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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 192 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43317-6
Published by : Laurel Leaf RH Childrens Books

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Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.

From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter 3
Now that the SIM are gone and the Washburns are living next door, Mami and Papi decide we can go back to school.

But first, Mami sits us down. "I don't want you talking about what happened with your friends, she warns.

"Why not?" I want to know.

Mami quotes one of Chucha's sayings, "'No flies fly into a closed mouth.'" The less said, the better. "And that includes talking to Susie and Sammy," Mami adds, eyeing Lucinda and me.

Lucinda has become friends with Sammy's older sister, just as I have with Sammy. Poor Mundín is stuck without a new friend. But he says he doesn't care. Papi is giving him extra responsibility, taking him to work the days we aren't in school. Some nights after supper, Mundín gets to drive the car up and down all the driveways that connect the houses in the compound.

"If anything happens to me," Papi says from time to time, ((you're the man of the house."

"If he wants to be the man of the house, he's going to have to stop biting his nails," Mami says, breaking the tense silence that follows such remarks.

The night before going back to school, I spend a long time picking out my outfit, as if I'm getting ready for the first day of classes. Finally, I settle on the parrot skirt Mami made me in imitation of the poodle skirt all the American girls are wearing. But even after everything is laid out, I feel apprehensive about going back. Everyone will be asking me why I've been absent for over two weeks. I myself don't understand why we weren't able to go to school just because the SIM were on our doorstep. After all, Papi still went to work every day. But Mami has refused to even discuss it.

I go next door to Lucinda's room. My sister is setting her hair in rollers. Talk about torture! How can she sleep with those rods in her hair? For her outfit, she also picked out her skirt just like my parrot skirt, but she insisted on a poodle when Mami made hers.

"Linda Lucinda," I butter her up. "What are we going to tell everyone at school? You know they're going to be asking us where we were."

Lucinda sighs and rolls her eyes at herself in the mirror. She motions for me to come closer. "Don't talk in here," she whispers.

"Why?" I say out loud.

She gives me a disgusted look.

"VAy?" I whisper in her ear.

"Very funny," she says.

I sit around until she's done with her rollers. Then she jerks her head for me to go out on the patio, where we can talk.

"If people ask, just tell them we had the chicken pox, Lucinda says.

"But we didn't."

Lucinda closes her eyes until she regains her patience with me. "I know we didn't have the chicken pox, Anita. It's just a story, okayr,

I nod. "But why didn't we really go to school?"

Lucinda explains that after our cousins' departure, too many upsetting things have been happening and that's why Mami hasn't

wanted us out of her sight. Raids by the SIM, like the one we had; arrests; accidents.

"I heard Papi talking about some accident with butterflies or something, I tell her.

"The Butterflies," Lucinda corrects me, nodding. "They were friends of Papi. He's really upset. Everyone is. Even the Americans are protesting."

"Protesting what? Wasn't it a car accident?"

Lucinda's rolls her eyes again at how little I know. "'Car accident" " she says, making quote marks in the air with her fingers, as if she doesn't really mean what she's saying.

“You mean, they were-"

"Shhh!" Lucinda hushes me.

Suddenly, I understand. These women were murdered in a pre, tend accident! I shiver, imagining myself on the way to school, tumbling down a cliff, my parrot skirt flying up around me. Now I feel scared of leaving the compound. "So why send us to school at all?"

"The Americans are our friends," Lucinda reminds me. "So for now, we're safe."

I don't like the sound of "for now," or how Lucinda makes those quote marks in the air again when she says "we're safe."

Mami is actually a lot calmer now that the Washburns have moved in. Not only is it nice to have the special protection of the consul next door, but the extra rent money is coming in handy. Construcciones de la Torre isn't doing well. Everything is at a standstill because of the embargo, whatever that is. We're having to cut corners and sell off our uncles' cars and the furniture from my grandparents' house from when Papito was making money. I offer to let Mami sell my brown oxfords and old-fashioned jumpers I don't like. But she smiles and says that won't be necessary just yet.

