcate their fellow students with the idea that there were other elements—“liberty, democracy, human rights”—essential to genuine national leadership.9 She called it “an educational process,” in reference to its search for alternatives to dictatorship and ways to fight it. The group organized in secret into three-person cells until the regime offered a brief window for legal opposition in August 1946. Their first documented collective activity was the distribution of pamphlets at the International Youth Congress during Trujillo’s grand celebration of the nation’s centennial in 1944.10

The small window created by the regime for political opposition in 1946 was a result of World War II. Global pressure for democratic governance reached even the smallest countries in Latin America, particularly those under the watchful eye of U.S. politicians.11 Trujillo, according to Padilla, “wanted to appear democratic,” and the quickest way to win that recognition was to publicly proclaim openness to opposing parties. The JR wanted to call the regime’s bluff, to demonstrate publicly that its discourse of democracy and stability—paraded around by Trujillo’s female supporters particularly—was devoid of substance. When the collective was given legal status in 1946, Padilla was the sole woman on its central committee. Upon this legal reorganization in October, members of the group, newly renamed Juventud Democrática, declared themselves to be “neither communist nor anticommunist” and professed commitment to the struggle for democratic principles. Padilla said her eleven co-leaders supported her work in the leadership collective and that there were a number of active women in other parts of the country including Santiago and La Vega.12 Though hidden in the narrative much more deeply than their male counterparts, women participated in the organization and growth of the Juventud Democrática in both its clandestine and legalized stages and centered their activities in familial circles and hometown networks.13 Although mention of their specific actions is limited, female participation did not go unnoticed by male activists.14

Josefina Padilla and another young woman, Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla, assisted the movement through their editing and writing of several (p.98) resistance newsletters, including Juventud Democrática, published bimonthly between November 1946 and May 1947, and El Popular, also published between 1946 and 1947. Along with Padilla, Martínez Bonilla was one of the most active female participants in the early youth protest movement.15 Writing in the first edition of Juventud Democrática, Martínez Bonilla asserted that it was the aspiration of every individual to work toward a representative government and away from the condition in which the “voice of the people—the voice of truth—constitutes a moral threat to the force that oppresses it.”16 She valorized the effort and hope implicit among Dominican youth to combat oppression and injustice. Padilla, in the second edition of the publication, addressed Dominican women directly. She expressed her confidence that women would join the struggle for democracy, knowing that they too played a pivotal role in representative and just governance.17 Padilla and Martínez Bonilla spoke regularly at various meetings, exhorting women to join the fight to redeem the nation and regain its liberties, rights, and sense of justice.18 The female activists connected Dominican women’s unfulfilled needs and desires with the failures of the regime while also expressing their personal dissatisfaction with the government for ignoring themselves and other women—the true ciudadanas libres.

Despite its self-proclamations of democratic governance and adherence to the reigning global opposition to fascism, the Trujillo regime quickly realized that its foray into political openness was leading to major disaster. Almost as abruptly as it had declared the legality of opposing parties, it changed course, punishing many of those political activists who had maneuvered into the movement.19 The regime immediately shuttered public demonstrations, including pamphleteering and protest marches, as well as private organizing. Many individuals faced imprisonment, interrogation, and even torture.20 Others took the lonely route to exile. When the Trujillo regime ended its experiment in early summer 1947, Josefina Padilla chose a form of exile; after first seeking asylum in the Mexican embassy, she brokered an agreement with the Dominican government that forced her into nearly a year of house arrest and daily reporting to the Mexican embassy.

Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla and her family were also among the many who paid dearly for their involvement in the resistance. A series of letters spanning several years of struggle for Martínez Bonilla and her family attests not only to her tenacious opposition, constructed around a (p.99) moral defense of her family’s dignity, but also to the particularly gendered framing of regime opposition. Beginning in 1946, the young woman wrote to the Dominican government protesting the regime’s unjust persecution of her family. The dispute, which would end in 1950 with the family’s exile to Puerto Rico, began with the expulsion of her brother Andrés from the Colegio La Salle for belonging to the Juventud Democrática. Martínez Bonilla’s critiques were patently provocative from the beginning despite her awareness of the repercussions that the regime visited upon dissenters. She demonstrated her awareness of the regime’s failure to live up to its promises to protect the Dominican family and maintain the nation’s moral rectitude. Although indirectly, Martínez Bonilla was clearly referencing the Trujillato’s motto, an acronym for his initials that appeared on nearly all regime correspondence: “Rectitud, Libertad, Trabajo y Moralidad” (Integrity, loyalty, work, morality). The national situation, she argued, prevented an honest man from dedicating himself solely to his studies. A decent person such as her brother could “not remain indifferent in the face of such abject villainy.” Unafraid of indicting the regime, she contended that his expulsion had exposed once again “the painful and tragic situation of this poor Dominican nation, forgotten by all, even those who claim to be the ministers of God and say they preach equality and love among men in His name.” In the same initial missive fired at the director of her brother’s school, Martínez Bonilla defended the Juventud Democrática with the regime’s own rhetoric, calling it an organization “whose principles are to create better men for a better country, in support of our Constitution and within the most strict Christian moral codes.”21

As the family’s situation deteriorated and Martínez Bonilla received no response to her initial letter, she chose to write directly to Trujillo. In her February 1947 communication, she reiterated her concerns about Andrés and listed other injustices done to her father, another brother, and her sister. According to Martínez Bonilla, the national lottery had fired her brother José Antonio after two years of steady employment, and the Dominican telephone company had dismissed her father from his position. Her sister, Carmen, had been fired from her job at the Colegio Santa Teresita and her brother from a private company after ten years of service. The entire family had been evicted from their home. Her conclusion was that the family, unable to freely exercise “the basic right to work honestly and to live in a home—something to which all people aspire,” had no choice but to abandon (p.100) the country. She politely but firmly requested passports for the entire family, citing Article 10 of the Dominican constitution, which protected free transit for all citizens.22 In choosing to write to the president himself, she implicitly cited the upper echelons of government as the originators of her family’s multiple problems and ultimate inability to live and work honestly in their own nation.

The regime’s reply supported Martínez Bonilla’s claim that Trujillo and his regime protected only certain homes and families. The response was terse, explaining that the firings, because they had been undertaken by private businesses and the education system, fell under the purview of the secretaries of labor and education, respectively. The eviction issue was the concern of the Department of Housing, and any requests for passports were to be directed to the Department of Foreign Relations. The regime denied all allegations of involvement in the issues faced by the family and implied that the accusations against specific employees mentioned in Martínez Bonilla’s letter could be attributed only to wrongdoing on the part of her family members. In her rebuttal, Martínez Bonilla stated what many knew but were afraid to voice, that is, while the stated officials should be responsible, it was ultimately the job of the president “to attend to the loyal execution of the laws.” As a parting shot, Martínez Bonilla reminded her reader that while the Department of Foreign Relations should be the department making decisions about her family’s passports, she well knew that it was “the President of the Republic himself who decides which persons will be permitted to leave Dominican territory.”

On March 10, 1947, Martínez Bonilla wrote to the Department of Foreign Relations to again request passports for her entire family. She repeated her previous reference to Article 10 of the constitution, which guaranteed Dominicans the right to travel as honest and respectful citizens. Apparently, regime officials ignored her repeated requests. Correspondence from 1950 to the Mexican ambassador signed by the entire family indicates that the regime not only denied their earlier requests but escalated its persecution of the family, whom they had branded “enemies of the Government.”23 Finally, three years after Martínez Bonilla’s initial request, the regime grudgingly and seemingly under international diplomatic pressure granted the family permission to leave. The Martínez Bonilla family headed to Puerto Rico, where they joined a large group of exiles and remained for the next ten years. These letters testify to the realities of the regime as it affected (p.101) many women and their families as well as the will among some women to stand up to the machinery of dictatorial rule. Never submissive, Martínez Bonilla refused to use the servile language expected in letters to the president. She understood the rights granted to Dominican citizens through the constitution and demanded nothing more or less than their full and fair compliance for her family. Her experiences make it clear that individual lives and livelihoods were being threatened but also that the regime’s behavior tore at the fabric of the moral and Christian Dominican family.

