My sister, Maria and I began #NastyWomenWriters to amplify the voices of #nastywomen from the past and present who had or were being erased, disappeared or ignored. We wanted to educate #nastywomen about other #nastywomen to draw inspiration from them and realize they were not alone, to understand that feminism has been around for a very long time, that women of all races, classes and religions have been speaking up, fighting to be heard and breaking glass ceilings through all of his-story. Because women’s stories are often erased, forgotten or ignored, we can believe we are the first to think many of the thoughts we are thinking, living the experiences we are living, struggling with the struggles we are having, but it is not true. There is a wealth of advice, camaraderie and wisdom locked up in the stories of other #nastywomen.
The #Nastywomenwriters project has revealed to me the deeper complexity of this truth. Repeatedly, I pick up a book by or about one #nastywoman and find the story of another #nastywoman embedded or even hidden within it. The truth is we have not left each other. We are not lost to one another. We have found each other over and over again, only it is hidden in biographies and autobiographies, in personal stories or told as fiction when it is not fiction at all.
Women’s stories and intersecting identities are often hidden within other women’s stories. #Nastywomen have devised an ingenious way to keep ourselves and each other alive. We have archived our own her-story within oral stories, artwork, crafts, film, books, poetry, songs, and dance, creating a rich golden cord through time to hold on to, follow and unravel, if we know but where to look.
Sometimes the #nastywoman embedded in another #nastywoman’s piece is so compelling, it can take over the experience of the work as well as illuminate unseen pieces of both women’s identities.
In the Time of the Butterflies is one of those books. When I reached toward Julia Alvarez as my next #nastywomanwriter to explore and write about, I did not know I would find Minerva Mirabel and become so immersed in the story of her and her sisters, women living in the sphere of a dictator in the Dominican Republic and carrying out their own form of resistance, it would almost eclipse the experience of reading the novel. All I can say is: thank you Julia Alvarez. That is a job well done.
Three of the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic, Patria, Minerva, Maria Teresa, and their driver Rufino de la Cruz were murdered on the evening of November 25, 1960. The murders were ordered by the dictator they were resisting, Rafael Trujillo, “El Jefe,” and carried out by one of his henchman and his acolytes. The sisters were strangled and clubbed to death on the side of the road between Puerto Plata and Santiago after a visit to Patria and Minerva’s husbands in jail. Patria was 36, Minerva was 34, and Maria Teresa was 24.
Trujillo’s authoritarian regime had been in power for 30 years. Some say the murder of the Mirabel sisters was the beginning of the end of the Trujillo regime.
Their sister Dedé was not in the car with them that day. She survived and lived until 2014. She held the story of them alive and kept a museum-like space in her home for people to come and honor them. That is how Alvarez begins her novel, with a writer from North America who was born in the Dominican Republic returning to ask about the sisters, about the butterflies, las mariposas, as they were called, for a book. Alvarez has Dedé see her through her own eyes, as one who left and is more American than Dominican.
In real life too, there is an overlapping of their lives, their histories. Alvarez’ family fled the dictatorship of Trujillo, because her father was involved in resistance and was almost arrested and jailed for it. He had a hiding place in his home for that exact moment, the moment they came to arrest him, which Alvarez writes about chillingly in her previous novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. There is a potent intersection between Alvarez and the Mirabel sisters. She is one of four girls. They were four. They were older than she. They did not leave the country. Alvarez spent a life in exile from the Dominican Republic. The Mirabel sisters stayed and resisted. And three of them lost their lives for it.
In an interview in The Writer, Alvarez explains part of the reason she was drawn to the story:
“I was starting to read a lot of children’s literature because my husband and I have a literacy center in the Dominican Republic. I was looking for books and stories and novels that addressed our history in the Americas. And there weren’t that many for young readers. I saw that they had a lot of books about the Holocaust and about slavery, but not that much about kids growing up in a dictatorship up and down the Americas, which was the phenomenon of the last century in many of our countries. Many Latinos in the Dominican Republic had grandparents or parents who had fled from dictatorships. I wanted our own Anne Frank story. And that was really the story I set in the Dominican Republic in the Trujillo dictatorship”(https://www.writermag.com/writing-inspiration/author-interviews/julia-alvarez-time-discovery/).
But in truth, who could resist Minerva Mirabel as a character?
