Summary: (Ages 12+) What would life be like for a teen living under a dictatorship? Afraid to go to school or to talk freely? Knowing that, at the least suspicion, the secret police could invade your house, even search and destroy your private treasures? Or worse, that your father or uncles or brothers could be suddenly taken away to be jailed or tortured or killed? Such experiences have been all too common in the many Latin American dictatorships of the last 50 years. Author Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) and her family escaped from the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic when she was 10, but in Before We Were Free she imagines, through the stories of her cousins and friends, how it was for those who stayed behind.
Twelve-year-old Anita de la Torre is too involved with her own life to be more than dimly aware of the growing menace all around her, until her last cousins and uncles and aunts have fled to America and a fleet of black Volkswagens comes up the drive, bringing the secret police to the family compound to search their houses. Gradually, through overheard conversations and the explanations of her older sister, Lucinda, she comes to understand that her father and uncles are involved in a plot to kill El Jefe, the dictator, and that they are all in deadly peril. Anita's story is universal in its implications--she even keeps an Anne Frank-like diary when she and her mother must hide in a friend's house--and a tribute to those brave souls who feel, like Anita's father, that "life without freedom is no life at all." --Patty Campbell
Themes: Oppression, Activism, Family, Membership, Identity, Resistance
Classroom Implications: This book takes a different spin on identity and immigration by telling the story of those left behind. This novel is to be appreciated for its honest look at Latin American dictatorships and the impact they have on families, advocacy and identity. This book can move through different themed book clubs: realistic fiction, social issues, and even possibly historical fiction. Lower level readers can help access this text by listening to the audio version.