Below are chapters 1 and 2 of Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies.
By Thursday, January 9th, you should choose one quote that stands out to you from the text, and then compose AT LEAST 2 paragraphs (you may post longer responses) that speak to the significance of your quote as well as these chapters. In addition, you should identify connections you can make. Here are some think questions to get you started. You should address significance and connection somewhere in your answer, but you also may branch off into other things that speak to you about these two chapters. That was a lot of writing so I'm going to type something happy here before putting more text. I LOVE YOU GUYS! I'M SO EXCITED TO BE READING THIS WITH YOU!
By Saturday, January 11th, you should respond to at least two other people's writing, keeping significance and connection in mind as well. Try to respond with at least 3 sentences, although you could of course go above and beyond this!
I'll go first with a response below so you know what I'm after!
*What happens in these two chapters that feel important? Why do you think they feel important? What parts stand out? Why do you think they stand out?
*What matters about these two chapters?
*Is there any part of these two chapters that give you a clue to why the book as a whole is valuable? What part?
*Why should people care about this story?
*Is this piece relevant to everyone? Who? Who isn’t it relevant to?
*How can you connect this piece to current events, to the past or the future?
*What personal connections can you draw to these two chapters? Do these characters remind you of anyone or anything in your own life?
*How does any part of this connect to any other areas of your learning? (Maybe other subjects/texts that you have studied in the past or present?)
*Do these two chapters connect to anything that you have read in the past?What? How?
*What other relationships/connections can you draw between these two chapters and your life, the world, other literature, history or other art?
She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car. The woman will never find the old house behind the hedge of towering hibiscus at the bend of the dirt road. Not a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names! Dedé had taken the call over at the little museum this morning.
Could the woman please come over and talk to Dedé about the Mirabal sisters? She is originally from here but has lived many years in the States, for which she is sorry since her Spanish is not so good. The Mirabal sisters are not known there, for which she is also sorry for it is a crime that they should be forgotten, these unsung heroines of the underground, et cetera.
Oh dear, another one. Now after thirty-four years, the commemora tions and interviews and presentations of posthumous honors have almost stopped, so that for months at a time Dedé is able to take up her own life again. But she’s long since resigned herself to Novembers. Every year as the 25th rolls around, the television crews drive up. There’s the obligatory interview. Then, the big celebration over at the museum, the delegations from as far away as Peru and Paraguay, an ordeal really, making that many little party sandwiches and the nephews and nieces not always showing up in time to help. But this is March, ¡Maria santisima! Doesn’t she have seven more months of anonymity?
“How about this afternoon? I do have a later commitment,” Dedé lies to the voice. She has to. Otherwise, they go on and on, asking the most impertinent questions.
There is a veritable racket of gratitude on the other end, and Dedé has to smile at some of the imported nonsense of this woman’s Spanish. “I am so compromised,” she is saying, “by the openness of your warm manner.”
“So if I’m coming from Santiago, I drive on past Salcedo?” the woman asks.
“Exactamente. And then where you see a great big anacahuita tree, you turn left.”
“A ... great... big ... tree ...,” the woman repeats. She is writing all this down! “I turn left. What’s the name of the street?”
“It’s just the road by the anacahuita tree. We don’t name them,” Dedé says, driven to doodling to contain her impatience. On the back of an envelope left beside the museum phone, she has sketched an enormous tree, laden with flowers, the branches squirreling over the flap. “You see, most of the campesinos around here can’t read, so it wouldn’t do us any good to put names on the roads.”
The voice laughs, embarrassed. “Of course. You must think I’m so outside of things.” Tan afuera de la cosa.
Dede bites her lip. “Not at all,” she lies. “I’ll see you this afternoon then.”
“About what time?” the voice wants to know.
Oh yes. The gringos need a time. But there isn’t a clock time for this kind of just-right moment. “Any time after three or three-thirty, four-ish.”
“Dominican time, eh?” The woman laughs.
“iExactamente!” Finally, the woman is getting the hang of how things are done here. Even after she has laid the receiver in its cradle, Dedé goes on elaborating the root system of her anacahuita tree, shading the branches, and then for the fun of it, opening and closing the flap of the envelope to watch the tree come apart and then back together again.
In the garden, Dedé is surprised to hear the radio in the outdoor kitchen announce that it is only three o‘clock. She has been waiting expectantly since after lunch, tidying up the patch of garden this American woman will be able to see from the galería. This is certainly one reason why Dedé shies from these interviews. 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.
Usually if she works it right—a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in—usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedé lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?
She bends to her special beauty, the butterfly orchid she smuggled back from Hawaii two years ago. For three years in a row Dedé has won a trip, the prize for making the most sales of anyone in her company. Her niece Minou has noted more than once the irony of Dedé’s “new” profession, actually embarked upon a decade ago, after her divorce. She is the company’s top life insurance salesperson. Everyone wants to buy a policy from the woman who just missed being killed along with her three sisters. Can she help it?The slamming of a car door startles Dedé. When she calms herself she finds she has snipped her prize butterfly orchid. She picks up the fallen blossom and trims the stem, wincing. Perhaps this is the only way to grieve the big things—in snippets, pinches, little sips of sadness.
But really, this woman should shut car doors with less violence. Spare an aging woman’s nerves. And I’m not the only one, Dedé thinks. Any Dominican of a certain generation would have jumped at that gunshot sound.
She walks the woman quickly through the house, Mamá’s bedroom, mine and Patria‘s, but mostly mine since Patria married so young, Minerva and María Teresa’s. The other bedroom she does not say was her father’s after he and Mamá stopped sleeping together. There are the three pictures of the girls, old favorites that are now emblazoned on the posters every November, making these once intimate snapshots seem too famous to be the sisters she knew.
