In the Time of the Butterflies


By Julia Alvarez

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By the international bestselling author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and AfterlifeIn the Time of the Butterflies, first published in 1994, is "beautiful, heartbreaking and alive … a lyrical work of historical fiction based on the story of the Mirabal sisters, revolutionary heroes who had opposed and fought against Trujillo." (Concepción de León, New York Times)

"Alvarez helped blaze the trail for Latina authors to break into the literary mainstream, with novels like In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents winning praise from critics and gracing best-seller lists across the Americas."—Francisco Cantú, The New York Times Book Review

"This Julia Alvarez classic is a must-read for anyone of Latinx descent." —
"A gorgeous and sensitive novel . . . A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion." —People
"Shimmering . . . Valuable and necessary." —Los Angeles Times

"A magnificent treasure for all cultures and all time.” St. Petersburg Times
"Alvarez does a remarkable job illustrating the ruinous effect the 30-year dictatorship had on the Dominican Republic and the very real human cost it entailed."—
It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters–Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé–speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from secret crushes to gunrunning, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human costs of political oppression.



1938 to 1946



circa 1943

She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car. The woman will never find the old house behind the hedge of towering hibiscus at the bend of the dirt road. Not a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names! Dedé had taken the call over at the little museum this morning.

Could the woman please come over and talk to Dedé about the Mirabal sisters? She is originally from here but has lived many years in the States, for which she is sorry since her Spanish is not so good. The Mirabal sisters are not known there, for which she is also sorry for it is a crime that they should be forgotten, these unsung heroines of the underground, et cetera.

Oh dear, another one. Now after thirty-four years, the commemorations and interviews and presentations of posthumous honors have almost stopped, so that for months at a time Dedé is able to take up her own life again. But she's long since resigned herself to Novembers. Every year as the 25th rolls around, the television crews drive up. There's the obligatory interview. Then, the big celebration over at the museum, the delegations from as far away as Peru and Paraguay, an ordeal really, making that many little party sandwiches and the nephews and nieces not always showing up in time to help. But this is March, ¡María santísima! Doesn't she have seven more months of anonymity?

"How about this afternoon? I do have a later commitment," Dedé lies to the voice. She has to. Otherwise, they go on and on, asking the most impertinent questions.

There is a veritable racket of gratitude on the other end, and Dedé has to smile at some of the imported nonsense of this woman's Spanish. "I am so compromised," she is saying, "by the openness of your warm manner."

"So if I'm coming from Santiago, I drive on past Salcedo?" the woman asks.

"Exactamente. And then where you see a great big anacahuita tree, you turn left."

"A . . . great. . . big . . . tree . . ." the woman repeats. She is writing all this down! "I turn left. What's the name of the street?"

"It's just the road by the anacahuita tree. We don't name them," Dedé says, driven to doodling to contain her impatience. On the back of an envelope left beside the museum phone, she has sketched an enormous tree, laden with flowers, the branches squirreling over the flap. "You see, most of the campesinos around here can't read, so it wouldn't do us any good to put names on the roads."

The voice laughs, embarrassed. "Of course. You must think I'm so outside of things." Tan afuera de la cosa.

Dedé bites her lip. "Not at all," she lies. "I'll see you this afternoon then."

"About what time?" the voice wants to know.

Oh yes. The gringos need a time. But there isn't a clock time for this kind of just-right moment. "Any time after three or three-thirty, four-ish."

"Dominican time, eh?" The woman laughs.

"¡Exactamente!" Finally, the woman is getting the hang of how things are done here. Even after she has laid the receiver in its cradle, Dedé goes on elaborating the root system of her anacahuita tree, shading the branches, and then for the fun of it, opening and closing the flap of the envelope to watch the tree come apart and then back together again.

In the garden, Dedé is surprised to hear the radio in the outdoor kitchen announce that it is only three o'clock. She has been waiting expectantly since after lunch, tidying up the patch of garden this American woman will be able to see from the galería. This is certainly one reason why Dedé shies from these interviews. Before she knows it, she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.

Usually, if she works it right—a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in—usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedé lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?

She bends to her special beauty, the butterfly orchid she smuggled back from Hawaii two years ago. For three years in a row Dedé has won a trip, the prize for making the most sales of anyone in her company. Her niece Minou has noted more than once the irony of Dedé's "new" profession, actually embarked upon a decade ago, after her divorce. She is the company's top life insurance salesperson. Everyone wants to buy a policy from the woman who just missed being killed along with her three sisters. Can she help it?

