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Dedé is the second-oldest sister in the Mirabal clan, the practical one who knows how to add and subtract on the spot and who keeps the family store's shelves stacked neatly at all times. She is also the only sister who didn't join the revolution and didn't die in the ambush of 1960. Her role is to be the sister who survived, who lived to tell the tale.
Let's dig into who she is, why she didn't join her sisters, and what she means to the novel.
Dedé's father predicts that she will be a survivor early in her life: "She'll bury us all," her father adds, laughing, "in silk and pearls" (1.1.49). This is because he knows that she's not a pushover, she can stand her ground. That practical nature is what keeps her from joining the revolution, and what finally keeps her safe.
That isn't to say that it's easy for Dedé to ignore the call of the revolution though. She says that:
[Lío] presented a very real opportunity to fight against the regime. I think that, after him, Minerva was never the same. And neither was I […] Yes, years after she had last seen Lío, he was still a presence in her heart and mind. Every time she went along with some insane practice of the regime, she felt his sad, sober eyes accusing her of giving in. (2.5.33)
Dedé knows that by surviving, she has abandoned her sisters and their values. Going along with the regime was what kept her alive, but it's not clear if it was worth it because surviving means having to live with the memories.
Jaimito says it best; when they are driving back to San Francisco with her sisters' bodies in the back of the truck, Dedé takes a risk, shouting that the guards are assassins when they pass. Her husband tells her, "This is your martyrdom, Dedé, to be alive without them" (4.13.59). And so surviving is the sacrifice that Dedé wasn't able to make along with her sisters—she has to suffer through life alone.
Dedé is always the sister who holds back while the others live their lives. She sees this tendency in herself when Lío enters their lives, presenting an opportunity to actually take action. Even after she invites him to play volleyball, she admits that the girls don't play:
"I don't play," she says rather more meekly than she intends. "I just watch."
The truth of her words strikes Dedé as she remembers how she stood back and watched the young man open the back door for whoever wanted to sit by him. And Minerva slipped in! (2.5.71-72)
The volleyball game, and the chance to sit in the backseat with Lío, are like insignificant symbols for the significant moments that Dedé misses out on due to shyness, fear, or cowardice.
When things start getting really bad in the country, Dedé chooses not to pay attention:
She decided not to read the papers anymore. [. . .] She shut her eyes tight and wished blindly that everything would turn out all right. (2.5.130-136)
"Decided," "shut," and "wished" are all actions that Dedé knowingly takes to block out reality. She runs away instead of taking action.
A big part of Dedé's lack of involvement in the cause is her decision to marry and stay with Jaimito. As she tells the interviewer, "Back in those days, we women followed our husbands." But even she knows that it is "such a silly excuse." After all, look at Minerva.
"Let's put it this way," Dedé adds. "I followed my husband. I didn't get involved" (3.9.9). Nowadays Dedé recognizes that she had a choice, but at the time she hid behind Jaimito as an excuse.
Dedé's function in the novel is to tell the story of her sisters to the woman interviewing her. She is like the channel between the past and the present, the key to the history of the butterflies. This isn't a role that she enjoys. In the memory she shares of her father's predictions, she remembers that she felt that:
[…] the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn't want to be the only one left to tell their story. (1.1.68)
But that is her fate: to be the storyteller.
She has come to accept it too, as her duty: "She feels bad when she can't carry off what she considers her responsibility. To be the grande dame of the beautiful, terrible past" (2.5.25). Now she takes her role as the last remaining sister seriously; she must represent the past to the present. She's a symbol more than she is a person.
And Dedé's responsibility isn't just to tell the story of her sisters after their death. It is also to collect the stories. People would come to tell her of the girls' final moments on the day of their death:
Each visitor would break my heart all over again, but I would sit on this very rocker and listen for as long as they had something to say.
It was the least I could do, being the one saved. (4.13.2-3)
Dedé stays in the same place as where she lived when the tragedy occurred ("on this very rocker") as though she herself were a monument to her sisters. Her role as listener is another duty she assigns herself ("the least I could do"), a way that she can contribute and be close to her sisters after she missed her chance to really help them.