Dedé has placed a silk orchid in a vase on the little table below them. She still feels guilty about not continuing Mamá’s tribute of a fresh blossom for the girls every day. But the truth is, she doesn’t have the time anymore, with a job, the museum, a household to run. You can’t be a modem woman and insist on the old sentimentalities. And who was the fresh orchid for, anyway? Dedé looks up at those young faces, and she knows it is herself at that age she misses the most.
The interview woman stops before the portraits, and Dede waits for her to ask which one was which or how old they were when these were taken, facts Dedé has at the ready, having delivered them so many times. But instead the thin waif of a woman asks, “And where are you?”
Dedé laughs uneasily. It’s as if the woman has read her mind. “I have this hallway just for the girls,” she says. Over the woman’s shoulder, she sees she has left the door to her room ajar, her nightgown flung with distressing abandon on her bed. She wishes she had gone through the house and shut the doors to the bedrooms.
“No, I mean, where are you in the sequence, the youngest, the oldest?”
So the woman has not read any of the articles or biographies around. Dedé is relieved. This means that they can spend the time talking about the simple facts that give Dedé the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too—birthdays and weddings and new babies, the peaks in that graph of normalcy.
Dedé goes through the sequence.
“So fast in age,” the woman notes, using an awkward phrase.
Dedé nods. “The first three of us were born close, but in other ways, you see, we were so different.”
“Oh?” the woman asks.
“Yes, so different. Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights.” Dedé realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva, as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful, intelligent, high-minded Minerva. “And Maria Teresa, ay, Dios,” Dedé sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself. “Still a girl when she died, pobrecita, just turned twenty-five.” Dedé moves on to the last picture and rights the frame. “Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important.”
“Always?” the woman says, just the slightest challenge in her voice.
“Always,” Dedé affirms, used to this fixed, monolithic language around interviewers and mythologizers of her sisters. “Well, almost always.”
She walks the woman out of the house into the galería where the rocking chairs wait. A kitten lies recklessly under the runners, and she shoos it away. “What is it you want to know?” Dedé asks bluntly. And then because the question does seem to rudely call the woman to account for herself, she adds, “Because there is so much to tell.”
The woman laughs as she says, “Tell me all of it.”
Dedé looks at her watch as a polite reminder to the woman that the visit is circumscribed. “There are books and articles. I could have Tono at the museum show you the letters and diaries.”
“That would be great,” the woman says, staring at the orchid Dedé is still holding in her hand. Obviously, she wants more. She looks up, shyly. “I just have to say, it’s really so easy to talk to you. I mean, you’re so open and cheerful. How do you keep such a tragedy from taking you under? I’m not sure I am explaining myself?”Dedé sighs. Yes, the woman is making perfect sense. She thinks of an article she read at the beauty salon, by a Jewish lady who survived a concentration camp. “There were many many happy years. I remember those. I try anyhow. I tell myself, Dedé, concentrate on the positive! My niece Minou tells me I am doing some transcending meditation, something like that. She took the course in the capital.
“I’ll tell myself, Dedé, in your memory it is such and such a day, and I start over, playing the happy moment in my head. This is my movies—I have no television here.”
“Of course,” Dedé says, almost fiercely. And when it doesn’t work, she thinks, I get stuck playing the same bad moment. But why speak of that.
“Tell me about one of those moments,” the woman asks, her face naked with curiosity. She looks down quickly as if to hide it.
Dedé hesitates, but her mind is already racing backwards, year by year by year, to the moment she has fixed in her memory as zero.
She remembers a clear moonlit night before the future began. They are sitting in the cool darkness under the anacahuita tree in the front yard, in the rockers, telling stories, drinking guanábana juice. Good for the nerves, Mama always says.
They’re all there, Mamá, Papá, Patria-Minerva-Dedé. Bang-bang-bang, their father likes to joke, aiming a finger pistol at each one, as if he were shooting them, not boasting about having sired them. Three girls, each born within a year of the other! And then, nine years later, Maria Teresa, his final desperate attempt at a boy misfiring.
Their father has his slippers on, one foot hooked behind the other. Every once in a while Dedé hears the clink of the rum bottle against the rim of his glass.
Many a night, and this night is no different, a shy voice calls out of the darkness, begging their pardon. Could they spare a calmante for a sick child out of their stock of kindness? Would they have some tobacco for a tired old man who spent the day grating yucca?
Their father gets up, swaying a little with drink and tiredness, and opens up the store. The campesino goes off with his medicine, a couple of cigars, a few mints for the godchildren. Dedé tells her father that she doesn’t know how they do as well as they do, the way he gives everything away. But her father just puts his arm around her, and says, “Ay, Dedé, that’s why I have you. Every soft foot needs a hard shoe.
“She’ll bury us all,” her father adds, laughing, “in silk and pearls.” Dedé hears again the clink of the rum bottle. “Yes, for sure, our Dedé here is going to be the millionaire in the family.”
“And me, Papá, and me?” Maria Teresa pipes up in her little girl’s voice, not wanting to be left out of the future.
“You, mi ñapita, you’ll be our little coquette. You’ll make a lot of men‘s—”
Their mother coughs her correcting-your-manners cough.
“—a lot of men’s mouths water,” their father concludes.
María Teresa groans. At eight years old, in her long braids and checkered blouse, the only future the baby wants is one that will make her own mouth water, sweets and gifts in big boxes that clatter with something fun inside when she shakes them.
“What of me, Papá?” Patria asks more quietly. It is difficult to imagine Patria unmarried without a baby on her lap, but Dedé’s memory is playing dolls with the past. She has sat them down that clear, cool night before the future begins, Mamá and Papá and their four pretty girls, no one added, no one taken away. Papá calls on Mamá to help him out with his fortune-telling. Especially—though he doesn’t say this—if she’s going to censor the clairvoyance of his several glasses of rum. “What would you say, Mamá, about our Patria?”
