Every other Sunday morning, I reunite with 7 junior high students at the neighborhood school in Santiago Atitlan. I could write an entire essay about how these seven students are exceptional, pushing the boundaries of social and cultural norms, dreaming big, and vibrantly confident, but that would be a post for a different blog on young, emerging leaders in rural Guatemala.
The teen reading group has been meeting for two years now, and the participants self selected themselves to meet twice monthly and use books as a tool to explore culture, current events, history, literature and their own personal stories via books.
Recently we finished reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez and I was impressed and inspired, yet not surprised by the conversation generated by our circle.
Guatemala’s current President, Jimmy Morales, who has been in office for 1.5 years, has recently been under scrutiny by national and international organizations. Just three years ago, former President Otto Perez resigned after national protests and he was subsequently arrested. He was accused of fraud.
Hence, when a group of teens is encouraged to explore the theme of freedom, especially in the light of corruption, conversation becomes thought provoking, genuine and real. As we compared the current stories of Guatemalans to those living in Alvarez’ book in The Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the 5o’s and 6o’s we we able to identify similarities and differences. Most intriguing was our conversation about civil disobedience…when do we feel compelled to break rules in order to obtain personal freedom or the freedom of a group of people?
I do not know how the next weeks will transpire in Guatemala. There is talk of planned protests and social media is overloaded with criticism of the current state of affairs. However, I do know that the 7 teens in our reading circle are confident, critical thinkers, and leaders who, even at a young age, are capable of generating ideas about what’s just, on a personal and political level. They are also aware of the power of their own voices, and sometimes, during periods of conflict, our voices become the strongest resistance.
Regional focus: The Dominican Republic
Author: Julia Alverez
Genre: juvenile historical fiction
In Before We Were Free, we meet 12 year old Anita de Torre in the year 1960, in the Dominican Republic. We quickly learn that many of Anita’s extended family members have emigrated to the United States and that her Uncle Toni has been missing for some time after displaying opposition to the dictatorship of Trujillo. Through the eyes of a young girl, we witness the fear, hope and struggles that are a constant presence for those living through a time of political unrest, all the while confronting the day to day of adolescence.
What I love:
- Alvarez educates the reader about the history of the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo Dictatorship and Las Mariposas.
- Before We Were Free is a true “coming of age story.”
- Before We Were Free is less intense than Alvarez’s adult novels such as In the Time of The Butterflies, but equally as impactful.
- What’s not to love about a strong, young, curious, female main character!
Themes: freedom, adolescence, war
- In your own words, describe freedom. How do you know that you are free? Or lacking freedom?
- Throughout the book, Anita keeps a diary where she can record her thoughts, when she unable to speak them. Do you keep a diary? Why or why not?
- Can you remember a time in history or currently when a group of people or an individual has fought for freedom? When? Why? Where? What happened?
- Research a recipe from the Dominican Republic such as Tostones (fried plantains) and prepare them for your friends and family.
- In Before We Were Free, we learn that the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961, was ruled by dictatorship, or a government in which power is controlled by one person or a small group of people. What kind of government exists in your country? Explain how the government of your country functions.
- In the book, Anita refers to “The Butterflies/Las Mariposas.” Investigate and learn about the Butterfly Sisters and the important roles they played in the history of the Dominican Republic.