The Mirabal sisters can be felt everywhere in the Dominican Republic. They are on currency and stamps, celebrated in statues and in literature, and the Mariposas (butterflies) seem to float through the very air.
At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happened in the 1930s-1960s, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death. Cuba’s own Revolution also plays a role in the ideology and hope of the Mirabal sisters.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world.
I love that Alvarez shows the Mirabal sisters as women first, even when they couldn’t prioritize their womanhood to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later.
The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving each the chance to illuminate the exaggerations and omissions of the others. Each chunk of their lives is separated into sections, and the overall effect is that you miss each of the Mirabal sisters as soon as you leave her. By the time you get to the material that’s already been in the papers, you are no longer how asthmatic baby sister Maria Teresa could be the bold gun-runner who was tortured in prison after refusing a presidential pardon.
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of their story, aside from how young the Mirabal sisters were, is how intensely personal the fight was. Trujillo was not some abstract, far-off dictator; he was a man they met in person repeatedly. By some accounts, he was a man who lusted after Minerva and felt humiliated by her, and who made it a personal mission to put her in her place. At various times, their father, mother, and husbands were all imprisoned, and various sisters were repeatedly imprisoned and tortured, especially Minerva.
Minerva is the natural heroine, for me as well as a less stubborn general audience. It isn’t hard to see the opinionated, authority-questioning, boundary-pushing Minerva as a revolutionary. After all, once you slap the president and ask him for permission to be the first woman in your country to go to law school, hiding explosives in the garden is no big thing. But Ms. Alvarez did a rare thing with Minerva: she showed how a brave and boastful woman could be so totally broken and vulnerable inside, without losing an inch of her bravery and old self. I have no doubt that Minerva couldn’t always see it, but it is something powerful to see a powerful woman break down as much as she can without losing herself.
Many have told me that this book is too focused on women, and it would be unfair to ask men to read it. It was once a requirement for the half-semester I spent in the Dominican Republic. Apparently the discussions of menstruation, marital woes, and motherhood proved too much for some male readers. Under the category of “sorry I’m not sorry,” I don’t think a book about four women, the Mirabal sisters, and written from their perspective, needs to explain why it focuses so much on women.
I would also ask, is In the Time of the Butterflies actually emphasizing women that much? Or are we just so not used to female protagonists (and especially ones of such complexity and depth who refuse to be reduced to being props for the men in their lives) that we can’t handle good ones? I think as a whole we have gotten too comfortable with white, attractive, able-bodied men as our blank protagonists. If we want worthwhile minds then we need to read challenging literature, and that requires characters, real or imagined, that push us beyond our comfort zones. So push yourself to see the value in the lives of these women, even the parts of their lives that are “icky.”
The Mirabal sisters are also featured in a film that shares its title with the book. It stars Salma Hayek as Minerva, and is one of the few great book-to-movie adaptations. I watched it while sick one night in the DR. I think I freaked out whoever came to check on me. They found me crying alone in a dark room with my teddy bear. Sorry! It’s just a heartbreaking story, made all the more so by being true.
I highly recommend In the Time of the Butterflies to anyone who knows anything (or wishes to know) about Dominican or Caribbean history. Also, I think it is our duty as Americans to learn the bits of history that we collectively lie about to ourselves every night so we can fall asleep. While America is only peripherally referenced in the novel, it’s not hard to realize how we fit into the martyrdom of Las Mariposas, the Mirabal sisters. Our inaction jumps off every page, as do the allusions to our eventual occupation of the DR.
Had you heard of the Mirabal sisters before? Are there any other historical wild women I should feature? Let me know in the comments below.