Julia Alvarez’s butterflies are the four Mirabal sisters, whose code name in the revolutionary underground was Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. These women, daughters of Don Enrique Mirabal, a landed merchant-farmer who became prosperous and socially prominent, and his wife, Doña Mercedes, referred to as “Mamá” throughout the novel, were born into a rising middle class.
In the early 1930’s, an ambitious military man, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, barely literate and from humble origins, rose to be Dominican Chief of Military Operations. He seized the reins of government precipitously, declaring himself president after instigating the downfall of his predecessor.
Trujillo’s meteoric rise to power had begun in the army. He advanced quickly as those in line before him mysteriously disappeared. As second in command, he assured his ascendancy to Chief of Military Operations by devious means. He knew that his superior was having an affair with another man’s wife. One night he learned where the illicit couple planned to rendezvous. He informed the husband, who, lying in wait, killed the lovers in a jealous frenzy.
Trujillo thus became the second most powerful person in the country. He arranged his final ascent by engineering an uprising against the sitting president, then failing to respond to calls for help from the palace. As president, Trujillo, from whose regime Julia Alvarez’s family fled to the United States in 1960 when she was ten years old, retained power in two major ways: He annihilated his opposition without conscience, and he spent public money in visible ways to create an illusion of civic progress.
Alvarez tells the story of the Mirabal sisters in the first person. Each division of the book is headed by the name of one sister and by one or more dates. This structural device permits rounded development of each character because each sister speaks for herself in the first person but is also revealed as others see and comment about her.
Alvarez’s use of time is essentially sequential, although in some cases, as in Dedé’s opening section, it involves two or more nonsequential dates, in the latter instance 1994 and 1943. This is necessary because Dedé, the sister who survives the atrocity that killed the other three, is being interviewed by Alvarez, who remains much in the shadows more than three decades after the murders around which the novel revolves.
The technique Alvarez has developed results in readers’ coming to know the Mirabal sisters intimately, almost as people know members of their immediate families. As this feeling of intimacy grows, knowledge of the story’s outcome becomes agonizingly wrenching.
The novel poses a number of universal social questions. Most obviously, it is a strident statement about human rights and human dignity. It also becomes a forceful feminist statement. Minerva, the most independent of the daughters, is a feminist in every respect. Dedé, a submissive wife until she joins the revolutionary movement, divorces her husband and, after the political troubles have died down, becomes an extremely successful insurance agent, something she could never have done in the Dominican Republic as Jaimito’s wife.
Whereas Patria wants only to be married—she gains her desire at an early age—and have children, Minerva, who does not marry until she is twenty-nine, insists on attending the university and taking a law degree. Dedé and María Teresa, generally called Mate, begin as passive, conventional Hispanic women beholden to their husbands, as Mamá has been to her husband, although, as Alvarez reveals, Papá is the weakest member of the immediate family. Only once in Enrique’s lifetime does Mamá, who has never learned to read, publicly assume the control of which she is fully capable, and that is when Papá’s (and the family’s) future is severely threatened.
Alvarez deftly develops the theme that demonstrates how a bit-by-bit erosion of freedoms eventually eradicates them totally. She shows how a nation in the grips of a dictator becomes a fawning, paranoid society in which no one is secure. The walls have ears. People must put their minds in neutral and devote themselves to glorifying the megalomania of a dictator who makes their lives alternately—and at his own whim—sweet and bitter.
Early in the lives of his daughters, Don Enrique becomes a wealthy man. He owns a car and a truck and is prominent in his community, Ojo de Agua, whose lachrymose name suggests the inner torment of his family. The eldest Mirabal sisters are sent to a convent school to be groomed as submissive matrons. Even the fiercely independent Minerva, Papá’s favorite, submits partially: Upon graduation at age eighteen she returns home rather than going to the university as she wishes.
The turning point for Minerva comes when Trujillo invites Don Enrique to a Discovery Day Ball at his palace, requesting that Minerva accompany him. This addendum ignites suspicion: Trujillo is legendary for his appreciation—and exploitation—of virginal beauty. The Mirabal sisters remember how he whisked the beguiling seventeen-year-old Lina Lovatón from their convent school. He established Lina in a remote mansion and commanded the nuns to give her a diploma in absentia, placating them by contributing substantially to their school and building its gymnasium, named for Lina.
Minerva, uniquely successful at getting her way through her skilled use of logic, rebuffs the president’s advances at the ball and, when they become flagrant on the palace dance floor, she slaps his face with all her might. By doing this she gains his respect but engenders his smoldering animosity.
Minerva tells Trujillo that she wants to attend law school. He discourages her but eventually arranges for her admission. Four years later, she receives her diploma, but, revealing his strong upper hand, Trujillo withholds from her the necessary Dominican license to practice law.
Minerva marries Manolo, two years ahead of her in law school but five years younger. He becomes a leading figure in the Dominican underground, in which she also serves as an enthusiastic worker. She learns the code language of the movement, stores large quantities of arms and propaganda in her house, and becomes increasingly engrossed in seeking Trujillo’s downfall.
When the youngest sister, Mate, enters the university, Minerva has little difficulty involving her in the revolutionary movement. Patria, who during adolescence considered becoming a nun, is drawn less easily into revolutionary activities. Eventually, however, she all but loses her religious faith and joins in resisting the repressive Trujillo regime. Her house is destroyed by secret police. Her husband and seventeen-year-old son are arrested and detained.