Lucinda and I aren't the only ones to make friends with our neighbors. Manii starts a canasta group to introduce Mrs. Washbum to other Dominican ladies and help her practice her Spanish. Two or three tables are set up on the back patio. The ladies chat in lowered voices. Every once in a while, the new maid, Lorena, comes around with a tray of lemonades or clean ashtrays. Although Mami is trying to save money, there's too much work keeping up with all the houses in the compound for just Chucha. So Mami has hired the young girl to help out. But we have to be extra careful what we say around her.

"Why?" I ask. "Because she's new?"

Mami gives me a look that has "Cotonita! " written all over it. After I told Mami that her nickname for me was really getting on my nerves, she promised to stop using it. But she still lets me know with her eyes when I'm speaking up too much. "Just be careful what you say," Mami repeats.

I guess you can't trust a maid who hasn't changed anyone's diaper in the family!

Actually, I can't really complain about being asked to keep secrets. Sammy and I haven't said a word about our discovery. Twice we've gone back to Tfo Toni's casita only to find the door closed and the padlock in place. But there have been fresh footprints leading to and from the casita and a pile of cigarette butts, as if Someone without an ashtray has thrown them out the window.

"Very fishy," Sammy observes, an expression which he says means that something strange is going on.

Our compound is crawling with fish, all right.

From the Hardcover edition.
Julia Alvarez|Author Q&A

About Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez - Before We Were Free

Photo © Bill Eichner

Julia Álvarez es la autora de De cómo las chicas García perdieron el acento, En el tiempo de las mariposas (un finalista del National Book Critics Circle Award) y ¡Yo!. También ha publicado dos colecciones de poesía y una colección de ensayos. Julia Álvarez vive en Vermont y en República Dominicana, donde dirige una cooperativa de café orgánico, y un centro de alfabetización y arte con su esposo.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Julia Alvarez on Before We Were Free:

Q. We learn in your author's note that this story was inspired by your own and your family's experience in the Dominican Republic. How much of a role did your own memories and the true stories you heard play in the writing of the book?

A. My father was involved in the underground against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. When members of his immediate “cell” were rounded up, we had to leave in a hurry for the United States. But my uncle, who was also involved in the underground, and his family remained. Some members of the group who assassinated the dictator went to my uncle’s house to hide. When they were caught, my uncle was also taken away. My aunt and cousins lived under house arrest for nine months, not knowing if my uncle was dead or alive. He survived, but the members who had hidden in his house were killed by the dictator's son. These men were very close friends of my family. In fact, growing up, I called them tíos, uncles; their kids were my playmates. So you see, I had some connection to what actually happened. In writing the book, I conducted interviews with survivors, and I also read a lot of the history. I was particularly interested in the sons and daughters of those who had been tortured, imprisoned, or murdered–kids like my cousins and my childhood playmates. So it was a composite both of doing research and of remembering family stories.

Q. In what ways did having a real, historical context make the writing process more difficult, and in what ways did it make it easier?

A. When people ask me about writing historical fiction or writing fiction–what do I prefer? which is harder?–I think each kind of book presents its own type of challenges. Certainly knowing the general landscape of what has happened gives you a story that has already somehow been charted. The challenge becomes how to tell the story within that charted landscape. But in a story that is mostly fictionalized, you have to map out that landscape in your head. In actual fact, these two categories are often mixtures: what you've read, what you know of history, and what has happened help structure the totally fictionalized story; and what you imagine and invent and embellish helps fictionalize the historical story–otherwise you'd be a historian instead of a novelist.

