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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Why are the Mirabal sisters referred to as butterflies?

Quick answer:

The Mirabal sisters are called butterflies because they are part of an underground movement in which everything must have a code name to avoid being detected by the Trujillo dictatorship. The word also represents the way the sisters have spread their wings and found the courage to actively oppose the regime.

Expert Answers

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As María Teresa (Mate) writes in her journal accounts, Manolo and Minerva explain to her why they are called butterflies. Now that they are part of an underground movement opposing the repressive regime, everything and everyone must have a code name so that their activities can avoid being detected by the government. For example, the term tennis shoes stands for ammunition, and the word pineapple means grenade. The sisters will be referred to as the "butterflies" or mariposas so that their identities and participation in the movement can remain hidden.

Yet the word butterfly also functions as a symbol for what the sisters turn into as they participate in the movement. They are no longer cocooned, but have grown and spread their wings. Being an active part of an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship gives the sisters beauty and courage. Mate explains,

Something big and powerful spread its wings inside me. Courage, I told myself. And this time, I felt it.

Butterflies don't simply wait passively in a cocoon, as caterpillars do, nor do they crawl. They fly and flit around. They are seemingly delicate and easy to destroy, but in fact, they are elusive and hard to catch. They represent a different, more delicate strength than the brutal sledgehammer techniques of a dictator like Trujillo.

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