In a Heap of Trouble


Ivan, Betsy, Pico, Alex, Mom, Jupiter

Ivan, Betsy, Pico, Alex, Mom, Jupiter

When my father had to jump ship in Puerto Rico to save his life, in 1959, he sent my mother a telegram that said “I Love You Always”. This was their code for something had happened but he was OK. The next day it was in the news: Alberto Arvelo traitor and deserter. It didn’t take long for my mother to realize that we were in a heap of trouble. My father was safe, but we were not. We packed everything we owned in a few hours, sent it all to my grandfather’s warehouses, then went to stay at my uncle’s house in the country. A couple of days later the secret police – Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM)– killed our dogs and a few days later the house was taken over. The future head of the SIM, Candido Torrez, one of the people responsible for the murder of the Mirabal sisters just a few months later, (In the Time of the Butterflies), took over our house. He had to do a lot of renovation to it since my mother almost destroyed it so they wouldn’t find it as nice as she had had it. She and the workers that helped her pack and dismantle everything went through the house with picks breaking everything they could. They destroyed all the light fixtures, bathroom fixtures, and poked holes in the walls throughout. Our house was mostly made out of wood so that was easy to do.

My parents also owned a smaller house that had been a wedding present from my grandfather and was two block away. It was rented to friends who were kicked out by the SIM, a few days later, as they took over the house. There are stories around that Trujillo’s brother PiPi had a bordello in that house until the death of the dictator.

We stayed at my uncle Mincho’s house. It was a very trying time for everyone. My uncle and his wife Olga had three children and a dog. My mother had four children, a dog, and a Green African Monkey (my father had brought it home when I was 6 from a trip to Morocco). For my mother and my aunt it had to be one of the most stressful times of their lives. Even though they had been roommates in college, this was too much to handle. For us kids, it was as much fun as a vacation to Disney World. My cousins and us were really close and loved playing together. So, as soon as we got there, the games were on. We built forts in the backyard, played hide and seek, and chased the monkey around the neighborhood every time it escaped. My uncle was also a lot of fun to live with. He was the kind of person that played with us kids, would kid around and tickle us. Something very foreign to me. I really loved the time we spent near him.

My mother got rid of her car since the government could try to run her over with a truck “an accident”. We were pulled from school because it wouldn’t have been safe either. So, for about three months, all we did was play.

When things started calming down a bit, my mother found an apartment in the city behind the Jaragua Hotel, just a block from our school and two blocks from the ocean. Because of the proximity to our school, we went back, but not before my mother talking with the owner to make sure us kids were going to be safe. Unbeknown to her, Doña Milagros de Ovin’s husband was involved in the transport of the CIA weapons offered to the plot members to kill Trujillo. It isn’t known if the weapons were really used or not, at the end. There are conflicting stories, but they were definitely, smuggled in with food items destined to the Wimpy’s supermarket owned by US Citizen Lawrence Berry and a friend of my parent’s. Larry’s wife was a big underground enemy of the dictator.

The neighborhood that we ended up in was an oasis within the hell that we lived in. I don’t know how it happened, but many people that were against Trujillo, widows and relatives of people Trujillo killed all lived around us. Right next door was Doña Yolanda, the widow of Juan de Dios Ventura, one of the heroes of the 14 de Junio invasion in 1959. He had recently been murdered. My mother and her became very close. Next door to us was Doña Mildred Shepperd. Her husband was a Canadian that came to work with the Royal Bank of Canada, fell in love with Doña Mildred and stayed. Doña Mildred was my mother’s protector and friend. She was one of the people that helped my mother make it through the hard times with her amazing sense of humor and Santiago common sense. There were very few people my mother could trust. Doña Mildred and Mama Lupe were her closest confidants.

My mother and Mama Lupe wrote subversive newsletters against the dictatorship late at night. My mother would type them with carbon paper to make a few copies. Then Mama Lupe would ride públicos (taxis) and leave them behind so other people would find them. It is a miracle that they were not caught. Their fingerprints were all over the documents and they would have been able to easily trace the typewriter to my father’s. Later on, while in high school, I got to know that typewriter very intimately, typing reports for school. The o’s poked holes through the paper. There were a couple of keys that would get stuck. My father never replaced the ribbon making it run back and forth until it almost didn’t leave any pigment on the paper. On occasions that I woke up in the middle of the night, I heard my mother typing away and the radio broadcasting Fidel Castro’s speeches. Both would have been enough for torture and death. It wasn’t too long after that, that Castro declared that he was a communist and my mother never listened again.

