Julia Alvarez

Before We Were Free

  • 28-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 11 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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Before We Were Free Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 28-page guide for “Before We Were Free” by Julia Alvarez includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 11 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Types of Freedom and Family as Home.

Plot Summary

When Before We Were Free begins, the life of an eleven-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic is about to change forever. Published in 2002, Julia Alvarez’s novel investigates themes of family, government corruption, superstition, and the power of the written word, all set against the backdrop of the months preceding the assassination of a brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

During the novel’s early pages, Anita’s cousin, Carla Garcia, is summoned from their classroom. Anita and Carla attend an American school together in the Dominican Republic. Carla is told that she and her family must leave for New York that night. Anita cannot understand why the situation is so urgent. Her mother and father are suddenly encouraging them all to speak softly and cautiously. Anita’s sister, Lucinda, tells her that they believe the house is bugged and being monitored by devices placed there by SIM, Trujillo’s secret police force.

An American family, the Washburns, move into the compound where Anita lives with her family and her former nanny. Mr. Washburn is an American ambassador.  Anita quickly becomes infatuated with Sam, Mr. Washburn’s son. Then she learns that her Uncle Toni has gone missing. There are rumors that SIM are searching for him, which can only mean that he has somehow run afoul of the government.

During a birthday party, Trujillo makes an appearance and sees Lucinda. Trujillo has a reputation for taking young attractive young women for himself. The next day, when he sends flowers to Lucinda, her family quickly arrange for her to go to New York under the pretenses of teaching English to the children of an ambassador who will later be stationed in Columbia. Anita has been separated from another family member.

As the novel progresses, she learns that an organization known as The Butterflies are working to assassinate Trujillo and bring independence to the country. Her mother, father, and uncle are revealed to be instrumental to the plan, which succeeds. However, the head of the Army, Pupo, fails to announce the death of Trujillo, so the people never learn that he was killed. His son steps into the power vacuum and becomes an even worse tyrant than his father.

Shortly after Trujillo’s death, Papi and Toni (the latter of whom who has been hiding on their property) are taken by SIM. Mami and Anita are forced to go into hiding in the home of a man named Mr. Mancini. They live there for months, until a helicopter manages to take them to an airfield, where they take a plane to New York.

Once in New York, Anita learns that Papi and Tony have been executed, but that there will soon be independent elections in the Dominican Republic. Papi’s sacrifice has helped bring about the result he wanted, but at a terrible cost. As the novel ends, Anita has lost her innocence and has been forced to grow up too soon. She vows to live as Papi would have wanted her to: free.

Before We Were Free is both a coming-of-age tale and a solemn meditation on government oppression and the very nature of freedom.

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Chapters 1-3