“You know, Enrique, that I don’t believe in fortunes,” Mamá says evenly. “Padre Ignacio says fortunes are for those without faith.” In her mother’s tone, Dedé can already hear the distance that will come between her parents. Looking back, she thinks, Ay Mamá, ease up a little on those commandments. Work out the Christian math of how you give a little and you get it back a hundredfold. But thinking about her own divorce, Dedé admits the math doesn’t always work out. If you multiply by zero, you still get zero, and a thousand heartaches.“I don’t believe in fortunes either,” Patria says quickly. She’s as religious as Mamá, that one. “But Papá isn’t really telling fortunes.”
Minerva agrees. “Papá’s just confessing what he thinks are our strengths.” She stresses the verb confessing as if their father were actually being pious in looking ahead for his daughters. “Isn’t that so, Papá?”
“Sí, señorita,” Papá burps, slurring his words. It’s almost time to go in.
“Also,” Minerva adds, “Padre Ignacio condemns fortunes only if you believe a human being knows what only God can know.” That one can’t leave well enough alone.
“Some of us know it all,” Mamá says curtly.
Maria Teresa defends her adored older sister. “It isn’t a sin, Mamá, it isn’t. Berto and Raúl have this game from New York. Padre Ignacio played it with us. It’s a board with a little glass you move around, and it tells the future!” Everybody laughs, even their mother, for María Teresa’s voice is bursting with gullible excitement. The baby stops, suddenly, in a pout. Her feelings get hurt so easily. On Minerva’s urging, she goes on in a little voice. “I asked the talking board what I would be when I grew up, and it said a lawyer.”
They all hold back their laughter this time, for of course, Maria Teresa is parroting her big sister’s plans. For years Minerva has been agitating to go to law school.
“Ay, Dios mío, spare me.” Mama sighs, but playfulness has come back into her voice. “Just what we need, skirts in the law!”
“It is just what this country needs.” Minerva’s voice has the steely sureness it gets whenever she talks politics. She has begun talking politics a lot. Mamá says she’s running around with the Perozo girl too much. “It’s about time we women had a voice in running our country.”
“You and Trujillo,” Papá says a little loudly, and in this clear peaceful night they all fall silent. Suddenly, the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security. Don Enrique claims Trujillo needs help in running this country. Don Enrique’s daughter says it’s about
time women took over the government. Words repeated, distorted, words recreated by those who might bear them a grudge, words stitched to words until they are the winding sheet the family will be buried in when their bodies are found dumped in a ditch, their tongues cut off for speaking too much.
Now, as if drops of rain had started falling—though the night is as clear as the sound of a bell—they hurry in, gathering their shawls and drinks, leaving the rockers for the yardboy to bring in. María Teresa squeals when she steps on a stone. “I thought it was el cuco,” she moans.
As Dedé is helping her father step safely up the stairs of the galería, she realizes that hers is the only future he really told. María Teresa’s was a tease, and Papá never got to Minerva’s or Patria’s on account of Mamá’s disapproval. A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn’t want to be the only one left to tell their story.
1938, 1941, 1944
I don’t know who talked Papá into sending us away to school. Seems like it would have taken the same angel who announced to Mary that she was pregnant with God and got her to be glad about it.
The four of us had to ask permission for everything: to walk to the fields to see the tobacco filling out; to go to the lagoon and dip our feet on a hot day; to stand in front of the store and pet the horses as the men loaded up their wagons with supplies.
Sometimes, watching the rabbits in their pens, I’d think, I’m no different from you, poor things. One time, I opened a cage to set a half-grown doe free. I even gave her a slap to get her going.
But she wouldn’t budge! She was used to her little pen. I kept slapping her, harder each time, until she started whimpering like a scared child. I was the one hurting her, insisting she be free.
Silly bunny, I thought. You’re nothing at all like me.It started with Patria wanting to be a nun. Mamá was all for having a religious in the family, but Papá did not approve in the least. More than once, he said that Patria as a nun would be a waste of a pretty girl. He only said that once in front of Mamá, but he repeated it often enough to me.
Finally, Papá gave in to Mamá. He said Patria could go away to a convent school if it wasn’t one just for becoming a nun. Mamá agreed.
So, when it came time for Patria to go down to Inmaculada Concepción, I asked Papa if I could go along. That way I could chaperone my older sister, who was already a grown-up señorita. (And she had told me all about how girls become senoritas, too.)
Papa laughed, his eyes flashing proudly at me. The others said I was his favorite. I don’t know why since I was the one always standing up to him. He pulled me to his lap and said, “And who is going to chaperone you?”
“Dedé,” I said, so all three of us could go together. He pulled a long face. “If all my little chickens go, what will become of me?”
I thought he was joking, but his eyes had their serious look. “Papá,” I informed him, “you might as well get used to it. In a few years, we’re all going to marry and leave you.”
For days he quoted me, shaking his head sadly and concluding, “A daughter is a needle in the heart.”
Mama didn’t like him saying so. She thought he was being critical because their only son had died a week after he was born. And just three years ago, Maria Teresa was bom a girl instead of a boy. Anyhow, Mama didn’t think it was a bad idea to send all three of us away. “Enrique, those girls need some learning. Look at us.” Mamá had never admitted it, but I suspected she couldn’t even read.
“What’s wrong with us?” Papá countered, gesturing out the window where wagons waited to be loaded before his warehouses. In the last few years, Papá had made a lot of money from his farm. Now we had class. And, Mama argued, we needed the education to go along with our cash.
Papa caved in again, but said one of us had to stay to help mind the store. He always had to add a little something to whatever Mamá came up with. Mama said he was just putting his mark on everything so no one could say Enrique Mirabal didn’t wear the pants in his family.
I knew what he was up to all right. When Papa asked which one of us would stay as his little helper, he looked directly at me.
