In the Time of the Butterflies tells the true story of the Mirabals, four sisters who led a resistance against the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. The four Mirabal sisters, Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Theresa, lived in a rural area of the Dominican Republic and their father ran a mildly successful farm. The movie shares the sisters’ early lives, their schooling days, the growth of their family, and later, how they became involved in the revolution that took place against Trujillo. Told through the point of view of Minerva, the most politically outspoken of the four sisters, the movie deals with issues surrounding the rights of women and political prisoners.

While still very young Minerva Mirabal began trying to convince her father to allow her to attend school. Only because the Mirabals were middle class farmers and could afford to pay for school, did their father relent and allow them to go. Their father’s hesitancy came from a mix of worry about losing hands to work on the farm and a fear that intelligent women would not attract good husbands for his daughters. Today children’s education in rural areas of the Dominican Republic is still poor, with more boys attending school than girls, but then more boys dropping out of school to work on family farms. For more information on current educational statistics for girls and boys in the Dominican Republic, click here and here. Minerva’s goal in life was to become a lawyer, and after learning the truth about people who “disappeared” because they opposed the current rule in the Dominican Republic, Minerva’s mission was to use her skills as a lawyer to fight for others against the dictatorship of Trujillo. However, at this time in the Dominican Republic, only men could be admitted into law school. If women went to college, they went into subjects like Philosophy and English, nothing that promised a high powered career upon graduation. Instead, the only path for women was marriage and motherhood. After several meetings with Trujillo, Minerva managed to convince him to let her have admission into law school. However, after completing law school, Trujillo denied her a license to practice law on the basis that as a woman and mother she did not need to go into a career. This event inspired her to work harder against Trujillo.

Violence and harassment towards women is another issue in In the Time of the Butterflies. The Mirabals were first introduced to this issue after they witnessed the many affairs of Trujillo and the end results of his mistresses. Trujillo would give those girls attention for a small period of time and dispose of the women as soon as he tired of them. Minerva Mirabal saw this first hand when one of her classmates was forced to leave the county after she was impregnated by Trujillo. Minerva herself was a victim of Trujillo during a ball in which he inappropriately groped her. Minerva slapped Trujillo and her family later faced the punishment this act of defiance against Trujillo caused. As the Mirabals continued to build up a resistance against Trujillo and the threat of revolution became more eminent, Trujillo knew he had to do something to stop the sisters. Jail and death threats did not deter the resistance. On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Theresa were beaten to death on the orders of Trujillo out of fear of the resistance they had formed.

The movie also shows the issues surrounding political prisoners. After Minerva slapped Trujillo at the ball, Trujillo arrested the Mirabal’s father on false charges and imprisoned him. By the time Minerva had finally gotten their father released from prison, he was in very poor health from torture and lack of medical care. Without having proper medical care while in prison, he soon passed away after his release. Later, Minerva and Maria Theresa were arrested for their work in the revolution. In prison, political prisoners were kept in the same cell as people who committed violent crimes. Minerva was put in solidarity confinement for days at a time. An incident occurred with Maria Theresa that suggests she was raped by guards in order to get information about the resistance from her. It was only after American human rights organizations began investigating Trujillo’s oppressive regime that the Mirabals were released from jail. Even after their release, Minerva and Maria Theresa suffered PTSD from the trauma they faced within prison. These issues caused strains in their relationships with their family.

For psychologists, In the Time of the Butterflies shows an example of prison dynamic studied in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment shows a scenario when, given power, prison guards will abuse prisoners simply because they are told they have more authority than the prisoners. In the movie, the prison guards torture Minerva and Maria Theresa and other political prisoners in horrifying ways. By looking at the Stanford Prison Experiment, the actions of the guards are better understandable.

Other issues that come from the prisoners in the movie are the trauma and mental health problems that affect them even after they are released. This movie is interesting for psychologists because it discusses the mental health problems that prisoners and torture victims may face. While in prison, Maria Theresa and Minerva faced depression. What got them through their prison stay was their love of their family and children they knew were fighting for them. Additionally, Maria Theresa and Minerva faced PTSD while recovering from the prison sentence when they returned home.

Manijeh Badiee’s interview with an Iranian women, Parisa, who was tortured as a political prisoner shares some of these problems facing prisoners while imprisoned and after release. Parisa was imprisoned because of her politics. Parisa had to hide the fact that she was married in order to protect her husband and son. She was physically tortured. She discusses one of her friends who was imprisoned with her that attempted suicide out of the hopeless she felt in jail. What kept Parisa alive in jail was the love she had for her son. “Although the torture had revealed to her the very worst of offenses—taking away someone’s right to live as a human being—it had also affirmed her compassion for being human” (Badiee, 2015, p. 506). People who suffer torture in prison often recover from stress better than people who face stress in other situations because they are often in prison fighting for a cause (Badiee, 2015). Just like the Iranian woman, the Mirabal sisters stayed sane in prison because of the love for their families and their strength in the belief of the cause they were fighting for. Their strong religious beliefs and strong beliefs in fighting for change helped them when they were released in prison. Even while in prison, Maria Theresa and Minerva continued to work for the revolution and work for the resistance.

The Mirabal’s work in resistance against Trujillo shows the dynamic of when a subordinate group rises up against a dominant group. The dominant group attempts to stay in power by lessening the cause of the subordinates and by taking away their power. “Dominant groups usually impede the development of subordinates and block their freedom of expression and action” (Miller, 2004, p. 113). By imprisoning people and having people working against him murdered, Trujillo tried to instill a fear in Dominicans that would allow him to maintain power. “To the extent that subordinates move toward freer expression and action, they will expose the inequality and throw into question the basis for its existence” (Miller, 2004, p. 116). In order to have a dominant and a subordinate group, there has to be some kind of underlying inequality. For the Mirabals during Trujillo’s reign, class, gender, and race all played a role in becoming a part of the subordinate group. Race relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic was a constant battle during Trujillo’s reign and even continue on today (read more here). People in rural parts of the country were less likely to be educated and had less of a chance to move forward in life and in society. More often than not, the lower class were the ones most effected by Trujillo because they had less money and less of a voice in fighting against him. Gender was a major issue, and is especially shown by the Mirabal sisters. Women had little prospect in life except for marriage. The Mirabal’s helped rise up against the Trujillo reign in an attempt to switch the power balance against the dominant and subordinate groups.

The Mirabal’s are a lasting influence in the Dominican Republic. While their death was meant to be a warning for those trying to oppose Trujillo, they instead became martyrs for their country. Less than six months after their deaths, Trujillo was assassinated. Today the day of their death, November 25th, is remembered as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In the Time of the Butterflies shares the story of four women who overcame gender role norms in order to make a difference in their country and fight for those who could not fight for themselves. This movie is inspiring for those who want to fight against some kind of oppressor but feel like they do not have the power to create change. The sisters continue to encourage people and provide an example of strength in a time of budding conflict and building resistance. The Mirabals also show an example of strong women, and show that anyone, no matter their gender, class, race, or religion can initiate and bring about change for the better.  


Further Reading

-       Mirabal Sisters

-       Education and Violence

-       Haiti and the Dominican Republic

-       Stanford Prison Experiment



Badiee, M. (2015). Portrait of an Iranian woman torture survivor. Journal of Peace Psychology,21, 505-507. Doi: 10.1037/pac0000121


Miller, J.B. (2004). Domination and subordination. In Rothberg, P.S. (Ed.). Race, class, and gender in the United States, 6th Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.