Female dissidents and regime officials alike struggled with the discourse of gender, home, democracy, and morality. As Martínez Bonilla railed at the Trujillo regime, she expressed concerns about the sanctity of the Dominican home and family. Like the majority of her compatriots she did not seek directly to subvert gender norms through her activism. Josefina Padilla indicated support of a similar status quo when she rejected the idea that feminism was in any way part of her activism at a young age. Rather, these women relied on the discourse of democracy, morality, basic human decency, and family in what each argued was an important, if futile attempt to make the regime accountable to the Dominican home. By the late 1940s, in response to the resistance movement, the regime began to push the boundaries of its own paternal protections while it also struggled to maintain its position as moral guardian. Officials were aware of the danger posed by the involvement of women in the resistance. Virgilio Álvarez Pina, head of the Partido Dominicano, reminded Dominicans that Trujillo had transformed women into citizens. Writing in the newspaper La Nación he warned that the resistance groups were nothing more than a bunch of seditious communists and that individuals, particularly women, should guard against becoming victims of their “pernicious and dangerous” message.24

Padilla and Martínez Bonilla played instrumental roles in the development of a resistance movement during the early years of the Trujillato, and their lives exemplify how women came to ally themselves with such dangerous political activism. Avenues created during the Trujillo regime, often as a result of its own efforts, enabled greater numbers of women to enter higher education and encouraged a more active role for them in the public sphere. More women came to see possibilities for themselves within the political arena as resistance activists because they felt violated by the regime’s claims of maternalism. Most importantly, Padilla and Martínez (p.102) Bonilla demonstrate that while women took a stand against the regime, issues of gender were galvanizing points in the resistance movement for all participants. Nonetheless, along with many others in the late 1940s, they realized that the battle to restore the nation to a genuine democracy would take much more time, and they retreated into exile only to seek other avenues to resistance a short time later.

Women Bearing Witness as Anti-Trujillista Exiles

Arriving in Puerto Rico in 1950, Martínez Bonilla joined a growing group of women exiles who were active in efforts against Trujillo. By the mid-1940s, groups in Puerto Rico, New York, Venezuela, and Cuba were organizing to bring an end to dictatorship in their native land. Although a varied group, these women demonstrate a deepening connection to the use of gender and transnational networks in the debate over dictatorship. Drawing on the solidarity of other Latin American women through writing, radio speeches, public demonstrations, and marches, the Dominican exile population invoked women as the spiritual center of the resistance and the hoped-for democratic future. The efforts of female exiles, along with those of their male compatriots and international supporters, scaffolded the most central critique posed by the resistance. In emphasizing Dominican women’s quiet and heroic sacrifice, activists directly attacked Trujillo’s inability to maintain the morality and dignity of the nation.

Exile groups began to consolidate around nuclei of resistance across the Dominican diaspora as early as the 1940s, and they employed periodicals and radio to highlight their particularly gendered national crisis. Quisqueya Libre, a Havana-based magazine of the Unión Democrática Antinazista Dominicana (Dominican Anti-Nazi Democratic Union) anchored by the regime’s earliest dissidents, published a call to women in its first months of publication.25 In September 1944, editors argued that Dominican women were particularly well placed to actively support the resistance through their connections to the home and the regime’s failures in “food, housing, health, and public education.”26 The same issue included a reprint of an article by a Venezuelan female supporter titled “The Quiet and Heroic Sacrifice of the Dominican Woman.”27 In their introductory note, the editors proclaimed that the author was “doing justice to the Dominican woman, who, in her silence, carried one of the most heroic battles against (p.103) the treacherous barbarism” of the Trujillato. Carmen Clemente Travieso, identified as “the illustrious Venezuelan writer,” argued that Dominican women, while living a “horrible tragedy,” maintained the dignity of the home despite their situation, all the while following the “spirit of struggle and sacrifice that animates all Dominican women.”

The magazine reproduced the radio address of a Cuban female supporter who lamented the suffering of Dominican women. The first in a series of “voces femeninas” that would be broadcast weekly by Cuba’s Mil Diez radio, Graciela Heureaux de César’s speech called attention to the “cry of the mother … of the girlfriend, or the woman desperately facing the absence of her beloved.”28 Heureaux de César emphasized the urgency of women’s roles in the resistance and in the “reclaiming of public liberties,” clearly indicting the regime and its inability to protect even the most basic freedoms. Like her Venezuelan counterpart, Heureaux de César assured her listeners of the solidarity of Cuban women, a pool from which Dominican women could presumably draw strength in their time of crisis.

While Quisqueya Libre did not boast its own female contributors, its editors made sure to demonstrate the significance of women’s involvement in the resistance within the Dominican diaspora and across the Americas. Reporting on a 1946 conference of women in the United States, the editors thanked the attendees for their support on behalf of “the true Dominican woman who suffers the horrors of Trujillo.”29 While the women of the Dominican Republic purportedly suffered most the abuses of Trujillo, they could count on the support of an international audience of women, to whom they would continue to look through the 1950s for legitimization of their struggles. Dominican female activists directly and indirectly requested that the women of the Americas pay attention to their especially dire form of suffering.

The work of Altagracia del Orbe demonstrates the tactics used by women in exile to reveal the true nature of the Trujillo regime to the world and to call on the assistance of the women of the hemisphere. Del Orbe, wife of resistance activist Justino del Orbe, was not engaged in the opposition movement against Trujillo until she traveled to Cuba in 1952 to meet her husband. He had joined the Dominican labor movement in the 1940s and, after angering the regime, spent more than two years in prison, then fled to exile in Cuba.30 Upon joining her husband with their four children there, she immediately became involved in the opposition movement.31 As she (p.104) remembers, “I got caught up in the struggle; I was a militant and had a committee of Defense of the Revolution in my house.” Del Orbe was not unlike many other women who joined the anti-Trujillo movement; her experiences as the wife and mother in a family classified as dissident moved her to action. Despite an upbringing that taught her that women were not political, del Orbe was curious about her husband’s subversive activities even before they left the Dominican Republic. Upon hearing the activists’ whisperings, she recalled, “It interested me, I liked it, but I didn’t dare say I wanted to join the [Partido Socialista Popular].” Once settled in Cuba, she became active in the organizing efforts of the group. She was frequently present among distinguished male leaders, usually as the only female attendee at weekly meetings, and she organized other women in the movement and encouraged them to defend the dignity of the nation’s mothers.32 Women like del Orbe illustrate the continuity of women’s involvement in the resistance and their deepening revulsion toward the regime’s violations of its own professed patriarchal protections of the Dominican nation and family.

One of the most visible roles of exiled women was bearing witness through organized activities, and they did so before an international community, as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Altagracia del Orbe addressed the abuses of the regime when she spoke out for female Dominican exiles in Cuba in an article titled “We Fight for the End of the Trujillo Regime.”33 Speaking for Dominican women, the author informed her readers that their common wish in commemoration of International Women’s Day could be nothing other than “to see our country free from the ferocious tyranny that has oppressed and bled it for more than 30 years.” The female exiles called on the solidarity of Latin American nations in a common struggle against dictatorship and for democratic freedoms. Moreover, they highlighted the total lack of rights and freedoms available to the women who, unlike themselves, still labored under the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. As mothers, they pointed out, these realities were even harder to bear. “As a mother,” del Orbe wrote in the article, “I wish for the triumph of peace from the bottom of my heart, and as a mother I am conscious that only peace will bring humanity the tranquility and well-being it desires.” Expressing anxiety for children still in their native land, desire for the peace and well-being of their nation, and worry over the fate of other mothers like themselves, the female exiles in Cuba effectively put the Latin (p.105) American community on notice that they would not stand by and ignore the situation in the Dominican Republic.

