NEA Big Read
In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies

by Julia Alvarez

I found in literature a place where the table was set for all. Everybody was welcome. I found true democracy in reading.

Julia Alvarez, 2000 (Courtesy of Caleb Kenna)

Jo Reed: Now, The Big Read...

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn't want to be the only one left to tell their story.

Reed: That was actress Adriana Sananes reading from Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Neko Case: It's a backward look through time of four sisters, the Mirabal sisters, who were revolutionaries, underground revolutionaries during the reign of the dictator Trujillo.

Ilan Stavans: the Dominican Republic. And we go back to see how they became the activists that they are in that crucial, decisive, and ultimately, tragic moment.

Edwidge Danticat: Their personalities are formed before our eyes.

Ana Menendez: And so the book traces their lives from a very young age and it takes us through their marriages, their work in the resistance, right up until their death.

Junot Diaz: I feel like the novel did more for understanding the Mirabal sisters than any historical document that I have come across.

Reed: In 1994, three years after writing How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez wrote her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Set in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were murdered by henchmen of dictator Rafael Trujillo. The girls were known in the underground by their codename Las Mariposas or the butterflies. Max Paul Friedman is an associate professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C.

Max Paul Friedman: Julia Alvarez's own family fled into exile from the Dominican Republic in 1960. Her father had been mixed up in a—in an abortive plot against Trujillo.

Reed: Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: And my uncle was part of that group so he was taken away. So my cousins and my aunt, right where we lived, right next door to us, were suddenly under house arrest and that's when I really became aware and heard about the Mirabal sisters.

In the Time of the Butterflies is a book that helped me understand my country's story and my parents' story. But I think it was a book also that I had to write because it as a debt that I owed. If I can put it in those terms, I—I wasn't thinking of it analytically in the way that I have to repay this debt and tell this story. It was more that it was a story that was a pebble in my shoe that I couldn't shake out.

One thing led to another and here I am an American writer. But this is a story that I left behind and there but for the grace of accidents and God and—and history we got out and they didn't make it. And so what is the responsibility of those that survive? To remember and to remind.

Reed: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: The Columbian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, once said that it's impossible to write fiction about Latin America because what happens there sometimes defies belief. And Trujillo is a case in point. He was the archetypical Latin American strong man. He ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961 as a megalomaniac straight out of a magical realist novel. He's the one who brought the cult of personality to Latin America and turned his country into his personal plaything.

Reed: The daughter of Cuban exiles, Ana Menendez is a novelist and journalist.

Ana Menendez: There's a wonderful line in the book where, I think, it's Dedé quoting from something she's heard on the radio and she says, “Dictatorships are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.”

Reed: The surviving sister, Dedé Mirabal remembers life under the dictatorship. Her interpreter is Minou Tavarez Mirabal, the daughter of Minerva, the most political of Las Mariposas.

Dedé Mirabal: A veces realmeante yo me pregunto, y como era que viviamos en esa forma, donde no habia libertad para nada?

Minou Tavarez-Mirabal: (English interpretation) Sometimes I wonder how we could survive in such a time and in such an ambience of terror and lack of freedom. We couldn't feel free even to think.

Reed: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: He took the capital, Santo Domingo, the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere and renamed after himself Cuidad Trujillo. Then he filled it with 2,000 statues of Trujillo. He named the highest mountain Pico Trujillo. And his hometown region Trujillo Province. He turned the national motto into “God and Trujillo,” had it put on the currency, on license plates, and a giant electric sign looming over the capital.

Reed: Julia Alvarez

Alvarez: Everything from having his picture in your house with a caption that said, “In this House Trujillo Rules.” And that was like a mandatory portrait. There were secret police everywhere, the SIM, servicio de inteligencia militar.

Reed: Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispanola. In 1937, in an effort to cleanse the Dominican side of the island of Haitans, Trujillo orchestrated a massacre that claimed some 15,000 Haitian Lives. This slaughter is the subject of Edwidge Danticat's novel, The Farming of Bones. Born in Haiti, Danticat knows much about life under repression.

Danticat: Living under a dictatorship it often means certainly not trusting your neighbor because you don't know if they'll turn you in. Sometimes they would come for people who you would never see again.

Reed: Born in the Dominican Republic, Junot Diaz now teaches creative writing at MIT. His prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao grapples with the effect of the Trujillo dictatorship and its aftermath on his native land and its people.

