In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies is the story of the Mirabal sisters, four women who fought against one of the most ruthless dictators in history. The story is set in the Dominican Republic, from 1938 to 1960. That world is in many ways unlike what we are used to today, so this page will offer some resources to help you build the background that you need to understand the book.

Visual Dictionary:

There are also some things mentioned in the book that you might never have seen before. Go through this slide show to be able to visualize some of these terms (make sure to read the captions below).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Foreign Terms and Expressions

Some of the words and terms you encounter might be unfamiliar because they are in a different language (usually Spanish). Here are those translations:

  • Viva Trujillo! – “Long live Trujillo!”
  • sarampion – measles
  • brujo/bruja – a witch
  • El Jefe – “the chief,” or a nickname for Trujillo
  • gavilleros – gunmen, or insurgents who fought against dictatorship
  • coup de grace – “stroke of grace” (French), or a mercy killing
  • primo/a — cousin
  • cedula – identification card
  • barrio — neighborhood
  • tete-a-tete – a private chat (literally French for “head-to-head”)
  • mulatto – a term for a person of mixed ethnic origin
  • cibaeno/a – a person from Cibao, the northern part of the Dominican Republic
  • capitaleno – a person from the capital
  • luto – mourning
  • paseo – a walk
  • cafecito – a little coffee
  • sonrisa – smile
  • “Que placer!” – “What a pleasure!”
  • un abrazo – a hug
  • compadre – a friend (literally a “coparent,” or a dear friend whom you would ask to be the godparent of your child)

A Brief History of the Dominican Republic

(Terms in bold appear in the book.)

columbusThe indigenous inhabitants of the island (called Hispaniola by the Europeans and Ayiti by the native Americans) that would later become Haiti and the Dominican Republic were called the Taino people. One of the deities whom they worshipped was called Hurucan (or Jurucan), the god of chaos and hurricanes. This island was where Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492 and where the Spanish set up their first administrative government. (The day on which Columbus landed – December 5 – was celebrated in the Dominican Republic as “Discovery Day.”)

The Spaniards turned the island into a sugar colony and brought African slaves to work on the plantations after their genocide of the Taino. For centuries, the remaining Taino, Africans, and their descendants fought against Spanish authority, often hiding and organizing in the cover of the mountains.

haitiIn 1625, the French took over the western side of the island, which would come to be known as Haiti; they brought many more slaves to their half of the island and continued to enforce a brutal system of oppression. Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, and in 1822, Haiti liberated the Dominican Republic from Spanish rule. However, some significant cultural differences between the Haitians and the Dominicans (such as religion – Dominicans tended to be more strongly Catholic, while Haitians were less so, often practicing voodoo) meant that the Dominicans yearned for self-governance.

United_States_map_-_Dominica_(Alternity)The United States occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924 in an effort to make sure that their financial interests in the country were secure. (Americans were called “yanquis” – or “Yankees” – by the Dominicans.) The Dominican Republic enjoyed a period of prosperity under a democratically-elected President from 1924 to 1930, but he was overthrown by the leader of the military, Rafael Trujillo.


TrujilloRafael Trujillo (nicknamed “The Goat”) was a military official who used his power to install himself as the President of the Dominican Republic. Once in office, he used his authority to increase control over the country. He established a secret police force (the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, or SIM) to spy on citizens and bully them into submission. Anyone accused of not supporting Trujillo might be taken to prison and “disappeared.” He named cities, streets, and monuments after himself, and required citizens to keep pictures of him in their homes. Newspapers were only allowed to cover him favorably, and listening to a radio channel that was critical of him was considered a crime. He discriminated against and sponsored the massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo was infamous for using his wealth and power to abuse women.

mirabal sisters

From left to right: Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa.

The Mirabal sisters were four women from the northern part of the Dominican Republic who helped to organize the resistance against Trujillo. Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa (nicknamed “Mate”) were assassinated for their activities; Dede, who was less involved, survived and went on to tell the story of her sisters.

(above: Dede)


Lina Lovaton was a young woman who Trujillo took as his mistress. She attended the same school as the Mirabal sisters.

Ramfis00.jpgRamfis Trujillo was Rafael Trujillo’s son. His father made him a colonel in the military at the age of four. He was known for his cruelty, laziness, and stupidity.

Johnny AbbesJohnny Abbes Garcia was the head of the Servicio de Inteligenia Militar (SIM), Trujillo’s organization of thugs who would terrorize people into submission. He was also involved in Trujillo’s assassination attempts of other political leaders outside of the Dominican Republic.

fidelFidel Castro was a communist revolutionary who became the President of Cuba. Although people initially hoped that he might bring democratic change to his country (he was a source of inspiration for the Mirabal sisters), he became a dictator in his own right later on.

cheChe Guevara was another communist revolutionary who was involved in rebellions throughout Latin American (including Cuba) in the middle of the 20th century.