In Puerto Rico, public demonstrations by exile groups often included women, and women were similarly active in resistance groups in other countries where disaffected Dominicans lived.34 Several women joined a group of male exiles in 1950 to protest the Pan American Union’s decision to hold a World Health Organization conference in Ciudad Trujillo. Signatories of the open letter to the press included Martínez Bonilla and her sister as well as former Trujillo functionary Carmita Landestoy, by then living in exile.35 Upon her arrival in Puerto Rico, Martínez Bonilla also started writing for the publication Boletín, the voice of the Comité Puertorriqueño Pro Democracia Dominicana (CPPDD). Her first piece appeared on the front page of the June–July 1950 issue and was ominously titled “Democracy is in Imminent Danger.”36 She contended that while it was not yet time to discuss why Trujillo chose to inflict suffering on Dominican women it was time to realize that unless the forces of democracy stood up and found a way to overthrow the dictatorship, there might never be a guarantee of any democracy. She continued to write in service of the opposition through the end of the regime, calling on her knowledge of history and contemporary conditions in the Dominican Republic to highlight the ways in which the aggressive persecution of dissidents by the Trujillato was destroying the nation and its citizens.

Increased involvement among women is evidenced by several successful attempts to create women’s branches of existing organizations, a move that supports the idea that female participants felt they had a distinct and essential perspective. While creating such branches had not been a practice of earlier resistance activists, organizers ironically mirrored the structure of the Partido Dominicano, which had created the Sección Femenina as a channel for women’s activism. Early in 1959 Carolina Mainardi formed a Feminine Committee of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano in Puerto Rico with fellow activist Mercedes Borel. The two women circulated their letter of invitation throughout San Juan, encouraging Dominican and Puerto Rican women to join their struggle against the “dean of dictators of America” and follow the example of a similarly organized group of New York City exiles.37 The correspondence demonstrates the unique role women had constructed for themselves within the opposition. The organization, they stated, was comprised solely of “women who love liberty” and (p.106) who were willing “to face the most immense sacrifices in order to liberate our sons, husbands, boyfriends, and colleagues” from the clutches of the Trujillato. They called on Puerto Rican women to join them in making America a “continent of liberty, justice, and equality.” Not only were female exiles demanding attention to a situation that violated the vaunted role of motherhood and the values of the traditional home, but they were also arguing that women were particularly obligated to sacrifice for the attainment of more just conditions.

In Cuba, Altagracia del Orbe headed a group of women who formed a female branch of their local resistance group, the Unión Patriótica Dominicana (UPD, Dominican Patriotic Union), and by September 1959 the women’s group was actively seeking greater cooperation from fellow UPD members exiled in Puerto Rico. It is likely that this group’s membership

Intimate ViolationsGender, Family, and the  of Trujillo, 1944–1961

Figure 3.1. Women carrying a coffin in protest of the disappearance of regime opponent Jesús de Galíndez, New York City, 1956.

Credit: Seymour Wally/New York Daily News, Getty Images.

(p.107) grew significantly as a result of the participation of the husbands and children of female exiles in the ill-fated June 1959 revolutionary expedition from Cuba to the Dominican towns of Constanza, Maimón, and Estero Hondo to overthrow Trujillo. The expedition began on June 14 and lasted less than a week. The resistance movement that grew in Santo Domingo subsequent to the failed attempt took the name Movimiento 14 de Junio in honor of the effort. The women who remained in exile during and after the expedition expressed their concern for their loved ones publicly. A letter from Dominga Montesinos dated January 3, 1960, requested membership status in the UPD based on her “condition as mother of a member of the Dominican Liberation Army.”38 The August 1959 protest by the Sección Femenina in Havana attests to the women’s strength as a collective.39 Numerous papers covered their demonstration with pictures and short articles, and their public presence dressed in black demanded international attention to the egregious crimes committed against mothers by the Jackal of the Caribbean. In addition to demanding change in Santo Domingo and garnering support from their Cuban compatriots, they expressed solidarity with fellow exiles in New York who undertook a hunger strike in protest of the regime’s crimes. Thus their presence as political mourners drew attention not only to the dictatorship but also its direct attack on women and families.

In Cuba in September 1959, the wives of the June expeditionaries and members of the Sección Femenina of the UPD wrote an open letter to Fidel Castro that was printed in the daily newspaper Hoy.40 The writers hinted that Castro had decided to turn his back on the June expedition and that blame for its failure was in large part his, yet they then insistently denied “such slanderous accusations.” They affirmed their faith in Castro as “a great democrat, friend of the Dominican people, and enemy of tyranny wherever it might be found.” Despite the somewhat obsequious opening, the writers got straight to the point in the second half of their letter. Their immediate goal was obtaining weapons. They appealed to Castro’s known support for social revolution and liberation, expressing confidence that as a “true revolutionary” he could not but throw his support behind their continued struggle against the dictatorship. The women of the UPD also used the letter to call on the support of their Latin American sisters as yet another resource in their cause as well as to gain the attention of North American diplomats.41

(p.108) Less well known than Castro but a prominent North American political actor nonetheless, Frances R. Grant also received correspondence from Dominican women. In one particularly long, poetic letter, the unidentified female author nearly begged Grant, who was then president of the Pan-American Women’s Association and active in the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered Dominican Republic.42 “I need a channel, a North American channel,” she wrote, adding that she wished only “to prevent bloodshed in Santo D[omingo]” and that “Trujillo must fall.” Through as many channels as they could find, female activists sought attention to the crimes of Trujillo but also to the particular suffering of women.

As the stakes grew higher, female exiles continued working to protect their specific rights as women and mothers. In New York City in early 1960, more than two hundred Dominican exiles went directly to the office of Dominican consul Luis Mercado to protest against the dictator.43 Officials allowed only seventy-five women to picket, and when a five-woman delegation entered the building, Mercado refused to see them. The women brought with them a list of all individuals incarcerated by the regime, requested the consul deliver it to the Dominican Republic, and asked specifically for information on their incarcerated children and husbands. The New York Times reported that in the end the list was left “with some minor employee at the consul’s office.” These women and others like them across the diaspora drew attention to their roles as mothers and wives as well as to their struggles as Dominicans to shed light on the regime’s misdoings.

Another Trujillo dissident, well versed in the workings of the regime, added her voice to the clamoring voices of protest. Carmita Landestoy, exiled in 1945 after nearly a decade in service to the Sección Femenina, published a scathing indictment of the regime titled ¡Yo también acuso!44 In it, she detailed the many abuses of the regime, particularly in reference to its purported claims to have given women full and equal rights as citizens. Calling it a “strange paradox,” she argued that once the regime officially granted women their civil liberties, they ironically “no longer had the right to either express or write anything approaching the truth, nor to broach any fundamental issues.”45 Having been a vocal proponent of Trujillo’s policies promoting the importance of female maternal contributions to the political arena, her claim that the regime denied all means of women’s expression (p.109)

Intimate ViolationsGender, Family, and the  of Trujillo, 1944–1961

Figure 3.2. Women in New York City protesting Trujillo, August 16, 1960.

Credit: Bettmann Collection, Getty Images.

argued strongly for the significant disjuncture between official policy and reality for the Dominican public.

