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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 9 months ago

New York, LaGuardia Airport, 6 May 2002  BEFORE WE WERE FREE by Julia Alvarez, Knopf, August 2002


BEFORE WE WERE FREE is a compelling and lyrical coming-of-age story.  It is set in the Dominican Republic around 1960, amidst the atrocities of the Trujillo regime. 


I, for one, wish that history had been different so that Julia Alvarez could have written a compelling and lyrical coming-of-age story that did not include the historic realities of censorship, secret police, torture, murder, and living in closets (a la Anne Frank). 


But since I cannot alter the past, I can only hope that many middle school students are encouraged or required to read this exceptional story, and that they ask why this happened and what needs to change so that history does not repeat itself.


Back in the '80s, my old friend and mentor, Karl Grossman, wrote NICARAGUA: AMERICA'S NEW VIETNAM?  From reading his book, I learned about such things as liberation theology, as well as the long and frequent tradition of U.S. military involvement in other countries throughout the Western hemisphere.  Since reading Karl's book, I have continued to ponder the question of why events in those countries happened as they did. 


If representative democracy is the wonderful system of government that the Founding Fathers and I believe it is, then why, as the imposing presence we've long been, doesn't the history of U.S. involvement throughout our hemisphere reveal a pattern of imposing authentic representative democracy upon those countries?  Why, instead, is there a pattern of supporting and creating dictatorships?


Because of course we all know that it was in the interests of 19th century robber barrons, as well as 20th century entrepreneurs and corporate officials, to have the comforting stability of a dictator--as long as the robber barons kept their own butts safe and free as U.S. citizens.  No surprises on the distant corporate plantations/mines/factories made for steady growth on the bottom line.  Study ancient Egypt: avoiding change by dictating the daily lives of the people resulted in nearly 3,000 years of stable society.  Those pharaohs had it made!


But how, in the case of the United States, were those pharaohs of the Industrial Age able to have their interests given consistent priority over the interests of the peoples actually inhabiting those other countries, as well as over the interests of those in the U.S. who believed that others should be afforded the same constitutional liberties we enjoy here?


The answer has been made that much more apparent to me as I continue to nibble away at Robert Caro's third and latest volume on LBJ: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: MASTER OF THE SENATE (Knopf, 2002)


In MASTER OF THE SENATE, Mr. Caro presents a far-reaching history of the Senate, beginning with its creation by the Founding Fathers for the protection of our government from the "excesses" of democracy.  They even set it up as an appointed position.  Because the tradition of the Senate, then, is that of a body predominantly composed of the richest and the famous (as well as the white and the male), it is also a body that has, like the pharaohs of old and new, worshiped the status quo and the bottom line.  It is now clearer to me that the Senate had a pivotal role in a foreign policy which resulted in a hemisphere littered with corporate slaveholdings rather than a patchwork of little democracies. 


Take Cuba, for instance, which was one of the territories we "liberated" from Spain in 1898.  Cuba, today, might have been a wealthy little nation, flush from the proceeds of agriculture, fishing, and tourism, and celebrating its constitutional centennial, if the interests of the people living there in 1898 had been given priority, and had been vigorously protected by the U.S., rather than our having protected the interests of the U.S. corporations.


Ms. Alvarez, in her author notes, discretely avoids any mention of the U.S. role in the genesis of those dictatorships, such as the one in the Dominican Republic that both she and her fictional main character were forced to endure until their eventual emigrations. 


So, I will certainly take my own advice and strongly encourage our students to read the suspenseful and sweet tale of Anita de la Torre, a girl whose middle grade years not only include school, boys, big sisters, and puberty, but also code words, close escapes, assassination plots, and, eventually, a new home in the United States, not far from where I was growing up during those same years. 


Richie Partington




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