In the Time of the Butterflies: Making a Country’s Revolution Deeply Personal

In the Time of the Butterflies Julia Alvarez Books & Bordeaux


In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is the story of the Trujillo regime’s rise and fall in the Dominican Republic. If you’ve heard of Trujillo before, it was probably from this book, right? The endurance of this book and its popularity is Alvarez’ shining success—spreading the story of this very real oppressive dictatorship in Latin America that just didn’t make it into many American public school history lessons. Until reading In the Time of the Butterflies, I personally did not know about these events—nor the monumental effort Alvarez undertook to track down the story of the Mirabal sisters…

Jump to In the Time of the Butterflies discussion questions

Alvarez spent countless hours interviewing and researching to tell the Mirabal sisters’ story. In this 2019 interview, Alvarez describes the challenges she faced and her drive to overcome them:   

Nobody spoke about things that had to do with the dictatorship [under the Trujillo regime], and especially to kids, because you didn’t want them to repeat something that could get you in trouble. [So] I really didn’t know about the Mirabal sisters till we arrived in New York in 1960 August. They were killed in November, three months after we came to the United States… They were four sisters, we were four sisters, and they were the ones that didn’t make it. And so I was pretty much obsessed with the story and wanting to find out more about them. So the stories came through the oral tradition, the telling of stories. When I started to write the book and I went to research in the library […] there was nothing about them […] I had to go back and talk to the people that had known them to get the background, because it wasn’t a written down story.

Julia Alvarez | In the Time of the Butterflies | 25th Anniversary Celebration

In the Time of the Butterflies follows the true story of the Mirabal sisters who became known as Las Mariposas—The Butterflies—the leaders in the opposition against the oppressive dictator Rafael Trujillo. When you start the book, you are already aware that three of the four sisters die when their car is run off the road on November 25th, 1960. A few weeks before their assassinations, Trujillo declared that “his two problems were the Church and the Mirabal sisters.” Because you know they don’t survive Trujillo’s grasp on the country, the way that we start the book is poignant—we get to know the Mirabal sisters as children. It was particularly heart-wrenching when they were playfully guessing what they would be when they grew up. How could they know that an oppressive political power would take control and block them from the getting degrees, arrest their children on false reports, and terrorize them and the rest of the country in multitude other ways, culminating in their assassinations when their resistance against this government proved too great a threat.  

Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

4 Cellars Chardonnay. Scent: lemon, peach, oak. Flavor is brine and straw and finishes with lemon. Texture is creamy.

Review cont.

Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies takes a big, complicated story of a country undergoing political persecution and revolution—and makes it completely personal. If you don’t identify with one sister, you identify with the other—or the husband trying to run a business and keep his family safe, or the revolutionary that flees the country to save his life and continue to push for change from the outside, or the priest who eventually finds a way to stay true to his faith and support the revolutionaries by feeding and arming them. Every person is represented, so if you thought this wasn’t your story, you’re wrong. This is a story about you, and Alvarez’s every word urges you to be strong, be vigilant, be the force that stops whatever evil tries to take root in your country. That’s one of the reasons the story is so uncomfortable to read: this horrible ordeal that this country really went through…it isn’t so far from a possible reality. We DO need to be vigilant. We DO need to stand up for the people whose voices are at risk of being drowned out, because every voice deserves to be heard.

The sisters Mirabal will continue to live as long as women like Julia Alvarez are brave enough to tell their story. A novel of great carino.

Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street

At the 25th anniversary of the publication of In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez shares insights on her process and her life. She discusses her research methods for In the Time of the Butterflies, and the challenge of gathering information for a story that had never been written down. She addresses some areas of her writing that are less often discussed, including how her parents didn’t want her to write about certain subjects because they wanted her to present her community in a positive light. She also touches on the tension caused by being the only writer in your family, because it makes the other family members feel that their voice isn’t heard. 

When asked why she wrote In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez says,

I was looking for books and stories and novels that addressed our history in the Americas. And there weren’t that many for young readers. I saw that they had a lot of books about the Holocaust and about slavery, but not that much about kids growing up in a dictatorship up and down the Americas, which was the phenomenon of the last century in many of our countries. Many Latinos in the Dominican Republic had grandparents or parents who had fled from dictatorships. I wanted our own Anne Frank story. And that was really the story I set in the Dominican Republic in the Trujillo dictatorship.

Julia Alvarez interview: In the time of discovery| The Writer

Alvarez has received many awards and accolades, including The F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature and the 2013 National Medal of the Arts for Extraordinary Storytelling. She also runs a literacy center in the Dominican Republic with her husband. In 1999, five years after In the Time of the Butterflies was published, the U.N. declared November 25th the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in commemoration of the day the Mirabal sisters were assassinated.

What’s Next for Julia Alvarez

Alvarez’ newest project, Afterlife, is coming out sometime next year. In Afterlife, Alvarez is once again taking on a large, complicated topicthis time, immigration—and making it entirely personal and human. I’m looking forward to it!