In the writings and actions of women engaged in the antitrujillista movement in exile, an appeal to Latin American women as empathetic mothers and wives is the trope most frequently found. As a call to female exiles to unite in their struggles against dictatorship generally, joined with an exhortation to women in the region to identify with their anguish as mothers, wives, and citizens, their efforts combined two powerful discursive techniques—both used by the regime itself—to demand support in overthrowing (p.110) the Trujillo regime.46 As a collective, they demanded that attention be paid to the true ideals of democracy, which they felt were withering rapidly under the many military governments in Latin America. Women in the opposition sought Latin American solidarity in their struggle for “the complete triumph of peace” and invited “mothers, wives, sisters, girlfriends” to unite in the cause.47 Women of the opposition movement sought the attention not just of everyday Latin Americans but also of the diplomatic corps and other well-placed officials throughout the hemisphere. Their male colleagues found that the women exemplified the “traditional spirit of sacrifice of the Dominican woman” and actively conveyed the “pain of the Dominican tragedy” to others.48 The women urged the American nations to “enact a robust isolation of and embargo against the Jackal of the Caribbean, the international symbol of tyranny,” in hopes of ending the regime that brutalized the country and its families.49

Beyond picketing the Dominican embassies in their places of exile and publicly demonstrating their continued displeasure at the world’s lack of attention to the abuses of Trujillo, some women stepped directly into revolutionary action. One woman served as a spy for the opposition movement, while another prepared to join the revolutionary forces. Others worked clandestinely to shuttle information, goods, and even weapons, making dangerous trips to transport funds to exiled family members. Their courageous actions foreshadowed the shift that would occur as the movement intensified back on the island.50 However, the major contribution of women during this period of exile was their ability to engage the regime’s own politics of gender across national boundaries. In demonstrating the Trujillato’s inability to protect Dominican homes, families, and the integrity of women and mothers, these female activists provided the movement with significant momentum and solidified the discourse that would become vital in dismantling the regime. In essence, while many women became more radicalized in their politics, their arguments against the regime still hinged on a maternalist discourse of national stability and morality.

Women and the Movimiento 14 de Junio

In the Dominican Republic and particularly Santo Domingo, resistance activists remobilized in the early to mid-1950s. The post–World War II (p.111) period presented difficulties for the movement, given the totalitarian crackdowns that followed the brief moment of tolerance. The core of the revitalization lay in the Universidad de Santo Domingo, where, given rising female enrollment, women became key players in the renewed spread of anti-Trujillo activism.51 One woman who became intimately connected with this movement was Minerva Mirabal. By the time she entered the university to study law in 1952, a fledgling resistance movement operating in the same cellular structure followed by the earlier Juventud Democrática was coming back to life. The reinvigoration of the movement highlights a transition to even stronger revolutionary stances among women and illustrates that young female activists had begun to denounce the regime’s violations of its own professed gender norms with increasing frequency.

The efforts of Minerva Mirabal and her sisters María Teresa and Patria were not unlike those of other women active in resistance, but they stand out because of their martyrdom in the final years of the regime. Minerva Mirabal was born to middle-class parents in 1926; she and her three sisters grew up in a relatively rural area in the northeastern Dominican Republic. With the opportunities available to her and her sisters as children of a successful small-crop exporter, Mirabal was well educated and politically engaged, and she became a key player in the resistance movement that developed against Trujillo in the 1950s. She developed close friendships with several daughters of clandestine anti-Trujillo families while in grade school; these friendships, along with her education, served as the foundation for her later activism.52 It was her years prior to university and the friendships she cultivated during this time that pushed her from merely thinking about social and political change to actively pursuing such possibilities. Although legally tolerated opposition had ended by the time Mirabal entered the university, her awareness of the political conditions of her country had begun earlier, during her school years in La Vega, and then developed more fully during her time at the Universidad de Santo Domingo.53 The political awakening of Minerva Mirabal in her secondary school and college years mirrors the experiences of many other women of her generation. Included in that cadre of female students were other women who would become active in the opposition movement.54

The political maneuverings of the resistance following the brief legal period of Juventud Democrática were highly clandestine, but the arrest (p.112) of Mirabal in October 1949 along with three other women, presumably for opposition activities, garnered significant international press attention and marked the beginning of a decade of intensified resistance activism.55 Precisely because they were women, the regime both underestimated their involvement and was wary of the effects of meting out harsh punishments for female dissidents. Officials questioned the women but then released them. Still, the regime continued its repression of the entire Mirabal family in hopes of halting the activities of its most political daughter, attempting to provide a cautionary example for other women who might consider similar engagement.56 In the second year of her legal studies, the regime demanded that Mirabal write and perform a speech praising Trujillo as a condition of her continued enrollment at the state institution. After her 1955 marriage to activist Manolo Tavárez Justo, whom she had met at the university, Mirabal and her sisters became even more intimately tied to the small opposition movement operating throughout the country. Together Tavárez and Mirabal gathered support among individuals in his hometown province of Monte Cristi until regime pressure and her second pregnancy forced her to return to her family home in Salcedo. She continued her work in that region, securing contacts with the newly formed Acción Clero Cultural, a Catholic organization formed under the guise of regime support but actually a resistance group.57 By 1959, several different nuclei of resistance had begun to coalesce into a national movement against Trujillo, and the groups of women who had gathered around the activities of Juventud Democrática and subsequently through the university played a large part in this unification.

In January 1959 at a small meeting convened by Minerva and María Teresa, their husbands, and several others, the group began formal organizing of a nationwide movement. María Teresa’s husband, Leandro Guzmán, later reported that it was at this meeting that Minerva Mirabal expressed her understanding of the Dominican Republic’s connection to other revolutionary movements in Latin America. As Guzmán remembered it, Mirabal argued that their country was equally prepared to overthrow the repressive chains of dictatorial rule. He recalled her words: “There could not have been a stronger sentiment in Cuba against Batista than there was here against Trujillo. I do not know why there they could create a revolution and overthrow tyrants, while here, with the same conditions, we cannot. … It is clear that if we organize against Trujillo, we can have success here too.”58 (p.113) In other areas, a similar optimism pervaded the work of women who had become involved in the anti-Trujillo movement, yet their efforts remained profoundly gendered. Miriam Morales, a native of Puerto Plata, began in the early months of 1959 to organize women into a collective that would eventually integrate into the group of Mirabal, Tavárez, and Guzmán. Her group collected money and medicine and constructed rucksacks that would be used by the planned guerrilla invasion from Cuba.59 Much like women in other revolutionary struggles, their initial efforts coalesced around the auxiliary needs and their traditional, feminine skills of organizing, preparing food, and sewing.

In June 1959, one event drastically altered the course of anti-Trujillo activities in the Dominican Republic. A small group of insurgents, organized in Cuba and supported by the newly installed Castro government, launched an assault on the regime in the three towns of Constanza, Maimón, and Estero Hondo. Informed of the event prior to its occurrence, the regime quickly dispatched a counterattack and easily overwhelmed the group, which was unable to call upon planned support from the local peasantry. Turits argues that the continued “loyalty to the state among much of the peasantry” as a result of land tenure and other practices, particularly in the areas chosen for invasion, helps explain why the action failed so miserably in comparison to similar actions in Cuba and Nicaragua.60 Regime officials captured the men of the insurgency and executed the majority. However, despite its lack of military success, the invasion caused a significant increase in support for the anti-Trujillo movement, following the regime’s brutal treatment of those involved.61 Activist Tomasina Cabral called the regime’s reprisal “the detonator for the massive escalation of the resistance struggle to the national level was the assassination of so many good Dominicans and foreigners, now sons of glory, whose holocaust lit the sacred spark of rebellion latent in our hearts.”62

By the end of 1959 the incipient national movement had both greater inspiration for its activism and a formal organizational structure. The influence of the January 1, 1959, triumph of the Cuban revolution, watched attentively by many of the group’s participants, motivated the core committee; by January 1960 they had devised a basic set of principles and a name. They claimed the title Movimiento (Clandestino) 14 de Junio in honor of the failed invasion; two of the opposition’s most active women (p.114) participated in its very first official meeting.63 Minerva Mirabal collaborated with the small group that drafted the original declaration of principles. While Mirabal was not designated as an officer of the leadership group, historian Roberto Cassá argues that the group did consider her for a position “in recognition of her skills and role as a mentor.” He contends that members excluded her and Dulce Tejada from positions of responsibility due to the high level of danger. Nonetheless, while Mirabal was not elected to the position of president of the group, participants later asserted that she had soundly rejected the idea that women should not participate in the movement.64 Moreover, according to the testimony of several activists, it was Mirabal and not her husband who exercised true leadership for the group.65

