Julia Álvarez’s In the Time of the
Butterflies
and In the Name of Salomé:

Re-membering Dominican heroines in
new novelistic contexts.

by Marta Vizcaya

The research leading to the writing of this paper was funded by a Basque Government research scholarship.

This paper studies the importance of remembering and writing in In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) and In the Name of Salomé (2000), novels by the Dominican-American poet and novelist Julia Álvarez. The former recreates the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, Dominican heroines of the resistance against the dictator Trujillo three of whom were murdered by the regime’s secret police in 1960. The latter weaves the portraits of Dominican poet Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila in a story spanning the period from 1856 to 1973. As she reclaims and rewrites these women’s lives, Álvarez focuses on the links between the construction of individual and collective histories and identities, also exploring whether her own appropriation as a writer of these historical figures is not yet another act of distortion and violence. In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé portray the problematic situation of people haunted by the notion of a factual reality that must be remembered and communicated to others. The novels focus particularly on the dilemmas experienced by these people— be it victims and witnesses of violent events like the novels' protagonists, or writers researching such events like Álvarez herself— within a socio-literary context of postmodern disbelief in any possibility of "telling the truth."

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has a long history of dependence from and struggles against colonial and post-colonial powers. The lives of Álvarez’s Dominican protagonists appear inextricably linked with the circumstances of the country. Born in 1850, Salomé Ureña explains in the novel In the Name of Salomé:

the story of my life starts with the story of my country, as I was born six years after independence, a sickly child, not expected to live. But by the time I was six, I was in better health than my country, for la patria had already suffered eleven changes of government (13)

At age forty-seven, Salomé looks backwards noting how in her life-span "we’ve had over thirty different governments. Again and again our dreams destroyed" (In the Name of Salomé 300): Dominican governments succeed one another at vertiginous speed, reflecting internal dissensions, two occupations by the United States (1916-1924; 1965-66) and a constant intervention of the country in Dominican affairs, military dictatorships and developments towards democracy. Álvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies focuses on the brutal era of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo y Molina. Although nominally he was only president for two terms, Trujillo’s regime extended from 1928 until 1961, when he was assassinated as a result of a plot by his former cronies. After these cycles of oppression and rebellion and poverty and progress, in the mid-1990s in the Dominican Republic "about one quarter of the adult population was unemployed, and the infant mortality rate was one of the highest in the hemisphere" (Skidmore 309).

By recovering these Dominican women’s struggles and making them accessible to the contemporary reader, Álvarez undertakes a personal and collective act of historical remembrance while being aware of the inevitable element of invention implicit in such a project. Quoting Jacqueline Stefanko, the author "purposefully fictionalizes her own historical, autobiographical life story" (Stefanko 56). Her first and third novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents (1991) and ¡Yo! (1997), portray the life-long struggle of four sisters to find out who they are after having migrated with her parents to the United States fleeing the dictatorship of Trujillo in 1960. The circumstances in which Álvarez’s own family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States show a marked parallelism with the fictional Garcias’ journey: the Álvarez’s arrived in New York in 1960 leaving the Dominican Republic in haste due to the father’s involvement in a failed underground plot against the Trujillo’s regime.

Most of the action of In the Time of the Butterflies, Álvarez’s second novel, is set between 1938 and 1960, a span of time which finishes immediately before the point where ¡Yo! and The Garcia Girls pick up. The novel opens in 1994 as an unnamed "interview woman" interviews Dedé Mirabal, the sister of the murdered Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa. The story of the Mirabals and of their country during the Trujillo regime goes backwards and forwards in time unravelling little by little as Dedé narrates her memories. The murder of the three Mirabal sisters, who had taken part in the same underground plot as Álvarez’s father, happened almost four months after her family’s escape to the US. She explains "[w]hen as a young girl I heard about the "accident," I could not get the Mirabals out of my mind" (postscript to In the Time 323).