Q. What is the political situation in the Dominican Republic today, in 2003?

A. We now have a working democracy with all the ills attendant to the fact that it's a young democracy. We don't have a long and tested tradition of civic participation and public service. Enfranchisement takes time; it’s not just a revolution happening, and then, okay: we’re free! You have to build that habit of freedom over generations, that sense of empowerment that comes with believing that your vote counts; that you, the citizens, are the ones in charge of your country; that politicians are serving you, not themselves. We're still trying to make it work, but I think that the dedication to making it work is what makes a democracy. So in some ways you can say the sacrifice that these men and women and their families made to bring about this freedom has been successful.

Q. In the book Anita's parents insist on staying in the country to fight for change. Have you continued to be committed to and involved in the future of the Dominican Republic? Do you view the writing of this book as a part of that commitment?

A. Definitely. My husband and I now have an organic coffee farm [in the Dominican Republic that is] part of a cooperative of small farmers trying to save the land from erosion and pesticides. We set it up as a foundation so that the proceeds from the sale of our coffee go to fund a school on the farm. We did this when we realized that none of our neighbors could read or write: ninety-five percent illiteracy in that area! I feel so very lucky to have the opportunities we have in this country. But we can’t stop there. We have a responsibility to those who are less lucky. I know I feel a special commitment to those who stayed behind in my native country, fighting for freedom and opportunities. The other way I'm still involved in my native land is by writing. I think of myself very much as an all-American writer: my roots, my rhythms, my history, my background come from the southern part of the Americas. The language that I've learned to craft and the life that I've constructed, by historical accident because of my parents’ emigration, come from the northern part of the Americas. I combine both of those traditions. In fact, you might notice how sometimes in answering these questions, I’ll say “we,” meaning the Dominican Republic, or “we,” meaning the United States! But ultimately, the commitment is to all of us in the human family. I really feel that as a writer, my “job” is to add to that treasure box of all our stories and poems and songs, which belongs to all of us.
Q. We often forget that through all major historical and political events, ordinary people, including children, are living their lives. What do you think is the effect on children who live in places that are politically unstable, or marked by violence and strife?

A. We often think of the victims of oppression as the actual martyrs and heroes–grown men and women who might form part of a freedom-fighting group or who are forced into hiding. But there are invisible victims and casualties: the children who are growing up in these repressive and terrifying and violent situations, who are robbed of their childhood. They don’t ever get the opportunity to be children, to be nurtured, to have faith in freedom and trust in goodness, to enjoy that innocent sense of possibility and promise. And, of course, many of these children endure immediate losses: fatherless and motherless and auntless and uncleless children left behind when we destroy families, the fabric of a society.

As Americans, I think we’re very aware of the genocide and destruction that happened in Europe, the young casualties of the Holocaust, all those World War II children for whom UNICEF was originally created. But we’re less knowledgeable about what happened in our own hemisphere in the second half of the last century: the dozens of dictatorships and repressive regimes that afflicted the South American countries. In 1972 there were only three democracies in all of Latin America. That’s not so long ago, you know! In reviewing historical fiction for young readers, I found many powerful narratives on the Holocaust, on slavery in this country, but I could find very little for young people about our own hemisphere’s recent history. That was what really pushed me to write Before We Were Free. I wanted to tell the story of our Anne Frank on this side of the Atlantic.

Q. As the situation in the story becomes increasingly grave, Anita becomes almost silent. As you wrote this, did you view Anita's reaction as typical, as well as symbolic?

A. You do things sometimes as you write out of a writerly instinct–something will feel right or seem in character, but you don't think about it analytically. I remember reading memoirs by survivors and reports of children who have suffered trauma–I remember being struck by how some of these victims responded with silence. I have a sister who works in Boston with Latin American refugees, many of whom have survived the burning of their villages, the torture and death of family members. My sister tells me that she knows that her patients are going to get better when they can tell the story of what happened to them. So the silencing of those who have lived in terror is not just an external thing; it's also a way in which the whole self shuts down. Anita’s silence is symbolic of what is happening to her country.

