“Before We Were Free” by Julia Alvarez
Life under a repressive dictator is hard for some of us to imagine. “Before We Were Free” shows us such a life—in the 1960s Dominican Republic—from the point-of-view of a twelve-year-old girl.
Anita de la Torre is the youngest child in an upper-middle class family. Although relatively safe and well-off, Anita’s family hungers for freedom, and both her father and her uncle are involved in a plot to overthrow “El Jefe”—General Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. The influence of the dictator is seen in Anita’s daily routine at school as well as in the social and political fabric of the country.
At the same time that Anita tries to understand the situation in her country, she worries as do most twelve-year-old girls: how does she succeed in school, which boy does she love, when will her period arrive? Anita’s beautiful older sister, Lucinda, has been singled out by El Jefe as a future romantic interest. In order to avoid the fate of becoming his mistress, Lucinda must flee the country.
As Trujillo’s regime becomes more repressive, the secret police are watching the de la Torre family and their American diplomatic friends move into the family compound as a measure to protect them. Spies are everywhere and torture is routine for prisoners. The schools close and Anita’s father and uncle are arrested. Anita’s brother must hide in the Italian Embassy. She and her mother go into hiding in a friend’s bedroom closet, where Anita keeps a diary. (The situation will remind you of Anne Frank’s life if you’ve read her diary.)
“Before We Were Free” is realistic—and that means that the book does not close with ‘happily ever after.’ But it does help us appreciate our own freedom and right of free speech.