In the Time of the Butterflies focuses on the authoritarian regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, which lasted from 1930 to 1961. As a megalomaniacal dictator, Trujillo’s personality takes over every aspect of life, and he becomes the personal antagonist of the novel. Throughout the book Alvarez shows the various ways a dictator affects both politics and daily life, from the fear of saying Trujillo’s name in an uncomplimentary way, to being murdered in public for threatening him. She also links Trujillo to other, more globally famous dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. As a single person and also the head of the government, Trujillo can act as both a character – a man who tries to seduce Minerva, or who takes personal revenge by not letting her use her law degree – and as a constant looming force of oppression.
Trujillo first took power as the head of the nation’s army, helping to overthrow the former president Vasquez and then setting himself up as president. He ruled for 31 years after that, usually behind puppet “presidents.” Trujillo set up a “personality cult” around himself, calling himself the nation’s “Benefactor” and rewriting history books so that the peak of history was his birth. He renamed the country’s capital “Trujillo City,” statues of him were erected everywhere, and churches had to post the slogan “God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth.” Trujillo’s reign was a time of economic prosperity and stability, but most of this ended up benefiting Trujillo’s family and friends, and the cost of this stability was the loss of all civil liberties and a system of espionage, torture, and murder. The Mirabal sisters (the Butterflies) are then set as antagonists to this dictator, and the plot of the novel consists of their struggle against Trujillo’s pervasive presence as they try to both lead personal lives of their own and also bring down the brutal dictator.
Dictatorship Quotes in In the Time of the Butterflies
“It’s about time we women had a voice in running our country.”
“You and Trujillo,” Papá says a little loudly, and in this clear peaceful night they all fall silent. Suddenly, the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security. Don Enrique claims Trujillo needs help in running this country. Don Enrique’s daughter says it’s about time women took over the government. Words repeated, distorted, words recreated by those who might bear them a grudge, words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in when their bodies are found dumped in a ditch, their tongues cut off for speaking too much.
And that’s how I got free. I don’t mean just going to sleepaway school on a train with a trunkful of new things. I mean in my head after I got to Inmaculada and met Sinita and saw what happened to Lina and realized that I’d just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.
When we got to school that fall, we were issued new history textbooks with a picture of you-know-who embossed on the cover so even a blind person could tell who the lies were about. Our history now followed the plot of the Bible. We Dominicans had been waiting for centuries for the arrival of our Lord Trujillo on the scene. It was pretty disgusting.
“All through nature there is a feeling ecstasy. A strange otherworldly light suffuses the house smelling of labor and sanctity. The 24th of October in 1891. God’s glory made flesh in a miracle. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo has been born!”
I see a guardia, and I think, who have you killed. I hear a police siren, and I think who is going to be killed. See what I mean?
I see the picture of our president with eyes that follow me around the room, and I am thinking he is trying to catch me doing something wrong. Before, I always thought our president was like God, watching over everything I did.
Minerva could tell. One day, we were lying side by side on the hammock strung just outside the galería. She must have caught me gazing at our picture of the Good Shepherd, talking to his lambs. Beside him hung the required portrait of El Jefe, touched up to make him look better than he was. “They’re a pair, aren’t they?” she noted.
That moment, I understood her hatred. My family had not been personally hurt by Trujillo, just as before losing my baby, Jesus had not taken anything away from me. But others had been suffering great losses…
I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful Father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!
Dedé could only shake her head. She didn’t really know Lío was a communist, a subversive, all the other awful things the editorial had called him. She had never known an enemy of state before. She had assumed such people would be self-serving and wicked, low-class criminals. But Lío was a fine young man with lofty ideals and a compassionate heart. Enemy of state? Why then, Minerva was an enemy of state. And if she, Dedé, thought long and hard about what was right and wrong, she would no doubt be an enemy of state as well.
“I didn’t know,” she said again. What she meant was she didn’t understand until that moment that they were really living – as Minerva liked to say – in a police state.
The floor remains empty as it must until El Jefe has danced the first dance.