I didn’t say a word. I kept studying the floor like maybe my school lessons were chalked on those boards. I didn’t need to worry. Dedé always was the smiling little miss. “I’ll stay and help, Papá.”
Papá looked surprised because really Dedé was a year older than me. She and Patria should have been the two to go away. But then, Papá thought it over and said Dedé could go along, too. So it was settled, all three of us would go to Inmaculada Concepción. Me and Patria would start in the fall, and Dedé would follow in January since Papá wanted the math whiz to help with the books during the busy harvest season.
And that’s how I got free. I don’t mean just going to sleepaway school on a train with a trunkful of new things. I mean in my head after I got to Inmaculada and met Sinita and saw what happened to Lina and realized that I’d just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country.
First time I met Sinita she was sitting in the parlor where Sor Asunción was greeting all the new pupils and their mothers. She was all by herself, a skinny girl with a sour look on her face and pokey elbows to match. She was dressed in black, which was odd as most children weren’t put in mourning clothes until they were at least fifteen. And this little girl didn’t look any older than me, and I was only twelve. Though I would have argued with anyone who told me I was just a kid!
I watched her. She seemed as bored as I was with all the polite talk in that parlor. It was like a heavy shaking of talcum powder in the brain hearing all those mothers complimenting each other’s daughters and lisping back in good Castilian to the Sisters of the Merciful Mother. Where was this girl’s mother? I wondered. She sat alone, glaring at everybody, as if she would pick a fight if you asked her where her mother was. I could see, though, that she was sitting on her hands and biting her bottom lip so as not to cry. The straps on her shoes had been cut off to look like flats, but they looked worn out, was what they looked like.I got up and pretended to study the pictures on the walls like I was a lover of religious art. When I got to the Merciful Mother right above Sinita’s head, I reached in my pocket and pulled out the button I’d found on the train. It was sparkly like a diamond and had a little hole in back so you could thread a ribbon through it and wear it like a romantic lady’s choker necklace. It wasn’t something I’d do, but I could see the button would make a good trade with someone inclined in that direction.
I held it out to her. I didn’t know what to say, and it probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. She picked it up, turned it all around, and then set it back down in my palm. “I don’t want your charity.”
I felt an angry tightness in my chest. “It’s just a friendship button.”
She looked at me a moment, a deciding look like she couldn’t be sure of anybody. “Why didn’t you just say so?” She grinned as if we were already friends and could tease each other.
“I did just say so,” I said. I opened up my hand and offered her the button again. This time she took it.
After our mothers left, we stood on line while a list was made of everything in our bags. I noticed that along with not having a mother to bring her, Sinita didn’t own much either. Everything she had was tied up in a bundle, and when Sor Milagros wrote it out, all it took was a couple of lines: 3 change of underwear, 4 pair of socks, brush and comb, towel and nightdress. Sinita offered the sparkly button, but Sor Milagros said it wasn’t necessary to write that down.
“Charity student,” the gossip went round. “So?” I challenged the giggly girl with curls like hiccups, who whispered it to me. She shut up real quick. It made me glad all over again I’d given Sinita that button.
Afterwards, we were taken into an assembly hall and given all sorts of welcomes. Then Sor Milagros, who was in charge of the tens through twelves, took our smaller group upstairs into the dormitory hall we would share. Our side-by-side beds were already set up for the night with mosquito nets. It looked like a room of little bridal veils.
Sor Milagros said she would now assign us our beds according to our last names. Sinita raised her hand and asked if her bed couldn’t be next to mine. Sor Milagros hesitated, but then a sweet look came on her face. Sure, she said. But when some other girls asked, she said no. I spoke right up, “I don’t think it’s fair if you just make an exception for us.”
Sor Milagros looked mighty surprised. I suppose being a nun and all, not many people told her what was wrong and right. Suddenly, it struck me, too, that this plump little nun with a bit of her gray hair showing under her headdress wasn’t Mamá or Papá I could argue things with. I was on the point of apologizing, but Sor Milagros just smiled her gap-toothed smile and said, “All right, I’ll allow you all to choose your own beds. But at the first sign of argument”—some of the girls had already sprung towards the best beds by the window and were fighting about who got there first—“we’ll go back to alphabetical. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Sor Milagros,” we chorused.
She came up to me and took my face in her hands. “What’s your name?” she wanted to know.
I gave her my name, and she repeated it several times like she was tasting it. Then she smiled like it tasted just fine. She looked over at Sinita, whom they all seemed partial to, and said, “Take care of our dear Sinita.”
“I will,” I said, standing up straight like I’d been given a mission. And that’s what it turned out to be, all right.A few days later, Sor Milagros gathered us all around for a little talk. Personal hygiene, she called it. I knew right away it would be about interesting things described in the most uninteresting way.
First, she said there had been some accidents. Anyone needing a canvas sheet should come see her. Of course, the best way to prevent a mishap was to be sure to visit our chamber pots every night before we got in bed. Any questions?
Not a one.
Then, a shy, embarrassed look came on her face. She explained that we might very well become young ladies while we were at school this year. She went through a most tangled-up explanation about the how and why, and finished by saying if we should start our complications, we should come see her. This time she didn’t ask if there were any questions.
I felt like setting her straight, explaining things simply the way Patria had explained them to me. But I guessed it wasn’t a good idea to try my luck twice in the first week.
When she left, Sinita asked me if I understood what on earth Sor Milagros had been talking about. I looked at her surprised. Here she’d been dressed in black like a grownup young lady, and she didn’t know the first thing. Right then, I told Sinita everything I knew about bleeding and having babies between your legs. She was pretty shocked, and beholden. She offered to trade me back the secret of Trujillo.
“What secret is that?” I asked her. I thought Patria had told me all the secrets.
“Not yet,” Sinita said looking over her shoulder.
