In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies (1994, 2019) by Julia Alvarez, is historical fiction set in the Dominican Republic in the time of the dictator Trujillo, based on the lives of the Mirabal sisters: Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Theresa.

Their names are not well-known in the dominant white culture in the United States, but they should be. Patria, Minerva, and Maria Theresa Mirabal were murdered by Trujillo’s regime in 1960. Minerva and Maria Theresa, along with all three of their husbands, had been imprisoned because of their political activities. November 25, the day of their death, is the International Day Against Violence Against Women in their honor.

Alvarez tells their story in alternating chapters told from one sister’s perspective and then another. Dede, the sister who lived, tells the story from 1994 as she looks back on the time when her sisters lived and how she has dealt with the aftermath of losing all of her siblings and raising their children.

Minerva, the brainy one who wanted to go to law school, and Patria, the oldest, who married young after thinking she might want to become a nun, tell their stories in first-person. Alvarez has written Maria Theresa’s story in diary form, which fits well, as she is about ten years younger than the older three sisters, who were born one year after the other. In the audiobook, four different actresses voice the chapters, so it’s easy to know which sister’s story you’re hearing.

I was completely ignorant of Trujillo and horrified the more I read. Called El Jefe, he ruled from 1930 to 1961–in a reign of terror characterized by secret police, imprisonment, torture, and murder of dissidents, and taking younger and younger mistresses. He renamed a city and a mountain for himself, and even the simplest of travels required the approval of his secret police.

It happens, as dictatorships do, through more and more gaslighting. At one point the family is worried that, because they left a reception in a rainstorm before Trujillo had left, that would result in being questioned by the secret police. Eventually, some people say enough is enough, and an underground organization begins planning to overthrow him. All of the sisters except Dede join the resistance, and are given the code names “Las Mariposas” (The Butterflies).

There is some fatphobia, in the form of diet culture where Maria Theresa referred to being on a diet so she can fit into a gown. Once a captain in the secret police was described as a “very fat man.” But that was it. The focus was more on the patriarchy and dominance of men in the culture.

I hope that this book is used in history classes and that more people get to know the names of Patria Mirabal, Minerva Mirabal, and Maria Theresa Mirabal, for the example they set of speaking their minds and beliefs, despite much fear, and in the face of ever-present danger.

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