What Does Women’s History Mean to me? Meredith DeSalva-Gaffeny Interview

Abra Gist
March 29, 2023

Las Mariposas and the struggle for Human Rights: The Mirabal Sisters

Passionate teachers, whether they are in the K-12 brick-and-mortar education setting, online classroom or in the school of life, are what really make the difference when it comes to social advocacy and especially Women’s Rights and Human Rights Issues. That’s why we are so proud to have educators who not only teach about diversity and women’s rights like Meredith DeSalva-Gaffney, but also advocate for students to find their own passions and causes close to their hearts in order to make a difference in the world. 

Meredith DeSalva-Gaffney, Online Spanish Teacher 

Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney is a certified online Spanish teacher who was so excited to discuss ways to honor and celebrate Women’s History Month - especially the issues of intersectionality with regard to social justice. 

“I love discussing the work of the Mirabal sisters and their motivation to take down a dictatorship they knew as immoral, corrupt, and abusive.” 

Las Mariposas

The Mirabal sisters were a group of four sisters determined to free their country from the regime of a corrupt dictator, Rafael Trujillo whose reign was particularly brutal. His reign lasted 31 years and his power suppressed many citizens. He is known for ordering a racially motivated mass murder of thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic and for employing people to find young girls for him to exploit. 

The Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were not only women revolutionaries who led an underground movement against Trujillo’s oppressive regime during a time of very submissive gender roles and expectations, but they were also mothers. Their social advocacy and campaigning brought awareness to Trujillo’s actions and named individuals who he had murdered through their own produced and distributed leaflets. They were instrumental in motivating men - including their husbands, to take action against the regime.

After Trujillo had three of the sisters murdered in November 1960, their fourth sister, Dede, dedicated her time to their memory and kept their work alive. 

Their code name, Las Mariposas, translates to “the butterflies” and exemplifies not only their courage and free spirits but also, their beauty. 

time magazine cover featuring las mariposas
Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME; Ricardo Hernandez—AFP/Getty

From Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney 

“I think [Women’s History Month] is important just like any other history month we have like Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. I think it’s important to recognize certain groups that at some point in history have been marginalized, and we should give special recognition to them. 

“Being a Spanish teacher, I usually try to focus on important women and history in Spanish-speaking countries [during Women’s History Month]. I typically focus on the Mirabal sisters from the Dominican Republic because I think it's an excellent example of a collective group of women - since there were four of them. These women were really considered national heroines of the Dominican Republic [which is] very special because [...] during that time frame like the 30s, 40s, and 50s, a woman did not have that kind of status [...] especially for you know Latin American countries - the role of women was even more oppressive or meant to be more submissive. 

“I always find myself [...] just impressed with [the Mirabal sisters and their story] and how these women were able to lead basically a revolution against a dictator as women and mothers at such an oppressive time. I mean, I think a lot of women - especially working mothers can relate to this - they were leading a revolution at a time when women were supposed to just sit tight and be quiet. I think they are just really good examples of what it's like to be a powerful and successful woman despite the ultimate sacrifice because their legacy and stories live on today.”

online spanish teacher jobs from home
Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney, Online Spanish Teacher

In the Time of the Butterflies, The Parsley Massacre, and the Turning Point for Minerva Mirabal

Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney said that the book and movie, In the Time of the Butterflies,  offers great opportunities to educate and discuss race relations, women’s rights and issues as well as intersectionality when it comes to Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

“The text is written in a diary style - which is a great and accessible read for teenagers especially. Although this is only my first year at Proximity Learning teaching online, in the past, I have typically done a thematic unit on the Dominican Republic and history in general. I actually think it segues very well from Black History Month because the Dominican Republic and Haiti have a very connected history. So I’ve focused on talking about African American history and bringing into context Women's History with that text.  

“[It provides] really good connections under the Trujillo regime regarding gender issues and the racism and discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic, and just on the island of Hispaniola in general. As well as, it actually was part of an impetus for the Mirabal sisters [to start a discourse] because one of the Mirabal sisters [Minerva] had witnessed some of the rounding up of Haitians and the government getting ready for the execution of Black Haitian Dominicans in the Dominican Republic based on the way they pronounce the word, “parsley” in Spanish, which is why the event is called the Parsley Massacre. That was really a turning point for Minerva [and eventually her sisters] and really pushed her to want to make a change in her country.”

Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney Encourages Students to take an Active Role 

“I think it's important for students to find something they’re passionate about. And it might not necessarily be Women’s History - but anything, any kind of social issues can help them [take an active role]. It might be the issue of immigration, or advocating for minority populations, it could be [bringing awareness] to mental health stigmas, it could be [confronting] addiction. It can be animal rights or it could be anything you know, unfortunately even homelessness, and being displaced is really common right now, but [for students] to find something that they're really passionate about - an issue close to their heart and then trying to work towards improvement for that aspect of social issues or social justice is ultimately what’s important.” 

“I think that's really what happened with the Mirabal sisters. It wasn't necessarily about them trying to be impactful women per se, it was about changing something they viewed as an injustice and doing that bravely at all costs. And that’s really why they became important women in history. 

“It wasn't so much about being a woman as it was, they weren't going to let being a woman keep them from making a change for the better and using their voices to stand up for what was right. Sadly and ironically, they actually succeeded by dying for the cause, because it was shortly thereafter that there was such national outrage in the country, people stood up and were able to topple the regime almost less than a year later. 

“Because of that sacrifice and advocacy the UN officially recognizes them, and [in 1999, the United Nations General Assembly] designated Nov. 25, the anniversary of the Mirabal sisters' death, as the annual date of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.” 

Mural dedicated to The Mirabal Sisters

As the month of March and observation of Women’s History Month comes to a close, Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney had this to say in her closing remarks of the interview. 

“You know they [the Mirabal sisters] came from humble upbringings and while they were better off than many others in their country, they took it upon themselves to hold the powers that be accountable for their actions. I think it’s just a wonderful example of how anyone from any background can have a really significant impact on the world.” 

Proximity Learning is honored to work with teachers like Ms. DeSalva-Gaffney inspires not only her students but others to consider the kinds of contributions they make in the world and how we can all work together towards a better future for everyone. 

Make a difference in students’ lives by applying to teach with us today.

about the author
Abra Gist

Abra Gist is a writer and educator in Austin, Texas with over a decade of experience in the education sector. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in English at The University of Texas. She is currently an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Texas State University. She loves exploring nature, practicing and teaching yoga, and sharing her industry knowledge for Proximity Learning.

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