He rises from his chair, and I am so sure he is going to ask me that I feel a twinge of disappointment when he turns instead to the wife of the Spanish ambassador. Lío’s words of warning wash over me. This regime is seductive. How else would a whole nation fall prey to this little man?
“I hope you will reconsider his offer. I’m sure General Fiallo would agree” – General Fiallo is already nodding before any mention has been made of what he is agreeing to – “that a private conference with El Jefe would be the quickest, most effective way to end all this nonsense.”
“Sí, sí, sí,” General Fiallo agrees.
Don Manuel continues. “I would like to bring you personally to him tonight at his suite at El Jaragua. Bypass all this red tape.” He gestures towards the general, who smiles inanely at his own put-down.
I stare at Manuel de Moya as if pinning him to the wall. “I’d sooner jump out that window than be forced to do something against my honor.”
There was a broadcast of a speech by this man Fidel, who is trying to overturn their dictator over in Cuba. Minerva has big parts memorized. Now, instead of her poetry, she’s always reciting, Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!
I am so hoping that now that Minerva has found a special someone, she’ll setttle 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.
There were hundreds of us, the women all together, in white dresses like we were his brides, with white gloves and any kind of hat we wanted. We had to raise our right arms in a salute as we passed by the review stand.
It looked like the newsreels of Hitler and the Italian one with the name that sounds like fettuccine.
Maybe because I was used to the Good Shepherd and Trujillo side by side in the old house, I caught myself praying a little greeting as I walked by.
Then another time, I came in from outside with my hands full of anthuriums. I looked up at him, and I thought why not. I set up a vase on the table right under his picture…
I don’t know if that’s how it started, but pretty soon, I was praying to him, not because he was worthy or anything like that. I wanted something from him, and prayer was the only way I knew to ask.
El Jefe entered in a wash of camera flashes. I don’t know what I thought I’d see – I guess after three months of addressing him, I was sure I’d feel a certain kinship with the stocky, overdressed man before me. But it was just the opposite. The more I tried to concentrate on the good side of him, the more I saw a vain, greedy, unredeemed creature. Maybe the evil one had become flesh like Jesus! Goosebumps jumped all up and down my bare arms.
Even in church during the privacy of Holy Communion, Father Gabriel bent down and whispered, ¡Viva la Mariposa!
My months in prison have elevated me to superhuman status. It would hardly have been seemly for someone who had challenged our dictator to suddenly succumb to a nervous attack at the communion rail.
I hid my anxieties and gave everyone a bright smile. If they had only known how frail was their iron-will heroine. How much it took to put on that hardest of all performances, being my old self again.
When we got to the SIM post at the first little town, I cried out, “Assassins! Assassins!”
Jaimito gunned the motor to drown out my cries. When I did it again at the next town, he pulled over and came to the back of the pickup. He made me sit down on one of the boxes. “Dedé, mujer, what is it you want – to get yourself killed, too?”
I nodded. I said, “I want to be with them.”
He said – I remember it so clearly – he said, “This is your martyrdom, Dedé, to be alive without them.”
He was going to do all sorts of things, he told me. He was going to get rid of the old generals with their hands still dirty with Mirabal blood. All those properties they had stolen he was going to distribute among the poor. He was going to make us a nation proud of ourselves, not run by the Yanqui imperialists.
Every time he made one of these promises, he’d look at me as if he needed me to approve what he was doing. Or really, not me, but my sisters whose pictures hung on the wall behind me. Those photos had become icons, emblazoned on posters… And I started to think, maybe it was for something that the girls had died.
“The nightmare is over, Dedé. Look at what the girls have done.” He gestures expansively.
He means the free elections, bad presidents now put in power properly, not by army tanks. He means our country beginning to prosper, Free Zones going up everywhere, the coast a clutter of clubs and resorts. We are now the playground of the Caribbean, who were once its killing fields. The cemetery is beginning to flower…
Lío is right. The nightmare is over; we are free at last. But the thing that is making me tremble, that I do not want to say out loud – and I’ll say it once only and it’s done.
Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?