Q. Obviously, the actions taken by Anita's father and uncle and their group are controversial and extreme. Assassination is a frightening form of political action. What do you hope readers learn from the events in the book?

A. It's very interesting that in the Dominican Republic, we don’t use the word assassination in referring to Trujillo’s death. We use a word you don't have in English: ajusticiamento, which means "bringing to justice." Dominicans feel that Trujillo’s death was not murder; murder suggests that he was the victim of a crime. Dominicans believe that Trujillo was the criminal and the act of his removal was a just act. You have to remember that after thirty-one years of repression, there was no court of law or other institution not ruled by the dictator and his secret police to which Dominicans could go to address injustices. So assassination was the last and only resort. Of course, Anita is horrified because she has been taught murder is wrong, and here her own father and uncle are going to kill someone. And in a way, Anita is right. One of the reasons that I wanted to tell the story from a young person's view is that young people often bring a freshness and clarity to historical events. We might give assassination another name, but it's still violence. But what do you do when a situation becomes that intolerable, that extreme? Historically, people have had to take up arms in order to be free. Think of the United States, the patriots of the American revolution, that's what they did: they took up arms against the oppressor England. But now, taking up arms can mean destroying thousands of innocents, if not the whole planet. I’m becoming more and more of a pacifist. We’ve got to evolve other ways of addressing our differences and of taking care of our human family. One way to avoid violence is to be informed, to read stories that awaken us to problems before they become unbearable realities.

Q. At first, Anita is ignorant of the political strife in her country. In the small world of her family and friends, everything is fine, and she assumes everything is fine everywhere else as well. Is this a common assumption among young people?

A. Often, we can be informed about some problem, but it’s only when it begins to touch us in a personal way that we become impassioned and convinced about the rightness or wrongness of a situation. In a dictatorship, for instance, where all media are controlled, the news is often suppressed. So until oppression affects your own family, you might not even know that things are “that bad.” That’s what societies that aren’t free do: they separate us from each other’s stories. That great American motto comes to mind: United we stand, divided we fall. Of course, now with the amazing technology we have, we can know things even if we aren’t affected personally. Think of the war in Iraq, where we had embedded journalists–we were right there. It’s a real challenge for all of us, not just young people: to look beyond our own self-interest. Robert Desnos, a French poet who died in a concentration camp, once said that the task of being a human being was “not only to be one’s self, but to become each one.” That’s what compassion and freedom are all about.

Q. Can learning about others and becoming more politically aware really make a difference? Where do we start?

A. I touched on this in my response to your last question. I often think of that biblical phrase: "The truth shall make you free,” and also that wonderful quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Young people as well as older people need to know the stories of their families, their communities, their countries, each other, because it's a way to be aware and experience the realities of others. In dictatorships, there is always only one story: the official story no one can contradict. All other stories are silenced. It's the knowing of each other’s stories and the feeling and compassion created by knowing these stories that connect us as individuals to each other and make a humane human family out of different populations and countries and ethnicities.

From the Hardcover edition.



WINNER 2003 ALA Notable Children's Book
WINNER 2003 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2004 Pura Belpre Narrative Award
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Guide

Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her twelfth birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have immigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared, and the secret police terrorize her family for their suspected opposition of the country’s dictator. While her middle school years should only focus around school, boys, big sisters, and puberty, Anita also struggles with code words, close escapes, and assassination plots. Inspired by her family’s perseverance and immeasurable strength, Anita struggles to overcome her fears and to make a dramatic escape to freedom, leaving all she once knew behind.

