Author Alvarez helps Dominican girls become butterflies
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on Vermonters who are giving back at home and around the world.
CABARETE, Dominican Republic — At her home on the outskirts of Cabarete, a beach town on the Dominican Republic’s north coast, life is not easy for Luismina. Her mother is single and poor. Luismina, 9, is the youngest of five daughters. In a country where one out of every 10 girls is married by age 15, she does not know how old her eldest sister is.
But this past Earth Day, Luismina was a glowing mariposa, a butterfly, floating across a makeshift stage in red tights and a costume made of recycled fabrics. Her smooth ebony face was painted in vivid colors and she had wings on her back.
In the shade of an almond tree, Julia Alvarez, the Middlebury College professor and acclaimed author, watched as Luismina and other young girls performed an original play, “La Mariposa sin Colores,” telling the story of how a white butterfly, played by a dark-skinned girl, gathers colors from all around her.
“Bravo mariposas! Bravo!” Alvarez called from the crowd gathered at the Mariposa Center for Girls, a compound of low, white buildings that sits across the highway from the beach in this surf outpost-turned-resort town. The shuttered hotel was purchased two years ago by the Mariposa DR Foundation to educate and empower local girls to break the cycle of poverty and build self-esteem. The center now provides after-school programs for more than 120 local girls, many of whom live in the shanty towns of Cabarete.
CELEBRITY AND ADVOCACY
The honorary chair for the Mariposa DR Foundation, as well as an advocate and volunteer, Alvarez is a celebrity in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean nation where she spent most of her first 10 years. She is perhaps best known for “In the Time of Butterflies,” the award-winning book (and, later film) about how the four Mirabal sisters plotted to overthrow the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
U.S. EMBASSY OFFICIAL James Russo, left, Julia Alvarez, Jacqueline Guzman Mirabal (daughter of one of the three assassinated Mirabal sisters) and Patricia Thorndike Suriel at the Mariposa Center in April.
Photo courtesy Amy S. Martin
Three of the sisters were murdered for their efforts in 1960. Dede Mirabal, the last surviving sister, died last year at age 88. A portrait of her is painted on one of the Mariposa Center’s porch columns, adjacent to portraits of Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-born author of “Brother, I’m Dying,” (nominated for a National Book Award) and Alvarez.
Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, a retired Middlebury ophthalmologist, return regularly to the D.R., as it is popularly known, to give back. They support a Haitian child’s education — “For less than $100 a month, you can give a child an education here,” says Eichner. A couple decades ago, they started an organic coffee plantation to help provide jobs and promote sustainable agriculture (their coffee, Alta Gracia, is sold by Middlebury’s Vermont Coffee Co.).
In addition to their personal giving, they are also activists. Since 2011, Alvarez, authors Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, and others have held a candlelit vigil called the “Border of Lights” on the Dominican-Haitian border. It commemorates the 1937 Haitian massacre when Trujillo “ethnically cleansed” the DR of as many as 20,000 dark-skinned Haitians and their descendants. In many instances, whether someone lived or was executed was based on whether they pronounced the word for parsley “perejil” with the Creole (Haitian) inflection or “purer” Spanish pronunciation.
And most recently, Alvarez was in Cabarete late last month to celebrate Earth Day, an unveiling of her portrait, and the opening of a library in her name at the Mariposa Center.
On one of her trips to the Dominican in the mid-1990s, Alvarez set out to climb the Caribbean’s highest peak, the 10,164-foot Pico Duarte, for a New York Times assignment. In doing so she met Patricia Thorndike Suriel, who, at the time, owned an adventure touring company. In 1992, Suriel came to the D.R. from Breckenridge, Colo., to ride her bike solo around the country. She fell in love with the place and moved there to start the touring company Iguana Mama.
She also fell in love with, and married, a local fisherman, Freddy Suriel. Through Freddy, she saw first-hand the poverty his family and others lived in. Soon, Tricia (as she goes by) Suriel was working hard to help educate local kids, building libraries and starting nonprofits — making a name for herself as a change agent for children throughout the region.
In 2009, Suriel and co-founder Jennifer Lawson began the Mariposa DR Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering girls and raising them out of poverty. Alvarez, who had worked with Suriel on other nonprofit ventures, did not hesitate to join her board.
“Anything Patricia does, she does in full. She sets her mind to it and it happens,” says Alvarez, over a Dominican lunch of fried plantains and empanadas, after the play.