In the Time of the Butterflies Discussion Questions

  1. Julia Alvarez has said that one of the things that interested her while writing the novel was the question, What politicizes a person? What makes a revolutionary risk everything for a certain cause? Alvarez has also said that in writing this novel she discovered that what politicizes each person is different, and surprisingly, it’s not always a big idealistic cause or idea. What do you think politicizes each of the Mirabal sisters, including, ultimately, Dede? What would politicize you?
  2. The Mirabal sisters are very different individuals. Which of them would you most like to have been friends with? Which one do you most admire?
  3. What about the men in the book? Some male readers have confessed to feeling the book is focused too much on the female characters. Do you think Alvarez intentionally weighted the book toward the female point of view, and if so, why? What is gained by seeing this period from the female point of view?
  4. Turning again to the men in the book. Does the father make you feel sympathetic or judgmental? Do your feelings change as the book progresses? Is Jaimito a good man or not? Why or why not? Alvarez has noted that “you can get rid of a dictator, but it’s much more difficult to eradicate the dictatorship mentality that lives on in the imagination and culture of a country.” How is the figure of el Jefe internalized and particularized by the male characters, even those in opposition to the regime?
  5. Minerva reacts with shock and anger after learning about her father’s second family but later chooses to take care of her half sisters. Why does Minerva want to help them?
  6. Much is made of Dede’s survival. Why do you think she survived? What is the role she plays in the Mariposas history? Do you consider her to be equally heroic despite the fact that she did not join the revolution? What might Alvarez be saying about the role of the storyteller in bringing about change in the world?
  7. What does it mean to write historical fiction? Alvarez ha often referenced the German novelist Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” What can a novel tell you that a historical text leaves out?
    • Asked another way: Discuss the novel as historical fiction. How much license may an author take in recreating past events, especially those so significant to a country’s national identity? What can be gained by presenting the Mirabal sisters as characters in a novel, instead of simply telling the facts of their involvement in the revolution?
  8. Did it bother you that the sisters Alvarez created might not be exact duplicates of the historical Mirabals? Dede has said that some details Alvarez invented or learned from someone else, but that she loved the novel because Alvarez “captured the spirit of the Mirabal sisters.” Does the book encourage you to want to know more about historical figures? 
  9. The book is built around life and politics in the Dominican Republic during the reign of Rafael Trujillo. Is this a time period you knew about before reading this book? Did you gain a greater understanding of this particular time in Hispanic Caribbean history?
  10. The Dominican people, both in the book and in real life, view the Mirabal sisters as heroines and martyrs. Why do you think their legend endures? What makes the story of these particular revolutionaries so captivating?
  11. The United Nations has declared November 25, the day of the Mirabal’s murder, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It marks the first day of the international movement “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” which ends on Human Rights Day, December 10. Should writers be writing to change the world? What is the role of an author’s politics in a novel? Does politics have any place in fiction?
  12. Given the current debate and divisions in the United States (and all over the world) over the issue of refugees seeking asylum from violence in their homes and home countries, what can readers learn about this global issue in light of the story told in this novel?
  13. In the excerpt below, was Minerva right to call their father a trujillista?

“In his own way, Papa was a trujillista,” Minerva announced.

All her sisters looked at her, shocked. “Papa was a hero!” Dede fumed. “He died because of what he went through in prison. You should know. He was trying to keep you out of trouble!” Minerva nodded. “That’s right. His advice was always, don’t annoy the bees, don’t annoy the bees. It’s men like him and Jaimito and other scared fulanitos who have kept the devil in power all these years.” “How can you say that about papa?” Dede could hear her voice rising.”

  1. When, if ever, do you believe that Mate changes her mind about this journal entry from 1954?

I am so hoping that now that Minerva has found a special someone, she’ll settle down. I mean, I agree with her ideas and everything. I think people should be kind to each other and share what they have. But never in a million years would I take up a gun and force people to give up being mean.

  1. Despite her anger over her father’s infidelity, Minerva insists on meeting her half-sisters and insists after his death that they get the opportunity to have an education. Why do you think she does so?
  2. The real-life Mirabal sisters are viewed as heroines and martyrs in the Dominican Republic. Discuss what makes a person a martyr. Is it necessary for martyrs to act heroically? How do the actions of the Mirabal sisters compare to other famous people who have died for important causes?

Excerpts for Discussion

Mama had asked for Dede’s help planting a crown-of-thorns border, so she said, but Dede knew what her mother really wanted. She was worried about her daughter after her panicked visit a week ago. She wouldn’t ask Dede any questions—Mama always said that what went on in her daughters’ marriages was their business. Just by watching Dede lay the small plants in the ground, Mama would know the doings in her heart.

“Isn’t it ridiculous? I mean, it’s absurd, insanely ridiculous.” Unlike her golden-tongued sister, Dede was not eloquent with reasons. And my God, what reasons did she need to explain these ridiculous insanities!

“Why are you so worked up, my love?”

Dede burst into tears. “Don’t you see?”

He held her as she cried. And then in his bossy, comforting voice, he explained things. Same-color khaki outfits were what the military wore, and so a dress distinction had to be made. A jacket over the arm could be hiding a gun, and there had been many rumors about plots against El Jefe. “See, my darling?”

My boy grew into a man, my girl long and slender like the blossoming mimosa at the end of the drive. Pedrito took on a certain gravity, became an important man around here. And I, Patria Mercedes? Like every woman of her house, I disappeared into what I loved, coming up now and then for air. I mean, an overnight trip by myself to a girlfriend’s, a special set to my hair, and maybe a yellow dress.