In this lesson students do a close reading of “Learning to Read,” a poem by Francis Watkins Harper about an elderly former slave which conveys the value of literacy to blacks during and after slavery. The activities also prompt students to examine the nature of century in the 21st century and the value they put upon it.
Julia Alavarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies
Credit: photo by Bill Eichner ©
Set in the Dominican Republic during the rule of Rafael Trujillo, In the Time of the Butterflies fictionalizes historical figures (four Mirabal sisters, their parents, Trujillo himself, and his subordinates) in order to dramatize the Dominican people’s heroic efforts to overthrow this dictator’s brutal regime. The sisters are distinctive personalities, each engaged in the struggle for independence. With unique structure of time frames and alternating voices, Julia Alvarez has written a complex coming-of-age novel that provides a context for students to look at the struggles of women to secure their human, civil, and economic rights in countries around the world today.
In this unit, students undertake a careful analysis to see how each individual demonstrates courage in the course of her family’s turbulent life events. Students additionally analyze a speech delivered in 2006 by a daughter of one of the sisters to understand better the historical legacy of these extraordinary women.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies”—was the name used by Dominicans to describe the Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated by the dictator Rafael Trujillo for trying to lead a democratic revolution. In 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were beaten to death on a lonely mountain road by Trujillo’s henchmen, who placed their bodies in their Jeep and threw it over a cliff to make their deaths appear accidental. Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) is their story. Based on Alvarez’s personal knowledge of the political situation in the Dominican Republic and her family’s own participation in the resistance movement, the novel conveys authenticity. It is also grounded in extensive research. Alvarez interviewed the surviving sister Dedé and other family members to create unforgettable characters and bridge the gap between biography and fiction.
The story takes place on the tropical island of Hispaniola, shared between Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east. The island is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea on the south. Three decades of Trujillo’s iron rule had turned this country into a place of terror where political enemies were jailed or “disappeared.” Torture was a routine tactic of the government, and the secret police were everywhere, always listening. Children were coached to idolize El Jefe lest their parents win disapproval and be punished severely.
The four Mirabal girls were raised comfortably and educated well by their doting parents. Three of the sisters were drawn into danger, risking their lives, families, and homes by planning for a revolution. The lives of the Mirabal sisters, and more particularly their murders, galvanized the opposition to the regime. Trujillo was assassinated in the year following their deaths.
Structurally, the novel presents a challenge to the student. First, the book is divided into three chronological sections dealing with events in the 1940s, the 1950s, and finally 1960, the year of their deaths. Within these main sections, each chapter focuses on one sister. Maria Teresa’s story is told through her diary entries in the first person; Patria’s story is a first-person narrative, as is Minerva’s; Dedé’s chapters are written in third person. A frame story interwoven into Dedé’s chapters introduces an unnamed woman writer, presumably Alvarez herself, interviewing Dedé in 1994 at the family home and museum, which now preserves the story of the Butterflies; this is also a limited third-person narrative. Finally, at the very end, Dedé speaks in first person in the Epilogue. Once students understand this complex narrative structure, they will be able to fit the events of the story into a coherent whole. Through Alvarez’s masterful storytelling the reader experiences growing tension as the story winds toward its inevitable conclusion.
The courage shown by the Mirabal women has been recognized not only in the Dominican Republic, but throughout Latin America. In 1993, recognition by the world community came in the form of The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted as a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly. In 1999, the UN designated November 25, the anniversary of the Mirabals’ deaths, as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Additional information may be found in the PDF extension to these Background Notes.
This summative assessment requires students to write a character analysis using materials already generated in the lesson. Students will synthesize information from their reading of the novel, their class discussions, and written work to write a cohesive study of one character using courage as an organizing theme and providing textual documentation for their contentions. Students should use whatever citation requirements and formatting you normally require for essays.
1. Each year on November 25, the anniversary of their deaths, the courage of the Mirabal sisters Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa is commemorated in Latin America. The United Nations named that date for the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
2. In 1979, The United Nations adopted The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 1993, the UN added the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which spells out the role of the state in preventing violence against women and specifically cites the Mirabal sisters.
Have students analyze a speech, a nonfiction primary source that delivers a factual account of the historical events depicted in the novel.