Shortly after the group’s official organization, regime officials caught wind of the resistance movement and mobilized quickly to put an end to its activities. Hundreds of resisters were jailed and savagely tortured by the regime, ostensibly to prevent further organizing and to force them to reveal the names of every participant involved.66 This time, women were not exempt from the horrendous treatment meted out to organizers. On January 22, 1960, shortly after her husband’s arrest, Minerva Mirabal was jailed for the third time, along with several other female activists.67 In a collection of testimonies, two of these women recorded the brutal treatment they received from regime officials. In the January arrests, several of the more prominent female members were brought into the regime’s notorious prisons La Cuarenta and La Victoria for interrogation alongside their male colleagues. Regime officials brought activist Asela Morel to La Cuarenta and paraded her in front of her fellow male activists, naked, handcuffed, and displaying massive bruises from their savage beatings.68 Several other women including Minerva Mirabal were already in the single jail cell when Morel arrived. Tomasina Cabral, arrested on January 20, witnessed the beatings of her fellow detainees, and officials paraded her in front of their entire array of torture devices including the infamous electric chair.69 For her, the worst sight of all was the congregation of regime officials preparing for continual rounds of torture. After “a wave of indecent insults and threats,” her captors tortured her with an electric prod, with what she described as “evident pleasure.”70

While Cabral offers the only direct testimony of physical torture, other participants have indicated that regime officials treated all the female (p.115) prisoners in an uncharacteristically savage manner. At one point, officials placed all five in a cell together with only a miniscule window, no circulating air, and a mere three cans for food, ostensibly potable water, and waste. Guards removed the women from their cell in the middle of the night for interrogations, transported them randomly from prison to prison, separated and placed them in solitary cells, allowed for no contact with family, and provided no information about their arrests. In another account Cabral described the food they had as a “cornmeal with something like pig ears or snouts, nauseating.”71 They witnessed the torture of companions who, in most cases, were their own husbands, brothers, and friends.72 While scholars and novelists have widely decried Trujillo’s sexual violation of young women, this level of depravity enacted on female dissidents represents two interconnected tactical shifts on the part of the regime that would definitively impact the path of the resistance: regime officials no longer considered women somehow less dangerous in their revolutionary activism, and they responded to female resistance in a way that highlighted how clearly they felt the women had violated the compact of paternal protections. On the one hand they treated female dissidents like all other revolutionaries for the first time; on the other, they took strategic advantage of women’s purportedly gentler and nurturing natures through torture on display.

After what could only be considered the merest semblance of a trial, the women received penalties averaging thirty years in jail along with heavy fines.73 However, the combination of international pressures and internal struggle weighed heavily on the regime, and in early February it released the women and many of the men to house arrest. The brutal change in the regime’s treatment of women dissidents was shocking to the Dominican public and to an international audience as well. By making women targets of their draconian practices, the regime publicly and unequivocally violated its own declared gender norms. The “sacred spark” described by Cabral may have been lit by the 1959 deaths of the revolutionaries, but it was aggressively fanned to a flame by the treatment of these young women. The massive arrests and imprisonments carried out by the Trujillo regime drew significant national and international attention to the dictator’s crumbling political drama. During this final year and a half of the regime, Trujillo’s grip over the country, and even perhaps his sanity, began to slip precipitously. Responding to the arrests and (p.116) imprisonments, the Church, despite its strong support over the preceding thirty years, issued a pastoral letter condemning the actions of the government and demanding fair treatment for all Dominican citizens. The letter was read at every mass in the country on January 31, 1960, immediately following the arrests.74 It was a major blow to Trujillo’s power base—the Church had consistently supported his policies regardless of his blatant violations of human rights.75 The United States also began to actively pursue an alliance with the opposition, although this effort was focused mostly on the resistance in exile. In addition, the Organization of American States (OAS) became increasingly concerned about the violations of human rights in Trujillo’s brutal persecution of his opposition.76 In response to the regime’s actions and the increasing concern over dictatorship in the Caribbean, the OAS, the United States, and the opposition began communications regarding an appropriate response as early as February 1, 1960.77

Particularly among the families affected by the disappearances and imprisonments, most of whom were identified by many accounts with the upper classes, responses were surprisingly bold, public, and gendered, and women assumed even larger roles in these activities. According to missives from U.S. Ambassador Joseph Farland, a group of “women dressed in mourning” had been regularly using Church confessionals to pass along information about clandestine groups as well as to convey their concern for loved ones.78 Trujillo’s legal agent responsible for reporting on subversive publications and activities, Dulce María Sánchez de Rubio, expressed irritation in her correspondence to regime officials at the many groups, including those headed by women, that depicted the regime as authoritarian. According to her reports, the opposition Movimiento Popular Dominicano (MPD) periodical Libertad had published Juana Ramona Castillo’s letter to the group requesting aid in locating her son, who had been detained for nearly a year without communication.79 Ongoing public protest by youth groups and the MPD, especially in Santiago, proved a constant vexation to Sánchez de Rubio and other regime officials. Another Libertad article declared that “female organizations” as well as student and worker groups had been unable to organize since 1930 because of repression by the regime and that women in particular were growing eager for change. “Women and housewives,” the writer argued, “have not had the opportunity to defend their interests nor to see (p.117) improvements on the part of the state relative to maternity, education, or child care.”80 While women were not frequently among the upper echelons of leadership, their involvement—and their protection—were key to mobilizing political activism at local and community levels.

In the last decade of the Trujillo regime, women from multiple socioeconomic levels enrolled in the resistance movement. Yet, more to the point, participants of both genders found the dictatorship’s violations of maternalism and family its greatest point of weakness. The resistance used Trujillo’s own rhetoric—protecting maternalism, education, mothers’ rights, and families—as a vehicle for pointing out the regime’s downfalls. Before 1959, many had been able to overlook the regime’s farcical displays of democracy, but they found the regime’s attacks on women and entire families in its final years untenable. Many asked themselves whether the dictatorship, unable to abide by its own gendered rhetoric, could do anything to protect the Dominican people. As the regime’s own inconsistencies were pointed out more forcefully, many individuals joined the movement against the dictatorship either explicitly or implicitly, giving it the authority and weight it would need to eventually topple the regime.

In November 1960 the excesses of the Trujillo regime destroyed the politics of exchange that had maintained it for thirty long years. After the Church response to the massive arrests of 1959, Trujillo reportedly stated that he had only two problems: the Church and the Mirabal sisters.81 When the regime moved to solve the latter problem by creating a sham automobile accident as the three women returned from visiting their jailed husbands on November 25, 1960, many believed Trujillo had sealed his own fate. By violating the norms of gender that he himself had so widely institutionalized, Trujillo set in motion the events that led to his demise. At the same time, his incensed response to the Church’s objections brought on an extreme violation of his own terms of maternalism. Reacting in April 1961 to the adamantly oppositional stance of a church in La Vega, Trujillo reportedly sent prostitutes to create a spectacle in the cathedral and desecrate the sanctity of the institution.82 According to a newspaper report, the women “of doubtful reputation” entered the church and “stopped the mass with their dancing of merengue and yelling ‘Long Live Trujillo.’” Reportedly the prostitutes carried placards that read “In the Church and Everywhere, Long Live Trujillo” and “Down with Regime Traitors.”83 While it is unclear precisely who these women were or (p.118) where they came from, the intended effect of intimidation clearly missed its mark. If torturing female dissidents violated the internal guidelines laid down by the regime to protect women, sending supposed prostitutes to a mass and murdering three sisters and mothers went above and beyond what the Dominican public could accept.