It was a couple of weeks before Sinita got to her secret. I’d forgotten about it, or maybe I’d just put it out of my mind, a little scared what I might find out. We were busy with classes and making new friends. Almost every night someone or other came visiting under our mosquito nets or we visited them. We had two regulars, Lourdes and Elsa, and soon all four of us started doing everything together. It seemed like we were all just a little different—Sinita was charity and you could tell; Lourdes was fat, though as friends we called her pleasantly plump when she asked, and she asked a lot; Elsa was pretty in an I-told-you-so way, as if she hadn’t expected to turn out pretty and now she had to prove it. And me, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut when I had something to say.
The night Sinita told me the secret of Trujillo I couldn’t sleep. All day I hadn’t felt right, but I didn’t tell Sor Milagros. I was afraid she’d stick me in the sickroom and I’d have to lie in bed, listening to Sor Consuelo reading novenas for the sick and dying. Also, if Papa found out, he might change his mind and keep me home where I couldn’t have any adventures.
I was lying on my back, looking up into the white tent of the mosquito net, and wondering who else was awake. In her bed next to mine, Sinita began to cry very quietly as if she didn’t want anybody to know. I waited a little, but she didn’t stop. Finally, I stepped over to her bed and lifted the netting. “What’s wrong?” I whispered.
She took a second to calm down before she answered. “It’s José Luis.”
“Your brother?” We all knew he had died just this last summer. That’s how come Sinita had been wearing black that first day.
Her body began to shake all over with sobs. I crawled in and stroked her hair like Mama did mine whenever I had a fever. “Tell me, Sinita, maybe it’ll help.”
“I can‘t,” she whispered. “We can all be killed. It’s the secret of Trujillo.”
Well, all I had to be told was I couldn’t know something for me to have to know it. So I reminded her, “Come on, Sinita. I told you about babies.”
It took some coaxing, but finally she began.
She told me stuff I didn’t even know about her. I thought she was always poor, but it turned out her family used to be rich and important. Three of her uncles were even friends of Trujillo. But they turned against him when they saw he was doing bad things.
“Bad things?” I interrupted. “Trujillo was doing bad things?” It was as if I had just heard Jesus had slapped a baby or Our Blessed Mother had not conceived Him the immaculate conception way. “That can’t be true,” I said, but in my heart, I felt a china-crack of doubt.“Wait,” Sinita whispered, her thin fingers finding my mouth in the dark. “Let me finish.
“My uncles, they had a plan to do something to Trujillo, but somebody told on them, and all three were shot, right on the spot.” Sinita took a deep breath as if she were going to blow out all her grandmother’s birthday candles.
“But what bad things was Trujillo doing that they wanted to kill him?” I asked again. I couldn’t leave it alone. At home, Trujillo hung on the wall by the picture of Our Lord Jesus with a whole flock of the cutest lambs.
Sinita told me as much as she knew. I was shaking by the time she was through.
According to Sinita, Trujillo became president in a sneaky way. First, he was in the army, and all the people who were above him kept disappearing until he was the one right below the head of the whole armed forces.
This man who was the head general had fallen in love with another man’s wife. Trujillo was his friend and so he knew all about this secret. The woman’s husband was a very jealous man, and Trujillo made friends with him, too.
One day, the general told Trujillo he was going to be meeting this woman that very night under the bridge in Santiago where people meet to do bad things. So Trujillo went and told the husband, who waited under the bridge for his wife and this general and shot them both dead.
Very soon after that, Trujillo became head of the armed forces.
“Maybe Trujillo thought that general was doing a bad thing by fooling around with somebody else’s wife,” I defended him.
I heard Sinita sigh. “Just wait,” she said, “before you decide.”
After Trujillo became the head of the army, he got to talking to some people who didn’t like the old president. One night, these people surrounded the palace and told the old president that he had to leave. The old president just laughed and sent for his good friend, the head of the armed forces. But General Trujillo didn’t come and didn’t come. Soon, the old president was the ex-president on an airplane to Puerto Rico. Then, something that surprised even the people who had surrounded the palace, Trujillo announced he was the president.
“Didn’t anyone tell him that wasn’t right?” I asked, knowing I would have.
“People who opened their big mouths didn’t live very long,” Sinita said. “Like my uncles I told you about. Then, two more uncles, and then my father.” Sinita began crying again. “Then this summer, they killed my brother.”
My tummy ache had started up again. Or maybe it was always there, but I’d forgotten about it while trying to make Sinita feel better. “Stop, please,” I begged her. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“I can‘t,” she said.
Sinita’s story spilled out like blood from a cut.
One Sunday this last summer, her whole family was walking home from church. Her whole family meant all Sinita’s widowed aunts and her mother and tons of girl cousins, with her brother José Luis being the only boy left in the entire family. Everywhere they went, the girls were assigned places around him. Her brother had been saying that he was going to revenge his father and uncles, and the rumor all over town was that Trujillo was after him.
As they were rounding the square, a vendor came up to sell them a lottery ticket. It was the dwarf they always bought from, so they trusted him.
“Oh I’ve seen him!” I said. Sometimes when we would go to San Francisco in the carriage, and pass by the square, there he was, a grown man no taller than me at twelve. Mama never bought from him. She claimed Jesus told us not to gamble, and playing the lottery was gambling. But every time I was alone with Papá, he bought a whole bunch of tickets and called it a good investment.
José Luis asked for a lucky number. When the dwarf went to hand him the ticket, something silver flashed in his hand. That’s all Sinita saw. Then José Luis was screaming horribly and her mother and all the aunts were shouting for a doctor. Sinita looked over at her brother, and the front of his white shirt was covered with blood.
I started crying, but I pinched my arms to stop. I had to be brave for Sinita.“We buried him next to my father. My mother hasn’t been the same since. Sor Asunción, who knows my family, offered to let me come to el colegio for free.”
