How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
Julia Alvarez's first novel, the semi-autobiographical How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, gained generally favorable reviews and brought her work to the attention of a wide group of critics and readers. Most reviewers praise the novel's exploration of a Dominican-American family's struggle with assimilation and the resulting clash between Hispanic and American cultures. The novel's collection of fifteen short stories relates, in reverse chronological order, the experiences of the de la Torre-García family: patriarch Carlos (Papi), mother Laura (Mami), and their four daughters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia. The stories begin in 1989 with Yolanda's visit to her native country, the Dominican Republic, and work backward to 1956, before the family immigrated to New York City. The years in between are filled with the difficult process of acculturation for all members of the family. Donna Rifkind, in the New York Times Book Review, writes that Alvarez has "beautifully captured the threshold experiences of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Jason Zappe similarly notes in The American Review that "Alvarez speaks for many families and brings to light the challenges faced by many immigrants. She shows how the tensions of successes and failures don't have to tear families apart."
Julia Alvarez admits that her critically acclaimed novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is a semi-autobiographical account of her family as they struggled to adjust to American culture. Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950, but soon relocated to the Dominican Republic, where she lived until she was ten. While there, her father, like the novel's patriarch, was forced to flee with his family after he led a failed attempt to oust Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. The family returned to the Bronx, in New York City, where her father started a successful medical practice. Like Yolanda, the main character in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez turned to books and writing as an escape from her frustrating acculturation experiences. In an interview with Catherine Wiley in Bloomsbury Review, Alvarez explains, "I think when I write, I write out of who I am and the questions I need to figure out. A lot of what I have worked through has got to do with coming to this country and losing a homeland and a culture, as a way of making sense."
Alvarez graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she presently teaches, and earned a Masters degree from Syracuse University. She has also taught at the University of Vermont at Burlington, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Illinois. Her work includes two more novels, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) and Yo! (1997), and several collections of poetry: The Housekeeping Book, Homecoming, and The Other Side/El Otro Lado. She has also published a collection of essays, 1998's Something to Declare. She has earned several awards and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature. This last award was given for her achievement in her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Part I: 1989–1972
Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is a collection of stories that recounts experiences in the lives of four Dominican-American sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía—and their parents. Alvarez divides the novel into
three sections that she presents in reverse chronological order, beginning with a story from 1989 and ending with one from 1956. Collectively, the stories chronicle the difficulties each member of the family faces as he or she tries to adjust to life in America without losing a sense of tradition and heritage.
The first story, "Antojos," focuses on the third daughter, Yolanda, who returns after five years to the Dominican Republic, where she was born, to visit her aunts and cousins. When asked what she wants to do there, she says she has a craving—an antojo—for guavas. Ignoring her aunt's warning about how dangerous it is for women traveling alone, Yolanda drives north to a small village where José, a young boy, takes her to find some guavas on the hillside. When she gets a flat tire, Jose goes to search for help. Two men soon approach who offer help, but appear menacing. Remembering her aunt's fears, she blurts out the name of relatives who live nearby. They become respectful after hearing the name and help her change her tire. Jose returns, upset after being hit by a guard who did not believe his story. Yolanda gives him several dollars for his trouble.
In "The Kiss," Sofía, the youngest daughter, carefully plans their father's seventieth birthday party. "For the first time since she had run off with Page 170 | Top of Article her husband six years ago, she and her father were on speaking terms." Her father is generally pleased with the party, but becomes gradually more withdrawn until they play a guessing game. He is blindfolded as each woman present gives him a kiss and he tries to guess who it is. During the game Sofía gets angry that her father never guesses her name, and so she plants a sensuous kiss on his ear and tells him to guess who it is. His physical pleasure from the kiss angers him and he ends the game.
"Four Girls" explains that while growing up Mami dressed all her daughters alike in different colored versions of what she wore. On special occasions she told a favorite story about each one "as a way of celebrating that daughter." Mami tells a story about Carla wanting red sneakers but not being able to afford them. When a neighbor gives them white ones, her father helps her paint them red. Next she tells a story about Yolanda getting lost in New York City, where they made their new home, and reciting poetry to strangers on a bus. Their mother explains that she does not have a favorite story about Sandra anymore, because she is trying to forget her troubled past, which includes a breakdown in a mental hospital. Finally, while visiting Sofía's new son in the hospital, she tells a stranger how Sofía met the man she married. The entire family comes together for Christmas a week after the baby's birth and the sisters reminisce, especially about their mother telling stories. Their mother concludes with a new story about the latest member of the family.
"Joe" and "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story" both focus on Yolanda, or "Joe" as she is often called in America. The first story opens with Joe in the mental hospital, thinking about her ex-husband John. She had left him and gone back to live with her parents, but started acting strangely, continually quoting famous lines from literary classics. As a result, they put her in the hospital, where she thinks she is falling in love with her therapist, Dr. Payne. She then tells a story about Rudy Elmenhurst, her first love. She met him in college, and soon after they started dating, he wanted to have sexual relations with her. She kept putting him off until he got so angry he left her. Five years later, while in grad school, he drops by her apartment and again wants to have sex. This time she throws him out. In both stories Yolanda relates how she has problems communicating with these men, how words often serve to separate rather than unite them.
Part II: 1970–1960
"A Regular Revolution" explains that after another revolution breaks out on the Island, Papi decides the family will stay in America for good. At first, the four girls are disappointed, since they were poor in America and ostracized at school. Soon, however, when they became Americanized, their parents worry they will lose their heritage and so send them back home to Santo Domingo for the summers. After Mami finds a bag of marijuana in Sofía's room, she decides to keep her back home for a year. While there, Sofía turns into a "Spanish-American princess," according to her sisters, and falls in love with her cousin, Manuel Gustavo, who takes control of her life. The sisters execute a successful plan to have Sofía caught with him and thus sent back to America.
"Daughter of Invention" details Mami's attempts at invention. She comes up with good ideas sometimes, like wheels on suitcases, but does not have the means to realize them. One day Yoyo (Yolanda) is chosen to give a speech at school. She works hard at it until she feels "she finally sounded like herself in English." Her father, however, objects to what he considers a disrespectful tone and tears it up. Mami intervenes and helps her write a new, unremarkable one. The next day Papi brings home her own typewriter.
In "Trespass," on the evening that the family celebrates being in America for one year, Carla is homesick. Boys in school have called her names and the unfamiliarity of her maturing body makes her uncomfortable. While walking home from school one day, a man calls her over to his car and exposes himself. When the police arrive at her home, Carla is mortified that she has to explain what happened. "Snow" notes that the year before, when they lived in the city, Yolanda was the "only immigrant" in her class and thus sat apart from the other students so she could be tutored. In school they learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis and practiced air-raid drills. One day Yolanda saw dots in the air that she thought were nuclear fallout. She screamed "bomb," and then was told that the dots were snow, something she had never seen before.