Diaz: We're talking about a country where there was a, a pseudo-totalitarian repressive panopticon that kept everybody under surveillance, everybody under control, that was utterly arbitrary and that could direct hideous violence towards families, towards individuals, towards communities and, my God, did it ever. And that violence and those echoes of that violence had a traumatizing effect on the population.

Reed: Julia Alvarez depicts the Mirabal sisters—Patria, Dedé, Minerva, and Maria Teresa or Mate—as ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinarily trying circumstance.

Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: As she writes this novel it seems that what she's trying to do is to get behind and beyond the image of these saintly martyrs to use fiction in order to—to humanize them, to explore their childhoods, to write about their sibling rivalries, their petty hopes and fears. And she manages to take these heroes off their pedestal and bring them closer to us, which in a way honors them more.

Reed: Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American Culture at Amherst College.

Stavans: This is a book about the truth understood from a variety of perspectives and thus as a collective mosaic.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

DEDE: “Ay, Dedé,” that's why I have you. Every foot needs a hard shoe.

“She'll bury us all ... in silk and pearls.”

MINERVA: “Sitting in one or another office of National Police Headquarters.

We end up at the Office of Missing Persons to report what is now being described as the disappearance of Enrique Mirabal.

DEDE: She decided not to read the papers anymore. They were turning her upside down inside. This was an absurd and crazy regime. ...It had to be brought down.

MATE: A national underground is forming. Everyone and everything has a code name. ...Minerva, of course, is Mariposa.

PATRIA: All of them were sure I had been singed to nothing from what they had heard on the radio about/after the bombing. No, Patria Mercedes had come back to tell them all. I didn't keep count on how many had died. I kept my hand on my...

MATE/MINERVA: Periodically, we are taken downstairs to an officers' lounge and questioned. I've only been twice. Both times I was scared so witless that the guards had to carry me along by the arms. Then, of course, I'd get one of my asthma attacks and could barely breathe to talk...

MATE : I argued all up and down, but it was like the time Minerva wanted to do the hunger strike. I said, Minerva, we're already half-starved, what more do you want? She held my hands and said, Then do what you think is right, Mate...

MAMA/MINERVA: “Ay, m'iijta,” she says, “You're going to fight everyone's fight, aren't you?” “It's all the same fight Mama.”

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: And in this particular case we're talking about sisters and wives, women that do not accept the status quo of a macho society and are adamant to change the situation.

Reed: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: Trujillo was obsessed with sexual conquests. He literally employed a high ranking palace official whose duties were to round up beautiful women for a selection ceremony three times a week from whom Trujillo could select his bedmates. He liked to show up at weddings and claim the wedding night for himself. The background of the constant fear of sexual violence permeated Dominican society and is a constant theme in the novel as well. It's one of the reasons that the Mirabal sisters came to oppose him.

Reed: Ana Menendez.

Menendez: He was a rapacious guy. Really a predatory type of leader not just in the sense of torture and so forth, but with women. He'd just go after the women. He'd be at a party and take a fancy to somebody and woe be you.

Reed: Minerva was the most political of the Mirabal sisters, and the first to challenge the Trujillo regime. Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: Minerva was definitely an idealist from very young.

Reed: Junot Diaz

Diaz: The girl was nobody's fool almost from the start. You meet some kids, man, and some kids are just—you can see it in them. But it's not just enough to say that she was born with it, I think that she came to a moral growth.

Reed: Dedé Mirabal and Minou Tavarez-Mirabal

Dedé: (Speaking in Spanish) Que ella fuera muy nina libertad ...

Minou: (English voiceover) She says that Minerva was so beautiful and so intelligent that her mother and her father were afraid to let her go to the university or to places because they don't want that Trujillo could see her and be interested in her. She met him in a party. And so he placed his eyes on her and he organized another party in order to have the opportunity to meet her.

Reed: Musician Neko Case.

Case: Trujillo was trying to, you know, get fresh with her and so she slaps him. And then there's some sort of commotion at this state dinner and her family whisks her away.

Reed: Junot Diaz

Diaz: It's easy to simplify matters that she resisted and all of the other victims of Trujillo didn't resist. I think that what happened in Minerva's case is very, very complex. It's not just a matter that she said no. I think Minerva is one of these real kick-ass Dominican sisters, that, I mean honestly, my diaspora of the community that I belong to here in the U.S. couldn't exist without them. In fact, they're the ones who powered us.

