Summary: Chapter 1
1994 and circa 1943

Dedé’s story, told by a third person narrator, begins when she takes a call from a woman who wants to interview her about the Mirabal sisters, and the events of November 25, thirty-four years ago. The journalist, originally from the Dominican Republic but currently living in the United States, is a gringa dominicana, Dedé thinks. Dedé agrees to meet with her. Turn left at the anacahuita tree, she tells her.
When the interviewer arrives, Dedé, “the sister who survived,” shows her the house, and tells her about her sisters. Minerva, a year younger than Dedé, was concerned with right and wrong. Patria, the eldest, a year older than Dedé, was the religious one. And María Teresa, nine years younger than Minerva, died too young, at the age of twenty-five.

Dedé recalls the memory she calls “zero.” The family sits in the moonlight, under the anacahuita tree. Papá, or Don Enrique, tells his daughters’ fortunes. Mamá, devoutly Catholic, disapproves of telling fortunes, and Patria agrees. Minerva expresses her desire to go to law school, for women to have “a voice in running our country.” “You and Trujillo,” Papá responds, ironically. Everyone falls silent. Perhaps spies lurk in the darkness, waiting to report the family for voicing negative opinions about Trujillo, the country’s dictator. Dedé feels a chill in her bones, “the future is now beginning.”

Analysis: Chapter 1

Dedé’s first chapter operates as a prologue to the novel. When the interviewer asks Dedé where she is in her family birth order, Dedé is relieved. She realizes the interviewer must not have read any of the articles or biographies written about her sisters, the Butterflies. This means the telling of their story belongs to Dedé and the narration in her chapters reflects Dedé’s perspective and biases. She takes the interview as an opportunity to introduce her sisters as real people first, not sainted martyrs, calling them members of “an ordinary family.” Although she begins with simple descriptions of their characters to limit what she tells the interviewer, the narration soon shifts into a vivid remembered scene of their lives together in the beginning, before her sisters became activists and heroes. This opening contrasts the typical mythologizing of national heroes. By opening with this scene, Alvarez introduces us to the Butterflies not as untouchable giants but as children, making them both more real and more relatable.

The character of the interviewer represents Alvarez herself, an American-raised Dominican respectfully curious about the Mirabal sisters but awkwardly ignorant of many details of life on the island. She apologizes for her poor Spanish and asks for street names in a place where most people cannot read, so directions are given with landmarks. The interviewer also stands in place of the typical American reader, entering the novel as an outsider, understanding little of the context of the story, relying on Dedé’s guidance. Dedé herself is resigned to her role as patient teacher and storyteller, because she “doesn’t want to be the only one left to tell their story.” 

The interviewer’s position as an outsider also allows Alvarez to establish this story as a fully Dominican one. Throughout the chapter, Dedé notes to herself ways that the interviewer does not fully understand Dominican culture. She uses the wrong phrases and makes the wrong assumptions. When Dedé tells her to turn at the anacahuita tree, a specific landmark known by all the locals, the interviewer only notes that the tree is big, not its species. The use of this specific detail introduces the setting not as an imagined or generic place, but a real one, anchoring it in place and time. 

In addition to introducing Dedé’s role as keeper of her sisters’ legacy, this chapter includes hints of other motifs and symbols that will become important in the novel. Flowers figure prominently in the chapter, as they will throughout the book, as a motif associated with femininity in general and the Butterflies in particular. As the interviewer arrives, Dedé accidently cuts off a flower from her prized butterfly orchid, foreshadowing the early deaths of the Butterflies. The scene of the family together includes fortune-telling, religion, and education, important themes throughout the novel. The scene ends with rain beginning to fall, a motif throughout the book indicating times of tragedy for the family.