"Floor Show" describes a night three months after the family arrived in America, when the family goes out to dinner with Dr. Fanning—the man who helped them escape their homeland—and his wife. At the restaurant, Mrs. Fanning gets drunk and flirts with Papi and dances with the entertainers in the floorshow. Later she and her husband buy Page 171 | Top of Article the girls dolls along with paying for the dinner, which embarrasses Papi.
Part III: 1960–1956
"The Blood of the Conquistadores" begins the section of stories that take place before the family emigrates from the Dominican Republic. One day the secret police come to question Carlos (Papi), but he hides in a secret cubicle in the house. Victor Hubbard, a CIA operative posing as an American consul, arrives and gets rid of the police, promising the family will be out of the country in forty-eight hours. While packing, Sandi recognizes a hole that was opening inside of her, a need "nothing would quite fill," even years after their escape.
"The Human Body" explains that when the sisters were children, they all lived in adjoining houses on property that belonged to their grandparents. After returning from another visit to America, their grandmother gives their cousin Mundín a transparent human body doll, which displays all the body parts, and a ball of clay. When Yoyo asks to trade for the clay, Mundín tells her she can have it if she will show him she is "a girl." After she and Sofía show him, he declares, "you're just like dolls." Later they get caught being in the shed, but avoid punishment by saying they were only hiding from the secret police.
In "Still Lives" Sandi takes art classes, along with her other cousins, from Doña Charito. When she turned eight, her parents decided she had artistic abilities. Sandi, however, is "not ready yet to pose as one of the model children of the world" and so is banished from the Doña Charito's house. While outside, she peers into Doña Charito's shed and sees Don José, Doña Charito's husband, whom everyone says has gone crazy. He is chained to the wall, sculpting large figures. When he catches her spying on him, she screams and falls, breaking her arm, which gains her a lot of attention. She has lost her ability to draw, however. Later, at the nativity pageant, Sandi sees the figures Don José was carving, and is thrilled to discover that the face of the Virgin is hers.
"An American Surprise" opens with Papi's return from one of his trips to New York City. The girls listen "with wonder" to his stories about snow and a toy store called "F.A.O. Schwartz" and are delighted with the mechanical toy banks he brings them. After Carla loses interest in hers, Gladys, the family's servant, asks if she can buy it. After thinking about the right thing to do, Carla decides to give it to her. Later when Mami finds the bank in Gladys' room, she fires her, even though Carla admits she gave it to her.
The final story, "The Drum," begins with a focus on a toy Yoyo's grandmother, Mamita, brings her from New York. Yoyo plays it constantly until both sticks break. She then bangs it with other things, but the sound is never the same. During this time, Pila comes to work at the house as a laundry maid and tells Yoyo of voodoo spirits and "devil stories." After a few months, Pila runs away with things she has stolen from the house. One day Yoyo finds kittens in the shed but is afraid to take one of them for fear that the mother will come after her. A stranger she sees crossing their yard tells her not to separate the kitten from its mother for a week. When she hears him shooting birds in the orchard, she feels justified in taking the kitten, but its mother appears after hearing its cries. Yoyo grabs the kitten and runs inside, but soon, unable to quiet it, she throws it out the window. She never finds out what happened to it, but the mother keeps reappearing in her dreams, crying for her lost kitten. Jumping into the future, Yoyo admits that she now and then still hears "a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life … wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art."
"La Bruja" ("The Witch"), as the girls call her, is the racist woman who lives in the apartment underneath the family in New York City. She calls them "spics" and tells them to "go back to where you came from."
Child of Sofía and Otto. His birth—the first boy in two generations—helps reunite Papi and Sofía.
A German woman who lives in the same neighborhood as the family in the Dominican Republic. "She was an islander only by her marriage to Don José," having met him in Madrid on a tour of the Prado, the national museum. Doña Charito is an artist who requires strict obedience to her teaching methods when she conducts art classes for the cousins. She did not want to take students at first, but payment in American dollars changed her mind. Many consider her husband Don José to be Page 172 | Top of Article crazy, a judgment that appears to be confirmed when Sandi discovers him chained to the wall, carving statues.
Chucha, the family's devoted Haitian cook, practices Voodoo and often casts spells to ward off evil spirits. She was taken in by Laura's parents during the massacre of black Haitians engineered by the Dominican dictator Trujillo. Her dark skin and spells cause the other maids to avoid her and look down on her. Nevertheless, she has been with the family so long that she gets her way as often as not. She narrates the very last portion of "The Blood of the Conquistadores."
Edmundo Alejandro de la Torre Rodríguez
See Mundín de la Torre
Carmen de la Torre
The girls' aunt, who married Tío Mundo. Tía Carmen is the "reigning head of the family." Hers is the largest house in the family compound since she is the widow of the head of the clan. When the girls come back to visit the island, they stay with her. After Fifi's escapade with Manuel Gustavo threatens the girls' visits, it is "Tía Carmen's love [that] revives our old homesickness."
Edmundo Antonio de la Torre
Don Edmundo Antonio de la Torre, the girls' maternal grandfather, is a "kindly, educated" man who "entertained no political ambitions." Yet Trujillo forced him to accept a "bogus" diplomatic post, which Papito reluctantly accepted in order to appease his hypochondriac wife. The family referred to him as a saint, due largely to his patience with his wife.
Flor de la Torre
The cousins refer to Tía Flor, the wife of Tío Arturo, as "the politician" because she flashes a broad smile "no matter the circumstances." Flor wants no part of the sisters' consciousness-raising, telling them, "Look at me, I'm a queen.… I can sleep until noon, if I want. I'm going to protest for my rights?"
Lucinda de la Torre
The eldest child of Tío Mundo and Tía Carmen, Lucinda is the cousin "who has never minced her words." She helps the older sisters help thwart the romance of Sofía and Manuel Gustavo, knowing that the once-independent Sofía could end up stuck on the island. Nevertheless, as an adult Lucinda adopts the island taste and "looks like a Dominican magazine model."
Mimi de la Torre
Tía Mimi is the unmarried daughter of Papito and Mamita, and is known as "the genius in the family." She spent two years at an American college, and the family fears she has been spoiled for marriage because she is still single at twenty-eight. She has a great love of reading which inspires Yolanda.
