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Critical Review by Ruth Behar
SOURCE: "Revolutions of the Heart," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 8, May, 1995, pp. 6-7.
In the following review, Behar contextualizes In the Time of the Butterflies as a historical novel about Latina women and revolution.
So often I have wondered: Where are the women among those gigantic looming shadows of the male liberators, tyrants, generals, colonels and revolutionaries who have ruled the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the past century? Did women not fight alongside Simón Bolivar and José Martí? Have women not shared beds with revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, or dictators like Batista and Duvalier? Were there no women in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro? The history textbooks tell the story of Spanish America's bloody national struggles for independence, decolonization and freedom as if women were never there, as if women had no place in the nation and in history. Is there really no story for those women other than the romance?
Latina fiction writers in the United States have lately begun to seek answers to these questions. They increasingly cross the border into Latin America, claiming its history as their own and translating it into English for North American readers. The Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros has a short story, "Eyes of Zapata," in her recent collection Woman Hollering Creek, in which a mistress who has known him since childhood imagines the Mexican revolutionary as sadly tender and vulnerable. Cristina García, the Cuban American writer, creates a feisty protagonist in her novel Dreaming in Cuban, based on her own grandmother who stayed behind on the island; this Cuban grandmother, her ears decorated with drop-pearls, single-handedly watches over the northern coast to prevent yanqui invasions that might topple Fidel Castro, who she imagines will one day thank her personally for her heroic patriotism.
In her engaging new novel [In the Time of the Butterflies], the Dominican American poet and writer Julia Alvarez joins these Latina writers in the feminist quest to bring Latin American women into the nation and into history as agents, out from under the shadows of those larger-than-life men who, too often, have treated the countries under their rule as personal fiefdoms. Yet Alvarez goes further: she explores the sly ways dictators plant pieces of themselves "inside everyone of us." This point comes to life in a brilliant scene in which the Mirabal family, haplessly trying to stay on the good side of the Dominican dictator, attends a party at Trujillo's mansion. There, Minerva, the Mirabal daughter most committed to the struggle to topple the regime, is surprised by her disappointment when Trujillo doesn't immediately ask her to dance. As she sagely observes, "This regime is seductive. How else would a whole nation fall prey to this little man?" When Trujillo finally asks her to dance, she catches herself, as they make small talk, lying to protect a friend: "Instantly, I feel ashamed of myself. I see now how easily it happens. You give in on little things, and soon you're serving in his government, marching in his parades, sleeping in his bed." Women's resistance to dictators, Alvarez shows us, is fraught with problems, not the least being their susceptibility to the erotic power of charismatic male leaders.
Widely known as the "little Caesar of the Caribbean," Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was the Dominican Republic's brutal dictator for 31 years, from 1930 to 1961. In August of 1960, during the last year of his rule, Julia Alvarez fled to the United States with her parents and three sisters; her father had participated in an underground plot to over-throw Trujillo which the secret police had uncovered. In her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, she chronicled her upper-class family's life in exile in New York City, alternating between the voices of four sisters as they came of age.
Though only ten years old when her family went into exile, Alvarez was haunted throughout her childhood by the story of another four girls, the Mirabal sisters, who stayed behind in the Dominican Republic and suffered a cruel fate in Trujillo's final hour. Their story, an eerie shadow biography and counterpoint to the story of the García girls, is the subject of this new novel. Returning home through steep mountains on the night of November 25, 1960—they had been to see their husbands, jailed as political prisoners—three of the sisters, Patria (aged 36), Minerva (34) and María Teresa (25), were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. The sisters, members of the same underground as Alvarez' father, had once been harassed and jailed themselves for speaking out against the regime, but they refused, in the spirit of their code name Las Mariposas—the Butterflies—to clip their wings. Less than a year later, Trujillo was assassinated.
The fourth sister, Dedé, to whom Alvarez dedicates her novel, is introduced in the opening pages. In 1994 Dedé is 66 years old. She is inspired to look back again at her memories of the events leading to the night of her sisters' murders by the visit of an inquisitive gringa dominicana who speaks an uneasy Spanish, an obvious alias for Alvarez. Ironically, it is Dedé, the sister who was ambivalent about participating in the underground and remained home on that night, who tells the story of her sisters and oversees their transformation (in real life and in the novel) into national and even international heroines. (Today in Latin America, November 25th is the International Day Against Violence Toward Women.)
The revolution against Trujillo Alvarez depicts is the individual revolution taking place in the hearts of each of the Mirabal sisters, who at different times, for different reasons and in different ways, join in the common struggle to liberate their nation and their psyches from the power of dictators. Reproducing the structure of her first novel, Alvarez crafts separate voices and personas for them as they come of age and define themselves as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and, most wrenchingly, citizens of a fatherland that sacrifices its women when they become too strong.
