Dedé Mirabal: The One Who Survived
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez tells the story of the figureheads of the revolution in the Dominican Republic in the mid-twentieth century: the Mirabal sisters. The second oldest of these four sisters, Dedé, is the least well known, as she had the least amount of involvement in the movement and was not assassinated with her sisters. Alvarez chooses to emphasize Dedé’s story to recreate the family dynamic that is lost in the sisters’ heroic representation and to provide a more common perspective of the revolution. Dedé’s character gives insight to the average Dominican household and the common people’s involvement in the revolution.
Although Dedé has famous sisters, she lived an ordinary life. She is very loyal to her family, even offering to stay behind and run the family business before starting her education. Her family was wealthier than the general middle class, but she experiences financial hardship with her husband’s failed business ventures and when her sisters and their families are forced to move in with her. She marries her cousin, which is a common arrangement in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s. Dedé’s engagement was not as romantic as it was inevitable. Dedé acknowledges the path laid out for her when she wonders, “There was no question—was there?—but that they would spend the rest of their lives together,” before accepting Jaimito’s proposal (82). Dedé accepts what is expected of her and will do whatever it takes to satisfy her local community and family.
Dedé is restricted by these expectations, or more directly, by her husband. Jaimito is fearful of the government and Trujillo, so he does not want Dedé to stick her neck out and put their family at risk. Alvarez summarizes that, writing, “Her life had gotten bound up with a domineering man, and so she shrank from the challenge her sisters were giving her” (177). Dedé blames her inactivity in the revolution on her obedience to her husband. For instance, when Patria asks her to play a role in the revolutionary movement without considering Jaimito’s opinion, she says, “Well, I don’t have that kind of marriage” (176). However, Dedé sides with the rebels in her mentality, as she sneaks out of her bedroom at night to listen to their radio stations, but she chooses to remain inactive. This choice is foreshadowed in her adolescence chapters when she says, “'I don’t play,' she says more meekly than she intends. 'I just watch,'” when Lio mocks her volleyball attire (70). Dedé watches her sisters and sympathizes with them, but she cannot and will not join them, just as many Dominican families were too afraid or too at-risk to join the revolution.
Dedé stands with her sisters once she steps away from Jaimito and realizes that it was her own fears, not her marriage vows, that held her back. She tells Minerva, “I just have to admit to myself. I’m not you—no really, I mean it. I could be brave if someone were by me every day of my life to remind me to be brave. I don’t come by it naturally” (186). After this statement, she begins to act more boldly. Jaimito’s control over Dedé’s life parallels Trujillo’s control over his state. Once Dedé breaks free and realizes how much the relationship was hurting her, she is able to turn around and fight. She becomes an individual character when she stands up for herself and her sisters.
Dedé finds her purpose when Jaimito tells her, “This is your martyrdom, Dedé, to be alive without them” (308). She listens to the stories of everyone who can recount her sisters' last moments, and she shares the stories of their lives with everyone who is willing to listen. She is the keeper of the history and the spirit of the Dominican Republic as she lives without them. Dedé’s character may be understated in comparison to the vivacity of her sisters, but she is a testament to the restorative capabilities of storytelling and remembering history.
- Patria – The oldest of the Mirabal sisters and the most religious. She has three children: Nelson, Noris, and Raúl Ernesto. Patria originally believes that she wants to be a nun, but she decided on a life as a wife and mother after falling in love with her husband, Pedrito. She becomes a mother of the revolution as well, hosting revolutionary meetings in her home.
- Minerva – The true revolutionary of the Maribal sisters. She wants to become a lawyer, and she questions incidents of injustice at every level. She is so steadfast in her principles that she refuses to accept a pardon from Trujillo when she is imprisoned because she believes she has done nothing that needs to be pardoned. Minerva acts with the interest of society as a whole in mind.
- María Teresa – The youngest Mirabal sister. Also known as "Mate," María Teresa is the romantic of the butterflies. She joins the revolution when she meets her eventual husband, Leandro. She is imprisoned with Minerva and is tortured during her sentence. Her chapters are written in the form of her journal entries that she writes throughout her life.
- Trujillo – The dictator of the Dominican Republic. While only appearing in a few scenes in the novel, Trujillo is the antagonist and driving force behind the story's conflict. He preys on young women and creates a cult culture surrounding himself. He gives the order to kill the butterflies.
Men Important to the Mirabal Sisters
- Pedrito – Patria’s husband. He is a farmer, and he loves the land that has been in his family for centuries but gives it up for his wife and for the revolution. He marries someone after Patria’s death but is never as happy as he was when Patria was alive.
- Jaimito – Dedé’s husband. He is also her cousin, and their marriage was essentially arranged at their births. He is very controlling and becomes more controlling with age, but he is ultimately loyal to Dedé and her family.Their marriage eventually fails, but Dedé is happy with their separation.
- Manolo – Minerva’s husband. He is a few years younger than Minerva, and he was also engaged to someone else when they first met. He is a high profile revolutionary. He has an affair while married to Minerva, but they mend their relationship quickly after. He is killed in the mountains shortly after he is released from jail.