AS MUCH AS THE DEATHS of the Mirabal sisters were a brutal and intensely emotional event for the Dominican public, the massacre of women completed the destruction of the gendered politics the Trujillato had created. The idea that women could be assassinated for their unrepentant role in public politics shattered ideas about purported propriety. While Trujillo’s specific motivations for the murder of the three sisters lie in the realm of Dominican mythology, the result was incontrovertible. According to the New York Times, the New York–based Dominican Liberation Movement called the murders “the most abominable assassination in the 31-year history of the Trujillo dictatorship.”84 While the Trujillo-controlled newspaper El Caribe reported the deaths as an inexplicable accident, countless Dominicans considered the act the final straw in a series of horrific acts. Exile groups in New York picketed the Dominican consulate demanding action by the United States and the OAS.85

In addition, the massive arrests and assault on the Church provoked a response among mothers and family members who might previously have been apolitical. The testimony of Gloria Cabral de Macarrulla sheds light on the responses of many women to the crumbling control of the Trujillo regime.86 Her nephew, Lisandro Macarrulla, was present in La Cuarenta prison during the period of arrests and torture. Cabral de Macarrulla visited her nephew every Sunday, bringing news from the family and kind words. Her memories serve as testament to the conditions borne by the prisoners but also to her own response to the regime’s inhumane treatment of the country’s youth. She had begun to collect crucifixes to bring to the prisoners, realizing that the objects brought comfort to her otherwise miserable family members and friends. By her count, she collected nearly two hundred. Although the objects were eventually destroyed by prison guards, her efforts stood as testimony to the growing radicalism of Dominican women and their continued dedication to maternal activities in their efforts to find an alternative to dictatorship.

(p.119) The murder of the Mirabal sisters and the increasing violence during the final years of the regime, especially against women, provoked a visceral reaction among the Dominican populace. For many, the regime’s total abandonment of its paternal protections—its charade of promoting the idea of nation as family and the blatant flaunting of its own standards for the proper treatment of women—demonstrated to the public that the regime was collapsing under the weight of its own perfidy. Acceptance by the public of a façade of democracy had been a consistent element in maintaining the regime; many understood their return for such acceptance to be the paternalistic protection of homes and families. As women and men pointed out repeatedly, particularly in the final years of the regime, Trujillo’s persecutions and violations of women betrayed that compact.

Such violations of human life were not unprecedented, yet it was the steadily increasing assaults on the national family and morality that truly created the crisis. Rafael Valera Benítez, a member of the resistance, expressed a sentiment that echoed through the efforts of those who became involved in the movement. As he put it, the assassinations “had their roots in [the regime’s] absolute devaluation of the life of women, and, worse still, children.”87 While the regime had indeed reached a point at which its value of human life was nearly nonexistent, even given its own justifications of stability and anticommunism, it was specifically the violation of its promises of gendered protections, as decried by men and women, that mobilized the Dominican public.

On May 30, 1961, a group of six men assassinated Rafael Trujillo Molina as he headed west along the oceanside highway en route to his Casa de Caoba retreat in San Cristóbal. The end may have come at the hands of male protagonists, but the process that led to that juncture was undeniably gendered. Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla argued that the end of the regime came as a result of

an army of women, without any weapon other than the powerful weapon of the heart, the heart tempered by sorrow and sacrifice, the heart capable of conquering ancestral weakness, to resist danger and even attack it. A heart capable of the highest sacrifice, without asking glory, honor or recognition. A heart capable of offering to one’s country the most precious treasure.88

(p.120) Dominican women had become involved in the resistance in significant numbers, demonstrating not just their political capabilities but also their skill in reappropriating the regime’s own discourse in service of the opposition. Trujillo worked meticulously to create a political role for women that allowed them to actively support his policies, and trujillista women were a major element in the success of such tactics. However, as the resistance movement grew and women became visible players in the drama that was unfolding against him, they brought evidence that the Dominican public was rejecting Trujillo’s image of himself as the larger-than-life, generous protector of national morality, the Padre de la Patria Nueva. Dominican women spoke and acted in ways that brought an integral and distinct element to the functioning of democracy and domestic stability. Employing local, national, and international channels, they worked consistently to bring attention to what would become glaringly obvious to the population at large with the murder of the Mirabal sisters, that hollow promises of domestic and international stability would no longer stand on the legs of the regime’s gendered rhetoric.


(1.) Justino José del Orbe, Del exilio político dominicano antitrujillista, en Cuba (Santo Domingo: Taller, 1983), 142–152. Del Orbe chronicles the event through a series of clippings and photographs taken from several Cuban newspapers. Información reported that participants included Carmen Negret, Petronila Gómez, Altagracia del Orbe (Justino’s wife), Lupe Luciano, Olimpia Vera, Carmen de Lara, María del Rey, Migdalia Díaz, Yolanda Pulido, Ada Daniel, Elsa Zurita, Elena Quintero, Mercedes Quintero, and Saski Prus. Hoy added Matilde Daniel and Marta Duque to the list of women.

(2.) Examples range from U.S. journalistic accounts to Dominican histories and participant memoirs. For the former see Diederich, Trujillo; John Bartlow Martin, Overtaken by Events: The Dominican Crisis from the Fall of Trujillo to the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1966). For historical accounts see Roberto Cassá, Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio (Santo Domingo: Editoria Universitaria, Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo 1999); Emilio Cordero Michel, “Las expediciones de junio de 1959,” Estudios Sociales 25, no. 88 (June 1992): 35–63; Vega, Los Estados Unidos y Trujillo. For memoirs see Juan J. Cruz Segura, Bajo la barbarie: La Juventud Democrática clandestina, 1947–1959; Testimonio de un protagonista (Santo Domingo: Taller, 1997); Orbe, Del exilio político dominicano antitrujillista, en Cuba, although the last-cited does include some evidence of female activism on the part of his wife, Altagracia.

(3.) Several important exceptions include Mainardi Vda. Cuello, Vivencias; Grey Coiscou Guzmán, Testimonios: La gavilla luminosa (Santo Domingo: Cocolo, 2002); Grey Coiscou Guzmán, Testimonios: La simiente convulsa (Santo Domingo: Cocolo, 2002). Alfonsina Perozo and Delta Soto have also published memoirs that touch on their roles in the resistance movement, Perozo’s Los Perozo and Soto’s Vivencias de una revolucionaria. Several authors have published works that discuss the lives of the important female resistance activists Minerva Mirabal and Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla.

(6.) Bernardo Vega, Un interludio de tolerancia: El acuerdo de Trujillo con los comunistas en 1946 (Santo Domingo: Fundación Cultural Dominicana, 1987), 5–7.

(9.) Josefina Padilla, personal correspondence with the author, October 2004.

(10.) This period roughly coincides with female suffrage and the regime’s larger international show of democracy and transparency.

(11.) For more on the origins of what Richard Turits calls a “brief wave of liberal idealism” see his Foundations of Despotism, 236.

(12.) Padilla, personal correspondence. Among others were Gilda Pérez, Brunilda Soñé (head of her group in La Vega), Sobeya Mercedes Almonte, Edna Moore, Leila Pantaleón, Dinorah Echevarria, and Ligia Echevarria.