She is described as a feminist powerhouse who was so physically attractive she caught the eye of Trujillo who had the habit of searching out the most beautiful young women in the land and courting them, eventually setting them up in a home where he could meet with them and carry out his dalliances. In fact, Trujillo noticing her beauty and Minerva rejecting him is what began the long downward spiral of the the Mirabel family.
In graphic detail Alvarez depicts the terror people feel when they live in a totalitarian, autocratic regime—their lack of options and agency. The family is invited to a ball, especially Minerva is asked to attend and have a special dance with Trujillo. If she does not go, the family suffers, if she goes, must she comply with his wishes? If she does not comply, will she risk rape and murder? What are her options? She tries to outsmart him during the dance, but instead, rouses his ire enough to catch his attention for negative reasons. He will jail and question her father now and threaten her family and though Minerva goes to law school as she had always dreamed, he will deny her the opportunity to practice law. It is excruciating and Alvarez writes it so well that we feel it is the true story although we know some of it had to be made up, to move the scene forward, to keep the book flowing, to create dialogue —but, no matter, we believe it hook, line and sinker, moving the pages forward in rabid anticipation.
The voices Alvarez gives the sisters are believable, their reasons for becoming radicalized understandable. We know she did her research and though we know the ending before we open the book, we allow ourselves to fall in love with all of the Mirabel sisters and are even willing to get into the car with them at the end for what we know is surely their last ride.
We think we know them. We are sure we know them. We mourn for them. I am haunted by them still.
There is more to the novel than the story of their resistance. There is the story of their lives, their loves, their childhoods and adolescence, their dreams and their disappointments. One extremely moving part of the book is a story many women experience either with their husband or father, when Minerva discovers that her father, her hero, has another family. She discovers them quite by accident one day but knows when she sees the four young girls that they are her sisters. The novel explores how she confronts her father, and eventually after his death has to tell her sisters and mother, as she agrees to carry out his wishes and make sure they are taken care of. This part of the novel is excruciating in its revelations of human folly and mistakes people can make that have lasting damage.
The following dialogue is from the scene where Minerva decides to let her father know that she knows:
“I knew where to find him all right. Now that Papá was doing so well, he had bought a second car, a Jeep. I knew damn well he wasn’t reviewing the fields if he had taken the Ford, not the Jeep. I headed straight for that yellow house.
When I got there, those four girls looked up, startled. After all, the man they always expected was already there, the car parked in back where it couldn’t be seen from the road. I turned into the dirt path and crashed into the Ford, making the bumper curl up and shattering the window in back. Then I came down on that horn until he appeared, shirtless and furious in the doorway.
He took one look at me and got as pale as an olive-skinned man can get. For a long moment, he didn’t say anything. ‘What do you want?’ he said at last”(TB 88).
Don’t think because I write mostly about Minerva the she is the only sister in the book, Alvarez covers them all and gives them all a voice but Minerva is the one who stood out for me. Probably because she is the feminist and the outspoken one, and the one to whom I could most relate. And because she gets to deliver the best lines.
“’In his own way, Papa was a trujillista,’ Minerva announced.
All her sisters looked at her, shocked. ‘Papa was a hero!’ Dedé fumed. ‘He died because of what he went through in prison. You should know. He was trying to keep you out of trouble.’
Minerva nodded. ‘That’s right. His advice was always, don’t annoy the bees, don’t annoy the bees. It’s men like him and Jaimito and other scared fulanitos who have kept the devil in power all these years.’
‘How can you say that about Papá?’ Dedé could hear her voice rising.
‘How can you let her say that about Papá?’ She tried to enlist her sisters”(TB 179).
“Dictatorships…are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.” ~ Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
As stated previously, when she was ten years old, Alvarez’ family fled the dictatorship the exact year the Mirabel sisters were murdered. It is almost an alternative reality, her first book and In the Time of the Butterflies. Their stories intersect, overlap and are embedded within the Trujillo dictatorship.
Julia Alvarez (b. 1950) is a Dominican-American writer who came from wealth. In the Dominican Republic she had servants, many of them black. It seems the family who stayed continued to enjoy this status.