The slamming of a car door startles Dedé. When she calms herself she finds she has snipped her prize butterfly orchid. She picks up the fallen blossom and trims the stem, wincing. Perhaps this is the only way to grieve the big things—in snippets, pinches, little sips of sadness.

But really, this woman should shut car doors with less violence. Spare an aging woman's nerves. And I'm not the only one, Dedé thinks. Any Dominican of a certain generation would have jumped at that gunshot sound.

She walks the woman quickly through the house, Mamá's bedroom, mine and Patria's, but mostly mine since Patria married so young, Minerva and María Teresa's. The other bedroom she does not say was her father's after he and Mamá stopped sleeping together. There are the three pictures of the girls, old favorites that are now emblazoned on the posters every November, making these once intimate snapshots seem too famous to be the sisters she knew.

Dedé has placed a silk orchid in a vase on the little table below them. She still feels guilty about not continuing Mamá's tribute of a fresh blossom for the girls every day. But the truth is, she doesn't have the time anymore, with a job, the museum, a household to run. You can't be a modern woman and insist on the old sentimentalities. And who was the fresh orchid for, anyway? Dedé looks up at those young faces, and she knows it is herself at that age she misses the most.

The interview woman stops before the portraits, and Dedé waits for her to ask which one was which or how old they were when these were taken, facts Dedé has at the ready, having delivered them so many times. But instead the thin waif of a woman asks, "And where are you?"

Dedé laughs uneasily. It's as if the woman has read her mind. "I have this hallway just for the girls," she says. Over the woman's shoulder, she sees she has left the door to her room ajar, her nightgown flung with distressing abandon on her bed. She wishes she had gone through the house and shut the doors to the bedrooms.

"No, I mean, where are you in the sequence, the youngest, the oldest?"

So the woman has not read any of the articles or biographies around. Dedé is relieved. This means that they can spend the time talking about the simple facts that give Dedé the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too—birthdays and weddings and new babies, the peaks in that graph of normalcy.

Dedé goes through the sequence.

"So fast in age," the woman notes, using an awkward phrase.

Dedé nods. "The first three of us were born close, but in other ways, you see, we were so different."

"Oh?" the woman asks.

"Yes, so different. Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights." Dedé realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva, as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful, intelligent, high-minded Minerva. "And María Teresa, ay, Dios," Dedé sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself. "Still a girl when she died, pobrecita, just turned twenty-five." Dedé moves on to the last picture and rights the frame. "Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important."

"Always?" the woman says, just the slightest challenge in her voice.

"Always," Dedé affirms, used to this fixed, monolithic language around interviewers and mythologizers of her sisters. "Well, almost always."

She walks the woman out of the house into the galería where the rocking chairs wait. A kitten lies recklessly under the runners, and she shoos it away. "What is it you want to know?" Dedé asks bluntly. And then because the question does seem to rudely call the woman to account for herself, she adds, "Because there is so much to tell."

The woman laughs as she says, "Tell me all of it."

Dedé looks at her watch as a polite reminder to the woman that the visit is circumscribed. "There are books and articles. I could have Tono at the museum show you the letters and diaries."

"That would be great," the woman says, staring at the orchid Dedé is still holding in her hand. Obviously, she wants more. She looks up, shyly. "I just have to say, it's really so easy to talk to you. I mean, you're so open and cheerful. How do you keep such a tragedy from taking you under? I'm not sure I am explaining myself?"

Dedé sighs. Yes, the woman is making perfect sense. She thinks of an article she read at the beauty salon, by a Jewish lady who survived a concentration camp. "There were many many happy years. I remember those. I try anyhow. I tell myself, Dedé, concentrate on the positive! My niece Minou tells me I am doing some transcending meditation, something like that. She took the course in the capital.

"I'll tell myself, Dedé, in your memory it is such and such a day, and I start over, playing the happy moment in my head. This is my movies—I have no television here."

"It works?"

"Of course," Dedé says, almost fiercely. And when it doesn't work, she thinks, I get stuck playing the same bad moment. But why speak of that.

"Tell me about one of those moments," the woman asks, her face naked with curiosity. She looks down quickly as if to hide it.

Dedé hesitates, but her mind is already racing backwards, year by year by year, to the moment she has fixed in her memory as zero.

She remembers a clear moonlit night before the future began. They are sitting in the cool darkness under the anacahuita tree in the front yard, in the rockers, telling stories, drinking guanabana juice. Good for the nerves, Mamá always says.