Mundín de la Torre
When the sisters are living on the island with their cousins, Mundín is most often paired with Yolanda. The two get in trouble for being in the gardener's shed, where Yolanda has promised to "show him [she's] a girl" in exchange for his modeling clay. When the sisters are older and they come back to visit Santo Domingo, Mundín takes them out and shows them the motel where lovers go. When he is in college in America, the sisters insist, "he's one of us … but back on the Island, he struts and turns macho."
Yolanda Laura María Rochet de la Torre
Doña Yolanda Laura María Rochet de la Torre, the girls' grandmother, is known for her willfulness and "tyrannical constitution." She convinces her husband to accept the "bogus" foreign post because she likes to make shopping trips to New York City. Her inability to deal with her fading beauty causes her to become ill in later years.
Rudolf Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third, is the shallow, insensitive college boy who becomes Yolanda's first love. She admires his "ironic self-assured face" and his quick thinking when he tries to ask her out. They see each other constantly for a whole term, while Rudy tries to take advantage of the "hot-blooded" woman he believes Yolanda should be. Yolanda is a shy virgin, however, and he leaves her when she won't have sex with him, which fills her with self-doubt. When he returns five years later demanding the same thing, Yolanda happily throws him out.
Dr. Fanning is Papi's generous American benefactor. He found the medical fellowship for Papi so he could leave the Dominican Republic and Page 173 | Top of Article tries to help him find work in New York. He has little patience, though, with his wife when she drinks too much. The Garcías relationship with the Fannings illustrates their drastic change in social status: while in Santo Domingo, the Fannings stayed in the family compound and the Garcías "treated them like royalty." In the States, however, Dr. García is embarrassed by his new beholden relationship with the Fannings.
Sylvia is the boisterous and hard-drinking wife of Dr. Fanning. Sandi is not sure why the handsome Dr. Fanning has married this "plain, bucktoothed woman." When she drinks, she gets flirtatious and uninhibited. At dinner, she flirts with Papi and gets up on stage to dance with the entertainers. She is also very generous, offering to buy the girls dolls, although she is blind to the discomfort this causes Mami and Papi.
Dr. Carlos García
Youngest of his father's thirty-five children, Papi becomes a successful doctor in America after he narrowly escapes persecution in his homeland. However, his daughters consider him to be "heavy duty old world." Even when his girls are successful adults, he feels the need to protect and look after them, giving them cash on his birthday. Although his dreams are filled with his fears of being harassed by the secret police as he was back in the Dominican Republic, he is still homesick for his homeland. He "stubbornly clings to the memories and accents of the old world." When the situation on the island calms down, he wants to move back, even though "for the rest of his life, he would be haunted by blood in the streets and late night disappearances."
Laura de la Torre García
When Mami comes to America, she has "her own little revolution brewing" against traditional Latino concepts of a woman's place. As she takes adult courses in real estate and international economics and business management, she dreams "of a bigger-than-family-size life for herself." She "still did lip service to the old ways," but at the same time, she nibbled "away at forbidden fruit." Mami does not want to move back "to the old country where … she was only a wife and a mother.… Better an independent nobody than a high-class house-slave." She is also a very proud woman, who continually scribbles her inventions on notepads, insisting, "she would show them. She would prove to these Americans what a smart woman could do with a pencil and pad." Yet Mami sometimes embarrasses her daughters with her "old world" ways. She often speaks in malaprops ("It takes two to tangle, you know") and her matching shoes and bag disqualify her as a "girlfriend parent" and so is considered a "real failure of a Mom." In her article in the American Book Review, Elizabeth Starcevic writes, "she merges the self-confidence of her wealthy background with a receptivity toward the new challenges. Energetic and intelligent, she is always thinking of new inventions. Her creativity is stymied, yet she finds other outlets in the activities of her children and her husband. She is a vivid, alive character whose contributions to the necessary adjustments of her new life are both critiqued and appreciated by her daughters."
Manuel Gustavo García
Manuel Gustavo is the traditionally macho, illegitimate child of Papi's brother, Tío Orlando. When Sofía falls in love with him after she is sent to live with her aunt in Santo Domingo, he tries to take complete control of her life. Sofía's sisters consider him "a tyrant, a mini Papi and Mami rolled into one" and so hatch a plot to save Sofía from him.
Carla García de la Torre
Carla, the oldest sister, is thirty-one and a child psychologist when the novel opens. She feels the need to continually analyze those around her in order to make sense of her world. She insists her mother did not give her enough attention when she was a child, as explained in her autobiographical paper, "I Was There Too." She claims that the color system her mother used to clothe her daughters "weakened [their] identity differentiation abilities and made them forever unclear about personality boundaries." She also "intimated that [Mami] was a mild anal retentive personality." After moving to America, Carla has difficulty adjusting to her new school. Her discomfort over her maturing body adds to her sense of displacement. Even after Mami accompanies her to school because of the pervert who exposed himself to her, Carla is haunted by the taunts of classmates.
Fifi García de la Torre
See Sofía García de la Torre
Joe García de la Torre
See Yolanda García de la Torre
See Dr. Carlos García
Sandi García de la Torre
See Sandra García de la Torre
Sandra García de la Torre
Sandra is considered to be "the pretty one," with "blue eyes, peaches and ice cream skin, everything going for her!" Although her lighter skin confers prestige, she wants to be darker like her sisters. While at graduate school, she becomes anorexic and suffers a breakdown. She thinks she is turning into a monkey and so she reads a lot of books to try and retain her humanness. When she is eight, her parents decide she has artistic abilities and so send her for instruction. Sandi's independent spirit surfaces, however, and she rebels against the strict art teacher. She is "not ready yet to pose as one of the model children of the world." Looking back on the time she had broken her arm, she notes, "months of pampering and the ridicule of my cousins had turned me inward.… I was sullen and dependent on my mother's sole attention, tender-hearted, and whiney." Sandi no longer draws, but she is still spirited: she is the one who requests Cokes and Barbies from the Fannings during their dinner, despite her mother's warnings not to.
Sofía García de la Torre
Sofía, the youngest daughter, is twenty-six when the novel opens. She was always considered the maverick out of all the sisters, although her mother considers her to be lucky. Unlike her sisters, she drops out of college. Her Americanization, especially her lack of sexual restraint, angers her father and causes tension between them. Her hasty and impulsive marriage to a German she met while on vacation causes a further rift between them, and Papi refuses to speak to her for several years. Her need for her father's attention, though, is evident when she works hard to plan a special party for his seventieth birthday. Yet, she retains "old antagonism toward her father." She also proves herself to be impressionable, at least when she is young. After her mother finds some marijuana stashed in her room, she is sent to live with her relatives in Santo Domingo where she becomes a "Spanish-American princess," according to her sisters, as many of her cousins had done. She also falls in love with a traditionally macho man whom she lets run her life, until she is "rescued" by her sisters.
