In a society that quadrennially pats itself on the back for a “peaceful transition of power”, it is difficult to imagine growing up in a dictatorship. We have no experience of one person, publicly or behind the scenes, controlling every aspect of life. Our cults of personality are iffy at best, and our multicultural society looks for ways to name public institutions and streets for a variety of people.
In Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, that was not the case. Public works, from government buildings to parks and streets, were named for him, large portraits of him hung in every home (often as candlelit shrines), and schoolchildren were taught to revere him. Like their peers, Patria Mirabal and her sisters Minerva, Maria Teresa (Mate), and Adela (Dede), learned to love El Jefe as both a father figure and the object of their schoolgirl crushes.
In using fiction to explore the story of these sisters, Julia Alvarez has imagined their individual voices and given each sister a chance to speak her piece. Each section of the book is recounted through different means – an interview, a diary, an interior monologue, and a journal – until their lives are fully imagined and individual. Their world, though, is fraught with subcurrents they only gradually become aware of. Their experiences – the impunity with which the security forces invade their homes, the targeting of a beautiful schoolfriend by Trujillo, his attempt to seduce one of them, and the backlash when she turns him down – slowly open their eyes to the real nature of ‘security’ in their homeland. For different reasons, they become dissidents working for Trujillo’s overthrow, collectively known in the underground as “the butterflies.”
But Alvarez doesn’t fall into the trap of turning them into cardboard revolutionaries. She also imagines their sisterhood – the fights, the love, the disappointments and triumphs that knit any group of people into family. That humanizing of them becomes all the more poignant as we read about their arrest, torture, and assassination for anti-government activities.
For anyone who has ever thought to him/herself, “How can those people live under a dictator?” this is a revealing read. When the dictator brings longed-for peace and stability, and when the society is conditioned to admire his every achievement, it becomes easier to overlook the midnight arrests, the shut-down newspapers, the smoke coming from the chimneys. In the Time of the Butterflies reminds us that the balance between security and freedom is always shifting, and in the end, the only ones who can make the difference are ordinary people with ordinary lives.
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