The scenery along the road to Roxas City made Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies come to life as I read the novel in the bus. All the rice crops, sugarcane plantations, sleepy town centers, and peasants tending the fields that I passed by perfectly captures the setting of the Dominican Republic of the 1960s described in the novel.
The seemingly peaceful landscape framed by the bus window also masks deeper contradictions that are also alluded to in the novel, the ceaseless struggle between the peasants and the landlords – a struggle that all too easily slip into violence as exemplified by the case of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of picketing farm workers in 2004.
This violence is given concrete form in the novel in the form of the brutal repression of the US-sponsored Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, the antagonist of the Mirabal sisters: the Las Mariposas who sacrificed the comforts of their middle class upbringing and even their lives for national liberation and democracy.
In the Time of the Butterflies follows the lives of Dede, Maria Teresa, Minerva, and Patria as they grow up under the authoritarian regime. Like any other women, they also meet men, have amorous affairs, and start their own families. But their stories would also include participation in the underground resistance movement, getting imprisoned, and tortured.
One of the novel’s failures has to do with Alvarez’s framing of the Mirabal’s struggles and the Dominican people’s plight along the lines of simply attaining the formal freedoms of Western-style democracy. Consequently, this unstated assumption becomes the basis of the author’s own thinly-veiled judgment of the choices made by some of the characters in the novel. This becomes conspicuous in the way Minerva’s husband Manolo, who continued the guerrilla struggle in the mountains after the fall of Trujillo, is scorned as a “disgrace” and “too radical” while Maria Teresa’s husband Leandro who went down the hills to become “a big builder in the capital” is applauded for making the right decision. This is despite the lack of any fundamental change in the new regime in terms of giving land to the peasants, decent wages for workers, more opportunities for local small business as opposed to U.S. multinationals, and putting an end to human rights abuses and corruption.
As a whole, however, Alvarez’s fictionalized account of the lives of the four Mirabal sisters is still a rewarding one. Told from the vantage point of Dede, the one who survived the treacherous massacre of the butterflies, its account of everyday life under the Trujillo, the horrors that accompanied it, as well as the little and big acts of defiance by the people is an entrancing one. It is in honor of these courageous women that November 25, the day of the Mirabal’s murder, is observed as the “International Day Against Violence Against Women.”