Yolanda García de la Torre
When the novel opens, Yolanda García de la Torre is confused about where she belongs. When she returns to the Dominican Republic for a visit, her cousins consider her to be "like one of those Peace Corps girls who have let themselves go so as to do dubious good in the world." She refuses to be a "Spanish-American princess" like her cousins, yet she has not yet been able to find an alternate definition for herself. Deciding that "she has never felt at home in the States," she returns to her homeland for a visit, wondering if she can find a place there, but the land seems strange to her. She had hoped to be a poet, but she has not been able to write much lately. Like her sisters, Yolanda felt alienated from her classmates while she was growing up. The narrator describes her as "caught between the woman's libber and the Catholic señorita." She feels that she is a "peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles." In college she curses her immigrant origins because she feels she doesn't fit in with everyone else in the experimental 1960s—she refuses drugs and sex. At the end of the novel, she admits that taking a kitten away from its mother when she was young haunts her still, and that a similar violation "lies at the center of my art."
Yoyo García de la Torre
See Yolanda García de la Torre
The family's outgoing pantry maid in Santo Domingo. Gladys wants to go to New York to become an actress, but Mami looks down on her as "only a country girl." Carla enjoys her singing and her company. After Carla gives Gladys her toy bank, Mami and Papi find out and fire her.
A Yale classmate of Tio Mundo' s, Victor Hubbard poses as an American consul at the American Embassy, but he is really working for the CIA. He was sent to the Dominican Republic to groom "every firebrand among the upper-class fellas" for revolution and has been trying to protect the men in the de la Torre family. He helps the family escape to New York. In his spare time, he has sex with young island women.
Yolanda's first husband. He seemed to be in love with her but continually tried to categorize her.
See Laura de la Torre García
See Yolanda Laura María Rochet de la Torre
Nivea is one of the family's maids, a "black-black" whose mother named her after the American face cream she used in hope of lightening her baby's skin. Nivea's complaints "were bitter and snuck up on you even during the nicest conversations."
Sofía's husband, considered the "jolly, good-natured one among the brothers-in-law." The sisters call him "the camp counselor." Mami's favorite story about Sofía involves how she met Otto, a German chemist, at a market in South America. Ironically, it was his involvement with Fifi that led to her falling out with Papi.
See Dr. Carlos García
See Edmundo Antonio de la Torre
Yolanda's therapist. She thinks she is falling in love with him.
Pila, the family's Haitian laundry maid in Santo Domingo, fascinates the sisters because she has one eye, mottled skin, and brings spirits and "story devils" to the house. She steals from the family and soon after leaves.
The themes of culture clash, custom and tradition, and change and transformation together form the novel's major conflict. All the members of the de la Torre-García family experience a clash between the fast-paced American way of life and the more conservative Latin culture of the Dominican Republic. The clash stems from the conflict between their desire to retain the customs and traditions of their homeland and their need to affect some change in order to adapt to their new surroundings in New York City. When they first move to America, each family member feels strong links to the traditions of their homeland. The girls especially have a hard time adapting to life in America, at least at first. Before they immigrated, their only sense of America came from Papi's presents, which prompted them to think that it must be a wondrous place where all the children played with expensive toys. After they immigrated, however, they discovered a place where language and skin color could prevent a smooth assimilation. As recalled in Carla's story "Trespass," the changes they undergo to fit in are not always comfortable: "[The boys] were disclosing her secret shame: her body was changing. The girl she had been back home in Spanish was being shed. In her place—almost as if the boys' ugly words and taunts had the power of spells—was a hairy, breast-budding grownup no one would ever love."
Closely linked to the central conflict revolving around the clash of cultures the family experiences is Papi's and Mami's pursuit of the American dream of success. This pursuit is one of the reasons why both understand the need to adapt to their new home. The family enjoyed the benefits of their upper-class status in Santo Domingo, but when they relocated to the United States, they lived in relative poverty in a poor section of New York City. Their poverty in their early years in America especially embarrasses Papi. His self-confidence and insistence on being treated as head of the family returns, however, when he establishes a successful medical practice in New York. As the novel progresses, it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences in class conflicts as the Garcías experience them in the United States and in the Dominican Republic. The recollection of their previous socioeconomic standing makes their American transition especially hard. As Sandi recalls, her mother says that without their grandfather's help, " 'we would have to go on welfare.' Welfare, they knew, was what people in this country got so they wouldn't turn into beggars like those outside La Catedral back home."
Limitations and Opportunities
The family discovers the opportunity in America to move from one social class to another—something that was much more difficult in Santo Domingo. Yet the de la Torre-García family is limited by the color of their skin, which ironically enabled them to achieve a higher status in their homeland. Page 176 | Top of Article Their skin was lighter than the neighboring Haitians, who were relegated to servant positions. As children, the García girls find themselves picked upon, insulted, and stereotyped because of their accent, their names, and their appearance. Yet their father knows that America can provide more opportunity for his children than the Dominican Republic could, and he is "so ambitious for presidents and geniuses in the family." Indeed, three of his daughters are professional, college-educated women.
Race and Racism
The racism inherent in American society creates one of the main limitations the family faces when they first arrive in the United States. The woman who lives below them in the city calls them "spics" and insists they "go back to where [they] came from." Yolanda's first boyfriend, Rudy, stereotypes her as "hot-blooded, being Spanish and all," and then dumps her when she refuses to sleep with him. Racism, of course, had previously provided an opportunity to be part of the upper class in Santo Domingo. The family also engages in its own subtle form of racism when the members often praise the lighter skin of offspring they claim have acquired their Swedish great-great-grandmother's genes.
Feelings of difference, especially within the girls, result from the culture clash and racism experienced by the family. At school, Carla and Yolanda feel isolated from their classmates, who tease them about the color of their skin and their faulty English. After losing Rudy Elmenhurst's affections, Yolanda worries that she will always be different and alone: "I would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles."
Search for Self
As a result of their feelings of difference and alienation, the girls embark on a search for self. As they slowly adapt to their surroundings, they become "Americanized," which angers their father, who wants them to retain their ties to the "old world." Yet, they do not completely feel at home in America, and this lack of a strong sense of self and place causes future problems in relationships with others. Carla, the eldest, believes that by dressing the sisters alike, their mother "had weakened the four girls' identity differentiation abilities and made them forever unclear about personality boundaries." Determining the self is a neverending process, however, as Dr. Payne reminds Yolanda: "We constantly have to redefine the things that are important to us. It's okay not to know." The maturation process each girl must go through complicates the search for self. Changes in their bodies and experiences with the opposite sex often leave them feeling confused.
