Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa by Julian Randall
Rating: 5 stars (HANDS DOWN!)
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction/Adventure
Representation: Dominican-American (Chicago), Queer author, Afro-Latine
Julian Randall has blown me away with this debut! I devoured this book in a day thanks to the audiobook narrator Amanda Alcántara. I felt so at home with her voice and performance because I could hear my family speaking Spanglish, entiendes? AND this is only the first book in the duology! The second book comes out next year.
This is the amazing story of a 12-year-old girl (and documentarian) named Pilar Ramirez and her mission to find out what happened to her Mami's cousin Natasha. Natasha disappeared fifty years ago in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship. Although Mami and Abuela don't talk about it, her sister Lorena connects her with a professor who studies these disappearances. When Pilar goes to meet him, she discovers a file with Natasha's name on it in his empty office. Opening the folder, she sees a blank page which physically pulls he into a a magical island called Zafa, where her cousin is being held in a creepy prison. How did Natasha end up here? What does Zafa and El Cuco (the Dominican Boogeyman) have to do with the Dominican Republic and Trujillo? You'll have to read this book to find out!
A story forgotten or left untold is a machete left in the rain, do you understand?
Everything from the storytelling to the history woven throughout this book made for an incredible reading experience. At its heart, this book is about the power of knowing our story, sharing it, and removing the silences that ultimately leave our family disconnected from one another and our origins.
The history of the Trujillo dictatorship and the Dominican Republic is painful to come to terms with and understand but Randall presents it in such a way that readers can confront it and learn to move with it. I love that he includes las mariposas aka the Mirabal sisters in the story as well as the Ciguapa, a mythological creature of Dominican folklore. I'm extremely happy that Randall wrote about it and how that history has led so many Dominicans to the U.S.
My grandfather was yet another Dominican who didn't want to talk about the past. However, I was able to get him to open up to me about his life during the dictatorship in his last years of life. The disappearances, the fear, the need to assimilate. His older brother was Trujillo's driver and his best friend was a revolutionary. Even he moved to New York City, he was afraid to attend his friend's anti-Trujillo rallies. That silence began on the island, followed him here, and passed on to his children and grandchildren. Now we know.
I recommend this book to everyone from the age of 11 or 12 and up. If you are giving this book or recommending it to children, please be aware that it would be best to accompany that with a brief history lesson on the dictatorship and Dominican mythology.
Content Warnings: gentrification, state violence, dictatorship, death of a parent (mentioned).