In 1960, a wrecked jeep is found containing the bodies of three of the Mirabal sisters. The newspaper says it was an accident, but that seems highly unlikely considering the circumstances and the fact that the sisters were Las Mariposas–The Butterflies–outspoken opponents of the dictatorship of Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. A fourth sister lived. These sisters were named Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and Dedé. The historical fiction novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is set in the Dominican Republic and tells the narratives of these four extraordinary sisters.
Below, I have adapted an essay I wrote for my Latin American Literature class at Grove City College.
Warning: Spoilers Below!
Regarding dictators, Machiavelli famously claimed that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, president of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961, sought to be both. A notorious dictator, Trujillo sowed fear among his subjects by brutally suppressing rebellion and punishing noncompliance. At the same time, his absolute control over the media allowed him to hide behind a guise of benevolence, and rigorous propaganda perpetuated the lie. In Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Patria Mirabal’s spiritual and religious development traces the trajectory of the dictator’s rise to power and eventual demise. Although Trujillo establishes himself as a god-figure through the illusion of omniscience, omnipotence, and immortality, Patria’s narrative reveals that his deification is dependent on mutual tolerance between his regime and the Catholic Church.
Patria, the eldest of the Mirabal daughters and the third “Mariposa,” is described as “otherworldly” and “deeply religious” (Alvarez 50). As a young girl, her energy and hope are directed toward God, and her religious conviction draws her to the vocation of a nun. However, temptations of the flesh distract her from her calling. Her experience maps roughly onto Trujillo’s concurrent behavior. The dictator projects an image of benevolence by publicizing his charitable acts, and at the same time gives in to sexual desires that threaten to undermine his reputation. While Patria’s struggle between the earthly and the spiritual is distinguished by earnestness, Trujillo’s moral laxity is marked by corruption and weakness. Yet he is secure in his power, feared and loved by his people, and “hung on the wall by the picture of Our Lord Jesus” (Alvarez 17). Ignorant of evil’s extent and secure in her private relationship with God, Patria fails to see Trujillo’s schemes. Her obliviousness to evil is reflected by Church’s political stance at that time – the Church was willingly blind to Trujillo’s acts, focusing on ministering to the oppressed.
As Patria reaches her late teens, there is an obvious crack in her faith, coupled with increased knowledge of Trujillo. Though she knows he is “no saint,” she justifies her compliance with his law by emphasizing he was “building churches and schools” and “overseeing some good deed” (Alvarez 51). Even as she scolds Minerva for showing signs of irreverence, her own faith is slipping away. This appears connected to her realization that “some priests are on a double payroll,” and her dissatisfaction with the Church (Alvarez 52). The sense that she is carrying something dead applies to both her faith and her child.
Faced with disillusionment with the Church and grief at the loss of her baby, the connection she formed between God and Trujillo from a young age becomes even more apparent. God becomes more like Trujillo in her eyes as she sees His will as arbitrary. To her, if God does not intervene to prevent evil, he must be complicit in it. As Patria recalls the injustices suffered by the Perozo family and the Haitians, Trujillo is seen as omnipotent, with wide-ranging influence. His constant presence in pictures and the media makes him seem omniscient and omnipresent as well. Patria begins to see God and Trujillo as two sides of the same coin, though Trujillo is a lesser being, “touched up to look better” (Alvarez 53). Deeply wounded, she nonetheless continues to “mak[e] believe” that she is “a model Catholic wife and mother” (Alvarez 54-55). In the meantime, Trujillo is setting himself up as a god, a “phantom hero” of his people (Alvarez 22). Yet, it is God that Patria claims has “played the biggest joke” by permitting evil to harm the innocent, which seems to contradict His perfect nature (Alvarez 55).
The proposition of a pilgrimage is the first indicator that this stage of unbelief is transitory. Pilgrimages in literature are frequently understood as journeys of spiritual growth and revival. Upon reaching their destination, she views a painting of the Virgin Mary and decides that it is “gaudy and insincere” – that is, until she sees the human aspect, the domesticity of the painting (59). When she hears the familiar sound of prayer, she turns around to see the pews, and realized she had “been facing the wrong way,” always looking toward the altar, and inward to her personal relationship with God (Alvarez 58). Her faith is restored to her; it “stirred,” and “somersaulted” within. She resonates with the Virgin’s universal motherhood and feels a connection to those beyond her family circle. Instead of seeing God only in Trujillo, she begins to see Him in all His creations, beginning to understand that faith is more than just a private contract between an individual and a god. Patria’s eyes are opened, and she sees what the Christian faith would call God’s essential goodness, and the underlying hypocrisy in Trujillo.