Exploring themes of exile and belonging in women’s literature in her book, Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction, Roberta Rubenstein sums up Alvarez’ first book as follows:
“In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), the experience of exile is not secondary but primary. Moreover, the narrative is recuperative and retrospective in more than one sense: its trajectory of reparation and return is expressed not only narratively but structurally through the inversion of chronology. Beginning in 1989 and ending in 1956, the narrative formally reflects the pattern of nostalgia as well as the two senses I have suggested of attempting to “fix” (secure/repair) the past: the return home is accomplished through a reparative imaginative vision, not in the actual world”(Rubenstein 66).
How the García Girls Lost their Accents, held up as a foundational Latinx story and Alvarez as an important voice for this population, is indeed a story of exile, immigration and assimilation but also entitlement. These are not poor immigrants. The Mirabels were not as wealthy as the Alvarez’ but they were not poor either. They were farmers and their father had a successful store. Neither the Alvarezes nor the Mirabels are black, though the saying goes that all Dominicans have “black behind their ears.”
There are black people in the two previously mentioned novels but they are servants or “Haitians,” which in that context is a derogatory term Dominicans used to distance themselves from their own blackness. As a reader I found this problematic. I assume it was Alvarez’ actual reality and so she wrote it as such, but I would have liked a bit more intentionality around it, a bit more light shed on it. I wished Alvarez had given one or two of these black women voices that we could follow and lives of their own for readers to enter into. I wished she had given them the space to be real people like she had the other characters. Because she did not do that, they become caricatures which emphasize a condition of colonialism and entitlement in the white characters and in the narratives that made me wince.
In a piece titled “A White Woman of Color,” written for The Hungry Mind Review in 1998, Alvarez addresses this issue head on. It is helpful to read. The complexity of the issue is mind boggling. She discusses the differences in the racism in the Dominican Republic than those in her new home in the U.S. In the U.S., the Alvarez family were Latinx but white Latinx. In the essay, Alvarez writes:
“We were lucky to be white Dominicans. But white as we were, we still encountered prejudice. We found that our accents added “color” to our complexions. Had we been darker, we certainly could not have bought our mock Tudor house in Jamaica Estates. In fact, the African American family who moved in across the street several years later needed police protection because of the threats. Even so, at the local school, we endured the bullying of classmates. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at my sisters and me on the playground. When some of them started throwing stones, my mother made up her mind that we were not safe and began applying to boarding schools where privilege transformed prejudice into patronage.”
There are all kinds of immigrant stories and all kinds of immigrants. There are all kinds of racism, all kinds of discrimination, so many ways to be marginalized. One can be privileged in one country and marginalized in another, exiled from home, successfully assimilate in their new place and still feel completely ill at ease. It’s important to listen to one another, to hear the stories and understand the webbing and embeddedness of experience.
Julia Alvarez has written three other novels, poetry, many books for children and young adults, and nonfiction books as well. In her most recent novel, Afterlife, Alvarez takes on aging and the issue of undocumented workers in the U.S. The main character, Antonia Vega, like Alvarez, is a Dominican-American, retired college professor living in Vermont. Unlike Alvarez, Antonia’s husband dies unexpectedly while driving home one evening. Antonia is left floundering as to what is next for her in the emptiness that has entered her life, the sudden space, the sudden time. She begins to question everything and in this questioning, reinvents herself.
Julia Alvarez has been around for a long time and her books are beloved to many so it is nice to have this chance to reflect with her on all of it, even in this novelistic form. It feels intimate and like a conversation with a woman of a certain age not often heard in our culture.
Thinking of her husband one day, Antonia remembered asking him how he managed his way through difficult situations in his life and work.
“All he could think of was what his mother would always say when she found herself in a tough situation, drying her hands on her apron, Well, let’s see what love can do”(AL 243).
Yes, let’s see what love can do.
Julia Alvarez is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Featured image of Julia Alvarez by Brandon Cruz Gonzalez
Alvarez, Julia. Afterlife. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020
———————. How the García Sisters Lost their Accents. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991.
———————. In the Time of the Butterflies. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994.
———————-. “A White Woman of Color”. The Hungry Mind Review. Spring 1998. https://writingbb.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/alvarez_white.pdf
Rubenstein, Roberta. Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction. N.Y., Palgrave, 2001.
Julia Alvarez Interview: In the Time of Discovery. The Writer. (https://www.writermag.com/writing-inspiration/author-interviews/julia-alvarez-time-discovery/)