Finally, In the Name of Salomé stretches between 1856 and 1973, going further backwards than In the Time of the Butterflies. Salomé Ureña’s story is depicted from the writing of her first, tentative poems as a little girl until the birth of her daughter Camila: the reader follows her development into a fully-grown woman who has been made the muse of her country. She dies of illness when Camila is three years old, leaving the girl forever haunted by both her figure and her absence. Camila Henríquez de Ureña spends her life in exile, eventually becoming a university professor at Vassar. Camila’s painful loss of her mother and her strained relationship with her stepmother can be connected with an immigrant or exile’s loss of her mother country and adoption of a new one. In 1960, at age sixty-six, she leaves behind her life in the United States to teach in Castro’s Cuba. After thirteen years, she finally returns to the Dominican Republic, where she dies in 1973. In the acknowledgements to In the Name of Salomé, Álvarez explains her fascination with Salomé and Camila stating that

[g]iven the continuing struggles in Our America to understand and create ourselves as countries and as individuals, this book is an effort to understand the great silence from which these two women emerged and into which they have disappeared, leaving us to dream up their stories and take up the burden of their songs (357).

Álvarez’s novels highlight the female contribution to Dominican history and literature as well as to North American culture via "hyphenated" Americans like herself. Álvarez stresses the ordinariness of those who "make" history, depicting in detail home anecdotes as well as everyday worries and illusions. Her Salomé often insists that she is "a woman as well as a poet" (In the Name 177). Having written about the Butterflies in order to understand where their courage came from, she says "I figured they were just like me. They were flesh and blood, they wanted to live, they had children, they had husbands, they wanted to grow old and see their grandchildren" (Browde et al "Interview with Julia Álvarez"). In a statement about the Mirabals which can also be extended to her Salomé and Camila, Álvarez considers the idealisation of the historical figures "dangerous, the same god-making impulse that had created our tyrant"; she believes that "ironically, by making them myth, we lost the Mirabals once more, dismissing the challenge of their courage as impossible for us, ordinary men and women" (In the Name 324).

Álvarez’s novels stress the importance, not just of charismatic figures who perform memorable acts, but also of those who record those deeds preserving them from oblivion. Both In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé can be read as Dedé Mirabal and Camila’s life-long process to understand this. Dedé suffers from a life-long survivor’s guilt after her three sisters’ heroism and tragic deaths. Realising at the end of the novel why and when she became a sort of "oracle" to her country, Dedé tells a friend:

[a]fter the fighting was over and we were a broken people.... that’s when I opened my doors, and instead of listening, I started talking. We had lost hope, and we needed a story to understand what happened to us (In the Time 313).

Then, she adds: "I’m not stuck in the past, I’ve just brought it with me into the present. And the problem is not enough of us have done that. What is that thing the gringos say, if you don’t study your history, you are going to repeat it?" (313). The novel ends with her realising she is "the one who survived to tell the story" (321). In In the Name of Salomé, Camila considers herself "the anonymous one, the one who has done nothing remarkable" in her family (69). When her brother Max tells her "it is you and only you whom I know I can trust with the family papers" (38), she becomes the one in charge of deciding "what to give the archives and what to destroy... she, the nobody among them, will be the one editing the story of her famous family" (38).

Despite her belief in having a story that needs telling, Álvarez faces complex questions about the elusive nature of individual and collective identities, the authenticity of the author’s experience and the impossibility of objective, "transparent" representation. When attempting to "tell the truth" and represent— in both senses of the word— certain collectives, Álvarez can only offer personal viewpoints and acknowledge the cultural, social and personal circumstances from which she does so. Her insistence on her characters’ — and her own— shaping of the story suggests a belief that "the past, like the present, is the result of competing negotiated versions of what happened, why it happened, with what consequence" (Stanley 7).

Her protagonists are also haunted by these same questions about how truths and histories are constructed. When a student looks at a photograph of Salomé noting how pretty she was, Camila explains that "the photo is of a painting, done after her mother’s death on her father’s instructions" (43). She tells the girl: "that pretty lady is my father’s creation... He wanted my mother to look like the legend he was creating... prettier, whiter... Everyone in the family... touched up the legend of her mother" (43-44). She also acknowledges doing so herself, calling Salomé "the mother she has made up" (194). Both Álvarez’s and Camila’s acts of remembrance reveal "the difficulty of ... representing an act or moment of violence from the past without translating its recovery into a symbol of "memorial" and thus into another forgetting" (Socolovsky 144), or into another act of narrative violence.

