The Butterflies


Lately I’ve been thinking about the Butterflies. No, not the insects that start out as caterpillars and morph into flying beauties. Instead, I am thinking about the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were codenamed Butterfly in the underground revolution against the Dominican dictator Trujillo (ruled 1930-1961). The fourth sister was not known as a Butterfly, but I include her in the grouping all the same. All four sisters fought the regime in their own ways. Just because Dedé didn’t build bombs or hide revolutionaries doesn’t mean she didn’t help the resistance. But we’ll get there in a minute.

First, I’d like to tell you how I encountered the Butterflies. It all started with a movie in Spanish class my junior or senior year of high school. My teacher was the son of missionaries to Mexico and has always encouraged us to learn culture and history, not just vocabulary and grammar. Which is why I was sitting in class that day watching a movie based on the true story of Trujillo and the Butterflies. The movie In the Time of the Butterflies startled me. I knew that countries south of my beloved United States had had various struggles throughout their existence: racism, slavery, wars, and so on. But I didn’t think of those issues like I thought of the similar struggles of my country. Maybe because I had always thought that Central and South America were doomed to those problems. Maybe because I never really thought about those nations having their heroes, their George Washingtons and Betsy Rosses. Maybe because I wasn’t taught about the wars of other worlds when my own country’s history had so much to discuss. But in high school Spanish classes, all that changed. My teachers opened my eyes to a world outside my own. We watched movies and read articles. We learned legends and studied national heroes. We celebrated Mexican Independence Day and Three Kings’ Day. And this particular teacher immersed us in as many cultures as he could to the greatest extent that he could. Which is why I was sitting in class that day watching a movie in English–even though I was in Spanish IV or V.

From that point on, I was hooked on the Butterflies. We spent maybe 2 and a half class periods watching the movie and reflecting on it. The story of four women who did what they believed to be right, who did not cower under their dictator’s power, who fought to the death for their people’s freedom. And three did die. Three women left behind husbands and children. One sister remained behind, raising the kids with the help of her husband and mother. The story of the Butterflies is powerful. I remember sitting in class, writing a short paragraph to respond to the movie. It was a timed writing exercise. What could I say? I was still in shock. I had grown to love those women. Then I had watched the screen go black, knowing the women had died. And what could I say? Finally I scribbled down some short sentences in Spanish. I don’t remember most of what I wrote–I’m sure I could find the paper if I looked around long enough–but I do remember concluding my response with a few simple words: Quiero ser una Mariposa. I want to be a Butterfly. I didn’t want to be a Mirabal Butterfly exactly. But I wanted to fight for what was right, to defend the innocent, to have courage in the most terrifying situations. I wanted to be a Butterfly. When I got my graded paper back later that week, my teacher had written a few comments on it. I can’t remember exactly his words, but in response to my concluding sentence, he wrote something to the effect of this: “By God’s grace, you will be.” So I guess you could say my teacher encouraged the Butterfly in me.

I didn’t forget the Butterflies. Those 4 women and their sacrifices frequently come to mind. Last semester at school, a friend told me that the movie was free on Hulu (Go check it out!), so my roommate and I huddled on my bed one Sunday afternoon to watch. I knew the story, though I had forgotten some details. My roommate had gotten the synopsis from me, but she was still grabbed by the movie. It’s not something you easily forget.

Finally this summer I got around to reading the book from which the movie is derived. By Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional novel based in the reality of the Mirabal sisters. She tries to fill in gaps where the women have been lost, to paint them as real people–not as gods. For the Butterflies are not gods. They are women who fiercely fought for their people. They are women who sacrificed much. For Mate (María Teresa), Patria, and Minerva, the cost of freedom was their lives. For Dedé, the cost was being the sole sister to survive, to carry on in the face of unspeakable tragedy. But these women were still human. And Alvarez shows that. Alvarez was a Dominican girl of only 10 when her family escaped Trujillo’s regime and settled into New York. Now she has brought the story of the Butterflies to the people of the United States and allowed us to see the Dominican Republic through the eyes of a few of her heroes–the Mirabal sisters. Go. Read the book. Watch the movie. Learn about the Butterflies. Study other histories. Immerse yourself in other cultures. Find another world just pages away. Desire to be a Butterfly. Make it happen. Be a Butterfly–a courageous person fighting for what is right and protecting the innocent no matter the cost.

A couple years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a Butterfly. I still do. May we all join in the pursuit of justice, love and mercy. May we all be Butterflies in our worlds.

Dios te bendiga.


2 responses »

  1. Hey chica,

    I found this blog post while researching En el tiempo de las mariposas for use in my Spanish 3 classes. I used it last year as well when I was involved in a project about Courage in partnership with a local museum. Unfortunately, many students were not interested in the path I was trying to get them to follow, so I gave up on the project.

    Your post has given me renewed faith. I’m going to go forward with using the film again as a culture piece about the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thank you for such an insightful post. I hope you keep studying Spanish, or at least have the opportunity to visit a Spanish speaking country.

    Ms. T
    Spanish Teacher

    • Ms. T,

      I’m so glad my post encouraged you! Many of my peers were not as affected by the story of the Mirabal sisters as I was. But my teacher kept working on each of us, and I believe that by the end of the year, each of us had connected with some story or bit of culture from the Spanish-speaking world. This is one of my favorite stories. To be honest, it’s been frustrating how little information there is on the Mirabal sisters, especially here in the US.

      I hope more of your students will listen to the message this time around! And remember, if you change one student, that’s a huge deal. It’s another person who’s sharing the impact of the story and caring about another culture. As much as I’d love to change the whole world at once, I’m learning that change comes slowly, and impact happens one person at a time.

      I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life studying Spanish in some way or another, and this summer, I’m serving at an orphanage in Mexico. I’m excited for the opportunity to immerse myself in culture while pouring into the lives of the orphans there.

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