Part of this development process involves determining sex roles, which becomes complicated by the vastly different definitions Latin and American societies impose on men and women. An example of cultural differences in this area occurs when Sofía falls in love with a traditionally macho man in Santo Domingo. He believes it is his role to supervise his women, and Sofía allows him to control her every move almost without question. Her sisters, who have at this point become modern American women, rescue her from what they consider to be unacceptable sexism. Their mother also appreciates the freedom women enjoy in America. She admits that she does not want to move back Page 177 | Top of Article "to the old country where … she was only a wife and a mother.… Better an independent nobody than a high-class houseslave."
Point of View
The point of view of a piece of fiction is the perspective from which the story is told. A third-person narrator relates most of the stories in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, referring to characters as "he" or "she." For the most part, this narrator is omniscient, or "all-knowing," able to reveal the thoughts of all the characters in the story. There are stories or portions of stories, however, when one or another of the sisters takes over the narration, making it first person ("I"). Yolanda, the poet and writer, is the sister who most often takes the role of narrator.
The setting of a novel is the time, place, and society in which the story takes place. The novel's dual settings—the Bronx in New York City and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic—provide the perfect setting for a study on the problems associated with immigration, assimilation, and acculturation. Each place represents a unique culture that strongly influences all the members of the de la Torre-García family. The most influential historical details include the rebellion against the tyrannical regime of Rafael Trujillo Molina and the American age of experimentation in the 1960s. Both events symbolize the struggle between tradition and change, and dominance and rebellion that figure so prominently in the novel.
Alvarez's unique structure in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents illustrates the struggle the girls endure in their search for identity. The novel consists of fifteen short stories that sometimes center on one family member and sometimes on several. The shifting perspectives provide only fragments of each character's life, never presenting a clear portrait of any one of them. In an interview with Catherine Wiley in the Bloomsbury Review, Alvarez says she was thinking "relationally" when she structured the novel. "I was talking about the plot as a quilt, which is a way that I think a lot of women experience plot, as opposed to the hero directed on his adventures and conquering things and getting a prize, at all odds doing what he needs to do."
A symbol is an object, character, or image that stands for something else while still retaining its original meaning. The title of the novel contains a symbol that figures prominently in the novel's main theme. The García girls are continually facing the conflict between losing their Latin heritage and gaining acceptance in America. Their accents are symbolic of that heritage, and losing them would be the first sure sign of acculturation. Some characters also act as symbols. Mrs. Fanning becomes a symbol of the unrestrained American lifestyle when she drinks too much, flirts with Papi, and then dances with the entertainers at a supper club. Manuel Gustavo becomes a symbol of the Latin conception of a woman's place. He takes full control of Sofía's life, determining that she is unable to make decisions for herself.
Bildungsroman is a German term meaning "novel of development" and is also known as a "Coming of Age" or "Apprenticeship" novel. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents can be considered a female Bildungsroman since it traces the maturation process of all the de la Torre-García daughters. Cecilia Rodriquez Milanes, in her article in the Women's Review of Books, notes that the novel "is not simply about adjustment and acculturation. It is about its protagonists' precarious coming of age as Latinas in the United States and gringas in Santo Domingo."
The Dominican Republic and Trujillo's Regime
The Dominican Republic is a Caribbean nation that occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island Hispaniola, located between the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492, and Hispaniola was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the New World. The western part of the island was settled by the French and the entire island was conquered by 1795. The French imported large numbers of African slaves to work their sugar plantations, until a rebellion led
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to independence for the island, now known as Haiti. The Spanish-speaking inhabitants declared their own independence in 1844, and called their new nation the Dominican Republic. Because the country was rich in agricultural products such as sugar cane, cocoa, and coffee, many American companies had economic interests in the Dominican Republic. As a result, the United States often wielded great influence over the country; they established partial control of the Dominican economy in 1905, and sent the U.S. Marines to quell unrest in 1916. This occupation lasted until 1924.
A general in the Dominican Army, Rafael Trujillo Molina was a leader in the military coup against Dominican President Horacio Vasquez in 1930. He ran for president unopposed later that year, and established a dictatorship. Border clashes with Haiti continued during the early years of his regime and in response, in 1937, Trujillo ordered Dominican troops to massacre thousands of immigrant Haitians. Although his government was cruel and civil liberties were severely curtailed, Trujillo suppressed domestic revolt by implementing improvements in roads, agriculture, sanitation, and education. In 1959 exiled Dominicans based in Cuba made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Trujillo. In 1960, the Organization of American States (OAS) found Trujillo guilty of planning the assassination of the President of Venezuela and so imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on his regime. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. The first free elections in nearly forty years brought leftist Juan Bosch the presidency in 1962. The military opposed his reforms, however, and overthrew his government in 1963. A civil war broke out in 1965, and U.S. troops once again intervened to restore the status quo. A new constitution was ratified in 1966, and since then presidential elections have been held every four years. The turmoil of the early 1960s, including visits by Trujillo's secret police, are often referred to in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
The ethnic makeup of the Dominican Republic also provides an interesting insight into the novel. Since the original native inhabitants were either driven off or absorbed within the first hundred years of European occupation, most Dominicans are of European, African, or mixed ancestry. While almost three-quarters of the population come from a mixed background, those of European ancestry are more likely to belong to the economic upper-class. The all-black Haitian minority, conversely, are more likely to live below the poverty line. The importance of family background, including name and color, to social standing can be seen in various sections of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
The Cold War
Soon after World War II, Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia. The "cold war" had begun, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear triggered by several circumstances: the United States' and the Soviet Union's emergence as superpowers; each country's ability to use the atomic bomb; and communist expansion and American determination to check it. The Cold War induced anxiety among Americans, who feared both annihilation by the Russians and the spread of communism at home. Panic reached the inner city and suburbia as children practiced air raid drills in school and many families built bomb shelters. Americans were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. This paranoid atmosphere encouraged Americans to conform to the traditional values of church, home, and country. Yet, during this time voices of protest began to emerge. Some refused to succumb to the anti-Communist hysteria. Others began to rebel against a system that encouraged Page 179 | Top of Article discrimination and social and economic inequality. All these various concerns are experienced by the García family during the course of the novel.