(13.) Homes and local communities were essential to the movement in both phases and provided a platform for female participation. Ligia Echevarria Hernández and her sister Dinorah became involved in the movement through the activities of their brother Vinicio. According to memorialist Juan J. Cruz Segura, the home of the Echevarrias served as a sort of “center of the diffusion of revolutionary ideas”; Bajo la barbarie, 29. Josefina Padilla and her sister Silvia as well as Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla and her sister Carmen Julia also lived in homes of opposition activities. In addition, women who hailed from the same hometown often found that ties of friendship drew them into the movement. Violetica Martínez, Ruth Fernández, and Lourdes Pichardo, all from the small but affluent town of Moca, formed a cell of the Juventud Democrática with Federico Pichardo; Mu-Kien A. Sang, Yo soy Minerva! Confesiones más allá de la vida y la muerte (Santo Domingo: Amigo del Hogar, 2003), 53. Male friends and girls schools provided links for activism for women like Gilda Pérez y Pérez, Brunilda Soñe Pérez, Tomasina Cabral, Dulce Tejada, and Emma Rodríguez; Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo, Memorias de la lucha contra la tiranía (Santo Domingo: Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo, 1983), 38, 48.

(14.) Many activists have praised the work of Josefina Padilla and Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla. In discussing an early Juventud Democrática meeting Virgilio Díaz Grullón mentions Martínez Bonilla’s constant work, adding that it “was not possible to imagine what we would have done without her” or without her permanent example of commitment, values, and self-denial. Activist Juan Bautista Ducoudray Mansfield attests that “while the JD was legal, there was one person who played an important role, from 1946 to 1947, and that person was Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla”; in Coiscou Guzmán, Testimonios: La gavilla luminosa, 106–107. Díaz Grullón called Martínez Bonilla “el alma presente” of the Juventud Democrática and argues that she was in the “center of it all,” offering her enthusiasm, constant work, and “fe en el futuro democrático de nuestro pueblo” (faith in the democratic future of our nation); in Lusitania Martínez, “Carmen Natalia Martínez: Feminista,” Ambar 7: Revista de Mujeres 3, no. 6/7 (November 1991): 32.

(15.) Martínez Bonilla’s extensive life work is honored in the memoirs of many participants of the resistance, including Cruz Segura, Bajo la barbarie. A selection of her letters is reproduced in Ángela Hernández, Pensantes (Santo Domingo: Ediciones Calíope, 2004), 111–118. There is also a short article about her life and literary work in Sherezada (Chiqui) Vicioso, Algo que decir: Ensayos sobre literatura femenina, 1981–1997 (Santo Domingo: (p.268) Búho, 1998), 43–50. Following the end of the regime, Martínez Bonilla became involved with the Inter-American Commission of Women and served as the organization’s president, adding to her reputation as an accomplished member of the left concerned with the rights of women.

(17.) Ibid., 78.

(18.) Ibid., 80.

(19.) The transition had much to do with international pressures and the rise of a Cold War mentality that would support a brutal dictator rather than risk the possibility of communism; Roorda, Dictator Next Door, 230–231.

(20.) Exile groups published reports of the actions of the Dominican government widely; Boxes 34, 37, 38, 43, and 61, Frances R. Grant Papers, 1897–1986, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries (hereafter Grant Papers).

(21.) Carmen Natalia Martínez, “Coraje y dignidad,” in Hernández, Pensantes, 112. All of the letters, minus the final one to the Mexican embassy, can be found in the compilation Pensantes, 111–118. The final letter, signed by the entire family, is in Herrera Mora, Mujeres dominicanas, 1930–1961, 218–221.

(22.) Martínez, “Coraje y dignidad,” in Hernández, Pensantes, 114. During this time all passports were held by the Dominican government, and individuals and families had to request them for travel.

(23.) Martínez, “Coraje y dignidad,” in Hernández, Pensantes, 118.

(24.) Virgilio Álvarez Pina, “Partido Dominicano: Advertencia,” La Nación, October 19, 1946, 1, cited in Herrera Mora, Mujeres dominicanas, 1930–1961, 81–82.

(25.) The group would later change its name to the Frente Unido de Liberación Dominicano (United Dominican Liberation Front).

(26.) “Voces femeninas,” Quisqueya Libre, September 1944, 4.

(27.) Ibid., 7.

(28.) “La voz del Frente unido de Liberación,” Quisqueya Libre, July–August 1945, 6.

(29.) “Trujillo es repudiado también por las mujeres,” Quisqueya Libre, January–February 1936, 3.

(31.) Centro de Investigación para la Acción Femenina (CIPAF), “Quehaceres: We Were Ready to Go,” Connexions 36 (1991), 19–20; original in English.

(33.) Ibid., 132. Original article circa March 1960.

(34.) Carolina Mainardi Reyna (later Mainardi Vda. Cuello), who joined the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) with her husband when it formed in Puerto Rico in 1942, recalled picketing the Dominican consulate in 1958 on the fourth anniversary of the galvanizing disappearance of Jesús de Galíndez, a former regime official turned vocal opponent in exile who was kidnapped while living in New York City. For more on his disappearance see Manley, “The Galíndez Case in the Dominican Republic,” Latin American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias, forthcoming. Known for her oratorical skills, Maricusa Ornes was invited often by the Vanguardia Revolucionaria Dominicana (VRD) to be the voice of its weekly radio program in the capital.

(36.) Carmen Natalia Martínez Bonilla, “La democracia está en peligro inminente,” Boletín (San Juan), June–July 1950, 1. Martínez Bonilla and Carolina Mainardi served as administrator (p.269) or editor during the run of another paper, Exilio, the monthly publication of the Frente Undido Dominicano (FUD). Martínez Bonilla also served as the secretary of public relations for the Unión Patriótica Dominicana (UPD) at various points. Altagracia del Orbe was similarly involved in writing campaigns in Cuba; Orbe, Del exilio político dominicano antitrujillista, en Cuba; Herrera Mora, Mujeres dominicanas, 1930–1961.

(38.) Orbe, Del exilio político dominicano antitrujillista, en Cuba, 47. Word of the movement reached Trujillo in time for him to mobilize a counterattack, and the expeditionaries never received the support they thought they might in the countryside. One boat had to turn back, but nearly all the men who headed out from Cuba were killed outright or arrested and then killed.

(39.) Ibid., 145–152.

(40.) Cited in ibid., 93–94.

(41.) Justino del Orbe mentions briefly the Congreso Latinoamericano de Mujeres that was held October 9–12, 1959, and he includes a letter signed by attendees. Although he gives little background on the event, the appeal to “hermanas de América Latina” written by event attendees and reproduced in his book was signed by several active female Dominican exiles, including Altagracia del Orbe; Del exilio político dominicano antitrujillista, en Cuba, 94–96, 153–154.

(42.) Unsigned to Frances Grant, March 17, 1959, Box 43, Folder 27, Grant Papers. The writer identified herself as the wife of Movimiento de Liberación Dominicano leader Alfonso Canto.

(43.) “8 Trujillo Foes Reported Killed,” New York Times, January 31, 1960.

(44.) Carmita Landestoy, ¡Yo también acuso! (New York: Azteca Press, 1946).

(45.) Ibid., 120.

(47.) Ibid., 112, 132.

(50.) Irma Hernández Santana, an exile in New York and member of the Movimiento de Liberación Dominicana (MLD), was sent by fellow activist-exile Alfonso Canto to conduct research back in the Dominican Republic. Clearly, the more visible and active male exiles would have been quickly jailed for such actions, while women were up to that time better protected from imprisonment and torture. At a time when the various exile groups were attempting to coordinate their activities with each other, such diligences could often be completed only by women; Cassá, Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio, 130; Herrera Mora, Mujeres dominicanas, 1930–1961, 107.

(51.) Some women were hamstrung by their previous involvement in the resistance. Josefina Padilla returned to the university after her year of house arrest only because of a family friend’s intervention, and Padilla was forced to sign an agreement promising total abstention from political activities; Padilla, personal correspondence with the author, October 2004.