Reed: First, Minerva publicly defies Trujillo; then, the Mirabal family leaves an official party before the dictator, an offense punishable under the law. The result is the arrest of their father, Enrique.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

We end up at the Office of Missing Persons to report what is now being described as the disappearance of Enrique Mirabal. The place is packed. The petition right before ours is being filed by an elderly man reporting a missing son, one of his thirteen. I help him fill out his forms since he isn't any good at his letters he explains. In confidence, the old man tells me that he gave all thirteen sons the same name to try to outwit the regime. Whichever son is caught can swear he isn't the brother they want. I laugh at the ingenuity of my poor trapped countryman. Now, it's our turn. But unfortunately the head officer announces that the office is closing in five minutes. Mamá sighs when I tell her that we have to come back tomorrow, “Ay, m'iijta,” she says, “You're going to fight everyone's fight, aren't you?” “It's all the same fight Mamá,” I tell her.

Reed: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history of just the facts. That I knew that—that I was moving into the province of their characters and who were these women. And why and how had they become politicized? That was a really big question in my head, what politicizes a person?

María Teresa, I think, it was the romance of it. And I'm not saying that to belittle her. She was young. She had an older sister she worshiped, Minerva. And this was the sister she looked up to and these ideals were wonderful, beautiful ideals.

Reed: Dominican politician and daughter of Minerva and slain revolutionary, Manolo Tavarez, Minou Tavarez-Mirabal.

Minou Tavarez-Mirabal: Minerva was leader of everyone in the family, especially to María Teresa. So María Teresa always was following her.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

Manolo and Minerva have explained everything. A national underground is forming. Everyone and everything has a code name. Manolo is Enriquillo after the great Taíno chieftain. And Minerva, of course, is Mariposa. If I were to say tennis shoes, you'd know we were talking about ammunition. The pineapple for the picnic are the grenades. It's like a trick language. I told Minerva and Manolo right out I wanted to join. I could feel my breath coming short with the excitement of it all.

Reed: Finally, there's Patria, the oldest and most religious sister, who came to the revolution through a crisis of faith.

Case: Patria, I think, was maybe my favorite.

Reed: Neko Case.

Case: She had married very young and had two children and a baby who had died. And she seemed like the most careful and the most motherly, but out of her sense of motherhood, and not just motherhood for her own children but motherhood for all people, and the—the teachings of Christ and all of the things that she believed from Catholicism, she couldn't bear to see humanity treated this way. She kind of thought of humanity as her child and she needed to defend it.

Reed: Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: Her faith was very, very important to her. And became more and more of a crisis as the Catholic Church was involved more and more with the dictatorship.

Reed: In June 1959, Patria attends a spiritual retreat in the mountains where she finds herself witness to a massacre of revolutionaries.

Neko Case.

Case: There are rebels that have encamped nearby or hiding nearby and they're being hunted down by these agents of Trujillo and they don't care who gets in the way. And so these people are fleeing across the front of where this retreat is taking place in the mountains. And so there was a bunch of people hurt and she watched a few young men, who were no older than her own son, who was 18 at the time, gunned down right in front of her. And she—she kind of says that those young men became her sons at that moment.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

Coming down that mountain I was a changed woman. I may have worn the same sweet face but now I was carrying not just my child, but that dead boy as well. My stillborn of 13 years ago, my murdered son of a few hours ago. They met me on the road coming into town. All of them were sure I had been singed to nothing from what they had heard on the radio about the bombing. No, Patria Mercedes had come back to tell them all, tell them all. But I couldn't speak.

Reed: Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez : It's a book that helped me understand where courage comes from and it comes from many different places.

Danticat: For me it's about resilience and about resistance at the same time.

Reed: When Minerva and Mate are inevitably arrested, Mate manages to keep a diary in prison.

Case: Yeah, I was really glad that it was her diary entries that were the voice of their time in prison.

Reed: Neko Case.

Case: It's like Minerva is pulling her through these growing pains. And this girl is, you know, having these really painful epiphanies throughout her life that her sister is kind of dragging her into.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

Friday, April 1 (71 days)

Minerva and I just had a talk about morale. She says she's noticed how upset I've been lately.

I am upset. We could have been out with Miriam and Dulce a whole week ago. But no, we Mirabals had to set a good example.

I argued all up and down, but it was like the time Minerva wanted to do the hunger strike. I said, Minerva, we're already half-starved, what more do you want?

She held my hands and said, Then do what you think is right, Mate.

Of course, I ended up on a hunger strike, too. (Santicl ó snuck me in some chocolates, thank God, and rounds of cassava or I would have starved.)

This time, too, I'd have taken that pardon. But what was I supposed to do? Leave Minerva behind to be a martyr all by herself?

Reed: Writer Ana Menendez. 