In those days there were street peddlers called paleteros who sold lollypops (paletas), candies, cigarettes, and other small necessities. It was a known fact, that most of the paleteros worked for the SIM and spied for them. Our neighborhood had an exceptionally high number of paleteros.

The lady across the street, Doña Fresa Socias, also became my mother’s friend and protector. When Trujillo was killed, she hid us in her son’s room for days bringing us food and whatever we needed to protect us. Trujillo’s family retaliated his death by going after all the political prisoners in the jails and their families. It was a very dangerous time. So we had to lay low for a while.

On November 25th, 1959, the Mirabal sisters were murdered. They had been the leaders of a very strong anti-Trujillo underground movement. They were known as the butterflies. For a few years, the Mirabales and their husbands had smuggled guns, raised awareness of the atrocities of the regime and recruited people to unite against the dictatorship. It is said that when Minerva Mirabal was 15, Trujillo got frisky with her at a party and she slapped him. He never forgot. Minerva studied law and Trujillo would never allow her to get the degree to get back at her. By 1959 he had had enough and had them assassinated thinking that he was getting rid of the problem. The death of the Mirabals marked the moment when the island had had enough. The heinous atrocities of the Trujillo regime had gotten worse and more often in the last few years with the involvement of Johnny Abes García, and the person that took care of the dictator’s “problems”. The level of cruelty and sadism of Abbes is legendary. It is said that many of the dissidents that were imprisoned by the Dominican intelligence services were tortured and killed by Abbes himself. After the dictatorship’s demise, Abbes ended up in Haiti involved with Papa Doc helping him with his reign of terror. He was then involved in a failed coup with Bebe Doc to overthrow Papa Doc. Papa Doc had Abbes and his family burned in their home. Bebe fled the island. I didn’t know about the dictatorship and details about what my family had been going through since my mother wanted to protect me by keeping me in the dark. However, I had definitely felt the stress and oppression in the air anyway, I just didn’t know where it was coming from. Within a few hours of the Mirabales’ death, the island was buzzing… everyone knew they had been murdered. There was this pressure in the air that you could feel. Everywhere you looked, people were whispering.

Trujillo had a reign of terror that lasted 32 years. However, in just the last few years, Trujillo had racked up quite a portfolio of murders: the Mirabales, the Galindez and Murphy murders, Catholic priests murders, the capture, torture and murder of the heroes of 14 de Junio invasion, the attempted assassination of Rómulo Bentancourt, the newly elected Venezuelan president, and much more, pushing the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) to impose sanctions and boycotts on the Dominican Government. This was the beginning of the end for the Trujillo regime.

On May 31st, 1961, Trujillo was killed. The group that killed him was made up of people that had access to guns and wouldn’t have been suspected.Only two survived. There are many books out on Trujillo and his dictatorship. It is worth a reed. By the end of his reign, Trujillo was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. He paid lobbyists, like Richard Nixon, a lot of money to help pass bills that were profitable for the DR. No one was safe anywhere in the world if he wanted them dead. He paid people to fight wars in Central America. He supported Batista in Cuba to fight the revolutionaries. When Batista failed and came to the DR asking for exile, Trujillo kept him captive until he paid him 4 million dollars. There was no end to the amounts of young virgins he had, including two of my mother’s half sisters who were offered to him by their father (not my mother’s father). One of them committed suicide. My grandfather never took my mother anywhere if Trujillo or his family would be there and as soon as she was old enough, he sent her to boarding school in New York City. That way, my mother went under their radar until she married my father.

On June 13th, the OAS helped my mother and us reunite with my father in Puerto Rico. They made sure we got to Puerto Rico safely. My mother couldn’t mention it until we were safely in US Territory, so I didn’t know that we were reuniting with my dad. Iit was a great surprise to see him at the San Juan airport.

We stayed with my father’s aunt in San Juan for a few weeks until it was decided that we were staying for a while. My parents then rented a modest home University Gardens, Rio Piedras, were we lived for the next 6 months while things stabilized in the DR.

Read about our life in Puerto Rico.