Julia Alavarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies
On occasions which bring us together like today, it is a consolation to me that when my mother would hear warnings about how dangerous it was to stand up to Trujillo, she would always reply with the same words. ... “If they kill me I shall reach my arms out of the grave and I shall be stronger ..."
— Minou Tavárez Mirabal
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 lesson, students undertake a careful analysis of the main characters to see how each individually 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.
The following worksheets are included with this lesson plan to be used in conjunction with the student activities. A more in-depth background information extension is also included.
Have students generate an extended definition of “courage”
A few types of courage are defined, below. Other types of courage such as social and emotional courage may be identified and applied in Activity 2.
Have each student write an original extended definition of courage. An extended definition may include the following: a direct definition, the etymology of the word, description, examples, analogies, classification of types, synonyms, antonyms, etc. You should make clear to your students how long you wish the extended definition to be and what methods you would like them to use.
Have students analyze the actions of the Mirabal sisters to evaluate how the main characters respond to situations that demand courage.
Have student groups present their findings to the class, citing any textual evidence they have found to support their answers. Encourage students to take notes on other groups’ work and allow time for them to do so.
Have students analyze a speech, a nonfiction primary source that delivers a factual account of the historical events depicted in the novel. This speech was given by Minerva Mirabal’s daughter Minou on the subject of violence against women in 2006. It provides a unique first-hand perspective on the experiences of the Mirabal sisters and offers special insight into Minerva’s life and legacy. This informational text will broaden students’ scope and understanding of the aspects of courage they have examined in Alvarez’s historical fiction. Students’ close reading is followed by a discussion on the relevance of the speech to contemporary women in the United States and around the world.
An alternate version of this speech (Worksheet 3.1) is available for for the teacher’s reference. Worksheet 3.1 highlights the following vocabulary terms in bold face type and provides definitions to each term in the margin alongside the text.
Have the students write a response to the following:
How does Minou’s description of specific events of the Mirabal sisters’ lives related in the violence against women speech differ from or reinforce the experience of courage relayed in the novel? Which version, fact or fiction, is more powerful? Why?
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.
3 class periods