As was the case with other nations coming out of Western occupation or colonialism, the Dominican Republic during the 1960s was marked by political instability. Before the United States’ second occupation of the nation in 1965, Dominicans saw multiple changes of power initiated by assassination, election, and coup. Many who left their country during this period, did so for political reasons.
Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, was 10 years old when her family left the Dominican Republic in 1960. Her father had been involved in underground political activities which sought to oust Rafael Trujillo (who at that point had been in power for 3 decades). Her father’s underground activities were led, in part, by 3 sisters: Patria Mercedes Mirabal, Minerva Mirabal, and Maria Teresa Mirabal. The 3 sisters were murdered months after Alvarez and her family fled to safety in the United States; because of the stark contrast of these similarly timed events, Alvarez says the story of the Mirabal sisters haunted her.
“A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies (Postscript)
In the Time of the Butterflies tells the story of the four Mirabal sisters and their family during the Trujillo regime. Patria, the eldest, was very religious; she got involved with resistance efforts after she witnessed a massacre of revolutionaries while she was on a spiritual retreat. Dedé, the second-born, never became directly involved in the political activities of her sisters but to this day she is the one who keeps her family’s story alive. Minerva, the boldest of all the sisters, was the first to become involved in politics; even in her early political activities, she attracted the attention of Trujillo. While the first 3 daughters were born in succeeding years, Maria Teresa, the youngest was born 9 years after Minerva. She became political after seeing Minerva’s efforts and of the three politically active sisters, Minerva and Maria Teresa were the only to be imprisoned.
The book starts in 1994; Dedé is being interviewed by a “gringa dominicana” who wants to know more about the 3 sisters. Dedé begins the story in 1943 and over 12 chapters (in 3 sections), each sister takes her turn, continuing the story until November, 1960. Though Alvarez’s writing style (in this novel) may border on melodramatic for some, I never mind being emotionally pulled into stories (especially those with historical significance). Furthermore, I was impressed by Alvarez’s storytelling; she took actual events from the Mirabal sisters’ lives and used her imagination to weave together a story of how they came to be assassinated on November 25, 1960.
Like other historical fiction I have read, In the Time of the Butterflies encouraged me to explore more of the political history of the Dominican Republic. Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones introduced me to the 1937 massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic; however I don’t remember to what extent I considered Trujillo’s policies or Dominican lives under his reign when I read it. According to the internet, the massacre was a response to the Haitian government’s support of anti-Trujillistas, the Haitian government’s ordered killing of Trujillo spies operating in Haiti, or a result of Trujillo’s blanquismo campaign. It’s certainly plausible that Trujillo used all of these to reason the massacre, but his blanquismo policies are of particular interest to me. I’ve experienced many conversations about race in the Dominican Republic which have highlighted anti-African sentiments within their nation (and diasporic community). For me, Alvarez’s novel has helped me reflect on those oversimplified conversations by introducing me to some of the politics that privileged this type of thinking.
As an engaging way to learn some history of the Dominican Republic, I’d absolutely recommend this book. If you don’t have time in your reading schedule, there is a cinematic version of the book that was released in 2000 and plenty of online resources available by searching ‘Mirabal Sisters’.
*also posted on Books: Passports to World Challenge group on GoodReads*