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In the Time of the Butterflies

By Heather Oman

I first met the Mirabal sisters in a book club.   I found them in the pages of Julie Alvarez’s book _In the Time of the Butterflies_.  It’s true that Alvarez took some liberties with their story: she added characters, changed certain events, and gave the sister’s distinct voices that may or may not accurately reflect who the women were.  Still, their lives and their sacrifice have stayed with me, ever since we met.

The Mirabals were natives of the Dominican Republic, and lived there during the reign of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1930-1961. They were 4 sisters who lived a quiet life, until they were introduced to some of the darker aspects of their government.  Minerva, the second sister, a woman of great beauty with a rebellious spirit, was the first of her sisters to get involved in anti-government activities.  She and her husband, Manolo, were part of an underground resistance group called “The 14th of June Movement.”  The name of the group came from the day that a failed attempt to topple Trujillo’s regime was conducted.  2 of the sisters, Patria and Maria Teresa, along with their husbands, eventually joined their sister and brother in law in the fight.  The fourth sister, Dede, did not participate.

I won’t detail the political maneuverings, but needless to say, their resistance to the regime did not go unnoticed by Trujillo, also called “El Jefe”, and the sisters and their husbands were jailed several times.  However, the sisters efforts had also not gone unnoticed by the people, and they became fairly popular public figures.  Their code name was “La Mariposas”–the Butterflies.

Trujillo ultimately dealt with the Mirabals in the way he dealt with anybody who opposed him.  He had them assassinated, along with their driver, on November 25th, 1960, as they returned from visiting their husbands in prison.    Their bodies were found in the car, presumably to make it look like they died in a car accident that resulted in the car falling off of a cliff.   However, their bodies were marked in such a way that made it clear that they were beaten and strangled to death.

The deaths of the sisters shook the Dominican people, and it has been suggested that this was the catalyst for the people ultimately rising up against Trujillo.  He was assassinated 6 months later, in May of 1961.   In 1999, The United Nations General Assembly designated November 25th as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Woman, in commemoration of the sisters.

Ok, you are probably now thinking, Wow, this is all very interesting and all, but what’s the point?

Here’s my point. Besides being revolutionaries, the Mirabals were, all of them, mothers.

They were women who believed in a cause, and they fought for that cause.  But in that fight, they made the ultimate sacrifice, and they left their children motherless.  They deliberately sought out a course of action that was dangerous to themselves and to their families.  This, more than anything else they accomplished, totally blows my mind.

I don’t think I could have done what these women did.  Ultimately, you could say they served their country well.  And they did not die in vain, as their deaths led to the downfall of an evil dictator.  But in serving their country, did they fail to serve their family?  Is the greater sacrifice always the better one?  Also, my knowledge of the history of the Dominican Republic is hugely limited, so I can’t even say that whatever government replaced Trujillo was better.  I don’t know if the sisters’ sacrifice provided a better life for their children, or if Trujillo’s death plunged the country into chaos.  The enormity and uncertainty of the outcome of such an event might be enough for me to stay put and make sure my children stayed safe.  After all, that seems to be the natural course of action for any mother.  Yet these women did anything but that.  Would you be willing to risk your family like that?

Like I said, I don’t think I could. But I’m clearly a wuss.  And clearly not cut out to save the world.

If you are interested in meeting these women, Julia Alvarez can totally hook you up.  It’s a great read, and a good history lesson for those of us who are basically ignorant Americans.  And I guarantee you will be touched by the lives of these mothers who, at all costs, fought for what they believed in.

If you don’t have time to read the book, check out the movie.  It stars Selma Hayek, so even your husband will be willing to watch it, too.

About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

10 thoughts on “In the Time of the Butterflies”

  1. Wow. I don't think I'm cut from Revolutionary cloth, either. But, I have to ask myself, would that be the case if our own country were to suddely lose sight of the Constitution, human rights and civil liberties… It's hard to tell what we would do from our safe and comfortable vantage point.

    From here, I can't imagine my children losing their mother- however, at this point, I don't have to consider them living under a totalitarian dictatorship, either. (whatever anyone's thoughts on the current administration aside).

    It would seem, contemplating history, our true selves can surprise us when times are full of fire.

    Mariposa. How beautiful- I will be looking for this and reading it soon. Thanks for the review, and I'm looking forward to you being here at Segullah.

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  2. I'm with Tracy M. I don't want to have to be a revolutionary. I wouldn't want to endanger my children like that or risk leaving them motherless. On the other hand, if taking that risk meant the difference between them growing up under such terrible conditions, then I think it's a risk I would have to take.

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  3. Heather, what a thought-provoking post. Segullah is lucky to have you! I need to look up that book.

    I don't know if I could have or should have sacrificed my kids to help bring down a dictator. But that's what those women chose to do, and I hope that their kids honored the ideals their mothers fought for.

    To derail the thread a little: there are less-dramatic parallels to the working-mother / SAHM debate. Is it worth sacrificing the time with your kids so that you can make a valuable, but non-SAHM contribution to the world? For some people it absolutely is; for others, no.

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  4. This is one of my favorite books. (The movie is great as well.)

    I would love to say that I'd give my life for a cause, but right now I don't think I could. Sometimes your passions find you, though, as Terry Tempest Williams says….so perhaps if it were for something that I cared very deeply for, I could dedicate my life to it.

    Today, though, I have to say that I would rather fight for my children. If I were living in the DR right now and Trujillo was still in power, I'd take my family and leave the country. I'm sure some people would say it's coward-ish, to say, You've got to pick your battles. But without oversimplifying life, I really believe that. For these sisters, they chose to fight for freedom from oppression. All people deserve that basic right. Their story inspires me, and I have so much respect for them. I think some people are born with the character and abilities to do these things.

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  5. Interesting thoughts. It makes me wonder, are the pioneer women who crossed the plains and died, leaving their children motherless, really any different? They both believed in their cause. I'm pretty sure I would have followed the prophet. While this is different because theirs was a political quest, not a religious one, I see many similarities.

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  6. Judy, good point. I think the pioneers saw it as a sacrifice not just for themselves but for their children, so they could be raised in Zion; I wonder if las Mariposas felt the same way.

    Kristen, I love the idea of your passions finding you. That's been true with me.

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  7. The pioneers' sacrifice was for the exact same thing, it seems to me… yes, it was faith based, but it was also about freedom, persecution and liberty.

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  8. I suppose the pioneers did risk it all, but did they do it in such a deliberate way? The Mirabals had to have known that Trujillo would threaten them, and that their activities were dangerous. The pioneers probably knew there were risks involved in crossing the plains, but a revolution carries a far different risk than an immigratin.

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  9. I have pondered questions like this in relation to the situation in Iraq–again, all politics aside. But it is certainly very dangerous in many parts of that country, and consequently many rich and educated people have fled. Some have stayed and tried to use their wealth/knowledge to better the plight of those with no choice but to stay–and many have been killed, either by the random violence or specific.

    If it were just me, (i.e. no dependent children) I'd stay. I think. But if you add my babies (even if they were safe in another country or something) I couldn't. My heart just aches thinking about my babies being raised without their mother. Probably that makes me a wimp.

    In any case, I'm in awe of las Mariposas. I'll have to find that book.

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