Twenty-three years after the release of her second novel, people still seek out Julia Alvarez to tell her how moved and inspired they were by “In the Time of the Butterflies” and its account of three martyred sisters in the Dominican Republic.
She’s gratified, she says, but also insistent: The story isn’t hers.
The Hermanas Mirabal — sisters Patria, Minerva and María Teresa — were flesh-and-blood heroes of their country’s struggle to escape the brutal, more than three-decade dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who directed the imprisonment, torture and slaying of tens of thousands of Dominican citizens. One by one, the sisters had joined the underground effort to topple him. They died late in 1960 after Trujillo decided he’d had enough, ordering aides to intercept the jeep in which the three women were returning from a visit with their imprisoned husbands.
The sisters and their driver were slain in a sugar cane field and their bodies placed back in the vehicle, which then was pushed off a cliff to make it appear to be an accident. It convinced no one. The incident became a flashpoint, galvanizing international opposition to Trujillo and inciting his assassination six months later.
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“Here they were, three sisters from a tiny country without much power or anything. But they’ve gone on to be an inspiration worldwide,” Alvarez says. “It’s amazing.
“People want so much to connect with the story — it’s not my story, I just put it in a published form — and many of them go down to the Dominican Republic and visit the museum that’s been set up where the girls lived. Something gets stirred, some understanding of what we’re capable of. We see the nobility that’s in us.”
For Alvarez, 66, the connection to the Mirabals was more personal. She was born in New York City but spent virtually all of the first 10 years of her life in her parents’ native Dominican Republic. Her father also was part of the anti-Trujillo movement and, fearing arrest, fled back to the United States with his family in August 1960. The sisters were murdered just three months later.
“It was a story that got into my bloodstream,” says Alvarez, who would become one of the most acclaimed Latina writers of her generation. “People ask, ‘How long did this take you to write?’ Probably 3 1/2 years, the actual writing. But I’ve been living and researching that story all my life. It was a way for me to understand my parents’ generation and what had happened to them. And it would give me goosebumps to think there were four sisters, three of them were murdered, one of them survived to tell the story, and we — my sisters and I — were four sisters, as well.”
The fourth Mirabal sister, Dedé, was the second-oldest and deferred to her husband’s wishes that she not join the rebellion. She survived, devoting her life to preserving the legacy of Patria, Minerva and María Teresa. Alvarez’s research for the book started with her, and they remained friends until Dedé’s death three years ago at age 88.
Dedé became a compelling figure in her own right, underscored by a conversation she has late in the book with her husband, Jaimito. They are driving back after the murders to the northeastern Dominican city of San Francisco, transporting the sisters’ bodies in the back of their truck.
Distraught, she expresses a desire to die, too. To which Jaimito responds, “This is your martyrdom, Dedé, to be alive without them.”
Originally released in 1994, “In the Time of the Butterflies” was the first English-language account of the notorious Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. Five years later, the United Nations designated Nov. 25 — the day of the murders — as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
The book has spawned three films, most notably a 2004 television adaptation starring Salma Hayek (as Minerva, the outspoken leader of the three code-named “butterflies”) and Edward James Olmos (as Trujillo).
Alvarez, a 2013 winner of the National Medal of Arts, has written five adult novels, three nonfiction books, three books of poetry and 11 children’s and young adult books. A resident of Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, she recently discussed “In the Time of the Butterflies,” the Mirabal sisters and her own life’s story (excerpts are edited for length):
Q: Do you recall how, at age 10, you first heard of the Mirabal murders?
A: It was reported in Time magazine. I remember my parents were hiding it. They didn’t want us to read it. I found it, and it was reported — in quotation marks — as a car accident.
Trujillo was still alive, and people in New York City who were disaffected Dominicans had disappeared. His henchmen would come and get people and fly them down, and they’d be tortured and killed. Even though we were in New York and there was now a sense of having escaped, there was still a lot of fear. And our families were still (at risk) down there.
Q: How much did you understand at that age?
A: Looking back, there were little things. Little moments. People would not come to family gatherings after a time. You’d say, “Where’s Uncle So and So,” and you’d be hushed. I just thought that was what it meant to be a child, that there were secrets and dangers. … When Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, my uncle who was still down there was part of the group and was taken away to the torture prisons. Suddenly, all of it came out. They couldn’t hide that from the kids.
Q: Why did you write the sisters’ story as a novel? Why not a nonfiction account?