Dedé leans toward joining the movement, but her husband, Jaimito, who turns out to be the mainstay of the extended family during its most trying times, strongly resists involvement. Wanting to save her marriage, Dedé holds out for as long as she can, but she finally decides that she must leave her husband and join the underground.
Pervasive in the novel is the closeness of the Mirabal family, reminiscent of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s representation of the cohesiveness of Hispanic families in her novels The Line of the Sun (1989) and The Latin Deli (1993). Alvarez demonstrates remarkable skill in leading her readers through the various stages of the sisters’ conversion from conventional Hispanic wives and mothers to women fighting for a cause.
Eventually, Minerva and Mate are arrested, as their husbands and Patria’s have been. After they are held at La Victoria Prison without access to attorneys, a kangaroo court sentences the two to five years’ imprisonment, which is finally reduced to a humiliating house arrest in Ojo de Agua. This house arrest permits them two excursions a week, provided that the sleazy representative of the secret police in Ojo de Agua, Tío Peña, issues them passes. They may go to church on Sundays, and they may visit their husbands at La Victoria on Thursdays.
During all this time, Trujillo, whose regime is crumbling, is obsessed by the Mirabal sisters, who are rapidly gaining celebrity as symbols of the resistance. He transfers Manolo and Leandro from La Victoria Prison to a prison in Puerto Plata, closer to home but accessible only over dangerous roads. Every Friday, the two women and their driver, Rufino, visit Puerto Plata without Mate, because she goes every Thursday to La Victoria and does not return home before they leave.
On November 25, 1960, however, Mate, returning on Thursday night, joins Patria and Minerva for the drive to Puerto Plata. The journey assumes ominous aspects from the start. A store clerk who sells them purses slips them a warning. At a deserted mountain pass, they spy Peña’s Mercedes parked outside one of Trujillo’s palaces. Nevertheless, they arrive in Puerto Plata safely.
After visiting Leandro and Manolo, they decide, despite bad weather, not to stay overnight with relatives, whose business has declined as a result of harboring them. By 4:30, they leave for home. At the pass near where they had seen Peña’s automobile, the road is blocked by secret police thugs. They grab the three sisters and their driver, beat them, and strangle them. The attackers then cram their corpses into their Jeep and push it over a cliff.
Dedé, who was unable to join her sisters on this trip, is now the only surviving Mirabal daughter. She and Mamá share responsibility for rearing the children of the dead sisters, who quickly are enshrined as symbols of the liberation movement.
Trujillo is assassinated in 1961 and replaced by a president who is little better. Manolo, released from prison, goes into the hills to organize opposition against the new president. In 1963, he dies there in a hail of bullets.
In the Time of the Butterflies is unerringly factual, based upon the transformation of one prosperous, God-fearing family from law-abiding citizens to revolutionaries who risk, and eventually give, their lives to overthrow a totalitarian regime. The story, fast-moving and spine-tingling, captures the drama of the evolution to revolution.
Alvarez understands the folklore of the Dominican people, as reflected in Fela, a black servant of the family, who, after the sisters die, begins communicating with their spirits and engaging in magical acts that border on voodoo. The book is replete with folk sayings, such as “Until the nail is hit, it doesn’t believe in the hammer,” and folk ways such as bringing a broom to the door when one wants guests to leave. When three of his daughters are about to go to boarding school, Papá complains that daughters are needles in the heart because they leave their fathers.
One heartening subplot in the story involves Papá’s infidelity. He keeps his mistress and three illegitimate daughters in a house on his land. Mamá learns of this and is devastated, although as a wife, Catholic, lacking marketable skills, she cannot realistically consider leaving her husband. Eventually Minerva discovers her father’s secret and is outraged. She confronts Enrique but soon grows sympathetic to the mistress and to her stepsisters. Finally she insists that they be educated, and she and Patria help pay for their schooling from their inheritance. Eventually Patria, now a pharmacist, helps smuggle luxuries to her stepsisters and their husbands in prison.
Bergman, Susan, ed. Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith. San Francisco: Harper, 1996. One chapter of this collection is “Chasing the Butterflies. The Mirabals: Dominican Republic, 1960,” Alvarez’s description of the path that led her to write about the Mirabal sisters.
Booklist. XC, July, 1994, p. 1892. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Chicago Tribune. October 24, 1994, V, p. 3. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 17, 1994, p. 13. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Corpi, Lucha, ed. Máscaras. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1997. Included in this volume is Alvarez’s essay “An Unlikely Beginning for a Writer,” in which she describes her struggles to adjust to the English language and to perceive herself as a writer.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. Resistance and Caribbean Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980. This study of Alvarez’s predecessors helps map out one literary tradition to which she belongs.
Ghosh, Bishnupriya, and Brinda Bose, eds. Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film. New York: Garland, 1997. Although it does not discuss In the Time of the Butterflies specifically, this collection of essays provides international perspective for Alvarez’s work.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, July 1, 1994, p. 858. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 123. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Ms. V, September, 1994, p. 79. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Nation. CCLIX, November 7, 1994, p. 552. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 18, 1994, p. 28. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Newsweek. CXXIV, October 17, 1994, p. 77. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 62. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, November 27, 1994, p. 7. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.