The Mirabal Sisters Fought Bravely Against State Violence—These Dominican Activists Are Following in Their Footsteps
The names Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal are synonymous with resistance. Across the Dominican Republic and Latin America, people young and old know the story of how the Mirabal sisters—or las Mariposas, as they’re often called—died fighting to topple the 31-year dictatorship of Dominican President Rafael Trujillo.
For some, the sisters’ clandestine activities against the Trujillo regime make them symbols of political struggle. For others, undermining "El Jefe" in a patriarchal society where women had no place in politics make them feminist icons; in fact, the United Nations General Assembly designated the anniversary of their death, November 25, as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. But regardless of what las hermanas Mirabal represent to different people, the resilience, grace, and courage the young sisters embodied more than six decades ago still inspire generations today to rise up against state violence and injustice—in all its forms.
“Their story was a prime example of what happens when machismo reigns,” Rosalia Piña Vélez, a Santo Domingo-based artist whose work educates Dominicans on gender violence, tells Refinery29 Somos. “In their case, because they said ‘no,’ a word that violent men don’t know how to accept, they had an inhumane death. And we still see this today.”
Here, four Dominican activists who are inspired by the Mirabal sisters discuss how they are carrying on their legacy by educating the public, speaking out against injustice, and fighting for political and social change. From voter suppression to abortion access, they have a common goal to build a just, people-first country for themselves and each other.
Annette Gonzalez Español
Annette González Español has always cared about uplifting her community. As a teen, she partnered with nonprofit organizations to teach extracurricular classes on youth leadership that encouraged young people to participate in social activism. But in 2020, as an electoral crisis took shape, her focus shifted to politics.
On February 16, 2020, the Dominican government suspended the nationwide municipal elections for the first time in the country's history. An electoral board found that electronic voting machines were malfunctioning in 60% of the country. With some voters unable to see complete ballots, officials scheduled a new election for March where only paper ballots would be used. But for voters, this wasn’t enough. Protests erupted throughout the country. Many demonstrators believed that the governing party, the Dominican Liberation Party, which had held the presidency for 16 years, was taking advantage of the malfunctioning machines for political gain. Like thousands of other Dominicans, González Español wasn’t having it.
“Historically, the Dominican Republic has a low voter participation in the municipal elections, but this election had the highest in history,” she tells Refinery29 Somos.
Amid demands for members of the electoral board to resign, González Español began learning about voting issues in her country and joined the fight to end voter suppression. Currently, she is a member of Los Guardianes de la Democracia, an initiative that promotes voter participation and defends the rights of citizens against electoral crimes, and the founder and lead content creator of Muy Humanos, a social media platform that educates voters and encourages Dominicans to use their voice at the polls.
As Muy Humanos gained traction through its illustrations that break down statistics and complicated concepts and laws, she expanded her content to include educational art and videos ranging from menstrual health to Covid-19. She says her mission is to help people understand issues and support movements that may or may not directly impact them.
“When we allow the violation of a human right, we are allowing the violation of all human rights,” she says. “My job is to make people understand the struggle by condensing heavy topics in a way that is easy to understand, inclusive, and accessible to all people.”
Julia Jarinet “Jari” Ubiera
Julia Jarinet “Jari” Ubiera is a reproductive rights activist and university student who advocates to decriminalize abortion and facilitates workshops for young people on sexual and reproductive health. “Our politicians don't consider the lives of women when it comes to delegating laws, and instead focus on their own right-wing, regressive agendas,” Ubiera tells Refinery29 Somos.
The Dominican Republic is one of two dozen countries in the world with a total abortion ban, which has had devastating consequences across the Caribbean island. People who have unplanned or unwanted pregnancies—including those resulting from rape or incest—are forced to choose between clandestine abortions or continuing their pregnancies, despite health risks to them or their fetus. While some pregnant people can afford to travel outside of the country to obtain abortions where it’s legal, most can’t, leaving them to deal with fatal or serious pregnancy complications or unsafe illegal abortions. Moreover, those who do terminate a pregnancy face up to two years in prison, while doctors who help aid the abortion risk 20 years behind bars.