The aching in my belly was like wash being wrung so tightly, there wasn’t a drop of water left in the clothes. “I’ll pray for your brother,” I promised her. “But Sinita, one thing. How is this Trujillo’s secret?”
“You still don’t get it? Minerva, don’t you see? Trujillo is having everyone killed!”
I lay awake most of that night, thinking about Sinita’s brother and her uncles and her father and this secret of Trujillo that nobody but Sinita seemed to know about. I heard the clock, down in the parlor, striking every hour. It was already getting light in the room by the time I fell asleep.
In the morning, I was shaken awake by Sinita. “Hurry,” she was saying. “You’re going to be late for Matins.” All around the room, sleepy girls were clapping away in their slippers towards the crowded basins in the washroom. Sinita grabbed her towel and soap dish from her night table and joined the exodus.
As I came fully awake, I felt the damp sheet under me. Oh no, I thought, I’ve wet my bed! After I’d told Sor Milagros that I wouldn’t need an extra canvas sheet on my mattress.
I lifted the covers, and for a moment, I couldn’t make sense of the dark stains on the bottom sheet. Then I brought up my hand from checking myself. Sure enough, my complications had started.
The country people around the farm say that until the nail is hit, it doesn’t believe in the hammer. Everything Sinita said I filed away as a terrible mistake that wouldn’t happen again. Then the hammer came down hard right in our own school, right on Lina Lovatón’s head. Except she called it love and went off, happy as a newlywed.
Lina was a couple of years older than Elsa, Lourdes, Sinita, and me; but her last year at Inmaculada, we were all in the same dormitory hall of the fifteens through seventeens. We got to know her, and love her, which amounted to the same thing when it came to Lina Lovatón.
We all looked up to her as if she were a lot older than even the other seventeens. She was grownup-looking for her age, tall with red-gold hair and her skin like something just this moment coming out of the oven, giving off a warm golden glow. Once when Elsa pestered her in the washroom while Sor Socorro was over at the convent, Lina slipped off her gown and showed us what we would look like in a few years.
She sang in the choir in a clear beautiful voice like an angel. She wrote in a curlicued hand that was like the old prayerbooks with silver clasps Sor Asunción had brought over from Spain. Lina taught us how to roll our hair, and how to curtsy if we met a king. We watched her. All of us were in love with our beautiful Lina.
The nuns loved her too, always choosing Lina to read the lesson during silent dinners or to carry the Virgencita in the Sodality of Mary processions. As often as my sister Patria, Lina was awarded the weekly good-conduct ribbon, and she wore it proudly, bandolier style, across the front of her blue serge uniform.
I still remember the afternoon it all started. We were outside playing volleyball, and our captain Lina was leading us to victory. Her thick plaited hair was coming undone, and her face was pink and flushed as she flung herself here and there after the ball.
Sor Socorro came hurrying out. Lina Lovatón had to come right away. An important visitor was here to meet her. This was very unusual since we weren’t allowed weekday visitors and the sisters were very strict about their rules.
Off Lina went, Sor Socorro straightening her hair ribbons and pulling at the pleats of her uniform to make the skirt fall straight. The rest of us resumed our game, but it wasn’t as much fun now that our beloved captain was gone.
When Lina came back, there was a shiny medal pinned on her uniform just above her left breast. We crowded around her, wanting to know all about her important visitor. “Trujillo?” we all cried out. “Trujillo came to see you?” Sor Socorro rushed out for a second time that day, hushing and rounding us up. We had to wait until lights-out that night to hear Lina’s story.It turned out that Trujillo had been visiting some official’s house next door, and attracted by the shouts from our volleyball game below, he had gone out on the balcony. When he caught sight of our beautiful Lina, he walked right over to the school, followed by his surprised aides, and insisted on meeting her. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sor Asunción finally gave in and sent for Lina Lovatón. Soldiers swarmed about them, Lina said, and Trujillo took a medal off his own uniform and pinned it on hers!
“What did you do?” we all wanted to know In the moonlight streaming in from the open shutters, Lina Lovatón showed us. Lifting the mosquito net, she stood in front of us and made a deep curtsy.
Soon, every time Trujillo was in town—and he was in La Vega more often than he had ever been before—he stopped in to visit Lina Lovatón. Gifts were sent over to the school: a porcelain ballerina, little bottles of perfume that looked like pieces of jewelry and smelled like a rose garden wished it could smell, a satin box with a gold heart charm inside for a bracelet that Trujillo had already given her with a big L charm to start it off.
At first the sisters were frightened. But then, they started receiving gifts, too: bolts of muslim for making convent sheets and terrycloth for their towels and a donation of a thousand pesos for a new statue of the Merciful Mother to be carved by a Spanish artist living in the capital.
Lina always told us about her visits from Trujillo. It was kind of exciting for all of us when he came. First, classes were cancelled, and the whole school was overrun by guards poking through all our bedrooms. When they were done, they stood at attention while we tried to tease smiles out of their on-guard faces. Meanwhile, Lina disappeared into the parlor where we had all been delivered that first day by our mothers. As Lina reported, the visit usually started with Trujillo reciting some poetry to her, then saying he had some surprise on his person she had to find. Sometimes he’d ask her to sing or dance. Most especially, he loved for her to play with the medals on his chest, taking them off, pinning them back on.
“But do you love him?” Sinita asked Lina one time. Sinita’s voice sounded as disgusted as if she were asking Lina if she had fallen in love with a tarantula.
“With all my heart,” Lina sighed. “More than my life.”
Trujillo kept visiting Lina and sending her gifts and love notes she shared with us. Except for Sinita, I think we were all falling in love with the phantom hero in Lina’s sweet and simple heart. From the back of my drawer where I had put it away in consideration for Sinita, I dug up the little picture of Trujillo we were all given in Citizenship Class. I placed it under my pillow at night to ward off nightmares.