About the Author

Julia Alvarez was just ten years old when she came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Uprooted from her native country, culture, and language, she began to write stories to help acquaint herself with her new home. Alvarez credits living in the United States, where there were so many books to learn from and the opportunity for women to follow their dreams, with encouraging her to become a writer. After college she began publishing poems, and in 1991 she published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, followed by In the Time of the Butterflies and ¡Yo! Her books for young readers include The Secret Footprints, a picture book, and How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, a middle-grade novel.
Julia Alvarez is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College. She has said, “I believe stories have this power–they enter us, they transport us, they change things inside us so invisibly, so minutely, that sometimes we’re not even aware that we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Throughout the book, Anita watches her mother to judge the situation in the compound. Without any direct source of information, this is the only way she can try to figure out what is going on. Has there ever been a time when you’ve needed to watch someone else’s reaction, or interpret their behavior, to understand a situation?

2. Alvarez writes in the first person, and at points in the form of entries in Anita’s diary. Why do you think she chooses this perspective? How does it affect your reading of the book?

3. Anita’s mother often changes her approach to Anita–sometimes treating her as an adult, sometimes as a child. Why do you think she does that? Is Anita old enough to hear the truth? How much would you tell a small child in a situation like this, and why?

4. During the earlier stages of the story, Anita is sheltered in her family compound and doesn’t seem to realize the severity of the political situation in her country. When she learns the truth, she’s surprised. Do you think children are often oblivious to the larger reality around them? As you’ve aged, how have your perceptions and feelings about your government, society, and the world changed? Do you wish you’d known more–or less–as a young child?

5. Anita is at a stage in life when questioning authority becomes common. In this book, several authority figures–the government, the opposition army, her family–force her to behave in certain ways. What are the different ways in which she deals with these authorities? How does she get around some of the rules? Think about the different authorities in your life–which of them matter the most? Do you have different ways of handling each?

6. Anita befriends an American boy, Sam. At the age of twelve, she feels divided between a more innocent view of the world and her increasingly adult perspective. How does her ever-changing view of life affect her relationship with Sam and with her friend Oscar, who comes from her country? Look back on some earlier romances or problems in your own life–how do they seem to you now? Do you still think about them? If your attitudes have altered, what caused the change?

7. What role does American culture play in this novel? Why do you think Anita and her family recognize American holidays, such as Thanksgiving? How does the Dominican quinceañera compare to the American “Sweet Sixteen” tradition? In what ways have traditions from different places or cultures mixed in your life?

8. Is this the first time you have ever read about the political history of the Dominican Republic? Have you learned much about South America or Central America in school or from the media? Why do you think certain histories and regions get more or less attention in schools and the media? Who makes those decisions, and what problems do they present? What can you do about this?

9. Anita’s family takes great risks and plans serious action in their fight against the dictatorship. What do you think of the actions taken, especially the assassination of the dictator? How do we decide what is ethical or moral under circumstances like these? Think about a political act or an international conflict in your own time. What questions were asked–or should have been asked–before it was undertaken? Have there ever been certain ethical questions or feelings that made you “think twice” about a conflict in your own life?

10. At the end of the novel, Anita has lost some of her family to the violence in her native country. How does she feel about the sacrifice her family has had to make? Do you think she truly understands the impact her family has had on her country’s history? Has your own life or the lives of those you love been affected by violence (think about terrorism, war, crime, domestic violence)?

Suggested Readings

Forgotten Fire
Adam Bagdasarian
In 1915, Vahan Kenderian is living a life of privilege when his world is shattered by the Turkish-Armenian war. Separated from his family, he struggles to survive, knowing each day could be his last.

Tomorrow, When the War Began
John Marsden
When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip deep in the Australian bush, they find that their country has been invaded and their families taken prisoner. Will they run back into the bush, give themselves up, or stay and try to fight?

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer
Irene Opdyke (as told to Jennifer Armstrong)
Forced to work for the German army, Irene bravely uses her position to help Jews hide, escape, and survive the Holocaust. A true story told by a true modern hero.

Number the Stars
Lois Lowry
When the Jews of Denmark are “relocated” during the Holocaust, Ellen must move in with her best friend, Annemarie, and pretend to be part of the family. The danger grows when Annemarie is asked to go on a mission to save Ellen’s life.

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