The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy
Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Julia Alvarez, the winner of the 2004 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Before We Were Free and the 2010 Narrative Award for Return to Sender.
Reviews by Cindy L. Rodriguez
BEFORE WE WERE FREE
DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.
Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.
From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.
MY TWO CENTS: Anyone who has read Julia Alvarez’s adult novels will enjoy the connections made in Before We Were Free to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. In Before We Were Free, Alvarez explores the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic through the eyes of Anita de la Torre, a 12-year-old girl in 1960 whose family slowly reduces in number during the novel. Some, like her cousins, the Garcias, flee the country, while others go missing or are arrested. In the beginning, Anita has little knowledge of politics and the underground movement to assassinate Trujillo. In fact, at the start of the novel, Anita looks to El Jefe’s picture at times when she needs strength. She slowly becomes more aware that life under Trujillo has become increasingly dangerous for many, including her own family members who are a part of the movement to kill the dictator.
One moment of shocking clarity comes when Trujillo attends a party and becomes attracted to her fifteen-year-old sister. The family goes into emergency mode and manages to get her sister out of the country before Trujillo can take her in every sense of the word. Anita’s increased understanding leaves her confused and literally shocked into silence. The once-talkative girl slips into silence, at times even forgetting words that were once simple and familiar. When Anita and her mother go into hiding after Trujillo’s assassination, she writes in her diary, but then erases the pages in case the secret police raid the home. She literally cannot say or write anything because of fear. At some point, Anita decides to write and not erase–or be erased. She wants someone to know she existed if she were ever taken away by the police.
Throughout the novel, Alvarez often refers to wings, birds, and flying in connection with the Mirabal sisters, the “Butterflies” who were murdered, and the fight for freedom that continued through Anita’s family and others. Anita not only takes flight from her home, but has to learn how to free herself internally, to spread her wings and fly despite her grief of losing family and everything she considered home.
A masterful storyteller, Alvarez makes a complex political situation accessible to younger readers through Anita, who faces political drama alongside normal 12-year-old milestones, like getting her period and having a first crush. Alvarez also sprinkles the narrative with other issues that she does not delve into deeper, but could be discussion starters for book clubs and students. For example, Anita’s family employs a black, superstitious Haitian maid. While she is loved like family, this dynamic should spark conversation about race and class issues within Latin American countries. Another example is when Anita begins school in New York City. She is placed in the second grade, despite her age, and her teacher calls her “Annie Torres.” This scene is like a one-two punch to the gut and should be examined further. Mental health is another issue touched upon that warrants further discussion. Anita talks about feeling empty and numb, and her mother takes tranquilizers to calm her nerves. The reader gets the idea that living under such conditions and surviving when family members did not will require years of emotional and psychological recovery.
TEACHING TIPS: Before We Were Free is a great option to include in a historical fiction unit in Language Arts or as a fictional option in a Social Studies class learning about different types of governments, Latin America, or under a theme such as “the fight for freedom.” Students often learn about the colonists’ fight against the British, but rarely learn about more recent struggles for democracy in other countries. The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic could be explored, as well as the ideas mentioned above. Anita’s character development should be traced and analyzed, paying close attention to what triggers each of her changes and what finally prompts her to have the courage to embrace her new life.
RETURN TO SENDER:
DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure. Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers. Are they undocumented? And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life. Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico. Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?
In a novel full of hope, but with no easy answers, Julia Alvarez weaves a beautiful and timely story that will stay with readers long after they finish it.
MY TWO CENTS: Although Before We Were Free and Return to Sender are set in different countries, they have similarities. In Return to Sender, Mari and her family are migrant workers on a Vermont dairy farm. She encounters a mix of acceptance and scorn from her classmates, the townspeople, and even Tyler, at first. The chapters are shared between Mari (first person, often written in letters) and Tyler (third person), who reveals that he is confused about being a proud, patriotic American and knowing that his father is breaking the law by hiring undocumented workers. In addition to dealing with the varied reactions of the locals, Mari’s family worries about the whereabouts of her mother, who returned to Mexico but is supposed to be on her way back via a coyote. She has been unreachable, however, for several months. The family is also under constant threat of deportation. Complicating matters, Mari was born in Mexico, while her two younger sisters were born in the United States, which splits their feelings about where is home and how they would feel if they needed to return to Mexico.
Like Anita in Before We Were Free, Mari ends up in hiding and writing in a diary, after a raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ends with her parents being arrested. Also like Anita, Mari needs to find her voice and, in her case, she has to find the courage to speak on behalf of her family to government officials. Read together, students could explore the different reasons for immigration, as the families in the two novels come to the United States for different reasons–political asylum versus employment–yet the underlying reason is always the same–more opportunities for their children.
Things that struck me as odd were Mari’s heavy accent (I listened to the audio book), her lack of understanding of English “sayings,” and her fond memories of Mexico, considering she moved to the U.S. when she was 4 and has attended American schools. Based on my experience with ELL students, these details would have made more sense if Mari had been in the U.S. for only a few years, not the majority of her life.
Still, Return to Sender does a great job of offering various viewpoints on immigration and migrant workers on struggling American farms, and I like that Alvarez places her migrant workers in Vermont, where the author lives, as we most often read and hear about migrant workers in border states.
TEACHING TIPS: As mentioned above, students could read both novels and compare/contrast the characters and their experiences, as both face personal, familial, and political challenges. Return to Sender also allows students to learn more about immigration and migrant workers, particularly in New England. The title was taken from a real government operation to find and deport migrant workers, so students can research that particular policy while reading this fictional account. Both books also lend themselves to deep questions about freedom, rights, and who has access to these.
TeachingBooks.net has interviews and several links with more information about Alvarez and her work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Alvarez is an award-winning writer of poetry, essays, and novels and short stories for children and adults. Alvarez was born in New York City, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. Her family became involved with the underground movement against dictator Rafael Trujillo. They left the country and returned to New York City in 1960. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and earned her master’s in creative writing from Syracuse University. She is currently the writer in residence at Middle College and runs a sustainable coffee farm/literacy center in the Dominican Republic.
Her novels for adults include How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, In the Time of Butterflies, iYo!, In the Name of Salomé, and Saving the World. Her books for children include How Tía Lola Came to Visit/Stay, Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, and Return to Sender. Alvarez has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. In this picture, she is receiving the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.