Álvarez’s novels also deal with how the fame and durability of literary works are to a great extent a question of power. When Camila reads some poems of her mother to her American students, one reacts by saying: "They’re too bewailing, oh woe is me and my poor suffering country... Is this poet supposed to be any good? I never heard of her" (In the Name 39). Camila responds: "As good as your Emily Dickinson as good as your Walt Whitman"; she is deeply affected by "the indifference in their voices, the casualness of their dismissal. Everything of ours— from lives to literature— has always been so disposable, she thinks" (In the Name 39).

At the level of content, narrative structure and generic conventions, In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé deal with the nature, purposes and effectiveness of socially aware novels in a stage in which the litterature engagée of the 1960s is no longer viable. For Salomé’s father Pancho, president of the Dominican Republic for four months and forced to leave by the United States’ occupation, a poet "puts into words what everyone else is thinking and hasn’t the gumption or talent to say" (54). In a conversation with her sister Ramona about their contemporary Josefa Pardomo’s poems in praise of the Spanish governor ruling the Dominican Republic at the time, Salomé thinks they were "lovely verses, but they were doing an unlovely thing. They were binding us to a country that had turned us into a colony" (56). Ramona answers: "for heaven’s sake, they are just verses" (56), but Salomé states: "I would never write verses out of politeness. Rather than write something pretty and useless, I would not write at all" (57).

Decades later, Camila Henríquez Ureña faces a similar issue when giving a speech on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She

wants her speech to be... an inspiration to noble feeling. (Can one still talk this way in the middle of the twentieth century? In Washington, Senator McCarthy is launching a purge not unlike those of Batista’s secret police. In her own Dominican Republic, a small invasion force of rebels has been slaughtered by Trujillo’s henchmen...) (In the Name 69)

She is "afraid she will sound foolish if she explains how just once before her life’s over, she would like to give herself completely to something" (7). After a whole life trying to discern the meaning of duty and the purpose of literature, Camila finally decides that "[t]hat is everything. The words that create who we are" (344). She adds: "[i]t was wrong to think that there was an answer in the first place... There are no answers... It’s continuing to struggle to create the country we dream of that makes a patria [homeland] out of the land under our feet" (350).

Showing a similar ethical attitude towards her writing, Álvarez states that she wishes to be a "force for the good," to "change people’s perceptions and prejudices about things," showing "the full complexity of a situation... that is the best kind of force for change". Asked about her political agenda in In the Time, she answers: "it was my mission..., my responsibility to do this, because I was one of the lucky ones. My family survived... I had to give voice to... the names of the dead that Trujillo murdered" (Browde et al, "Interview with Julia Álvarez"). However, through her narrative choices and statements made in interviews, Álvarez explicitly detaches her works from genres most usually connected with giving witness and "telling the truth" such as (auto)biography and testimonial literature— although the novels borrow elements from both.

In the Time of the Butterflies makes reference to the Latin American testimonial tradition, paying tribute to it but avoiding placing the novel directly within this genre. Instead, Álvarez describes her work as a "fictionalized story," a novel which "is not... a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart" (Postscript to In the Time 324). Although Álvarez mentions the real Dedé Mirabal and Minerva Mirabal’s daughter among "those who helped me write this book" (In the Time 325), she openly admits that

what you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew, nor did I have access to enough information or the talents and inclinations of a biographer to be able to adequately record them...

So what you find here are the Mirabals of my creation, made up but, I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabals... though I had researched the facts of the regime... I sometimes took liberties— by changing dates, by reconstructing events, by collapsing characters or incidents. For I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by imagination. (Postscript to In the Time 324)

In an analysis also valid for In The Name of Salomé, Concepción Bados-Ciria links In the Time of the Butterflies with the Dominican historical novel tradition, which has been "until now only written by men," it presents "a masculinism/nationalism revisited, revolutionary in intent but suspiciously familiar and patriarchal in content and form" (Bados-Ciria 409). With strong female protagonists and narrators, Álvarez’s novels can be considered "an affirmation of the individual feminine subject thus offering an answer to the problem of women's access to literature" (Bados-Ciria 409). However, it is in the United States and not in the Dominican Republic— and as a Dominican-American, not just as a Dominican— that Álvarez produces these two works which both allude to and subvert the Dominican male tradition of historical narrative.

