Before We Were Free Summary

Julia Alvarez

Before We Were Free

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Before We Were Free Summary

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Before We Were Free tells the story of political unrest in the Dominican Republic. The narrative follows eleven-year-old Anita, who is faced with coming of age during a turbulent time where both friends and family are faced with difficult, life-threatening decisions.

At the outset of the narrative, Anita attends an American school. The reader learns that Anita is not only aware of both cultures, she is also friends and classmates with the children of American ambassadors and consulate officials. This gives Anita a rather unique viewpoint on her country and the differences in cultures. Moreover, Anita lives in a compound with her relatives, including her cousins and former nanny. As such, Anita is surrounded by loved ones and experiences that are different than other girls her age. She has a birthday fast approaching, and wants nothing more than to grow up as she turns twelve.

Anita’s desire for change and maturity is halted when her cousins quickly leave for the United States. In addition to this departure, Anita finds that her uncle has gone missing. One day, the oppressive regime’s secret police invade her family’s compound. Anita and the other children are subsequently restricted from engaging in their usual activities, thus giving Anita’s idea of growth another setback.

A form of relief comes when Americans move into an abandoned house on the family’s compound. With the Americans there, tensions ease up. One day, the Americans throw a large party for their fifteen-year-old daughter. While all of this is going on, Anita also notes how secretive meetings are being held, though she does not know what the meetings are about. While at the party, Anita’s family is appalled when the dictator, known as El Jefe, arrives and takes an interest in Anita’s sister, Lucinda. Her sister is subsequently sent away to the United States in an effort to keep her safe from El Jefe.

Adding to Anita’s woes, her school closes, while she is faced with the feeling that everyone around her is keeping secrets. This in turn causes Anita to become sullen. One night, she returns home and finds her house occupied with a determined group of men. Anita finds out that these men are planning on assassinating El Jefe that very night.

The plan is carried out successfully, and El Jefe’s reign of terror is over. However, the person responsible for announcing that the cruel dictator has died fails to do so, which means the public does not even know that they are free. In this confusion, El Jefe’s son, an even crueler tyrant, is able to secure power. Because of his father’s assassination, El Jefe’s son wants to root out the killers to enact revenge.

Anita’s family’s compound is again raided due to the assassination. This time, her father and uncle are taken away as prisoners. With the new threat, Anita and her mother go into hiding, fearful for their safety. They are able to seek shelter in the home of their friend. The friend happens to work for the Italian embassy, and it is within the embassy itself that Anita’s brother, who fled the compound before being arrested, takes sanctuary. Though in their friend’s home, Anita and her mother must hide in the closet for months to keep out of sight from the secret police. Though Anita’s mother does not want her keeping a journal, Anita writes in one with a pencil to get her thoughts out, then erases the words as soon as she is finished.

After spending months in the confines of a closet, Anita and her mother are finally rescued by helicopter. They manage to leave the Dominican Republic and join their relatives in New York City. Though free, Anita now has to try and adapt to a different culture altogether. In time, she learns that her father and uncle were killed after being captured. This affects Anita tremendously, causing her to also try and define what freedom means at the same time as acclimating to her new life in the United States. At the end of the narrative, Anita remembers how her father had always wanted her to both be free and to fly. Recounting her family’s turmoil, Anita is finally able to realize that these desires her father always wanted for her live within her, thus signaling her ability for growth.

Before We Were Free is a harrowing tale of one girl’s struggle to be free during one of the most repressive regimes in history. The historical context sets Anita’s story at the end of Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-one-year rule. The Dominican Republic dictator was assassinated in May 1961, which is the apex of Anita’s family problems with the government. All of this political strife serves as a background to Anita’s desire to grow up, which is an overriding them in the novel. As such, when Anita finally realizes what is taking place around her—when she returns home and realizes that men are planning on assassinating El Jefe—both Anita and the novel have a turning point. In a sense, she does grow up. She is tuned in to the political landscape around her now, and in a short time, must face the consequences of knowledge and her country’s desire for freedom.

Another vital theme in the narrative is the effect of trauma on the individual. Anita’s world is brought down before her very eyes. She only spends her first twelve years in the Dominican Republic before having to flee her country and start a new life in the United States, and one without her brother, father or uncle. She learns later that her father and uncle have been killed, thus adding more fuel to her trauma. From the flames of this destruction, Anita must learn what it means to grow and how to understand what it means to be free, just as her father had always wanted her to. Anita now understands that she must be strong in order to endure her new life. Freedom and growing up also mean having the willpower to do so.