Study Guide

In the Time of the Butterflies Family

By Alvarez, Julia

Family

"No, I mean, where are you in the sequence, the youngest, the oldest?"

So the woman has not read any of the articles or biographies around. Dedé is relieved. This means that they can spend the time talking about the simple facts that give Dedé the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too—birthdays and weddings and new babies, the peaks in that graph of normalcy. (1.1.25-26)

Dedé imagines that her family is just like all other families because of its milestones, although the major milestone of her sisters' death doesn't show up in her list of simple facts. Her sisters are so famous that she feels like she can't just live an ordinary life with ordinary memories. Her sisters ain't ordinary—they are extraordinary.

Bang-bang-bang, their father likes to joke, aiming a finger pistol at each one, as if he were shooting them, not boasting about having sired them. Three girls, each born within a year of the other! And then, nine years later, María Teresa, his final desperate attempt at a boy misfiring. (1.1.45)

The girls' father uses the imagery of a gun to refer to his daughters' conceptions. That is not a new metaphor (pistol shots for sperm-egg unions, eeeew), but its use here is interesting because it foreshadows the girls' violent futures… and deaths.

"People who opened their big mouths didn't live very long," Sinita said. "Like my uncles I told you about. Then, two more uncles, and then my father." Sinita began crying again. "Then this summer, they killed my brother." (1.2.67)

President Rafael Trujillo systematically murders entire families to punish anyone who steps out of line, and makes examples of them to avoid future disobedience. While someone might risk their own lives, they will think twice about risking the lives of their innocent relatives.

The town was jammed with eager pilgrims, and though we tried at all the decent boarding houses, we could not find a single room. Finally we called on some distant relations, who scolded us profusely for not having come to them in the first place. (1.4.115)

This tiny detail is just a little clue to the culture of family on the island. The Mirabal girls and their mothers show up unannounced at a distant relative's house and are welcomed with a place to stay and a warm meal.

One time, I stopped at the side of the road and stared at their Mirabal eyes. "Who is your father?" I asked point blank. (2.6.13)

Minerva can tell by looking that the little girls in the poor house are her half sisters. That shows the power of genetics, which gives them the same eyes that she has. She asks them who their father is to confirm what she already knows, and this is the first step she takes towards recognizing them as her relatives.

His hand slammed into the side of my face as it never had before on any part of my body. […]
"That's to remind you that you owe your father some respect!"
"I don't owe you a thing," I said. My voice was as sure and commanding as his. "You've lost my respect." (2.6.43-45)

The violence of Papá's action is shocking to Minerva, but what's even crazier is that he thinks that slapping her will teach her to respect him. In this moment, the rebellious daughter takes control of her life, proving herself to be as strong as her father.

"I want to meet them. They're my sisters, after all." (2.6.64)

Minerva, with this short phrase, is taking a huge leap. She tells her father that she wants to meet his other daughters, the ones he visits on the sly. By calling them her "sisters" she is recognizing fully their relationship and even, in a way, approving of it.

I felt a pang of jealousy seeing them treat Papá in the same way my sisters and I had. (2.6.67)

Papá's other family treats him like their dad… because he is their dad. It's strange for Minerva to see it, and it even makes her feel a little envious, perhaps because she can see her past self in the girls. They are still young and innocent, and she has had to grow up.

I can't believe she came to the funeral mass with her girls, adding four more slaps to her big blow. […]
I asked Minerva who invited them.
All she said was they were Papá's daughters, too. (2.7.3-5)

María Teresa isn't quite as charitable as Minerva, and considers her father's other family to be injuries. In fact, she calls them "slaps" and "blows"—violent language to describe the pain and insult she feels because of their existence. She quotes Minerva as saying that they are Papá's daughters—she's not ready to accept them as her sisters.

She says Berto and Raúl aren't like brothers anymore, fighting all the time. She wants me to decide which one I want, then let the other one go eat tamarinds. So, she says, which one is it going to be?
Neither one, I blurt out because suddenly I see that what I'm headed for with either one is this mother-in-law. (2.7.111-112)

María Teresa is a real heartbreaker. She's got her cousins Berto and Raúl, two brothers, fighting for her attention. Their mother, Tía Flor, tells her to make up her mind so that her boys can find peace. What's interesting is that Mate immediately recognizes that by marrying one of the boys she'd be marrying the whole family and decides against it.

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