They're all there, Mamá, Papá, Patria-Minerva-Dedé. Bang-bang-bang, their father likes to joke, aiming a finger pistol at each one, as if he were shooting them, not boasting about having sired them. Three girls, each born within a year of the other! And then, nine years later, María Teresa, his final desperate attempt at a boy misfiring.

Their father has his slippers on, one foot hooked behind the other. Every once in a while Dedé hears the clink of the rum bottle against the rim of his glass.

Many a night, and this night is no different, a shy voice calls out of the darkness, begging their pardon. Could they spare a calmante for a sick child out of their stock of kindness? Would they have some tobacco for a tired old man who spent the day grating yucca?

Their father gets up, swaying a little with drink and tiredness, and opens up the store. The campesino goes off with his medicine, a couple of cigars, a few mints for the godchildren. Dedé tells her father that she doesn't know how they do as well as they do, the way he gives everything away. But her father just puts his arm around her, and says, "Ay, Dedé, that's why I have you. Every soft foot needs a hard shoe.

"She'll bury us all," her father adds, laughing, "in silk and pearls." Dedé hears again the clink of the rum bottle. "Yes, for sure, our Dedé here is going to be the millionaire in the family."

"And me, Papá, and me?" María Teresa pipes up in her little girl's voice, not wanting to be left out of the future.

"You, mi ñapita, you'll be our little coquette. You'll make a lot of men's—"

Their mother coughs her correcting-your-manners cough.

"—a lot of men's mouths water," their father concludes.

María Teresa groans. At eight years old, in her long braids and checkered blouse, the only future the baby wants is one that will make her own mouth water, sweets and gifts in big boxes that clatter with something fun inside when she shakes them.

"What of me, Papá?" Patria asks more quietly. It is difficult to imagine Patria unmarried without a baby on her lap, but Dedé's memory is playing dolls with the past. She has sat them down that clear, cool night before the future begins, Mamá and Papá and their four pretty girls, no one added, no one taken away. Papá calls on Mamá to help him out with his fortune-telling. Especially—though he doesn't say this—if she's going to censor the clairvoyance of his several glasses of rum. "What would you say, Mamá, about our Patria?"

"You know, Enrique, that I don't believe in fortunes," Mamá says evenly. "Padre Ignacio says fortunes are for those without faith." In her mother's tone, Dedé can already hear the distance that will come between her parents. Looking back, she thinks, Ay, Mamá, ease up a little on those commandments. Work out the Christian math of how you give a little and you get it back a hundredfold. But thinking about her own divorce, Dedé admits the math doesn't always work out. If you multiply by zero, you still get zero, and a thousand heartaches.

"I don't believe in fortunes either," Patria says quickly. She's as religious as Mamá, that one. "But Papá isn't really telling fortunes."

Minerva agrees. "Papá's just confessing what he thinks are our strengths." She stresses the verb confessing as if their father were actually being pious in looking ahead for his daughters. "Isn't that so, Papá?"

"Sí, señorita," Papá burps, slurring his words. It's almost time to go in.

"Also," Minerva adds, "Padre Ignacio condemns fortunes only if you believe a human being knows what only God can know." That one can't leave well enough alone.

"Some of us know it all," Mamá says curtly

María Teresa defends her adored older sister. "It isn't a sin, Mamá, it isn't. Berto and Raúl have this game from New York. Padre Ignacio played it with us. It's a board with a little glass you move around, and it tells the future!" Everybody laughs, even their mother, for María Teresa's voice is bursting with gullible excitement. The baby stops, suddenly, in a pout. Her feelings get hurt so easily. On Minerva's urging, she goes on in a little voice. "I asked the talking board what I would be when I grew up, and it said a lawyer."

They all hold back their laughter this time, for of course, María Teresa is parroting her big sister's plans. For years Minerva has been agitating to go to law school.

"Ay, Dios mío, spare me." Mamá sighs, but playfulness has come back into her voice. "Just what we need, skirts in the law!"

"It is just what this country needs." Minerva's voice has the steely sureness it gets whenever she talks politics. She has begun talking politics a lot. Mamá says she's running around with the Perozo girl too much. "It's about time we women had a voice in running our country."

"You and Trujillo," Papá says a little loudly, and in this clear peaceful night they all fall silent. Suddenly, the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security. Don Enrique claims Trujillo needs help in running this country. Don Enrique's daughter says it's about time women took over the government. Words repeated, distorted, words recreated by those who might bear them a grudge, words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in when their bodies are found dumped in a ditch, their tongues cut off for speaking too much.

Now, as if drops of rain had started falling—though the night is as clear as the sound of a bell—they hurry in, gathering their shawls and drinks, leaving the rockers for the yardboy to bring in. María Teresa squeals when she steps on a stone. "I thought it was el cuco," she moans.

