In Julia Alvarez’s first young adult novel, Before we were Free, we meet 12-year-old Anita de la Torre. Like many young children, she is curious and talkative. Having lived a comfortingly protected life thus far, Anita is sweetly innocent and naïve. Her life seems rather normal. She annoys her older sister and has a crush on her new American neighbor Sam. However all of this will change quickly. The story takes place in the Dominican Republic during the months leading up to the assassination of the infamous dictator Trujillo. As the events of the story unfold, Anita’s life is forever changed.
Anita comes to realize that “El Jefe” is in fact, not the hero she believed him to be, but a dictator who threatens her family and friends, disappearing and torturing many Dominicans. She is forced to grapple with what is right and wrong, as family members flee the country, while others are forced into hiding. Her life is literally invaded by El Jefe’s Secret Police, the SIM.
Anita’s diary, a place where she once could pour out her heart, becomes a danger. She is forced to erase all she has written so that it will not give anything away if found by the SIM. It is here that we encounter one of the most powerful parts of the novel. As Anita tries to deal with the fact that her world is crumbling around her, she loses her words. She falls into a silence she can’t seem to break. She finds she can’t remember words anymore, she can’t speak. The curious young girl nicknamed cotorrita (literally a chatterbox or parrot) is silenced by what happens around her. When forced into hiding with her mother, Anita goes back to her diary, writing again so that if they don’t survive, their story is left behind. As Anita begins to write again, sharing their story, her voice comes back.
Anita survives, eventually making her way to the United States to join other family members in New York City. The overthrow of the Trujillo regime cost her dearly. She’s no longer the innocent child we met at the beginning of the story, but instead a survivor–an example of how we must fight to find our voices again, how we can persevere to put the pieces of our life back together again.
While Anita’s life is much different than the average child in the United States, students will have no trouble identifying with the engaging character that Alvarez offers us. Her beautiful imagery, literary style, and historical content make it a book well worth reading in our classrooms.
For more on using Before we were Free in your classroom check out our Educator Guides section for lesson plans and activities or Julia Alvarez’s home page.