“We need sexual and reproductive rights to be promoted and guaranteed as fundamental human rights, recognizing our autonomy, liberty, and sexuality,” Ubiera said during a forum with the Dominican Republic’s Commissioner of Justice and Human Rights in May 2021.
During the assembly, Ubiera called on the government to decriminalize abortion in at least three circumstances: when the life of the person is in danger, when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or when the fetus has complications that are incompatible with life outside of the womb. “A penal code that does not include Las Tres Causales is condemning us to a life that we didn’t get to choose, and the world is looking at you as their perpetrators,” she said.
In addition to her work to decriminalize and destigmatize abortion in the Dominican Republic, Ubiera also challenges machismo and gender violence with the youth-led initiative Resetéate and the Dominican Republic’s chapter of the United Nations Population Fund, a reproductive and maternal health agency.
“With my activism, I seek to put faces and stories to these issues. Before, it was just statistics, but we want to go even further and drive the message so people can understand,” Ubiera says. “In order to have a well-developed society, it’s necessary to care about women’s rights.”
Rosalia Piña Vélez
As a college student, Píña Vélez, the Santo Domingo-based activist who uses art and media to combat gender violence, worked on a 300-page thesis about sexual harassment. For her research, she conducted a focus group with 360 people to understand their daily experiences with cat calling and street harassment. To contextualize this data, she also interviewed psychologists, sociologists, and sexologists. Her findings changed her life and the course of her career.
Píña Vélez's thesis inspired a screenplay and Catcalls of DR, an extension of the international youth-led Chalk Back art movement that aims to combat street harassment through public art. Across the Caribbean country, she and her team gather anecdotes about cat calling and scribe these stories on sidewalks with colored chalk. Alongside the quotes, they add a memo: “If you find it uncomfortable to read, imagine living it.”
“Our mission is to educate, prevent, and bring awareness to sexual harassment,” Píña Vélez tells Refinery29 Somos. “We also offer workshops on the denormalization of sexual harassment on the street, where people learn the difference between a pick-up line and harassment.” The workshops also teach attendees what sexual harassment is, how to respond to it on the street, and the internal and systemic barriers victims experience when reporting this form of violence.
According to Píña Vélez, creating safe public spaces for women and nonbinary people, and protecting their human rights, has also empowered her and given her art new meaning. “Activism has given me purpose to create,” she says.
Nonbinary performance artist and poet Johan Mijail envisions a future for the Dominican Republic that rejects white cisheteronormativity—and they’re helping to build it.
Through intimate, thought-provoking, and often (intentionally) shocking visual performances, they use their body to challenge gender norms and binaries. In “Imaginarios contrasexuales,” for instance, Mijail poses in lingerie and extra-long acrylic nails while spreading whipped cream all over their body. Mijail’s objective for the piece: to make audiences uncomfortable and spark change through that discomfort. In the Dominican Republic, LGBTQ Dominicans experience discrimination and violence at high rates; however, like other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, there aren't anti-discrimination or hate crime laws that presently protect queer communities. “My artistic practice … uses rebellion as a place of enunciation before the modern colonial world-system,” Mijail, who has performed in the United States, Costa Rica, Chile, and Germany, tells Refinery29 Somos.
Mijail’s work also encourages fellow Dominicans to confront internalized anti-Blackness. Currently, they're a member of Cantinga Ediciones, an independent editorial project that publishes and promotes work and events by queer Black and Afro-descendant Dominicans. While anti-Black racism certainly isn’t unique to the Dominican Republic, colonialism, a history of state-sanctioned anti-Black propaganda and policies, and ongoing anti-Haitian immigration measures created lasting violent racial tensions. Further, while nearly 90% of Dominicans are of African descent, an overwhelming majority don’t identify as Black.
“Racism cuts through all forms of relationships within Dominican society,” Mijail says. “My work helps to the extent that it creates an interruption in the material and symbolic representations of [social norms].”