- Leandro – María Teresa’s husband. He is a friend and business partner of Manolo. María Teresa meets him while he is delivering a package of firearms, and he sparks her interest in the revolution. The two fall madly in love and have a happy marriage. Leandro remarries after Mate’s death, and he continues to prosper as an engineer/architect.
Lío – A member of the revolution and a key figure in introducing the sisters to the movement and inspiring them to think independently. He has a close friendship with Minerva, but their compatibility never leads to a romantic relationship. He is exiled from the country on several accounts but ends up growing old in the Dominican Republic. His presence in the Mirabal household causes their family to worry but ultimately brings no harm to them.
Papá – The father of the Mirabal sisters. He is an alcoholic and has an affair with a woman named Carmen that produces four illegitimate children, but his daughters still look up to him. He is imprisoned after Minerva’s misconduct at a party, and he has an untreated heart attack while in prison that leads to his death a few years after his release. He encourages his daughters’ intellectual growth but is still very strict and conservative in their upbringing.
Minerva's School Friends
- Sinita –Minerva’s first friend upon entering school. Trujillo killed all of the men in Sinita’s family because of their involvement with the revolution, so Sinita is the first one to suggest to Minerva that Trujillo is unjust and cruel. At one point, she threatens Trujillo by pointing a toy bow and arrow at his head.
Lina Lovatón – Another girl that Minerva meets in school, only several years older. The other girls look up to her, as she is kind and noble, and she has beautiful red hair. Lina becomes an object of interest to Trujillo, who swoons her and convinces her to come live in one of his houses before she graduates. She gets pregnant, and Trujillo sends her to go live in Florida so as not to upset his wife. Lina is an example to Minerva of Trujillo’s evils and his ability to directly affect the lives of her community.
Other Minor Characters
Fela – Fela is a housekeeper in the Mirabal household for most of the sisters' lives. After their deaths, She is very saddened by the loss and believes that she is in contact with their spirits. She sets up a shack as a shrine/memorial to the sisters, and people visit her to speak to them. Minerva’s daughter, Minou, visits her frequently.
- Minou – Minerva's daughter. She visits her aunt, Dedé, and Dedé disapproves of her visits to Fela. She visits Fela to attempt to speak and connect with Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa.
Rufino – The driver for the Maribal sisters. He is the only driver that is brave enough to drive the butterflies. He was assassinated with them, but his death is often left out of history.
- The interviewer – The woman who comes to Dedé's house to interview her about the Mirabal sisters. She is Dominican but has primarily lived in the United States.
- Individuals and nations yearn for freedom in both the physical and emotional senses – Throughout In the Time of the Butterflies, the Maribal sisters struggle to escape confinement and find freedom in personal and national senses. Minerva serves as the figurehead for the movement for national freedom for most of the novel, constantly questioning Trujillo’s regime and taking direct action against it. She represents a collective desire for national autonomy. Contrastively, Dedé represents the individual (and often feminine) desire for personal freedom. She feels confined emotionally, especially in her marriage. Her personal struggles highlight the intrinsic yearning for freedom and autonomy within humanity. Additionally, when Minerva, Patria, María Teresa and their respective husbands are caught, imprisoned, separated, and subjected to torture, their experiences in jail provide explorations of the effects of confinement. Minerva, in solitary for months, loses her sense of strength and self. Maria Teresa faces physical health concerns as a result of the confinement. The individual requires autonomy to truly live. Furthermore, the Dominican Republic represents a state of imprisonment due to the Trujillo regime. Many citizens in the novel are afraid to speak out against Trujillo because he ingrains the fear of punishment in the form of their own deaths or the deaths of loved ones, constricting the freedom of the masses. In the Time of the Butterflies suggests that freedom is a natural desire, and freedom in only one sense is not enough.
- Religion can be a powerful personal or political motivator – Religion is a driving force for character development and involvement in the revolution for multiple characters in In the Time of the Butterflies. Known as the most religious of the sisters, Patria originally devotes herself to becoming a nun, and her faith is what differentiates her from the rest of the sisters. However, her faith is shaken when her third baby is stillborn. She rediscovers her faith and political motivation simultaneously when she is on a pilgrimage to Higuey and hears the voice of the Virgencita tell her that Virgencita has always been all around her. Faith and religion are transformed into Patria’s source of hope once more as she turns to the people around her on Earth to carry God’s grace instead of waiting for direct divine intervention. In this way, religion is suggested to be a catalyst for political movement through its moral influence. Religion also influences the political sphere of the Dominican Republic, as it is the largest establishment other than Trujillo’s regime. After suffering attacks, the church decides to stand with the people and against their dictator, going so far as to recruit revolutionaries and run guns for the revolution and illustrating that organized religion can be a powerful political adversary and asset.
- Courage takes a multitude of shapes and sizes – The Mirabal sisters provide readers with a spectrum of examples of courage in the face of adversity. Minerva serves as the face of the revolution and the most outward and vocal example of courage, whether she is publicly criticizing Trujillo or hitting him in the face. Contrastively, Dedé struggles with a hesitance to join the revolution in fear of losing her family and jeopardizing her relationship with her husband. She allows herself tinier victories, like listening to revolutionary radio stations in secret. Patria provides an example of courage through action, as she allows her home to become the motherhood of the revolution; María Teresa shows courage through the compassion and love she shares with the people around her, even while in jail. Each of the sisters struggle with her fears, but they all exemplify the concept that there is not just one way to be brave. It is a personal journey to find one’s version of courage.