For her seventeenth birthday, Trujillo threw Lina a big party in a new house he had just built outside Santiago. Lina went away for the whole week of her birthday. On the actual day, a full-page photograph of Lina appeared in the papers and beneath it was a poem written by Trujillo himself:
She was born a queen, not by dynastic right,
but by the right of beauty
whom divinity sends to the world only rarely.
Sinita claimed that someone else had written it for him because Trujillo hardly knew how to scratch out his own name. “If I were Lina—” she began, and her right hand reached out as if grabbing a bunch of grapes and squeezing the juice out of them.
Weeks went by, and Lina didn’t return. Finally, the sisters made an announcement that Lina Lovatón would be granted her diploma by government orders in absentia. “Why?” we asked Sor Milagros, who was still our favorite. “Why won’t she come back to us?” Sor Milagros shook her head and turned her face away, but not before I had seen tears in her eyes.
That summer, I found out why. Papá and I were on our way to Santiago with a delivery of tobacco in the wagon. He pointed out a high iron gate and beyond it a big mansion with lots of flowers and the hedges all cut to look like animals. “Look, Minerva, one of Trujillo’s girlfriends lives there, your old schoolmate, Lina Lovatón.”“Lina?!” My breath felt tight inside my chest as if it couldn’t get out. “But Trujillo is married,” I argued. “How can he have Lina as a girlfriend?”
Papá looked at me a long time before he said, “He’s got many of them, all over the island, set up in big, fancy houses. Lina Lovatón is just a sad case, because she really does love him, pobrecita.” Right there he took the opportunity to lecture me about why the hens shouldn’t wander away from the safety of the barnyard.
Back at school in the fall during one of our nightly sessions, the rest of the story came out. Lina Lovatón had gotten pregnant in the big house. Trujillo’s wife Doña María had found out and gone after her with a knife. So Trujillo shipped Lina off to a mansion he’d bought for her in Miami where he knew she’d be safe. She lived all alone now, waiting for him to call her up. I guess there was a whole other pretty girl now taking up his attention.
“Pobrecita,” we chorused, like an amen.
We were quiet, thinking of this sad ending for our beautiful Lina. I felt my breath coming short again. At first, I had thought it was caused by the cotton bandages I had started tying around my chest so my breasts wouldn’t grow. I wanted to be sure what had happened to Lina Lovatón would never happen to me. But every time I’d hear one more secret about Trujillo I could feel the tightening in my chest even when I wasn’t wearing the bandages.
“Trujillo is a devil,” Sinita said as we tiptoed back to our beds. We had managed to get them side by side again this year.
But I was thinking, No, he is a man. And in spite of all I’d heard, I felt sorry for him. iPobrecito! At night, he probably had nightmare after nightmare like I did, just thinking about what he’d done.
Downstairs in the dark parlor, the clock was striking the hours like hammer blows.
It was our country’s centennial year. We’d been having celebrations and performances ever since Independence Day on February 27th. Patria had celebrated her twentieth birthday that day, and we’d thrown her a big party in Ojo de Agua. That’s how my family got around having to give some sort of patriotic affair to show their support of Trujillo. We pretended the party was in his honor with Patria dressed in white, her little boy Nelson in red, and Pedrito, her husband, in blue. Oh yes, the nun thing had fallen through.
It wasn’t just my family putting on a big loyalty performance, but the whole country. When we got to school that fall, we were issued new history textbooks with a picture of you-know-who embossed on the cover so even a blind person could tell who the lies were all about. Our history now followed the plot of the Bible. We Dominicans had been waiting for centuries for the arrival of our Lord Trujillo on the scene. It was pretty disgusting.
All through nature there is a feeling of ecstasy. A strange otherworldly light suffuses the house smelling of labor and sanctity. The 24th of October in 1891. God’s glory made flesh in a miracle. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo has been born!
At our first assembly, the sisters announced that, thanks to a generous donation from El Jefe, a new wing had been added for indoor recreation. It was to be known as the Lina Lovatón Gymnasium, and in a few weeks, a recitation contest would be held there for the entire school. The theme was to be our centennial and the generosity of our gracious Benefactor.
As the announcement was being made, Sinita and Elsa and Lourdes and I looked at each other, settling that we would do our entry together. We had all started out together at Inmaculada six years ago, and everyone now called us the quadruplets. Sor Asunción was always joking that when we graduated in a couple years, she was going to have to hack us apart with a knife.
We worked hard on our performance, practicing every night after lights out. We had written all our own lines instead of just reciting things from a book. That way we could say what we wanted instead of what the censors said we could say.
Not that we were stupid enough to say anything bad about the government. Our skit was set way back in the olden days. I played the part of the enslaved Motherland, tied up during the whole performance until the very end when Liberty, Glory, and the narrator untied me. This was supposed to remind the audience of our winning our independence a hundred years ago. Then, we all sang the national anthem and curtsied like Lina Lovatón had taught us. Nobody could get upset with that!The night of the recitation contest we could hardly eat our dinners, we were so nervous and excited. We dressed in one of the classrooms, helping each other with the costumes and painting our faces, for the sisters did allow makeup for performances. Of course, we never washed up real good afterwards, so that the next day we walked around with sexy eyes, rosy lips, and painted-on beauty marks as if we were at a you-know-what-kind-of-a-place instead of a convent school.
And the quadruplets were the best, by far! We took so many curtain calls that we were still on stage when Sor Asunción came up to announce the winners. We started to exit, but she motioned us back. The place broke into wild clapping, stomping, and whistling, all of which were forbidden as unladylike. But Sor Asunción seemed to have forgotten her own rules. She held up the blue ribbon since no one would quiet down to hear her announce that we had won.
