Patria Mercedes Mirabal de González
Patria, the eldest Mirabal sister and butterfly number three, is the slowest of the three sisters to join the struggle because she takes her time and must choose what she believes is the right path. That commitment to her values reflects the importance of faith and religion to Patria throughout her life; she was born reaching up into the heavens and attempts to do right ever after.
Patria made life hard for her younger sisters… but not by bullying them. No, instead she set way too high of a standard, so that it would be impossible to live up to. She was the perfect child. "From the beginning, I was so good, Mamá said she'd forget I was there" (1.4.5). That ease makes it so most people (even us readers) don't really worry too much about Patria—she can not only take care of herself but will take care of everyone else, too.
Even Patria thinks of herself as a goody-goody. She quotes the Bible and follows it, too:
Build your house upon a rock, He said, do my will. And though the rain fall and the floods come and the winds blow, the good wife's house will stand.
I did as he said. At sixteen I married Pedrito González and we settled down for the rest of our lives. (2.8.1-2)
For the first thirty-two years of her life, Patria has an uneventful existence, following God's plan for her life. She believes that she has built her life (her house) on a firm foundation, a rock (her faith). For her, that's enough to know that her family will be safe no matter what.
When she loses her family to the SIM, Patria has a harder time believing in God's plan. When she thinks of her teenaged son, beaten and imprisoned, she breaks down: "I've been good," I'd start screaming at the sky, undoing the "recovery" (3.10.15). Patria's goodness has been like a bargain with God… and He doesn't keep his side of the deal.
Wife and Mother
Even as a little girl, Patria is clearly cut out to be a mother. She's less than a year older than Dedé, but she takes care of her baby sister as though she were her own:
One morning, [Mamá] found me changing Dedé's wet diaper, but what was funny was that I hadn't wanted to disturb Mamá for a clean one, so I had taken off mine to put on my baby sister. (1.4.5)
Talking about giving the shirt off your back. Although we'd definitely prefer a hand-me-down shirt to a diaper.
After her first couple of kids, several years go by and Patria is surprised by another pregnancy, long after she expected to have any more babies. By this time her revolutionary ideals have taken root in her heart, and she combines her motherly calling with her guerrilla one:
On my own I would never have thought of naming my son after revolutionaries. "Ernesto," I said, "I'm going to name him Raúl Ernesto." (2.8.31)
She names her son after the heroes of the Cuban revolution.
When her son Nelson and husband Pedrito are imprisoned, Patria turns into the ultimate self-sacrificing mother. She offers herself daily in prayer, to both God and Trujillo, in exchange for her boy. She tells the portrait of Trujillo,
Hear my cry, Jefe. Release my sisters and their husbands and mine. But most especially, I beg you, oh Jefe, give me back my son.
"Take me instead, I'll be your sacrificial lamb." (3.10.30-31)
This prayer is a little perverse, given that it's directed at Patria's number one enemy instead of her god, but the offer is pure.
Patria's religion is what finally brings her around to joining the revolution with Minerva and Mate. She first finds her sympathy with the people on her pilgrimage to see the Virgin Mary in Higüey:
I stared at her pale, pretty face and challenged her. Here I am Virgencita. Where are you?
And I heard her answer me with the coughs and cries and whispers of the crowd: Here, Patria Mercedes, I'm here, all around you. I've already more than appeared. (1.4.127-128)
After the death of her third baby, Patria doesn't feel any connection to her faith anymore. By hearing the Virgin's answer in the crowd, she begins to place her faith on earth, with the people, rather than in heaven.
It is on another religious journey that Patria has her second epiphany. After the attack on the retreat in the mountains, she comes down with a new kind of faith, a revolutionary one:
Then I tried looking up at our Father, but I couldn't see His Face for the dark smoke hiding the tops of those mountains.
I made myself pray so I wouldn't cry. But my prayers sounded more like I was trying to pick a fight.
"I'm not going to sit back and watch my babies die, Lord, even if that's what You in Your great wisdom decide." (2.8.114-116)
The smoke of the shelling and fighting has obscured the sky, where Patria used to look for guidance. Now she must look inside of herself to know what's right, and she finds the answer: fighting.
She joins the new action group that the priest organizes, and the priest notices the change in Patria. She has become an avenging angel for the Lord and the revolution: "We would spread the word of God among our brainwashed campesinos who had hunted down their own liberators" (2.8.130). Now she is using her religion as a tool for resistance, and missionary work is also spreading the ideals of the revolution.
Three of the four daughters of Enrique and Mercedes Mirabal were murdered by the secret service of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo on November 25, 1960, as they returned from Puerto Plata, after paying their weekly visit to the imprisoned husbands of two of the sisters. Julia Alvarez, whose own family fled the Trujillo regime in August of 1960, when she was ten years old, captures in spine-tingling detail more than two decades of events that preceded these murders.
The first three sisters, Patria, Dede, and Minerva were born between 1924 and 1926. Teresa Marie, nicknamed Mate, followed in 1935. Of the four, only Dede survived assassination, because she was unable to travel to Puerto Plata with her sisters on the appointed day. Alvarez, using first-person narration and dividing her book into sections headed always by the name of the sister who is talking, achieves a uniquely well-rounded development of her characters, who reveal themselves in their own sections, but who are further revealed by each of the other sisters in their sections.
This is the story of how four conventional, Roman Catholic sisters evolved into revolutionaries code-named “Mariposa”—“butterfly” in Spanish—after being reared as typical, submissive Hispanic women. By defying Trujillo, Minerva, the most independent and iconoclastic sister, gains both his respect and rage. As his megalomania increases, however, the Mirabals become his obsession.
He arrested three of their husbands as well as Minerva and Mate, ultimately releasing the women to house arrest in Ojo de Agua. As Trujillo’s obsession grows, he orchestrates their murders, which transform the sisters into martyrs venerated throughout Latin America.
Bergman, Susan, ed. Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith. San Francisco: Harper, 1996. One chapter of this collection is “Chasing the Butterflies. The Mirabals: Dominican Republic, 1960,” Alvarez’s description of the path that led her to write about the Mirabal sisters.
Booklist. XC, July, 1994, p. 1892. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Chicago Tribune. October 24, 1994, V, p. 3. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 17, 1994, p. 13. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Corpi, Lucha, ed. Máscaras. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1997. Included in this volume is Alvarez’s essay “An Unlikely Beginning for a Writer,” in which she describes her struggles to adjust to the English language and to perceive herself as a writer.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. Resistance and Caribbean Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980. This study of Alvarez’s predecessors helps map out one literary tradition to which she belongs.
Ghosh, Bishnupriya, and Brinda Bose, eds. Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film. New York: Garland, 1997. Although it does not discuss In the Time of the Butterflies specifically, this collection of essays provides international perspective for Alvarez’s work.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, July 1, 1994, p. 858. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 123. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Ms. V, September, 1994, p. 79. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Nation. CCLIX, November 7, 1994, p. 552. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 18, 1994, p. 28. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Newsweek. CXXIV, October 17, 1994, p. 77. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 62. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, November 27, 1994, p. 7. A review of In the Time of the Butterflies.