(52.) On Minerva Mirabal and the history of the much-mythologized mariposas (butterflies), as the sisters were called, see Aquino García, Tres heroínas y un tirano; Roberto Cassá, Minerva Mirabal: La revolucionaria (Santo Domingo: Tobogan, 2000); Ferreras, Las Mirabal; Galván, Minerva Mirabal; Violeta Martínez, Homenaje a las hermanas Mirabal. (Santo Domingo: Quinta Edición, 2001); Sang, ¡Yo soy Minerva!

(p.270) (53.) Still, many memorialists have chosen to attribute her position in the opposition to her sin of sexually rejecting the dictator. According to many accounts, Mirabal attended a ball held by Trujillo in his native town of San Cristóbal in 1949 at which the young woman rejected his advances. Historian Alcibíades Cruz González contends that “Trujillo always remembered the party at San Cristóbal at the Boriqua Ranch, as well as Minerva’s opposition to the regime.” González expresses a widely held belief that her opposition to the regime took second place in Trujillo’s mind to the much bigger sin of rejection. True or not, the attribution of Trujillo’s rage to sexual rejection ignores the entire sociopolitical environment in which Mirabal and her sisters became politically active; Alcibíades Cruz González, Las heroínas de Salcedo en un ojo de agua (Santo Domingo: Impresos Cobe, 1997), 150.

(54.) They included Brunilda Soñé, Violeta Martínez Bosch, and Emma Rodríguez. William Galván argues that it was particularly the friendship between Mirabal, Martínez, and Rodríguez in 1944 that galvanized the women’s political engagement; Minerva Mirabal, 107.

(55.) Ibid., 160. Galván identifies Soñé, Martínez, and Rodríguez as the others arrested.

(56.) In July 1951, Mirabal and her mother were confined to the Hotel Presidente in Santo Domingo while the girls’ father, Enrique Mirabal, was imprisoned nearby. Although the regime shortly released him as well as Minerva and her mother, the confinement was meant to terrorize the entire family into compliance. Nonetheless, the following fall Minerva Mirabal convinced her family to allow her to enroll at the Universidad de Santo Domingo.

(57.) The most prominent member of the group was a young priest named Daniel Cruz. Roberto Cassá reports that the group included several nuns; Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio, 113–121. While the hierarchy actively supported the regime until its very last year, more research needs to be conducted on the potentially important roles of laymen and laywomen as well as other grassroots religious groups in the resistance movement. As has been pointed out in other Latin American cases, regime support from church hierarchy does not necessarily rule out the possibility of lay activism.

(59.) Cassá, Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio, 172. Cassá reports that in addition to Morales, members included Aída Arzeno, Ana Valverde Vda. Leroux, Argentina Capobianco, Italia Villalón, Elena Abréu, and Carmen Jane Bogaert de Heinsen.

(61.) Ibid. Turits argues that “the insurgents’ quixotic gesture was nonetheless effective. It inspired the urban resistance and fueled the cycle of intensifying state terror and growing opposition that would create fertile terrain for a coup and lead to the collapse of the regime.” One participant, Rafael Valera Benítez, declares in his 1984 memoir, that the invasion “had the effect of moving the consciousness of the entire nation and provoking a psychological impact that shocked the entire world, impelling a torrent of organizing in opposition to Trujillo”; Complot develado (Santo Domingo: Fundación Testimonio, 1984), 19.

(62.) Tomasina Cabral, “Testimonio de Sina Cabral,” in Memorias de la lucha contra la tiranía, Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo (Santo Domingo: Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo, 1983), 195.

(p.271) (65.) Ibid., 127.

(66.) The massive wave of arrests began on January 17, 1960. Former secret police agent Clodoveo Ortiz González offered his version of the arrests in a report he submitted to U.S. Ambassador John Bartlow Martin. In it Ortiz states that some 350 individuals were imprisoned, including five women. Other reports have indicated higher numbers as well as more females arrested; Vega, Los Estados Unidos y Trujillo, 42–44. As before, the exile community publicized these numbers widely.

(67.) They included Tomasina Cabral, Fe Violeta Ortega, Dulce Tejada, Miriam Morales, Asela Morel, and Minerva’s sister María Teresa.

(68.) Asela Morel, “Testimonio de la Dra. Asela Morel,” in Memorias de la lucha contra la tiranía, ed. Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo (Santo Domingo: Fundación de los Héroes de Constanza, Maimón y Estero Hondo, 1983), 188.

(70.) Cabral details the entire incident in “Testimonio de Sina Cabral,” 197. Cabral’s description of the torture was likely softened in her own retelling. While he does not identify her by name, fellow inmate Rafael Valera Benítez offers a significantly more chilling narrative of the actions taken against “una compañera del clandestinaje,” with details of the entire macabre scene; Valera Benítez, Complot develado, 36–40. Recently she gave an interview to a national paper, Listín Diario, to remind present and future generations of the ruthless and dangerous dictatorship; in Wendy Santana, “No le di ni una sola lágrima a la tiranía,” Listín Diario, May 10, 2010, http://www.listindiario.com/la-republica/2010/05/10/141402/no-le-di-ni-una-sola-lagrima-a-la-tirania.

(72.) U.S. Embassy documents reportedly include descriptions of the torture of Tomasina Cabral and Asela Morel forwarded to the OAS as part of its investigation of human rights abuses; Vega, Los Estados Unidos y Trujillo, 114.

(73.) In a recollection of the trial, Tomasina Cabral describes a strong sense of solidarity: “For the first time in our lives, we were witness to something that had not been seen in many years. The public who witnessed the trials sang the national anthem and practically pushed the armed guards, of whom there were many. The pressure was so intense that they stopped the provision of food from our families that had previously been negotiated between the district attorney and the guards”; Cabral, “Testimonio de Sina Cabral,” 198.

(75.) Turits argues for the importance of the pastoral letter throughout the countryside, although undoubtedly it was extremely important in urban areas as well. He writes that among peasants, the pastoral letter “presented an open repudiation of official discourse by an alternative source of authority, thus exposing the limitations of the regime’s hegemony”; Foundations of Despotism, 256.

(78.) Ibid., 54, 110.

(79.) For more on the Movimiento Popular Dominicano, its members’ return from exile in June 1960, and its publication Libertad see Cassá, Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio, 293–316.

(80.) Both articles are quoted in Sánchez de Rubio’s correspondence but not attached. (p.272) She cites Libertad, August 1, 1960, 4, for the first but gives no additional information on the second; Dra. Dulce Ma. Sánchez de Rubio to Secretario de Estado de Interior y Cultos, Interior y Policía, Legajo 5204, AGN.

(81.) Galván reports that Trujillo made this statement during a visit to Villa Tapia, a town close to the women’s hometown of Salcedo; Minerva Mirabal, 317. Bernard Diederich makes a similar assertion; Trujillo, 69. Court records from the subsequent trial of the Mirabal assassins indicate that the statement was made at the home of José Quezada on November 2, 1960; Valera Benítez, Complot develado, 126.

(83.) El Caribe, April 23, 1961; cited in Vega, Los Estados Unidos y Trujillo, 610–611. Cassá also makes reference to the presence of prostitutes in the church in La Vega; Los orígenes de Movimiento 14 de Junio, 283.

(84.) “Wives of 3 Foes of Trujillo Dead,” New York Times, November 30, 1960, 5.

(85.) “100 Here Protest 3 Dominican Deaths,” New York Times, December 4, 1960, 50.

(87.) Ibid., 9. Journalist Bernard Diederich expresses a similar conclusion, that the “cowardly killing of three beautiful women in such a manner had greater effect on Dominicans than most of Trujillo’s other crimes. It did something to their machismo. They could never forgive Trujillo this crime. More than Trujillo’s fight with the Church or the United States, or the fact that he was being isolated by the world as a political leper, the Mirabals’ murder tempered the resolution of the conspirators plotting his end”; Diederich, Trujillo, 71–72.

(88.) Address of Carmen Natalia Martínez at the “Salute to the Dominican People and Its Women,” January 26, 1963, Box 43, Folder 21, Grant Papers.