Module 5: Before We Were Free


Book Summary:

Anita de la Torre is a young girl living with her family in 1960s Dominican Republic. She has never really questioned the happy life she shares with her family on their compound until one by one her family starts disappearing to America. As Anita begins paying attention, she notices that he family is becoming more and more secretive, suddenly there are rules where there didn’t used to be, and everyone seems worried. Over time life gets very difficult for the de la Torre as they fight to be free from an oppressive dictatorship. Anita’s family risks everything, including their lives, for the freedom of their people.

APA Reference of Book:

Alvarez, J. (2002). Before we were free. New York, NY: A. Knopf.


I have not had much exposure to literature from the Latino culture, so I was excited to pick this Pura Belpré Award winner up.  I found this book to be wonderfully written and an enjoyable read. As I have never grown up knowing anything other than freedom, the story of a girl living under the oppressive dictator was simultaneously enlightening and devastating. I loved how believable the characters were. The story is narrated from a 12-year-olds perspective, and as such we get to see Anita’s first experiences with first love and true despair, her hope and her losses. Before We Were Free is a wonderful story that eloquently displays the Latino culture and really makes the reader think. It was truly a wonderful and enlightening story that made me laugh, cry, cringe and smile. I would highly recommend it, I think it has something to offer both kids and adults. I’ve read so much about the lives of people in WWII (both fiction and non-fiction) but it amazes me that I’ve waited so long to branch out into other cultures. The author based the book on her family’s experiences living in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s and it really helped open my eyes to other oppressive societies and what the people go through.

Professional Review:

“In her first YA novel, Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents) proves as gifted at writing for adolescents as she is for adults. Here she brings her warmth, sensitivity and eye for detail to a volatile setting—the Dominican Republic of her childhood, during the 1960–1961 attempt to overthrow Trujillo’s dictatorship. The story opens as 12-year-old narrator Anita watches her cousins, the García girls, abruptly leave for the U.S. with their parents; Anita’s own immediate family are now the only ones occupying the extended family’s compound. Alvarez relays the terrors of the Trujillo regime in a muted but unmistakable tone; for a while, Anita’s parents protect her (and, by extension, readers), both from the ruler’s criminal and even murderous ways and also from knowledge of their involvement in the planned coup d’état. The perspective remains securely Anita’s, and Alvarez’s pitch-perfect narration will immerse readers in Anita’s world. Her crush on the American boy next door is at first as important as knowing that the maid is almost certainly working for the secret police and spying on them; later, as Anita understands the implications of the adult remarks she overhears, her voice becomes anxious and the tension mounts. When the revolution fails, Anita’s father and uncle are immediately arrested, and she and her mother go underground, living in secret in their friends’ bedroom closet—a sequence the author renders with palpable suspense. Alvarez conveys the hopeful ending with as much passion as suffuses the tragedies that precede it. A stirring work of art. Ages 12-up. (Aug.)”

(2002, July 22). [Review of the book Before we were free, by J. Alvarez]. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from:

Library Uses:

I would use this book as part of a cultural series. I would feature several different books focusing on various cultures.


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