As Patria’s faith reawakens and blooms, Trujillo passes more laws and regulations to control citizens, with punishments such as “heavy fines” for wearing khaki clothes or other minor offenses (Alvarez 78). The family has begun to use Trujillo’s name only in whispers, and while “Trujillo is the law,” their fear implies his mandates are unjust and arbitrary. It is notable that at a recent party, fans have been handed out with Trujillo’s image juxtaposed with Mary’s. The dictator is associated with Mary instead of with God, a testament to his gradual loss of power. Yet his association with Mary only serves to emphasize that they are in opposition–the Virgin represents chastity and purity, while Trujillo is a man driven by sexual desire. At the next party, he “looks younger,” with his “hair darkened,” and there are rumors that he is drinking “a special brew” (95). This gives him the illusion of immortality, and yet everyone is aware these precautions are meant to mask that he is aging. Trujillo is literally dealt a blow during the party, and the Mirabals leave without his permission, by the advice of Patria, who insists that “his designs are so clear” (Alvarez 101). The spell is broken, and Trujillo is no longer a god. Nor is he comparable to Mary—even Patria, who typically avoids criticizing the dictator, has no doubt of Trujillo’s disreputable intentions. In response to their rude departure, Trujillo “kept everyone till well after dawn,” attempting to prove his omnipotence, and managing only to underline his pettiness.
Sliding back into complacency, Patria spends eighteen years focusing on her family and home. She retains only “a hairline crack” in her to indicate her unease with the political situation. Trujillo is likewise secure, though there are still whispers of rebellion. She attempts to use the teachings of the Church to justify compliance with Trujillo’s regime. On her spiritual retreat, she turns from the window of her cell “so as not to be distracted from [God’s] word by His Creation,” attempting to focus on doctrine rather than action and life (Alvarez 160). It is not until a young man is shot in front of her that she accepts that religious arguments cannot justify ignoring the oppressed, and that resistance to corrupt governments is not at odds with her faith and her role as a mother. Patria feels as if she is carrying both her child–which serves as a metaphor for faith earlier in the novel—and the dead boy, who represents the cause of rebellion. From then on, she focuses on the living, and on the reality of life under Trujillo’s dictatorship.
Not long after Patria’s resolution, the “Mother Church” transforms into “The Church Militant,” headed by priests and members of the religious community (Alvarez 163). In their meetings, the natural and moral law is measured against Trujillo’s arbitrary law, and the differences are clear. Patria welcomes the revolution into her home, fully embracing her new role as a soldier in the army of Christ. As a result of growing unrest, Trujillo passes a property law to punish any who resist, and Patria’s home is destroyed. Patria suffers another breakdown, once again seeing God and Trujillo as similar, confused when obedience to God does not translate into His protection, when obedience to Trujillo leads to favored treatment or at least security. Coming out of this period of struggle, she becomes self-sacrificing, offering herself for the safety of her children and sisters. The family retreats into Mamá’s room to pray, where only the Virgin’s picture is present—Trujillo has lost his place beside her. After a time, Patria begins to pray to the image of Trujillo, but further demotes him to a “troubled [boy] in need of guidance” (Alvarez 218). When Trujillo pardons Nelson, Patria see that the dictator is ‘vain, greedy, unredeemed,” and cruel, like the devil in human form (Alvarez 224). She realizes he is unworthy of prayer and thanks God instead for the return of her son.
Patria’s recognition of God as the only omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal being came after “the Voice of God” condemned Trujillo’s regime, and “The church had at last thrown in its lot with the people” (Alvarez 205, 207)! The dictator began a war against the church, including direct attacks and assassination attempts as well as rewards for those who were willing to desecrate the sacred. Trujillo begins to behave like a cornered animal, attacking all who are obstacles to his success. The united Church withstands his blows—and even when Trujillo cruelly destroys the “butterflies,” it is clear that he is faltering. The death of Patria and her sisters foreshadows the dictator’s fall and assassination.
Patria’s life, Trujillo’s reign, and the Church’s involvement intersect repeatedly. The time that Patria was comfortable in her private faith, oblivious to the suffering around her, coincided with the time when Trujillo’s reign was secure and his power relatively unchallenged. When her faith finally shifted its focus from herself and God’s word to unity and His creation, the Church took a side against Trujillo, and the dictator’s power began to wane. In martyrdom, the reach of Patria’s faith extended past her family and community to embrace the entire nation, and the death of the “mariposa” was ultimately a mortal blow to Trujillo’s reputation. By striving against God and building his credibility around propaganda and his people’s faith, Trujillo drove the Church to stand with the people against the government—inevitably leading to his demise. Perhaps the strongest outcry against Trujillo’s attempts to deify himself, and by extension the regime, were the cardinal rules of the rebellion: “Never believe them. Never fear them. Never ask them anything” (Alvarez 234). This defies any notion of Trujillo as a god-figure. These rules indicate that he is not worthy of belief, awe, or supplication, all of which are typically directed toward a deity. His false benevolence and brutal dictatorship crumbled before the “voice of God,” manifested in the “talk of the people” (199).
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Translated by W. K. Marriott, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1958.
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