Summary: Chapter 5
1994 and 1948

This section begins in 1994. Dedé demands that Fela, a longtime servant of the family remove the shrine she has erected to the sisters in a shed in the backyard. Minou, Minerva’s daughter, tells Dedé that she has been talking to her Mamá (Minerva) through Fela. When Dedé confronts Minou about the “spirit business,” Minou angrily tells Dedé that she is her own person.

Virgilio Morales (Lío), Dedé tells the interviewer, would become Minerva’s special friend, and the friend of each of the sisters. Mamá, though, discovers that Lío is a member of the Communist Party. Dedé didn’t know this, though Jaimito, who is courting Dedé, admits he did. If Lío is active in the resistance, surely Minerva is, too. At that moment, Dedé realizes that what Minerva said was true, they were living in a police state. Dedé decides to participate in the resistance by doing small things, such as by helping Minerva and Lío see each other, as Mamá has forbidden them to be together. 

Eventually, Lío goes into hiding. Minerva won’t go with him. On the night Jaimito proposes to Dedé in Papá’s car. They find Lío hiding in the back seat. At dawn, his ride to the capital will stop at the anacahuita tree and pick him up. Lío gives Dedé a note for Minerva, which Dedé later reads. Lío wants Minerva to follow him into exile and seek asylum with him. Dedé burns the letter.

Analysis: Chapter 5

Intermixed with the Catholic faith of the main characters and the corresponding imagery Alvarez uses throughout the book is a folk religion of fortune-telling and spirit messages, exemplified by Fela, a long-time family servant. When the girls are young, she tells them scary stories, teaches them magic spells, and reads their fortunes in coffee grounds. After their death, she is for many their voice on earth, delivering messages from them and relaying requests from pilgrims to the house. Dedé’s relationship to these messages is complicated. She tells Minou they insult the memory of her Catholic mother, Minerva. However, she sometimes asks Minou to relay the messages to her anyway. This reflects Dedé’s complex relationship with her sisters’ legacy. She is the keeper of their stories and in that sense the ultimate voice of truth about them.

The version of their lives that Dedé shares with the interviewer and others is considered official. At the same time, there are suggestions throughout the text that she knows this version is imperfect. When she says Patria’s religion was “always” so important, using the type of language that builds myths, she amends her statement to “almost always.” She catches herself in small errors of memory, such as forgetting that it was Minerva who taught her the trick of soothing her fears with a peaceful memory. Fela’s inclusion as an alternate voice of the Butterflies suggests to the reader that this novel is only one version of the truth. Alvarez is a novelist, not a biographer. Just as Dedé and Fela each seem to be true voices of the Butterflies, this is a true telling of their lives, but it is not a singular truth.
In this chapter, the dashing Lío functions as a foil to Jaimito. Lío’s courage and charisma make Jaimito appear predictable and dull. Jaimito’s courtship of Dedé is continually overshadowed by her interest in and attraction to the dashing enemy of the state, Lío. Even when Jaimito proposes, Dedé is more focused on Lío, answering Jaimito’s question about the proposal as if he were asking what to do about Lío. Although Lío soon leaves the country, Dedé forever regrets choosing Jaimito over him, later attributing the failure of her marriage to her wishing to be with Lío. 

A theme throughout the book is Dedé failing to show the courage of her sisters, choosing a safe status quo that she is less happy with rather than taking a risk. This is often exemplified in her romantic and political lives. Dedé does not pursue Lío because she believes he is courting Minerva, though in fact Minerva is interested in him as a political ally, not a lover. In choosing Jaimito, Dedé chooses to live as she is expected to, since their family has always imagined they would marry, rather than finding the courage to declare her interest to Lío and risk his refusal. This mirrors her relationship to political life. While her sisters become activists and heroes, she never fully commits to the movement, afraid of the risks associated with challenging the government and her husband. She is in sympathy with the movement but stays largely on the sidelines. Ultimately, this forces Dedé to live with a painful kind of irony, as she has compromised her principles for safety, but is never safe from the pain of losing her sisters and is trapped in her life of regrets.