What we did hear her say when the audience finally settled down was that we would be sent along with a delegation from La Vega to the capital to perform the winning piece for Trujillo on his birthday. We looked at each other, shocked. The nuns had never said anything about this added performance. Later as we undressed in the classroom, we discussed turning down the prize.
“I’m not going,” I declared, washing off all the goop on my face. I wanted to make a protest, but I wasn’t sure what to do,
“Let’s do it, oh please,” Sinita pleaded. There was such a look of desperation on her face, Elsa and Lourdes readily agreed, “Let’s.”
“But they tricked us!” I reminded them.
“Please, Minerva, please,” Sinita coaxed. She put her arm around me, and when I tried to pull away, she gave me a smack on the cheek.
I couldn’t believe Sinita would really want to do this, given how her family felt about Trujillo. “But Sinita, why would you want to perform for him?”
Sinita drew herself up so proud she looked like Liberty all right. “It’s not for him. Our play’s about a time when we were free. It’s like a hidden protest.”
That settled it. I agreed to go on the condition that we do the skit dressed as boys. At first, my friends grumbled because we had to change a lot of the feminine endings, and so the rhymes all went to pot. But the nearer the big day approached, the more the specter of Lina haunted us as we did jumping jacks in the Lina Lovatón Gymnasium. Her beautiful portrait stared across the room at the picture of El Jefe on the opposite wall.
We went down to the capital in a big car provided by the Dominican Party in La Vega. On the way, Sor Asunción read us the epistle, which is what she called the rules we were to observe. Ours was the third performance in the girls‘-school division. It would begin at five, and we would stay to the conclusion of the La Vega performances, and be back at el colegio for bedtime juice. “You must show the nation you are its jewels, Inmaculada Concepción girls. Is that perfectly clear?”
“Yes, Sor Asunción,” we chorused back absently. But we were too excited about our glorious adventure to pay much attention to rules. Along the way, every time some cute fellows passed us in their fast, fancy cars, we’d wave and pucker up our mouths. Once, a car slowed, and the boys inside called out compliments. Sister scowled fiercely at them and turned around to see what was going on in the back seat of the car. We looked blithely at the road ahead, quadruplet angels. We didn’t have to be in a skit to give our best performance!
But as we neared the capital, Sinita got more and more quiet. There was a sad, wistful look on her face, and I knew who she was missing.
Before long we were waiting in an anteroom of the palace alongside other girls from schools all over the country. Sor Asunción came in, swishing her habit importantly and motioned for us.
We were ushered into a large hall, bigger than any room I’d ever been in. Through a break in a row of chairs, we came to the center of the floor. We turned circles trying to get our bearings. Then I recognized him under a canopy of Dominican flags, the Benefactor I’d heard about all my life.
In his big gold armchair, he looked much smaller than I had imagined him, looming as he always was from some wall or other. He was wearing a fancy white uniform with gold fringe epaulets and a breast of medals like an actor playing a part.
We took our places, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was turned towards a young man, sitting beside him, also wearing a uniform. I knew it was his handsome son, Ramfis, a full colonel in the army since he was four years old. His picture was always in the papers.
Ramfis looked our way and whispered something to his father, who laughed loudly. How rude, I thought; after all, we were here to pay them compliments. The least they could do was pretend that we didn’t look like fools in our ballooning togas and beards and bows and arrows.
Trujillo nodded for us to start. We stood frozen, gawking, until Sinita finally pulled us all together by taking her place. I was glad I got to recline on the ground, because my knees were shaking so hard I was afraid that the Fatherland might faint right on the spot.
Miraculously, we all remembered our lines. As we said them out loud, our voices gathered confidence and became more expressive. Once when I stole a glance, I saw that the handsome Ramfis and even El Jefe were caught up in our performance.
We moved along smoothly, until we got to the part when Sinita was supposed to stand before me, the bound Fatherland. After I said,
Over a century, languishing in chains,
Dare I now hope for freedom from my woes?
Oh, Liberty, unfold your brilliant bow,
Sinita was to step forward, show her brilliant bow. Then, having aimed imaginary arrows at imaginary foes, she was to set me free by untying me.
But when we got to this part, Sinita kept on stepping forward and didn’t stop until she was right in front of Trujillo’s chair. Slowly, she raised her bow and took aim. There was a stunned silence in the hall.
Quick as gunfire, Ramfis leapt to his feet and crouched between his father and our frozen tableau. He snatched the bow from Sinita’s hand and broke it over his raised knee. The crack of the splintering wood released a hubbub of whispers and murmurs. Ramfis looked intently at Sinita, who glared right back at him. “You shouldn’t play that way.”
“It was part of the play,” I lied. I was still bound, reclining on the floor. “She didn’t mean any harm.”
Ramfis looked at me, and then back at Sinita. “What’s your name?”
“Liberty,” Sinita said.
“Your real name, Liberty?” he barked at her as if she were a soldier in his army.
“Perozo.” She said it proudly.
He lifted an eyebrow, intrigued. And then, like a hero in a storybook, he helped me up. “Untie her, Perozo,” he ordered Sinita. But when she reached over to work the knots loose, he grabbed her hands and yanked them behind her back. He spit these words out at her: “Use your dog teeth, bitch!”
His lips twisted into a sinister little smile as Sinita bent down and untied me with her mouth.
My hands freed, I saved the day, according to what Sinita said later. I flung off my cape, showing off my pale arms and bare neck. In a trem- bly voice I began the chant that grew into a shouting chorus ¡Viva Trujillo! ¡Viva Trujillo! ¡Viva Trujillo!
On the way home, Sor Asunción scolded us. “You were not the ornaments of the nation. You did not obey my epistle.” As the road darkened, the beams of our headlights filled with hundreds of blinded moths. Where they hit the windshield, they left blurry marks, until it seemed like I was looking at the world through a curtain of tears.