Twelve-year-old Anita has always had a happy life, living with her extended family in the Dominican Republic. Her middle class family live a life that few in her country can afford, with household servants and private schools for their children. And always, they are surrounded by portraits of “El Jefe,” whom Anita has always thought of as a benefactor, a gentle and watchful guardian who has always looked after the citizens of their country.

Now half of her family has left for the United States, Anita’s father keeps getting mysterious phones calls about butterflies, the secret police are constantly keeping their eyes on her family, her beloved tío (uncle) Toni is missing, there are diaries which must not be written in, and always there are whispers, whispers that create fear and anxiety rather than comfort.

Caught between wanting to obey her parents and wanting to satisfy her incessant curiosity, Anita also finds herself negotiating the fine between childhood and adolescence, a reflection of her nation’s dependence on “El Jefe” and its nascent desire to chart its own course. There are two coming of age stories here: that of Anita, and that of the Dominican Republic.

Anita’s Diary and Testimonio

Warning: The rest of this post contains spoilers!

Just over halfway through the book there is a short section (perhaps a sixth of the book) that consists entirely of entries from Anita’s diary, which I found curious. What is it doing there? After all, the book is told from Anita’s point of view, so we are constantly in Anita’s head. What purpose is served by suddenly really being in Anita’s head?

The diary entries come at a very tense moment in the book: Anita and her mother are now hiding from the regime in a neighbor’s closet. They were able to take very little with them, but Anita did manage to bring her diary, a Christmas gift from her mother. There is a bit of irony here, because earlier Anita’s mother told her “no more writing in your diary for the time being.…We have to be like the little worm in the cocoon of the butterfly” (53). Now they are like a worm in a cocoon, since it is not a spacious closet, and Anita’s mother tells her to “go ahead, write in your diary as much as you want, we’re in trouble already, maybe you can leave a record that will help others who are in hiding, too” (108). So what’s going on here?

Julia Alvarez’s family was involved in the revolution against the Trujillo regime, and while this novel does not exactly parallel her experience, it is similar enough that this novel qualifies as an example of testimonio, a genre of writing that has emerged out of the political struggles in Latin America since the second world war. John Beverley, a professor of Hispanic language and literature at the University of Pittsburgh, describes testimonio as

a novel or novella-length narrative…told in the first-person by a narrator who is also the real protagonist or witness of the events he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a “life” or a significant life experience. Testimonio may include…autobiography, autobiographical novel, oral history, memoir, confession, diary… (12-13)

While much multicultural literature serves as testimony (the literal translation of testimonio) to the non-white experience in the United States or in the west in general, Alicia Partnoy, herself a prisoner of the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970’s who is now a poet and human rights activist, extends that definition, describing it as “a strategy that many survivors of state terrorism in Latin America have embraced,” adding that “to remember and to tell might be useless if it does not help to stop the violence, put an end to impunity, and protect the dignity of victims” (16-17).

Testimonio, therefore, is not just a literary genre, but a call to action to stand up against injustice and tyranny—which puts it in opposition to the traditional value of standing by and pretending that everything is okay. Although this novel is semi-autobiographical, Alvarez, because of her first-hand experience of revolution, violence, and loss, is not recommending armed conflict as a solution. In the author’s interview at the end of the book, Alvarez says that “we’ve got to evolve other ways of addressing our differences and of taking care of our human family. One way to avoid violence is to be informed, to read stories that awaken us to problems before they become unbearable realities” (176).

One could argue whether this novel is a true example of testimonio, but there is another aspect to the diary entries we should examine. When oral stories are written down by another person (an interviewer or a folklorist, for example), readers are faced with the dichotomy between the narrator, the person telling the story, and the recorder, the person who records the story, and who edits, arranges, and often translates it. As Beverley states

In testimonio…it is the intentionality of the narrator that is paramount. The situation of narration in testimonio has to involve an urgency to communicate, a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, imprisonment, struggle for survival, and so on, implicated in the act of narration itself. The position of the reader of testimonio is akin to that of a jury member in a courtroom. (14)

Young children (and many older ones) are often unable to distinguish between the author of a book and its narrator. As we mature as readers, we begin to be aware of this difference. The average teenager or adult picking up this book reads it knowing that they are hearing Julia Alvarez, not Anita de la Torre. The more skilled the writer, the sooner we forget about the author and focus instead on characters. By suddenly turning to Anita’s diary entries we are forced to give up any doubt we may subconsciously be harboring about who we are listening to. Our focus is on, in Beverley’s words, the narrator rather than the recorder.

Paralleling Beverley’s ideas that “the position of a reader of testimonio is akin” to that of a juror, Alvarez, in the author interview, says that “in the Dominican Republic, we don’t use the word assassination in referring to Trujillo’s death. We use a word you don’t have in English: ajusticiamento, which means ‘bringing to justice'” (176).

