On Nov. 25, 1960, Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa Mirabal were murdered for rebelling against the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
Exactly 54 years later, the novelist who brought their story to the world addressed a capacity crowd in the Collins Arena, explaining how the Mirabal sisters’ legacy continues to inspire change across the globe.
“They showed us all, by example, how to be survivors, how to truly transform ourselves as individuals and as communities and as a country,” said Julia Alvarez, speaking to nearly 500 students, faculty, staff and community members on Nov. 25. “You do your part. You inspire someone else. One candle lights another.”
Alvarez, an award-winning novelist, poet and essayist, provided the keynote address for this year’s Big Read Initiative, hosted by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale.
The program, sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, featured Alvarez’s 1994 novel “In the Time of Butterflies,” which told the stories of the three Marabal sisters and their surviving sister Dede`.
Thousands of students and adults across Monmouth County read the novel this fall and participated in a series of book discussions, dramatic readings, film screenings and other events to engage in a community-wide discussion of its themes.
From human rights and equality to gender roles and the importance of family, Alvarez’s novel highlights a wide range of issues that are as just as relevant today as they were in 1960, said Brookdale English Professor John Ryan.
“These are themes that artists have been looking at forever,” Ryan said, following the talk. “The right decision is often very scary, and it often involves taking tentative steps. And that’s one of the things that I think she brought out, especially on this day.”
Alvarez gave two presentations on Nov. 25, including a morning presentation to nearly 500 local middle school students who read her book “Before We Were Free” as part of the Big Read. In both talks, Alvarez detailed her experience living under Trujillo’s regime as a young girl before moving to America at the age of ten.
She also spoke of her work as a global human rights activist, her writing process, literary influences, and how she found an identity as an American minority and the courage to become a writer through artists like Langston Hughes, Jane Austen and books like “Arabian Nights.”
“History says don’t hope. But poems and stories say, ‘not so fast,’” Alvarez said. “They remind us that the tidal wave of justice can rise up, and that we can make hope and history rhyme within our own lifetime. They teach us how to be human, and that nothing human is alien to us. They inspire us to change our lives.”
Just like this year’s Big Read, Alvarez’s talk drew interest from all disciplines and corners of the community. Brookdale students Amanda Stalteri and Amanda DeCandia, who read “In the Time of Butterflies” as part of their ENGL 121 class, said they were excited to learn how Alvarez was able to blend fact and fiction and share the Mirabal sisters’ little-known story with the world.
Others, like Creative Writing Club member Kent Mattia, said they wanted to learn a few trade secrets from a literary master.
Alvarez’s talk was a fitting conclusion to this year’s Big Read, which was designed to bring Monmouth County together as a community and spur a discussion about issues that remain just as relevant in 2014, said Chhange Executive Director Dale Daniels.
“The themes really resonate with who we are,” she said. “You get all these different ideas from the different groups who come together in discussions about the book. You open up conversations; people get together with people they would never get together with. It’s really a great exchange of ideas.”
Following the talk, Alvarez also answered a wide range of questions from the audience and took time to sign books and take photos with community members.
View more photos here.
In additional to the anniversary of the Mirabals’ assassination, the talk coincided with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which was officially dedicated by United Nations General Assembly in 1999 in honor of the Mirabal sisters.
Learn how you can get involved in the ongoing #16Days initiative here.