Patria, the eldest, is devoutly Catholic and comes to the underground resistance against Trujillo through her religious thirst for justice. Yearning for redemption, she views the struggle in terms of a need for trust and national reconciliation:
"I wanted to start believing in my fellow Dominicans again. Once the goat was a bad memory in our past, that would be the real revolution we would have to fight: forgiving each other for what we had all let come to pass." Minerva, the most fearless and earnest revolutionary of the four, questions every form of patriarchal authority, and even dares to slap Trujillo as they dance at his mansion when he rams his groin into her dress. María Teresa, the youngest and most naive, is presented through her diaries and drawings, preciously full of exclamation points and bubbling emotions. While her child's voice is irritatingly cute, her adult voice is more subtle, particularly when she questions Minerva's unwavering passion for the revolution. "For me love goes deeper than the struggle," María Teresa admits, "or maybe what I mean is, love is the deeper struggle. I would never be able to give up Leandro to some higher ideal the way I feel Minerva and Manolo would each other if they had to make the supreme sacrifice."
Finally there is Dedé, the survivor, who never completely signs on to the resistance. After the nightmare of the Trujillo dictatorship she belatedly but firmly develops the courage to make her own choices: to divorce her husband (for her, the revolution is about a feminist rethinking of home rather than of nation) and to bring up her sisters' children without resentment, even at the cost of sheltering them from the full weight of their own history.
This is a historical novel in which forgetting wins out over remembering. Alvarez offers us a paradox: her novel bears witness to the urgency of her quest for memory, but for her characters healing comes only through forgetting. By the end of the novel Fela, the former black servant of the Mirabal family who has become a spirit medium, announces that the dead sisters are at peace and no longer clamor to speak through her body. In turn, Minou, Minerva's daughter, announces that she and her husband hope to build a house "up north in those beautiful mountains"—where her parents happen to have been murdered. Dedé decides that Minou's obliviousness to history is the forgiveness that brings forth a different future: "She's not haunted and full of hate. She claims it, this beautiful country with its beautiful mountains and splendid beaches—all the copy we read in the tourist brochures." But life in the Dominican Republic in a post-Trujillo, post-revolutionary time is chillingly carefree, with "Free Zones going up everywhere, the coast a clutter of clubs and resorts." Dedé notes that "We are now the playground of the Caribbean, who were once its killing fields. The cemetery is beginning to flower." Yet she can't help asking herself: "Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?"
As in a Greek tragedy, we know from the beginning the destiny that awaits the Mirabal sisters. It is the development of their characters rather than the unfolding of the plot that carries the narrative forward. And yet, as with any well-told tragic tale, we expect to be devastated by their deaths when we finally get to them. Although the last 150 pages of the book read quickly, as the story pushes past the slow-moving girlhood stories to the metamorphosis of the sisters into The Butterflies, the narrative edges closer and closer to tragedy, yet never quite hits the mark. Alvarez chooses to scrunch up time at the end of the novel, letting the assassination of the sisters unfold in a twenty-page epilogue told in Dedé's voice.
To be sure, it is exquisitely written. In a touchingly banal detail, a store-owner recalls that, just before starting up the mountain, the youngest of the sisters wanted ten cents' worth of cinnamon, yellow and green Chiclets. "He dug around in the jar but he couldn't find any cinnamon ones. He will never forgive himself that he couldn't find any cinnamon ones. His wife wept for the little things that could have made the girls' last minutes happier." But to crush the reader's heart with the full impact of the murders, Alvarez needed to keep us longer with the sisters—to expand not shrink time as they climb the mountains to their death.
As a Cuban-born Latina, I read with special interest the many allusions Alvarez makes to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. For Latin American and Caribbean leftists in the 1950s who dreamed of undoing the legacy of poverty, inequality and racism and struggled against nearly impossible odds to overthrow dictators, it was difficult not to be swept off your feet by the young guerrilleros Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. For the Mirabal sisters of Alvarez' novel, Fidel and Che become models of young revolutionary manhood, forming a stark contrast to the power-hungry, lecherous, aging figure of the dictator Trujillo. Patria imagines that the Lord himself has directed her to name her youngest son Raúl Ernesto, Che for short. Minerva takes to reciting the famous words Castro uttered after serving time in jail for his revolutionary actions: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!"
In the Time of the Butterflies demonstrates that history has more than absolved the Mirabal sisters. Whether history can absolve revolutionaries who become dictators is a question I would have liked to see Julia Alvarez pose, if only because it is a burning one for those of us who still want to believe in the possibility of revolutions for the Caribbean that don't turn sour. Had Alvarez developed the voice of her alias, the gringa dominicana who returns to her abandoned homeland to learn about The Butterflies from the history-weary Dedé, she might have been able to offer a more nuanced view of what revolutions look like the morning after. But rather than explore the limits of recovering and reclaiming the past, she chooses to downplay the role of the novelist bearing witness to history. She forfeits a golden opportunity, I think, to add depth to her story and break with the predictable four-voice narrative. In a brief "real life" postscript, Alvarez claims that only through fiction's transformations is it possible to understand a history as complex as that surrounding the Mirabal sisters. The notion is tantalizing but unsatisfying: why did she not weave the story of that transformation into the novel itself?
Yet despite these criticisms, I am in debt to Julia Alvarez for her creative ambition, which she largely fulfils: for showing that although revolutions turn sour, they matter. And for showing that when they turn sour for women, they must be remembered even more adamantly. For the history of any nation rightly belongs not to women who forgive and forget but to those who forgive even as they remember.
This section contains 2,159 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)