- Storytelling is an act of preservation and healing – In the Time of the Butterflies explores the idea that storytelling is an essential tool for remembering and rising from the past. The novel is framed with a scene of Dedé in 1994 telling an interviewer about the story of the butterflies; Dedé comments that after people came to her with stories of her sisters’ final moments, she became an oracle of sorts, shifting from listener to storyteller. She reflects that their story was necessary to help the people of the Dominican Republic find hope after the aftermath of the revolution and to help make the sacrifices feel worthwhile. So, in the novel, storytelling allows individuals to close the wounds of trauma and remember history in a constructive and respectful way.
- "I’d write out my religious name in all kinds of script’–Sor Mercedes–the way other girls were trying out their given names with the surnames of cute boys" (45).
- "On my own, I would never have thought of naming my son after revolutionaries. 'Ernesto,' I said, 'I’m going to name him Raul Ernesto'" (151).
- "'I don’t play,' she says more meekly than she intends. 'I just watch'" (70).
- “I just have to admit to myself. I’m not you—no really, I mean it. I could be brave if someone were by me every day of my life to remind me to be brave. I don’t come by it naturally” (186).
- “I don’t think it’s fair if you just make an exception for us” (14).
- “He [Trujillo] yanks me by the wrist, thrusting his pelvis at me in a vulgar way, and I can see my hand in an endless slow motion rise–a mind all its own–and come down on the astonished, made-up face” (100).
- “You know as well as I do that without schooling we women have even fewer choices open to us” (105).
- “I admit that for me love goes deeper than the struggle, or maybe what I mean is, love is the deeper struggle” (147).
Quotes about Freedom and Confinement:
- “Sometimes, watching the rabbits in their pens, I’d think, I’m no different from you, poor things. One time, I opened a cage to set a half-grown doe free. I even gave her a slap to get her going. But she wouldn’t budge! She was used to her little pen. I kept slapping her, harder each time, until she started whimpering like a scared child. I was the one hurting her, insisting she be free. Silly bunny, I thought. You’re nothing at all like me" – Minerva (11).
- “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" – Minverva (13).
- “It happens here all the time. Every day and night there’s at least one breakdown – someone loses control and starts to scream or sob or moan. Minerva says it’s better letting yourself go – not that she ever does. The alternative is freezing yourself up, never showing what you’re feeling, never letting on what you’re thinking…Then one day, you’re out of here, free, only to discover you’ve locked yourself up and thrown away the key somewhere too deep inside your heart to fish it out" – María Teresa (231).
Quotes about Religion:
- “From the beginning, I felt it, snug inside my heart, the pearl of great price. No one has to tell me to believe in God or to love everything that lives. I did it automatically like a shoot inching its way towards the light” – Patria (44).
- “The priests had decided they could not wait forever for the pope and the archbishop to come around. The time was now, for the Lord had said, I come with the sword as well as the plow to set at liberty them that are bruised. I couldn’t believe this was the same Padre de Jesús talking who several months back hadn’t known his faith from his fear! But then again, here in that little room was the same Patria Mercedes, who wouldn’t have hurt a butterfly, shouting, 'Amen to the revolution.' And so we were born in the spirit of the vengeful Lord, no longer His lambs” – Patria (163-164).
Quotes about Courage vs. Cowardice:
- “And she knew, right then and there, her knees shaking, her breath coming short, that she could not go through with this business. Jaimito was just an excuse. She was afraid, plain and simple, just as she had been afraid to face her powerful feelings for Lío. Instead, she had married Jaimito, although she knew she did not love him enough. And here she’d always berated him for his failures in business when the greater bankruptcy had been on her part”– Dedé (184-185).
- “Where does that sister of mine get her crazy courage? As she was being marched down the hall, a voice from one of the cells they passed called out, Mariposa does not belong to herself alone. She belongs to Quisqueya! Then everyone was beating on the bars, calling out, ¡Viva la Mariposa! Tears came to my eyes. Something big and powerful spread its wings inside me. Courage, I told myself. And this time, I felt it” – María Teresa (238).
- “I just have to admit to myself. I’m not you – no really, I mean it. I could be brave if someone were by me every day of my life to remind me to be brave. I don’t come by it naturally” – Dedé to Minerva (186).
Quotes about Storytelling:
- “But those memories, too, began to fade. They became stories. Everyone wanted to hear them. Mate and I could keep the house entertained for hours, telling and retelling the horrors until the sting was out of them” – Minerva (259).
- “After the fighting was over and we were a broken people. . .that’s when I opened my doors, and instead of listening, I started talking. We had lost hope, and we needed a story to understand what had happened to us” – Dedé (313).
Thea Suniga & Heidi Knutsen, 2018
Revised and expanded by Samantha Simon, Yeliz Kurt, & Sarra Sundstrom, 2019