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Arts & Culture Opinion

The Tangible Effects of Political Realities: Fiction in the Time of Trujillo’s Regime

In a postscript following her novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, author Julia Alvarez extols the genre of fiction, arguing that the lives of people during the era of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic “can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination.” Alvarez and Nobel Prize Winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, have written two books about the realities of Dominican life during the regime—Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, and Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. More than just documenting the tangible changes in the lifestyles of Dominican people or the human rights abuses of the regime, Vargas Llosa and Alvarez’s usage of the fictional format emboldens them to catalog the mindset of an array of individuals during this period and record how living under an authoritarian regime fundamentally changes people’s psychological realities, decision-making processes, and relationships.

From 1930 to 1960, the Dominican Republic was ruled by authoritarian leader Rafael Trujillo, a ruthless dictator whose rule was marked by human rights abuses—particularly towards Haitian migrants and dissenters. While his regime was initially credited with the modernization of the country’s infrastructure, numerous instances of torture and state-sanctioned killings overshadow the legacy of the Trujillo regime. 

Both novels chronicle the vagaries of the regime from different perspectives. In alternating chapters, Vargas Llosa recounts the stories of Urania, the daughter of a high-ranking official who undergoes trauma at the hands of the regime and eventually returns to the island to make sense of her past, the soldiers who assassinated Trujillo, and Trujillo’s final hours and motivations. On the other hand, Alvarez details the stories of the four Mirabal sisters, now known as Las Mariposas among the Dominican public, who engaged in activism against the state and were tortured and killed by the Trujillo government for their actions. In their works, the authors establish how Trujillo’s control over the state permeated into educational institutions, interpersonal conversations, and familial relationships. Through their depictions of dissent, the authors also depict how the Mirabal sisters and the soldiers challenge their deeply held allegiances and choose to engage in risky, covert activism.

Alvarez and Vargas Llosa chronicle how authoritarian rule shapes the mindsets of every individual within the system. Vargas Llosa writes that “everyone had been, was, or would be part of the regime…because sooner or later Trujillo will call upon him to serve…one is not permitted to say no,” illustrating how individuals within this system have lost their agency. He later writes about the unbecoming of this system, as soldiers close to Trujillo grapple with the cruelty of this regime, and shift their knowledge systems.

Alvarez writes about the stringency of the sisters’ belief system prior to entering school and how different instances in their life—a friendship with a girl whose family was killed by the regime, the involvement of sons or husbands in the resistance efforts, or heated discussions about these movements—catalyzed their activism and prompted them to act. Similar to how the sisters harbor varied motivations for their involvement, the dissenting soldiers recount different experiences that led to shifts within their attitudes. 

In the Time of the Butterflies and The Feast of the Goat are more than just books about activism. They chronicle how people grapple with vulnerabilities within their worldviews and how they channel their righteous anger into action, even when faced with possible death. Both works allow us to not only comprehensively understand the  effects of the Trujillo regime but also compel us to question, to reflect, to educate ourselves, and to act upon injustices in our present-day realities.