It is in Anita’s diary entries that we see the intersection of the various threads that go to make up the cloth of testimonio: Anita’s diary entries are a record of her “significant life experience” (Beverley 13) that could be presented as evidence in a court of law whose goal is ajusticiamento, a bringing to justice of those guilty of violence and impunity (Partnoy 17), if not in real life, then through stories that serve to make people aware of “problems before they become unbearable realities” (Alvarez 176). In short, if Before We Were Free is not a true example of testimonio, it still serves many of the same purposes as other works generally accepted as true examples of testimonio, such as Rigoberto Menchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatamala. It is worthy reading, and a worthy record of, if not the facts, then at least the feelings, of that time, which makes it testimonio.

A Happy Ending?

When I studied this book in a graduate-level literature class, our instructor asked an interesting question: Does this book have a happy ending? Most of the class—indeed, everyone but me—argued that the ending was a happy one, since Anita and her family (or what was left of it) were now safe in the United States, an attitude that I found, frankly, colonial. I argued that the ending was sad because Anita was losing her culture. Her father is gone, and in a patriarchal society, what is more important than the head of the family? She is losing her grasp of Spanish, a process her cousins have already begun and which mirror’s Alvarez’s own experience, and she is separated from her native foods, which is the cornerstone of any culture.

Language: Most of my classmates felt that Anita’s loss of Spanish was not problematic, as she would eventually become fluent in English, as Alvarez herself quickly did (Sirias 2). The underlying assumption is that one language is the equivalent of any other language, and yet no two languages are exactly equivalent: our thoughts and feelings may initially be the same, but how we use our language to explain those thoughts and feelings is reflective of the language we use. As we grow and develop, the structure of language influences the structure of our thoughts. Speaking as a person whose grasp of his native tongue, at this long remove, can best be described as tenuous, I confess that I sometimes find myself thinking in ways that I find difficult to express in English. To use another language is not just to adopt a different way of speaking, but also to adopt a different way of thinking. Speaking English will color Anita’s experience in the United States in a different way that speaking Spanish would. Neither a better way, nor a worse way, but a different a way, a non-Dominican way. Indeed, in his examination of her life and works notes, biographer and critic Silvio Sirias notes that Alvarez now “speaks Spanish with an accent, and would never consider trying to write creatively in her mother tongue” (2).

Food: I further argued that Anita was losing her culture because she would be separated from her native foods. Many of my classmates felts that this a non-issue, because even though the story occurs in the 1960’s, Anita ends up in New York City, and even then there would have been sources of food products from the Dominican Republic. Food is a central aspect of most cultures; as a result, we in the United States often view other cultures in terms of cuisine (and until we have a grasp on their cuisine, we often have difficulty getting a grasp on their culture), and when immigrants begin to live together, some of the first businesses they open are food stores and restaurants, where they can continue to enjoy their native foods.

Perhaps because citizens of the United States have never had to critically examine their own cuisine, it is difficult for them to understand how important food is for a person who has come here, especially if they have come here as a result of difficult circumstances. I once worked with a woman who had come to this country from Costa Rica some thirty years earlier. When I asked her what she missed most about her home country, her reply was immediate and unequivocal: fruit. It was the fruit she missed the most, she told me, because it was varied, abundant, cheap, and always perfectly ripe. I had to agree. There is a world of difference between a fruit which is picked at the peak of ripeness and one which is picked green, shipped thousands of miles, and allowed to “ripen” under the fluorescent lights of your local produce section, which explains why tomatoes grown in your garden are always superior to those from the supermarket.

That was years ago. Recently, I had the privilege of working with Carlos, a sixth-grader who had recently moved here from Puerto Rico. I don’t see him that often, but on a recent occasion I asked him the same question I asked Rita: what do you miss most about Puerto Rico? He didn’t even stop to think. “Mangos,” he said. “At my grandmother’s house, I could climb the mango tree in her back yard and pick all the mangos I wanted.”

I decided to pay devil’s advocate. “Yeah, but you can buy those at the grocery store,” I said.

“Those aren’t the same,” he said, interrupting me. (A bit of a surprise—Carlos is amazingly polite.) “They never taste the same.” When I asked him to elaborate, he couldn’t. He spoke of the experience of being at his grandmother’s house, of climbing that particular mango tree. But at this point words failed him, and he drifted away into a silent, and private, reverie. For Carlos, the experience of food is very much tied up with the experience of place, as it will be for Anita.

The entire last chapter has for me a deep feeling of melancholy. No doubt Anita will grow up to be happy in the United States, as Alvarez has, but she will lose much more than she has already lost in the process. She is alive, as is much of her family, and while they are grateful for that, such a victory comes at a tremendous cost. To assimilate, she must lose much of her native culture, as Alvarez has. I find that incredibly sad.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Julie. Before We Were Free. New York: Laurel-Leaf, 2002.

Beverley, John. “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative).” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 35.1 (1989): 11-28. PDF.

Partnoy, Alicia. “Disclaimer Intraducible: My Life / Is Based / On a Real Story.” Biography. 32.1 (2009): 16-25. PDF.

Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvaraz: A Critical Companion. Westport (Connecticut): Greenwood, 2001.

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