Study Guide

In the Time of the Butterflies Freedom and Confinement

By Alvarez, Julia

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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 going.
But she wouldn't budge! She was used to her little pen. […]

Silly bunny, I thought. You're nothing at all like me. (1.2.3-5)

The rabbit (female rabbits are called does, just like deer—fun fact!) that Minerva tries to release doesn't even want to be free. She's doing it a favor, and it doesn't appreciate it at all. This foreshadows the failed June 14th invasion, when the Cubans and the guerrillas try to "free" the campesinos that just turn against them.

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. (1.2.19)

Minerva believes that becoming aware of the political situation in her country is the same as becoming free. Rather than being a blind little girl, or someone who turns away because they'd rather not know, she opens her eyes and sees the lack of freedom that pervades the entire society.

Three years cooped at home since I'd graduated from Inmaculada, and I was ready to scream with boredom. (2.6.9)

Minerva's lifelong dream is to become a lawyer, but her parents don't support her dream and won't let her move to the capital with her friends to study. She feels like she is throwing her life away, and her desire to scream probably isn't hyperbole. Can you relate?

I'd drive further and further out, pretending to myself that I was running away to the capital. But something always made me turn the car around and head back home, something I'd seen from the corner of my eye. (2.6.10)

This is a mysterious line. Minerva has a car; she has the freedom to drive all over the countryside, but she doesn't let herself break free from her family and really run away to follow her dreams. What do you think that thing is that she sees out of the corner of her eye?

And so I thought of a way for Nelson to be in the capital, under supervision so he wouldn't be running wild with women or his rebel uncles. I talked to Padre de Jesús López, our new priest, who promised to talk to Padre Fabré about letting Nelson enroll in Santo Tomás de Aquino in the capital. It was a seminary, but there was no obligation to the priesthood. (2.8.38)

Nelson, just like his mother, aunts, and uncles, supports the revolution. But, because he's a teenager, his mother's main goal is to protect him and not send him off to battle. She hatches a plan that will keep him safe by keeping him confined within the walls of a religious school.

Dear Father,

Greetings in the Lord's name from the mother of one of your charges, Nelson González, completing his fourth year, a smart boy on the whole, as you yourself wrote in your last report, but not always the best with self-control. To make sure he studies hard and stays out of trouble, please, do not let my son off the grounds except to come home. (2.8.87-88)

This letter gets Patria into big trouble with her sister and son. She orders the director of the school to keep her son locked in the school when she knows that the invasion is supposed to happen, to keep him safe. It offends everyone, but she stands strong, believing she can protect him by locking him down.

[…] Dedé and Mamá came back from the capital with the "good news" that the girls' names, along with those of the men and my Nelson, had appeared on the latest list of three hundred and seventy-two detained. oh, how relieved we were! As long as the SIM admitted they were in custody, our prisoners stood less of a chance of being disappeared. (3.10.56)

The SIM (Military Intelligence Service) is notorious for "disappearing" prisoners, which basically means kidnapping/arresting them, never charging them with any crimes, and killing them and disposing of their bodies without telling their families. Strangely enough, it's good news that they admit to having the girls in prison.

We're in Cell #61, Pavilion A, La Victoria—Dulce, Miriam, Violeta, Asela, Delia, Sina, Minerva, and me. Please notify their families. We are well but dying for news of home and the children. Please send Trinalin as we are all down with a bad grippe & Lomotil for the obvious. Any food that keeps. Many kisses to all but especially to my little darling. (3.10.89)

Mate writes a secret note from prison, passed through her father's second family, and it becomes clear that, in a confinement situation, the most basic needs become essential. All the girls ask for is medicine and food, and human connection to their loved ones. It's life at its barest.

Suddenly it all came out, along with the tears. How I had read in the papers about El Jefe excusing minors, how my boy had just turned eighteen in prison, how I wondered if there was anything at all Peña could do to get my boy pardoned. (3.10.154)

Part of El Jefe's power play was to imprison and pardon people on a whim. Patria's goal in life is to protect her son, Nelson, and she is willing to do anything to win his freedom, even beg her enemy Captain Peña, who has treated her family terribly and taken away everyone she loves.

On the front page of El Caribe, the two photographs were side by side: Noris giving her hand to a smiling Jefe (Young Offender Softens El Jefe's Heart); and me, kneeling, my hands clutched in prayer (Grateful Madre Thanks Her Benefactor). (3.10.253)

When Nelson is released, Trujillo's people find a way to spin it into a triumph for El Jefe. They label Noris a "young offender" though she isn't accused of anything; she does "soften El Jefe's heart" because he likes any young, pretty girl. And it's unclear whether they mean that the praying Patria is thanking God or El Jefe.

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