The Women's Movement
In the 1960s the Women's Movement reemerged and gained most of its strength in the United States. The National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, and other groups like the National Women's Political Caucus gained support for abortion reform, federally supported child care centers, equal pay for women, and the removal of educational, political, and social barriers to women. Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and others helped influence Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment bill in 1972 that banned sex discrimination at the national level (the amendment failed to be ratified by the states, however, and never became law). The increasing consciousness of women's roles, both at home and in Santo Domingo, are reflected in the various actions of the García women, including Mami.
The Backlash against Multiculturalism
As women and blacks made political gains in the 1960s, Hispanics, gays, and other cultural groups fought to bring their own concerns to the fore in the 1970s. Ethnic roots, while always a matter of individual pride, became fashionable as the success of the 1977 television miniseries Roots drove scores of Americans to research their own genealogical and cultural heritage. Various departments devoted to ethnic studies emerged as major universities looked to expand history and literature studies beyond the canon of "dead white males" that had dominated academia until that point. The 1980s, however, were a much more conservative era, and a backlash sprang up against what critics called "special treatment" of minority groups. Immigrant groups were often singled out as receiving special treatment, as conservatives lobbied against affirmative action programs, bilingual education, and government benefits for legal immigrants and worked to establish English as the single "official" language of the United States. This climate persisted into the early 1990s, when How the García Girls Lost Their Accents was published. As a work showing the struggles and successes of an immigrant family in the United States, it provides an interesting response to the backlash against multiculturalism of the time.
Since its publication in 1991, most critics have responded positively to Julia Alvarez's novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. This first novel received the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was named by both the American Library Association and the New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1991. Many have praised Alvarez's insightful and sympathetic portrait of family life amidst the pressures of adapting to a new culture. Ilan Stavans considers the novel "a brilliant debut," and claims in his Commonweal review that "Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life.… [The García de la Torre family's] rejection of the native background … is told with humor and has a sense of unrecoverable loss because, for as much as the García sisters want to become American, they remain conscious of the advantages of their Dominican selves. Hence, Alvarez's is a chronicle of the ambivalence with which Hispanics adapt to Anglo-Saxon idiosyncrasies." Donna Rifikind writes in the New York Times Book Review that the author has, "to her great credit, beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Cecilia Rodriquez Milanes, in her article in the Women's Review of Books, finds a second important theme in the novel. She notes that it "is not simply about adjustment and acculturation. It is about its protagonists' precarious coming of age as Latinas in the United States and gringas in Santo Domingo."
In the same Commonweal article, Stavans argues that the novel "holds a unique place in the context of the ethnic literature from which it emerges." He notes that the novel does not contain ethnic stereotypes caught up in drug addiction and poverty. The García de la Torre family has its roots in the Spanish conquistadores and becomes financially successful in their new homeland. Stavans also praises the novel's breadth: "Through the García family's sorrow and happiness, through the spiritual and quotidian search that leads to their voluntary exile in the United States, the dramatic changes of an entire era are recorded."
Some critics, however, have found fault with Alvarez's narrative structure and characterizations. Stavans describes the novel as "imperfect and at times unbalanced." In her mixed review, Rifkind insists Alvarez's "goal … of translating her characters' voices into an unhackneyed American idiom Page 180 | Top of Article has gone unrealized. The García girls may indeed have lost their accents, but in her first book of fiction Julia Alvarez has not yet quite found a voice." Elizabeth Starcevic concurs with this assessment in the American Book Review, finding the book "uneven," and determines that "its organization into individual stories highlights this. The author has not really found consistently developed voices."
Others, though, have praised Alvarez's construction. Stephen Henighan notes in the Toronto Globe and Mail that How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is a "humane, gracefully written novel." Juan D. Bruce-Novoa sees "maturity and technical polish" in the novel and concludes in his World Literature Today review that it is "a most entertaining, significant contribution to U.S. Latino literature."
Alvarez has also gained critical praise for her poetry collections: The Housekeeping Book (1984), Homecoming (1984; revised edition, 1995), and The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995). Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, (1994) focuses on the true story of the Mirabel sisters and the tragic consequences of their denunciation of Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Her third novel Yo!, is a continuation of the story of Yolanda García, central character of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Butterflies was nominated for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Wendy Perkins, an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland, has published articles on several twentieth-century authors. In this essay she argues that Alvarez's effective structuring of the stories in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents reinforces the novel's focus on the problems inherent in the immigrant experience.
Many critics have praised Julia Alvarez's sensitive and adept portrait of a family's struggle with assimilation in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Donna Rifkind, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that Alvarez "beautifully captured the threshold experiences of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Jason Zappe noted in the American Review that "Alvarez speaks for many families and brings to light the challenges faced by many immigrants. She shows how the tensions of successes and failures don't have to tear families apart." Some critics, however, find fault with the novel's narrative structure. In an article published in Commonweal, Ilan Stavan considered the novel "imperfect and at times unbalanced." Elizabeth Starcevic, in the American Book Review, determined the book to be "uneven," arguing that "its organization into individual stories highlights this. The author has not really found consistently developed voices." Alvarez in fact does present only fragmented voices in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. This structural fragmentation, however, skillfully reinforces the novel's main point—that the difficult process of acculturation can result in feelings of dislocation and a fragmented sense of self.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents consists of fifteen short stories that focus on different members of the Dominican-American de la Torre-García family, especially on the four daughters, as they leave their native Santo Domingo and resettle in New York City. The narrative's shifting perspective provides only fragments of the girls' experiences as each struggles to assimilate to a new home while being caught up in the resulting clash between Hispanic and American culture. This structure highlights the García girls' inability to discover and maintain a strong identity in either place.
The reverse chronological order of the narrative also helps to further deconstruct any sense of self. The stories begin in 1989 with Yolanda's return visit to Santo Domingo and work backward to 1956, before the family immigrates to New York City. The novel ends with a story told by Yolanda about her experiences as a young girl in Santo Domingo. These two stories serve as an effective narrative frame for the family's experiences in both locations. The first story relates Yolanda's present sense of displacement both in America and in Santo Domingo. Her immigration experience has left her, as with the other members of her family, with a sense of not fitting in to either culture. By ending the novel with Yolanda's story of her life back in Santo Domingo, where she felt a surer sense of who she was, Alvarez effectively illuminates how Yolanda's identity, as well as that of each member of her family, deconstructs as a result of the acculturation process she experiences in America.
The title of the opening chapter, "Antojos," serves as a symbol of Yolanda's and her sister's feelings of displacement. When Yolanda returns to Page 181 | Top of Article Santa Domingo for a visit, she is not sure she wants to return to America. While there, she feels a craving—an antojo—for guavas. She eventually finds the guavas, but the experience is far from satisfying. During her search for the fruit, she encounters a more pronounced sense of class conflict and sexism than she has found in America. Thus Yolanda is in effect caught between two cultures: she looks to her homeland to provide her with a more complete sense of herself, but at the same time, recognizes that she has been Americanized enough to be unable to return to a more traditional way of life.
