How to Keep the Mariposas Alive
Julia Alvarez with Dedé Mirabal
Dedé attended a dance theatre performance by
EVEOKE of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The dancers all got to meet her. They had come
all the way from San Diego to perform their moving
adaptation for Dominicans. You can imagine
when the Dedé dancer met the real Dedé
there were tears and hugs. Very sweet.
The last Mirabal Mariposa has died: Bélgica Adela Mirabal, known affectionately to all as Dedé, joined her three sisters on February 1, 2014. For over fifty-three years she survived them, living to see them become international symbols of resistance and human rights. When asked by inquiring schoolchildren, “Why didn’t they kill you, too?” Dedé would answer that she had been spared so that she could raise the orphan children–a family that ultimately included all of us, bereft Dominicans, recovering our souls after a thirty-one year dictatorship. But Dedé also believed she had been spared so that she could tell the story of what had happened to her sisters. It was her calling and responsibility to keep the spirit of what was best in them alive in herself and in all of us.
And did she ever! Over and over, a dozen times daily, Dedé told the stories of those dark years. No matter who showed up at her door, including this author, with a little journal and a lot of questions, Dedé welcomed them into her home in Ojo de Agua, where she sat in her rocking chair in the galería, sipping a lemonade, answering questions, summoning now one or another sister to life with a detail or anecdote.
Afternoons, she headed to the Museo she had set up in her mother’s former home, where her sisters had lived the last months of their lives. Each room was as the girls had left it when they set out that fateful day, November 25, 1960, to visit their jailed husbands, driven by their loyal friend and fellow victim, Rufino de la Cruz. Visitors came in the thousands: from within the country and from abroad. Most Dominican schoolchildren visited the Museo at some point in their education to look with wonder and surprise at a home where everything seemed so “normal”: a baby’s cradle in a corner with a mosquito net folded back over the hood; an unfinished sewing project draped over an old-fashioned Singer; a pair of white heels waiting to be polished and worn to mass. Certain grim touches brought back the shocking truth of their tragic end: Maria Teresa’s braid which Dedé had cut off at the morgue laid under a plastic cover; the dress Patria had been wearing, turquoise and royal blue stripes with a blood stain on its lap, hung from a hook on the door of an armoire; a photo of Manolo, Minerva’s husband, in dark glasses, mourning his slain wife sat on her dresser beside a hairbrush that, when I picked it up during my first visit in the early 1980s, held some strands of dark brown hair.
Just outside, pruning and supervising the lush garden, planted with flowers that attracted butterflies, Dedé would spend many of her afternoons. If a visitor to the Museo wanted to meet her, Dedé would put her work aside to talk, especially to schoolchildren. She laughed at their amusing questions, and none amused and stirred her more than the one that made her stop and take stock. “Why didn’t they kill you, too?”
It was as if each day of her life, she set out to answer that question.
For over half a century, Dedé served her country and the world with a heroism different from that of her sisters, but heroism, nevertheless: a heroism just as difficult to maintain, requiring hope and courage, amazing resilience and discipline: the heroism of daily acts of clarity and kindness, of courage and compassion. Day after day, Dedé made us believe in the better angels of our nature; she inspired us. With gradual steps, with her lively and entertaining personality, so we hardly noticed the hard work and persistence it took, she led us out of that dark dictatorship era and forward, year after year, into the still tentative dawn of a new democracy. She modeled for us how to be engaged citizens, as Quisqueyanas and Quisqueyanos valientes. She did this by example, rather than by hectoring, by her actions rather than propagandizing abstractions. Her basic message, so simple all those schoolchildren could understand it, was love. A warm greeting. A patient answer to a question asked hundreds of times already. We must forgive each other, but not forget. That’s what the stories were for. We must know what we are capable of, so we can be strive to love each other better.
Why didn’t they kill you, too?
Now, the years have done what Trujillo’s henchmen did not accomplish. Dedé Mirabal has died. We no longer have that beloved person to embody those precious qualities which drew us to her side. What will become of the Butterflies?
All that Dedé represented–her bright lively spirit, her sense of service, her deep compassion and integrity, her generosity and kindness–dies with her, unless we keep those values alive in the way we live our lives.
Every day we can ask ourselves a version of the question the schoolchildren would ask her: Why am I alive today in this world? How can I serve? What can I contribute to see that justice is served? To ensure that every girl and boy in the world gets the opportunity to live a decent life? Each day that we provide our answer to these questions, the Mariposas are alive.
Dedé Mirabal has died, but she left a pair of wings inside the hearts of everyone whose lives she touched.
February 4, 2014