illustration of a young woman's silhouetted head with a butterfly on it located within a cage

In the Time of the Butterflies

by Julia Alvarez

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In the Time of the Butterflies Summary

In In the Time of the Butterflies, Dedé, the last surviving Mirabal sister, frames the story of how her sisters became heroes in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorial reign of Rafael Trujillo.

  • Mate and Minerva Mirabal learn of Trujillo’s brutality and join the resistance movement to overthrow him. 
  • Mate and Minerva marry revolutionaries. Patria joins the movement after witnessing a massacre.
  • Mate, Minerva, and Patria travel to a prison where two of their husbands have been detained. They are brutally murdered on the way back from the prison.
  • Today, the Mirabal sisters are known as “the butterflies.”

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Based on true events, In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez centers around the lives of the Mirabal sisters during Rafael’s Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of one of the four sisters—Dedé, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa. While Dedé’s chapters are largely told in the third person, the other three sisters’ chapters use first-person narration.

Part 1

The first chapter introduces Dedé, the sole surviving sister of the Mirabal girls. In the present (1994), Dedé shows a portrait of her family from her youth to a woman who is interviewing her about her family’s history. After Dedé reflects upon memories of her childhood, the story shifts to Minerva’s perspective.

During adolescence, Minerva and her sister Patria attend a convent school, Inmaculada Concepción; their younger sister María Teresa also attends the school later on. Soon after arriving, Minerva becomes friends with another young student named Sinita, who shares that all of the men in her family were killed by Trujillo’s regime. Minerva thus becomes aware of Trujillo’s ethically dubious rise to power. A few years later, Minerva and several other students from the convent perform a skit for Trujillo himself.

Meanwhile, María Teresa (“Mate”)—the youngest of the Mirabal sisters—observes Minerva’s increasingly antagonistic views towards Trujillo, which she records in a series of excerpts from her diary. Patria, the eldest and most religious of the four sisters and the next narrator, leaves the convent after she becomes romantically involved with Pedrito González; they marry three days before her seventeenth birthday, and Patria soon gives birth to a son, Nelson, followed by a daughter, Noris, two years later. When her third baby is stillborn, however, she begins to question her faith in God.

Part 2

Dedé tells the interviewer about Virgilio Morales (“Lío”), a close friend of the Mirabal sisters who goes into exile after the newspapers expose him as a prominent member of a Communist organization. Minerva, who becomes especially close to Lío, discovers that her father has been hiding Lío’s letters to her, and a rift forms in Minerva’s relationship with her father.

Further on, Minerva and her family attend a Discovery Day party at one of Trujillo’s mansions. While there, Minerva meets Trujillo and is forced to dance with him. She mentions her plans to go to law school, to which he replies that women don’t belong at universities. Soon after, he makes inappropriate advances toward Minerva, and she slaps him. Fortunately, she manages to escape with her family; however, because leaving a gathering before Trujillo—now referred to as “El Jefe”—is against the law, their father, Don Enrique, is brought to the palace for questioning the following day.

Minerva and her mother, Mercedes, drive to the capital, where Minerva is also taken in for questioning. At the National Police Headquarters, she meets Trujillo’s right-hand man, who asks her about Lío. Minerva admits that she knows him. After three weeks, Enrique, Mercedes, and Minerva are taken to meet with Trujillo; luckily, he releases them.

María Teresa, who is now eighteen, writes in her diary just before Christmas in 1953 that Enrique has passed away. Several weeks after the funeral, Minerva returns to law school in Jarabacoa, where she falls in love with and marries a man named Manolo. After Mate graduates from the convent, she decides to move to Jarabacoa to attend the university as well. Minerva gives birth to her first child, Minou, and graduates from law school, but she soon learns that, though Trujillo allowed her to go to law school, he has forbidden her from practicing law.

Later, while living with Minerva and Manolo, Mate receives a package from a man named “Palomino.” She opens it to find guns inside and realizes that they are part of an underground rebellion to overthrow Trujillo’s regime. She quickly falls in love with Palomino—whose real name is Leandro—and they marry on February 14, 1958.

In 1959, Patria, living in Ojo de Agua, unexpectedly becomes pregnant with her fourth child. As El Jefe’s regime grows stronger, she grows concerned for the safety of her teenage son, Nelson, and decides to send him to a seminary. Later, while Patria is attending a religious retreat, El Jefe’s forces invade the area, bombing the church and killing forty-nine men and boys in the surrounding area. This disaster invigorates Patria to join the revolution, and consequently, the underground organization grows into the Fourteenth of June Movement. As part 2 of the novel concludes, the group prepares for a revolution against El Jefe’s regime.

Part 3

In the present, Minou hesitantly asks Dedé why she never went with her sisters on the day they died. She admits that because her husband, Jaimito, refused to get involved in the Fourteenth of June Movement, she felt obligated to obey him. She recalls the night when the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM) guards broke into María Teresa and Leandro’s apartment to arrest Leandro, as well as the discovery the next day that the police had also arrested Pedrito, Nelson, and Manolo. Not long after, Minerva’s house was ransacked, and she too was arrested, followed by Mate.

Patria reflects upon her grief during the three months following the arrests of her family members. Later, her half-sister, Margarita, delivers her a letter from Mate, informing Patria that she and Minerva are alive but confined in a cell in La Victoria. While they are in prison, Padre Gabriel publicly speaks out against Trujillo, and the regime wages war against the Catholic Church with increasing aggression. Patria learns from Captain Peña, a SIM member, that Nelson has been pardoned by El Jefe, along with most of the other minors who have been imprisoned. At the time of Nelson’s release, Patria becomes cognizant of her family’s fame.

María Teresa, in excerpts from her diary, describes living in a tiny cell with sixteen other female prisoners. While Mate frequently experiences breakdowns and asthma as a result of the prison environment, Minerva is an openly rebellious prisoner who staunchly advocates for the male political prisoners as well. In August 1960, Captain Peña commutes Minerva and María Teresa’s five-year prison sentences to house arrest.

During their time in house arrest, the sisters navigate Trujillo’s increased erraticism in the face of international criticism, including uprisings and nightly killings of male prisoners. Minerva expresses her desire to return to her former life, and although the sisters have now become icons of the revolution—referred to as “the butterflies”—she admits that her morale has been depleted. Meanwhile, threats from Trujillo toward the Mirabal sisters escalate, and they are warned not to go out in public.

On November 25, 1960, Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria are taken by their driver, Rufino, to visit their husbands in prison at Puerto Plata, where the men have been transferred. While driving over a steep mountain pass, they encounter a storm. On the way back, the sisters encounter numerous obstacles but ultimately decide to drive home in the dark.


Dedé relates the events of the night her sisters died in the first person. During the trial, it is revealed that they, along with Rufino, were brutally murdered by a group of five men. The men ambushed them on the road and murdered them, then pushed the car—with the dead bodies inside—off of a cliff. In the years following, the murderers were imprisoned and released, Trujillo was assassinated, and Pedrito, Manolo, and Leandro were finally released from prison. Three years after the deaths of the Mirabal sisters, Manolo and other rebels were killed by generals, while Pedrito and Leandro stepped away from politics and remarried.

Dedé explains that both she and her mother raised her sister’s children, until Mercedes’s death in 1980. After reflecting upon the profound losses she has suffered over these years, Dedé attends an honorary event, where she runs into Lío. When they converse, Lío points out how her sisters paved the path for rebuilding the Dominican Republic to be a prosperous, progressive, and free nation in the years after Trujillo’s dictatorship. In illustrating the lingering spirits of her parents and sisters, Dedé realizes her own power in carrying on her family’s legacy.

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Chapter Summaries