Menendez: It was miraculous. I mean I think they got the sense that well, what else were going to do? And this is the mark of a—of a true hero, right, where it's not an option. Whereas most of us would be like, “What are you kidding me? I'm just going to hunker down in my house and wait until this passes. Or I'm going to leave.”

Reed: Edwidge Danticat

Danticat: And there you have out of sort of the least expected space this sort of cluster of resistance and how beautiful that they are given this label of the butterflies. Because you have these women who are willing to transform themselves in order to transform a nation.

Alvarez : Nineteen Sixty, November 25.

Reed: Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: They were coming back from seeing their husbands in prison. They were ambushed by the SIM. No one knows what those last moments were like. In terms of the truth councils that happened later in the murders and what they confessed to was that each one was taken out of the car, clubbed to death and then they were put back in the car, as was the driver, Rufino, and they were driven up to the side of the mountain, and the car was hurled over the side to—to make it look like a car accident. So that's what we know about their final moments.

Reed: Minou Tavarez-Mirabal.

Tavarez-Mirabal: I think it's a—it's a very touching novel. And it has helped to spread the—the history of my mother and my aunts around the world. You know I have received a letter from Nepal or in the most little town in India or in Chile.

Reed: Dedé Mirabal.

Dedé Mirabal: (Speaking in Spanish) Es una novela de ficcion, vas a ver es mucho real ...

Mirabal-Tavarez: (English voiceover). It's a fictional book but it is based on factual events. It's a lovely book.

Reed: Julia Alvarez

Alvarez: What I felt was important at the end what that she felt that I captured the character of each of her sisters. That was for me the greatest approval that she could give me.

Reed: Neko Case

Case: It's easy to kind of just take Dedé for granted from the beginning to the end because we know she's not going to die and thank goodness she was left.

Reed: Junot Diaz.

Diaz: The story is only possible because of her presence. The story is only possible because of her advocacy. The story is only possible because she herself continues to remind not only the Dominican Republic but the Americas as a whole of the heroism of these very, very young women.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: Think to yourself, what if one of your siblings had been the Mirabals. What if your sister, living under a dictatorship, had decided in spite of herself to speak out. And you in some ways were connected to that act of rebellion, your sister is no longer around, and you are speaking for her.

Reed: Junot Diaz.

Diaz: Dedé is the caretaker to the legacy of her family and that legacy is one of survival, of struggle for liberation, and of tremendous pain.

Reed: Julia Alvarez.

Alvarez: What happened ironically when she lost her sisters was that she was the one left behind, not only to raise the family but to keep the story alive. And to speak truth to power. So I think that was something—a role that she's really grown into. It's as if she's become all four of them folded into one.

Adriana Sananes reads from In the Time of the Butterflies...

Usually at night, I hear them just as I'm falling asleep. Sometimes I lie at the very brink of forgetfulness waiting as if their arrival is my signal that I can fall asleep. But tonight is quieter than I can remember. Concentrate, Dedé, I say. But all I hear is my own breathing and the blessed silence of those cool clear nights under the anacahuita tree before anyone breaths a word of the future. And I see them all there in my memory as still as statues, Mamá and Papá and Minerva and Mate and Patria. And I'm thinking something is missing now. And I count them all twice before I realize it's me. Dedé. It's me. The one who survived to tell the story.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Excerpts from In the Time of the Butterflies were read by Adriana Sananes.

Excerpts from “Ay Mariposa,” written and performed by Pedro Luis Ferrer and “Balloon Escapes,” orchestrated and conducted by Carter Burwell, both were used courtesy of Universal Music Group. “En el Campo,” performed by NEA National Heritage Fellow Edwin Colon Zayas, used courtesy of Mr. Colon Zayas. Excerpt from “Rift,” composed and performed by Jeffrey Roden, used courtesy of Jeffrey Roden and New Albion Records. Original Guitar Music composed, performed, and used courtesy of Jorge F. Hernandez. Excerpts from the following music used courtesy of Naxos of America, Incorporated: Bach's “Sonata in G minor,” performed by José Antonio Escobar; Brouwer's “Un dia de Noviembre,” performed by Graham Anthony Devine; Pujol's “Melancol í a” performed by Ricardo Cobo; and Ravel's “Gaspard de la Nuit,” performed by François-Joël Thiollier.

Thanks to Ted Libbey and to our contributors: Neko Case, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Max Paul Friedman, Ana Menendez, Ilan Stavans, and special thanks to Dedé Mirabal, Minou Tavarez-Mirabal, and of course, Julia Alvarez.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm your host and executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. For more information about The Big Read, go to That's

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