Suriel recruited other prominent board members, including Nell Newman, the founder of Newman’s Own Organics. In two years, the foundation raised enough money to purchase the carcass of an old motel and created several classrooms where girls learn to read and write, paint pottery, sew and practice other skills. They tend a permaculture garden, cook in the open kitchen and learn to swim in the refurbished pool at the center of the compound. They also learn nutrition, how to treat and respect their bodies, and avoid unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
“We want to teach girls here to be humanitarians, environmentalists and,” Suriel paused for emphasis “to learn to swim.
“This is a tourist beach town,” she explained. “The boys all make money teaching kite surfing, surfing or fishing, but often the girls never even learn to swim.
“What are they supposed to do?” asks Suriel with a shrug, holding both palms to the sky. “We want to show them there are options. They don’t have to just stay home and be mothers. They have other ways of earning money than becoming prostitutes.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
The Dominican Republic has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. Forty percent of all girls marry before the age of 18 and more than a third of those are married by 15.
The Mariposa girls, age 8 to 18, come from the poorer barrios around Cabarete where the local schools stop at eighth grade. They may live in shacks made of wood and corrugated tin. The better-off families may have a small garden, a cow, some chickens and a few coconut palms. At night, girls — some as young as 12 — may dress up and walk into town to linger on corners.
MANY MARIPOSA GIRLS live in shacks near Cabarete. The Mariposa DR Foundation provides the clothes, books and transportation they need to attend school and the center.
Photo courtesy Amy S. Martin
When the girls come to Mariposa, some have been homeless, HIV positive or pregnant.
The Mariposa Center for Girls ensures that the girls are enrolled in school (which runs for half a day) then takes them for the other half of the day. They are picked up by bus to ensure safe transport, given a school uniform, shoes (if they need them), shirts that say “Girls are the most powerful force for change”) and swimsuits.
If they have difficulties reading, writing or with other academic basics, the girls work with individual tutors at the center. They also take trips to the nearby cities to meet women in professional roles: mentors like judges, journalists and politicians. The foundation works with local outfitters to teach the girls to swim, surf or kite-surf, and they play a variety of sports they would never have access to.
“We try to give them self-confidence and the motivation to know they can be something,” said Sarah Fisher, a 2013 Middlebury College graduate who is serving as the foundation’s administrative director.
The center also engages local families, taking as many girls as possible from one family and asking mothers and fathers of the girls to volunteer when they can. Other volunteers come from all over.
Janilka Romero, a Puerto Rican visual artist affiliated with Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP) has been volunteering for five months and helped the girls design the costumes for the Earth Day play.
“We had one girl who was always distracted and not interested in reading or learning,” Romero said after the show. “One day I asked her to help make costumes for the play and suddenly it was as if a light went off and that was all she wanted to do. She worked hard and had so much pride in what she did. At the end, when it came time to write the girls’ names in the costumes, she came up and asked me for help. At 14, she still did not know how to write. Now, she wants to learn.”
A VISION FOR THE WORLD
In 2013, Suriel received an astonishing invitation: an all-expenses paid trip to Vienna, Austria, to attend the Life Ball, a star-studded fundraising event honoring those working to combat HIV and AIDS. Bill Clinton and Elton John were there. When it came time for actor/producer Hilary Swank to hand out the Swarovski Crystal of Hope award, Suriel was called up to the stage. The Mariposa DR Foundation was one of three foundations worldwide to share in the €100,000 prize.
That prize, as well as funding from the Girl Effect, a Nike Foundation project focused on raising women out of poverty around the world, has helped Suriel dream even bigger.
“We are just getting started,” she says over coffee at the organic coffee shop she owns in town. She already has several Mariposa girls working there and she talks about having the foundation take over the coffee shop so that girls from the center have jobs running it with the proceeds going to create more programs.
She envisions the center expanding too. “We’ve had architectural drawings done for a performance area, a gift shop, housing for volunteers and even a museum centered around girls. What we have done here is great, but we want the world to know how important it is to bring girls out of poverty.”
Alvarez sees it that way too. At lunch she is still raving about the girls she met, especially the playwright, 9-year-old Dairiana Disla.
“It is a wonderful play with such a simple, beautiful message,” says Alvarez. “Imagine if we could create a kit to produce it, a book with the words, but also with direction on how you make the costumes, the choreography and the music. It’s something schools across the world could produce.”
If these women have their way, mariposas might soon be flying around the globe.
Photo courtesy Amy S. Martin
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