In the final chapter, "The Drum," Yolanda relates a story from 1956, when she was a young self-assured girl in Santo Domingo. When Yolanda, or Yoyo as her family calls her, is given a toy drum by her grandmother, she bangs furiously and confidently on it. She soon, however, breaks the drumsticks and is unable to find anything to replace them that will provide the exact same sound she enjoyed. The narrative then shifts to Yoyo's admission that during that time, she took a newborn kitten away from its mother. Afterwards, the mother keeps reappearing in her dreams, crying for her lost kitten. The two experiences related in this story symbolize in a condensed form the difficult progression the girls have made from the Dominican Republic to America. Like her sisters, Yoyo, in her homeland, felt a sure sense of identity and place as she announced herself to the world with her confident drumbeats. Yet, like the kitten, Yolanda and her sisters have been wrenched from the security of their home. Jumping into the future in that final story, Yoyo, now a writer, admits that she now and then still hears "a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life … wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art." That "violation," the separation of the girls from their culture and thus their identity, becomes the heart of the novel.
In the Dominican Republic, the girls grew up in a communal atmosphere. They lived and played in a family compound made up of aunts, uncles, and cousins. This sense of community, of being part of a group, provided them with a strong sense of identity. Part of that identity came from their feelings of superiority over the Haitians who are relegated to the lower class in the Dominican Republic. In an article in Essence, Alvarez admitted, "Growing up in the Dominican Republic, my cousins and I were always encouraged to stay out of the sun so we wouldn't 'look like Haitians."' When the girls immigrate to America, however, the situation is ironically reversed when they are ostracized, in large part, for the color of their skin. Donna Rifkind, in her review of the novel in the New York Times Book Review, explained that the girls lose a sense of communal identity when they leave Santo Domingo for New York City. She wrote: "With the García girls' new-world individuality comes the pain of discrimination, the greenhorn's terror. Their characters are forged amid the taunts of schoolmates, who raise questions about identity in a language they barely understand."
Alvarez's stories present glimpses of the family's often painful assimilation experiences. Their first encounter with discrimination occurs when they move into an apartment in the city. The woman who lives beneath the family calls them "spics" and insists they "go back to where [they] came from." Later, schoolmates attack the girls with racist epithets and critiques of their faulty English. Their reduced economic status in America adds to their sense of inferiority. Even as the girls become Page 182 | Top of Article "Americanized," their old-world parents remain an embarrassment to them. Their mother's frequent malaprops ("It takes two to tangle, you know") and her matching shoes and bag disqualify her as an "American Mom" and thus help frustrate the girls' efforts to fit in.
The stories also chronicle the clash between the traditional Latin culture and American culture, notably during the experimental 1960s, and how that clash contributes to the girls' sense of confusion and dislocation. Yolanda especially feels "caught between the woman's libber and the Catholic señorita." While at college she refuses to experiment with drugs and sex, yet at the same time, strives to become accepted by the group. She decides that she is a "peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles," and as a result has no clear identity.
When the girls return to Santo Domingo on visits, their partial Americanization prevents them from feeling a part of their old community. The youthful Sofía falls in love with a cousin while spending a year back home and begins to fall into a traditional relationship with him, but sometimes balks at his dominant position. When her sisters arrive, they swiftly engineer a plan to "rescue" their sister from such a conventional fate. Yet in America, the sisters often seem unable to maintain successful relationships, due, for the most part, to their inability to gain a clear vision of themselves.
In an interview with Catherine Wiley in the Bloomsbury Review, Alvarez said she was thinking "relationally" when she structured the novel. "I was talking about the plot as a quilt, which is a way that I think a lot of women experience plot, as opposed to the hero directed on his adventures and conquering things and getting a prize, at all odds doing what he needs to do." Alvarez's "quilting" in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents effectively portrays the García girls struggle to stitch together the fragmented pieces of their lives and to try and rediscover a true sense of self and place.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
In this article, Alvarez discusses her career as a Latino writer.
In 1991, Julia Alvarez made a resounding splash on the literary scene with her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, whose narrators, the four vibrant and distinctive Garcia siblings, captivated readers and critics. Like their author, the characters emigrated to middle-class Queens, N.Y., from the Dominican Republic, and the novel provided a keen look at the island social structure they wistfully remember and the political turmoil they escaped.
The second-oldest sister, Yolanda, now a well-known author, is the protagonist of Alvarez's third novel, Yo!, out next month from Algonquin. Alvarez brings to Yo's portrait an empathy of shared experiences, anxieties and hopes.
In 1960 at the age of 10, Alvarez fled the Dominican Republic with her parents and three sisters (her father was involved in the underground against the dictator Raphael Trujillo). She has since roamed this country, teaching writing in far-flung schools and communities, before finally putting down roots in Middlebury, Vt., and writing two books of poetry and three novels, including 1994's In the Time of the Butterflies (Algonquin).
A current exhibit at the New York Public Library, "The Hand of the Poet from John Donne to Julia Alvarez," displays snapshots of the author in the Dominican Republic (she travels there at least once a year), riding horseback, dancing the merengue and obstreperously bartering for plantains. When PW catches up with Alvarez, it is in the rare-book room of the Middlebury College library, where a standing-room-only audience has gathered to hear her read from the new novel. Brushing unruly, dark bangs from her lively face, her voice inflected by a faint Latin twang, she shows few signs of the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, induced by the prospect of reciting her work on her own turf.
"I couldn't sleep last night before this reading," she confesses, later ushering PW into the living room of her secluded ranch house, which is brimming with plants, cacti and photographs of her extended family. Alvarez, who first came to Middlebury to attend the Breadloaf Writers' Conference as an undergraduate in the late 1960s and is now a tenured professor of English, has lived here permanently since 1988, and it is here that she met her husband, an ophthalmologist. Yet she expresses ambivalence at the thought of becoming something of a local fixture.
"I see myself marginally in the academic community, which I think in part is good for a writer, because it keeps you on your toes," she says. "When I first moved here, people would come up to me and say things that I hadn't told them. Or remark upon things that I didn't know they knew. I didn't realize that everything's connected. There's Page 183 | Top of Article no anonymity. The good part of that is, as a friend said, 'Julia, you've always wanted roots. But now you realize that once there are roots, there are worms in the soil."