As Dedé is helping her father step safely up the stairs of the galería, she realizes that hers is the only future he really told. María Teresa's was a tease, and Papá never got to Minerva's or Patria's on account of Mamá's disapproval. 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.



1938, 1941, 1944

I don't know who talked Papá into sending us away to school. Seems like it would have taken the same angel who announced to Mary that she was pregnant with God and got her to be glad about it.

The four of us had to ask permission for everything: to walk to the fields to see the tobacco filling out; to go to the lagoon and dip our feet on a hot day; to stand in front of the store and pet the horses as the men loaded up their wagons with supplies.

Sometimes, watching the rabbits in their pens, I'd think, I'm no different from you, poor things. One time, I opened a cage to set a half-grown doe free. I even gave her a slap to get her going.

But she wouldn't budge! She was used to her little pen. I kept slapping her, harder each time, until she started whimpering like a scared child. I was the one hurting her, insisting she be free.

Silly bunny, I thought. You're nothing at all like me.

It started with Patria wanting to be a nun. Mamá was all for having a religious in the family, but Papá did not approve in the least. More than once, he said that Patria as a nun would be a waste of a pretty girl. He only said that once in front of Mamá, but he repeated it often enough to me.

Finally, Papá gave in to Mamá. He said Patria could go away to a convent school if it wasn't one just for becoming a nun. Mamá agreed.

So, when it came time for Patria to go down to Inmaculada Concepción, I asked Papá if I could go along. That way I could chaperone my older sister, who was already a grownup señorita. (And she had told me all about how girls become señoritas, too.)

Papá laughed, his eyes flashing proudly at me. The others said I was his favorite. I don't know why since I was the one always standing up to him. He pulled me to his lap and said, "And who is going to chaperone you?"

"Dedé," I said, so all three of us could go together. He pulled a long face. "If all my little chickens go, what will become of me?"

I thought he was joking, but his eyes had their serious look. "Papá," I informed him, "you might as well get used to it. In a few years, we're all going to marry and leave you."

For days he quoted me, shaking his head sadly and concluding, "A daughter is a needle in the heart."

Mamá didn't like him saying so. She thought he was being critical because their only son had died a week after he was born. And just three years ago, María Teresa was born a girl instead of a boy. Anyhow, Mamá didn't think it was a bad idea to send all three of us away. "Enrique, those girls need some learning. Look at us." Mamá had never admitted it, but I suspected she couldn't even read.

"What's wrong with us?" Papá countered, gesturing out the window where wagons waited to be loaded before his warehouses. In the last few years, Papá had made a lot of money from his farm. Now we had class. And, Mamá argued, we needed the education to go along with our cash.

Papá caved in again, but said one of us had to stay to help mind the store. He always had to add a little something to whatever Mamá came up with. Mamá said he was just putting his mark on everything so no one could say Enrique Mirabal didn't wear the pants in his family.

I knew what he was up to all right. When Papá asked which one of us would stay as his little helper, he looked directly at me.

I didn't say a word. I kept studying the floor like maybe my school lessons were chalked on those boards. I didn't need to worry. Dedé always was the smiling little miss. "I'll stay and help, Papá."

Papá looked surprised because really Dedé was a year older than me. She and Patria should have been the two to go away. But then, Papá thought it over and said Dedé could go along, too. So it was settled, all three of us would go to Inmaculada Concepción. Me and Patria would start in the fall, and Dedé would follow in January since Papá wanted the math whiz to help with the books during the busy harvest season.

And that's how I got free. I don't mean just going to sleepaway school on a train with a trunkful of new things. I mean in my head after I got to Inmaculada and met Sinita and saw what happened to Lina and realized that I'd just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.

First time I met Sinita she was sitting in the parlor where Sor Asunción was greeting all the new pupils and their mothers. She was all by herself, a skinny girl with a sour look on her face and pokey elbows to match. She was dressed in black, which was odd as most children weren't put in mourning clothes until they were at least fifteen. And this little girl didn't look any older than me, and I was only twelve. Though I would have argued with anyone who told me I was just a kid!

I watched her. She seemed as bored as I was with all the polite talk in that parlor. It was like a heavy shaking of talcum powder in the brain hearing all those mothers complimenting each other's daughters and lisping back in good Castilian to the Sisters of the Merciful Mother. Where was this girl's mother? I wondered. She sat alone, glaring at everybody, as if she would pick a fight if you asked her where her mother was. I could see, though, that she was sitting on her hands and biting her bottom lip so as not to cry. The straps on her shoes had been cut off to look like flats, but they looked worn out, was what they looked like.