In addition to connections with (auto)biographical writing and the historical novel, In the Name of Salomé also makes constant references to Salomé Ureña’s poetry. The novel not only quotes titles and fragments of Ureña’s poems but also shares many of their themes, such as the nature of love, duty and suffering, and the construction of individual and national identities. It opens with two lines from a poem of Salomé’s, "¿Qué es patria?" ["What is a homeland?"], quoted both in English and Spanish: "What is a homeland? Do you know, my love, what you are asking?" (In the Name, page not numbered).

The links with Ureña’s poetry extend to the novel’s very structure. Except for the prologue and epilogue, each section of the novel has the title of a poem by Salomé; there are sixteen sections grouped in 8 pairs; the first section in each pair has its title in Spanish and refers to Salomé’s life, whereas the second one has its title in English and deals with Camila. In a twist that makes the novel’s structure still more complex, the first section, about Salomé, shares its title with the sixteenth one, which deals with Camila; the second section, about Salomé, has the same title as the fifteenth, which deals with Camila; the third section shares its title with the fourteenth, and so on. This intricate structural pattern, announced from the very beginning in the contents page, stresses the author’s creative manipulation of the narrative material and reminds the reader that the text is not to be taken as a straightforward, "transparent" account.

In the acknowledgements of In the Name of Salomé Álvarez thanks those "texts and helpers" enabling her "to recover the history and poetry and presences of the past" (In the Name 356). Although she admits having had access to the "diary that Pedro Henríquez Ureña kept after his mother [Salomé’s] death with the full history of the family" (In the Name of Salomé 356), she states clearly:

this is not biography or historical portraiture or even a record of all I learned, but a work of the imagination.

The Salomé and Camila you will find in these pages are fictional characters based on historical figures, but they are re-created in the light of questions that we can only answer, as they did, with our own lives: Who are we as a people? What is a patria? How do we serve? Is love stronger than anything else in the world? (In the Name 357)

In this context, an essential question in Álvarez’s novels is whom she speaks for, and whom she speaks to. Álvarez does not claim to represent oppressed Dominicans or to possess an insider’s privileged insight into the historical Mirabals’ world on the basis of her Dominican origins. On the contrary, in In the Time of the Butterflies she humorously makes this clear through the views of Dedé Mirabal about Álvarez’s persona the "interview woman." Dedé waits for the "interview woman" noting with amusement the socio-cultural differences between herself and the Americanised "foreigner" who wants to understand her story. The character also reflects on her own objectification as a "historical figure" with resignation: "[she] shies from these interviews" since, "before she knows it, she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED" (In the Time 5).

Álvarez aims to explore a Dominican-American’s personal process of understanding a part of her Dominican roots from her Americanised prism. She wishes to "bring acquaintance of these famous sisters [the Mirabals] to English-speaking readers" while also offering the novel to "Dominicans separated by language from the world [she has] created" in the hope that "this book deepens North Americans’ understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered" (Postscript to In the Time 324). In the Name of Salomé opens with a dedication to the "quisqueyanas valientes," the brave Dominican women.

Works Cited

Álvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. New York: Plume, 1995.
---. In the Name of Salomé: A Novel. New York: Plume, 2001.

Bados-Ciria, Concepción. "In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Álvarez: History, Fiction, Testimonio and the Dominican Republic." Monographic Review-Revista Monográfica 13 (1997): 406-16.

Browde, Jessica et al. "Interview with Julia Álvarez." http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/JuliaAlvarez.html, accessed February 2000.

Skidmore, Thomas E. and Peter H. Smith, eds. Modern Latin America. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Socolovsky, Maya. "Unnatural Violences: Counter-Memory and Preservations in Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüero Sisters." In Lit: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 11:2 (2000): 143-67.

Stanley, Liz. The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography Manchester: Manchester UP, 1992.

Stefanko, Jacqueline. 'New Ways of Telling: Latinas' Narratives of Exile and Return.' Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 17:2 (1996): 50-69.

Back to top >