A: That’s how I began; I was going to write a nonfiction account. … Then I became interested in character. It wasn’t so much the facts but how these women became involved, what compelled them to start an underground movement when so many people for so many years were terrified to speak out. That’s (fleshing out) character, and that’s the province of the novel. It’s the truth according to character as opposed to just the facts.
And remember, this was a dictatorship. Everything was censored. There were no public records; a lot of it was oral (history). And as I went around interviewing different people who knew them and were part of the underground, each one would tell me different versions. The truth depended on the point of view of the person, where they were standing in the circle around the girls.
Q: Talk about your admiration for Dedé, the surviving sister.
A: It took me a while to see it because I thought of her sisters as the heroines, but I realized her heroism maybe was the hardest of all to survive. If you had known this woman, she was amazing. In her own quiet way, she modeled for the country how to deal with that horrible past. To not let it fill her with bitterness and anger but to move forward.
Q: You’re not technically an American immigrant, but you went through that experience. Are you affected by the challenges immigrants are facing today?
A: I understand it emotionally in a way that I think some people who just argue the facts and the law maybe miss. As you say, I’m not an immigrant technically. But my family was an immigrant family. … I feel like we have given ourselves to this country, and I think lot of immigrants are just looking for the opportunity to do that, too.
Not everybody, but for so many immigrants (the decision) is out of some dire necessity, whether it’s economic or political. It’s something we all feel, the desire to have a viable, decent life for ourselves and our families. They would rather do it in their own countries if they could. My parents spent 43 years here and, before they died, do you know where they wanted to go? Back to the Dominican Republic. It was home. That’s where they would have lived if they could have.
Q: You’ve traced your writing career to that move as a young girl from the Dominican Republic to New York City.
A: Part of it was the tough times when we first got here — the insecurity from having lost everything, not instantly feeling like I belonged and not always being very welcomed by kids. You know how kids can be, bullies and they can be mean. But it drove me to want and need something to hold onto, an interior world. I think that’s why I became a reader, to find in the homeland of the imagination a place where I could connect. … Believe me, as a female, it would not have happened in the Dominican Republic.
Q: There weren’t many Latina writers in American literature when you first came up, were there?
A: Yeah. My first novel (“How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” in 1991) didn’t get published until I was 41. But I came of age as a writer when there started to be a discovery of ethnic writers — (Amy Tan) and “The Joy Luck Club” and writers from Latin America. It made it a friendly publishing world for stories I’d been writing already for 20 years. That was a lucky coincidence.
I do despair sometimes about how much we go backward and (still are struggling with) things I thought we’d gotten beyond as a country. But I also know how much has become possible since I got started, and it gives me hope. It also reminds me that you open the path not only for yourself but also those who come after you.
Q: Do you still write? Is there another book?
A: (My agent) has the new one. … It’s still in a fluid form where I’m not sure where it’s going. It’s hard to talk about because that starts to define it instead of letting it evolve. It’s not that I’m trying to be secretive or anything. But it’s a book I’ve been struggling with for some time.
Q: Do you and your husband, Bill, still have the farm and literacy center in the Dominican?
A: It’s for sale. If you know of anybody in Kansas City who would like to buy 360 acres …
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez at 11 a.m. March 25 at the library’s Westport Branch, 118 Westport Road. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, Alvarez will speak at 7 p.m. March 5 at the Lied Center in Lawrence as part of the Lawrence Public Library’s Big Read initiative revolving around “In the Time of the Butterflies.”
From Chapter 9 of “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez, published by Algonquin Books. The narrator is the second-oldest Mirabal sister, Dedé, who stayed out of the insurrection against Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo at the insistence of her husband.
“Every day Dedé would go over to visit, and every day she would have a fight with Minerva. Dedé would start by pleading, then arguing with Minerva to be reasonable, to stay home. The rumors were everywhere. Trujillo wanted her killed. She was becoming too dangerous, the secret heroine of the whole nation. At the pharmacy, in church, at the mercado, Dedé was being approached by well-wishers. “Take care of our girls,” they would whisper. Sometimes they would slip her notes. “Tell the butterflies to avoid the road to Puerto Plata. It’s not safe.” The butterflies, Lord God, how people romanticized other people’s terror!
“But Minerva acted unconcerned about her safety. She could not desert the cause, she’d argue with Dedé, and she would not stay holed up in Ojo de Agua and let the SIM (the secret police) kill her spirit. Besides, Dedé was giving in to her exaggerated fears. With the OAS (Organization of American States) clamoring about all the jailings and executions, Trujillo was not going to murder a defenseless woman and dig his own grave. Silly rumors.”