Race-work, Race-love

A Tale of Two Novembers: The Ecuadorian Massacre of 1922 and the Mirabal Sisters

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I have quite often recovered pieces of Ecuadorian and Latin American history through literature. Being born in the United States, daughter of immigrant parents, I have the fortune of inheriting multiple histories, but the misfortune of not being formally taught Latino literature in school. When I discovered Latino literature, a whole new world opened up for me. For example, I learned  history from the Dominican Republic and Haiti through writers such as Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat. I became familiar with Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican history through Latino literature.

Ecuadorian literature was a little different – very few of its finest pieces are translated into English and thus less accessible to the US public and consequently – me. Still, I go hunting to recover pieces of my Ecuadorian history from the inspiration of Dominican, Haitian American and other writers with the hopes that one day this can be done for Ecuadorians, too. In this hunt, I learned about the importance of November. I learned about the murder of the Mirabal Sisters from the Dominican Republic and the largest massacre to occur, some would say, in Ecuadorian history – also known as Las Cruces Sobre el Agua or Ecuadorian Massacre of 1922.

The months of August, September, and October  mark  months in which many Latin American countries won their independence from Spain. Lesser known are days when battles for justice have been fought. November is an important month for Dominicans and Ecuadorians. Although not widely known, these stories of political struggle remind us of our collective responsibility to combat injustice everywhere even if it means death. These events are part of our social justice history. This work contributes to our genealogy of justice.

In the Dominican Republic, you have the infamous Mirabal sisters. Four sisters who are mythologized as Las Mariposas were said to be the beginning of the end of the Trujillo dictatorship. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic not only to was the champion of genocide and racial cleansing in the Dominican Republic; he was also the leader in the Massacre of 1937 in Haiti. He ruled the island for close to forty years. It is taught that the Mirabal Sisters developed an underground system to overthrow the dictator. Several failed attempts caused for the Trujillo dictatorship to uncover the work of Las Mariposas. No one knows exactly how they were murdered but the story is that the women were traveling from the prisons where their husbands were incarcerated for their political activism. After their visit, they were ambushed and killed. They were savagely killed and believed that they were led into an ambush. Their assassination occurred November 25th 1960.

The slaughter of the Mariposas, their murder, haunted their survivors and these survivors were inspired to continue to overthrow Trujillo. Trujillo was killed not too long after the murder of the Mirabal sisters. While there is much controversy over their lives and their participation in plans to overthrow Trujillo, they are best remembered for the beginning of the end of the demagogue Trujillo. They inspire all women, particularly Latinas, and remind us that our participation in revolution is necessary and an imperative.

Bloodshed is often the only way a government listens to a distressed people. Hiding this history gives the same government the opportunity to minimize the chance for a future revolt. Ecuador is no different. On November 15, 1922, workers in Ecuador protested the labor conditions under a dictatorship, regime-like government. During this protest, a struggle that united workers from across professions, countless Ecuadorians were killed and thrown in the River Guayas.

The president during that time was Jose Luis Tamayo. Ecuadorian economy depended on their cacao industry. The exploitation of obrereros of all kinds, but in particular agricultural obreros, was serving and enriching the monetary coffers of a political oligarchy – in which few families actually held power in Ecuador. Ecuadorian obreros and workers organized under the La Federación de Trabajadores Regional del Ecuador (FTRE). This union initiated the protests. Soon electrical, agricultural, and railroad workers joined the movement.

Before the protest they wrote a worker’s manifesto in which they charged the government with mistreatment of their people and provided a bill of rights to ensure that they gain protection. For three days they protested. There is much debate about what happened the third day. Some report that 20,000 people gathered to celebrate that the workers’ demands were met. Others report that President Tamayo ordered his military to kill the protesters. What is known is that this movement did not only consist of workers, but also their wives, their children, elderly people, and students. What is known is that the military did indeed fire at the crowd resulting in a massacre. Bodies were strewn everywhere and the military decided to throw the bodies in the River Guayas. It is reported that over 300 people were killed that day. Others report that the number of people killed that day was actually over 1500. The government says only 100 people were killed. Today, this protest for greater justice to workers is memorialized by placing crosses over the river. A cemetery in the river, thousands of bodies were left unknown. This memorial is called Las Cruces Sobre el Agua, or the Ecuadorian Massacre of 1922. Evidence of this history is written in literary form by Joaquín Gallegos Lara.

When one recovers a bit of their own culture history, an emotional roller coaster ensues. For one, you wonder why didn’t you know this already? Secondly, now that I know about this history, what can I do to make sure others learn about these two novembers, too? Finally, what lessons can we learn from these tragedies?

Not all of us can be an Edwidge Danticat or Julia Alvarez. Not all of us can find a piece of history and put a name like Steven Spielberg to a film with a historical theme to it and make it accessible. But I do hope that one day, even amongst smaller communities, we can make this information more available for others to learn, become more whole in our history of our people, and recognize that it is in our genes to continue to fight for racial justice and other forms of social justice. We are one with those ambushed, murdered, and slaughtered, like the Mirabal Sisters. We are one with those bodies in the River Guayas.


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