I got up and pretended to study the pictures on the walls like I was a lover of religious art. When I got to the Merciful Mother right above Sinita's head, I reached in my pocket and pulled out the button I'd found on the train. It was sparkly like a diamond and had a little hole in back so you could thread a ribbon through it and wear it like a romantic lady's choker necklace. It wasn't something I'd do, but I could see the button would make a good trade with someone inclined in that direction.

I held it out to her. I didn't know what to say, and it probably wouldn't have helped anyway. She picked it up, turned it all around, and then set it back down in my palm. "I don't want your charity."

I felt an angry tightness in my chest. "It's just a friendship button."

She looked at me a moment, a deciding look like she couldn't be sure of anybody. "Why didn't you just say so?" She grinned as if we were already friends and could tease each other.

"I did just say so," I said. I opened up my hand and offered her the button again. This time she took it.

After our mothers left, we stood on line while a list was made of everything in our bags. I noticed that along with not having a mother to bring her, Sinita didn't own much either. Everything she had was tied up in a bundle, and when Sor Milagros wrote it out, all it took was a couple of lines: 3 change of underwear, 4 pair of socks, brush and comb, towel and nightdress. Sinita offered the sparkly button, but Sor Milagros said it wasn't necessary to write that down.

"Charity student," the gossip went round. "So?" I challenged the giggly girl with curls like hiccups, who whispered it to me. She shut up real quick. It made me glad all over again I'd given Sinita that button.

Afterwards, we were taken into an assembly hall and given all sorts of welcomes. Then Sor Milagros, who was in charge of the tens through twelves, took our smaller group upstairs into the dormitory hall we would share. Our side-by-side beds were already set up for the night with mosquito nets. It looked like a room of little bridal veils.

Sor Milagros said she would now assign us our beds according to our last names. Sinita raised her hand and asked if her bed couldn't be next to mine. Sor Milagros hesitated, but then a sweet look came on her face. Sure, she said. But when some other girls asked, she said no. I spoke right up, "I don't think it's fair if you just make an exception for us."

Sor Milagros looked mighty surprised. I suppose being a nun and all, not many people told her what was wrong and right. Suddenly, it struck me, too, that this plump little nun with a bit of her gray hair showing under her headdress wasn't Mamá or Papá I could argue things with. I was on the point of apologizing, but Sor Milagros just smiled her gap-toothed smile and said, "All right, I'll allow you all to choose your own beds. But at the first sign of argument"—some of the girls had already sprung towards the best beds by the window and were fighting about who got there first—" we'll go back to alphabetical. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sor Milagros," we chorused.

She came up to me and took my face in her hands. "What's your name?" she wanted to know.

I gave her my name, and she repeated it several times like she was tasting it. Then she smiled like it tasted just fine. She looked over at Sinita, whom they all seemed partial to, and said, "Take care of our dear Sinita."

"I will," I said, standing up straight like I'd been given a mission. And that's what it turned out to be, all right.

A few days later, Sor Milagros gathered us all around for a little talk. Personal hygiene, she called it. I knew right away it would be about interesting things described in the most uninteresting way.


  • "Wonderful . . . Skillfully weaves fact and fiction, building to a gut-wrenching climax." Newsweek

    "A gorgeous and sensitive novel . . . A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion." —People

    "Shimmering . . . Valuable and necessary." —Los Angeles Times

    "Extraordinary." —Harper's Bazaar

    "Haunting." —New York Newsday

    "A poignant tale of courage and hope . . . As much an inspiration as it is a tragedy." —Ms.

    "Imagination and history in sublime combination . . . Read this book for the novel it is. Read this book for the place it takes you. Read this book and take courage." —The Denver Post

On Sale
Jan 12, 2010
Page Count
352 pages
Algonquin Books

Julia Alvarez

About the Author

Julia Alvarez left the Dominican Republic for the United States in 1960 at the age of ten. She is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, three collections of poetry, and eleven books for children and young adults. She has taught and mentored writers in schools and communities across America and, until her retirement in 2016, was a writer in residence at Middlebury College. Her work has garnered wide recognition, including a Latina Leader Award in Literature from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, the Woman of the Year by Latina magazine, and inclusion in the New York Public Library’s program “The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, from John Donne to Julia Alvarez.” In the Time of the Butterflies, with over one million copies in print, was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts for its national Big Read program, and in 2013 President Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her extraordinary storytelling.

Learn more about this author