In conversation, Alvarez is an ebullient blend of insecurities, tart anecdotes and spitfire judgments, often punctuated by a deep, chesty laugh. Scooping up an obese marmalade cat named Lucia, she babbles half in English and half in Spanish into its fur, then offers us a glass of wine and sits cross-legged on a leather ottoman, recalling the tumult of a childhood bifurcated by conflicting cultural milieus.
"I grew up in that generation of women thinking I would keep house. Especially with my Latino background, I wasn't even expected to go to college," she says. "I had never been raised to have a public voice."
Herself the second-oldest, Alvarez was sent to boarding school in her early teens under the protective wing of her older sister. "My parents were afraid of public school. I think they were just afraid in general of this country. So I went away to school and was on the move and not living at home since I was 13 years old."
Like many political refugees, Alvarez soon found the displacements of language and geography to be the stuff of art. As an adolescent, she says, the act of writing helped to allay the pain of acculturation and the stigma of being an outsider. "I came late into the language but I came early into the profession. In high school, I fell in love with how words can make you feel complete in a way that I hadn't felt complete since leaving the island. Early on, I fell in love with books, which I didn't have at all growing up. In the Dominican Republic, I was a nonreader in what was basically an oral culture and I hated books, school, anything that had to do with work."
Alvarez went to Connecticut College, but after winning the school's poetry prize, she departed for Breadloaf and Middlebury, where she earned her B.A. in 1971. After an M.F.A at Syracuse University, she lit out for the heartland, taking a job with the Kentucky Arts Commission as a traveling poet-in-residence. For two years, Alvarez traversed the back roads of the Bluegrass State, with Leaves of Grass as her Baedeker. "I would just pack up my car. I had a little Volkswagen. My whole car was a file system. Everything I owned was in there.
"In some communities I'd give workshops or talk at night in the local church. I loved it. I felt like the Whitman poem where he travels throughout the country and now will do nothing but listen. I was listening. I was seeing the inside of so many places and so many people, from the Mennonites of Southem Kentucky to the people of Appalachia who thought I had come to do something with poultry."
When that job ended, other teaching jobs beckoned, and Alvarez careened around the country for more than a decade. "I was a migrant poet," she laughs. "I would go anywhere."
With no fixed address, Alvarez gradually assembled her first collection of poetry, which Breadloaf director Bob Pack placed with Grove. Aptly called Homecomings, it featured a 33-sonnet sequence called "33," which portrays the emotional vertigo Alvarez suffered on her 33rd birthday, facing middle age without a secure job, a family of her own or a career blueprint to sustain her. Alvarez nevertheless greeted the book's publication, in 1984, with great trepidation. "It was scary," she says. "I thought 'Oh, my God, what if my parents read this? There are love affairs in here. Maybe I can go out and buy all the copies."
She has since reprinted Homecomings and issued another book of verse with Dutton (The Other Side, 1995). Now, however, she writes poetry less frequently than fiction. "I think what's hard for me about writing poetry is that it is so naked," Alvarez explains. In retrospect, it's not surprising that her emergence as a novelist coincided with her first tenure-track job at Middlebury. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, a novel displaying a historical sweep and mobility of voice not found in her poetry, was a natural next step after years of rootlessness.
"It used to turn me off, the idea of writing something bigger than a poem," she reflects. "But you grow as a writer and you start to imagine other possibilities."
Susan Bergholz, certainly the most influential agent of Latino fiction, whose clients include Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chávez, has represented Alvarez since placing Garcia Girls with Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin. As Alvarez remembers, Bergholz approached her at a reading she gave in New York after winning a 1986 G.E. Foundation Award for Younger Writers. "She was interested in my work, so I sent her a bunch of things. She really plugged away at that stuff, sending it around and talking to people and finally she landed Shannon. I'm very grateful to Susan as the person who really fought that battle for me, which—because of my background and because of Page 184 | Top of Article my self-doubt—I probably would not have fought for myself."
Yet when García Girls first reached Ravenel, "there was no book there," Alvarez says. "I sent portions of it to Shannon and she said: 'There's a bigger story here you're trying to tell."
Today Alvarez can't imagine publishing with a larger house at any price, provided that Ravenel stays put. "Shannon helped form me as a writer. She often helps me to think of how to put my books together. Sometimes, I'll say, 'our book' and she'll say, 'Julia, it's your book.' Maybe a place could initially offer you more money or more razzmatazz. But I was 41 when García Girls came out. If I were writing to make a whole lot of money, I would have given this craft up a long time ago. I'm doing the writing because it's the way I understand my life. It's what I do and I want a place that is sympatico to that."
Alvarez's trajectory as a novelist has hardly followed a predictable scheme. Her second novel revisits the last days of the Trujillo regime and retells the story of the three Mirabal sisters, Patricia, Minerva and Maria Teresa—actual political dissidents called Las Mariposas (the Butterflies)—who in 1960 were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. The event galvanized the political insurrection that led to Trujillo's assassination in 1961. "It's always been a story I wanted to tell. But I didn't know how to do it. They seemed to me such enormous, mythical figures. I didn't know how to touch them and make them real. I thought it would be a sacrilege even to do that in some people's eyes. But I knew it was a story I wanted to tell."
Alvarez had previously tackled the subject in an essay in a small press book on heroic women, but in returning to the island to research the novel, she made an astonishing discovery: there were, in fact, four sisters, and the eldest, Dédé, had survived and was still living in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez interviewed Dédé and began to piece together the minutiae of the sisters' lives. "I understand the politics of a four-daughter family with no boys in a Latino culture," she notes.
All of Alvarez's novels are constructed from multiple viewpoints, ranging freely from sassy gossip to animated autobiography, but always concealing a forceful political undercurrent. She attributes her interest in voice to the storytelling traditions of Dominican life. "We didn't have TV, we didn't have books. It was just what people did. That was our newspaper."
Yo, of course, means "I" in Spanish, but Alvarez has shrewdly left the self at the center of the novel absent. Yolanda isn't granted a voice in the novel. Instead, Alvarez builds the book around the memories of those who have suffered the manipulations of the budding author. The liberty a writer takes with her family and background is a subject of increasing importance to Alvarez as her books grow more popular. "My sisters had a hard time with García Girls. But I think they're proud of me, and I think the books have helped them understand their lives better. Sometimes they will remember something that I think I invented. Now it's almost like the stories in that book are part of the memory pool."
In 1993, Vanity Fair ran a splashy profile of Alvarez, Castillo, Cisneros and Chávez (all are indeed friends) under the rubric "Los Girlfriends," portraying a cliquish set of Latina writers sharing the same literary concerns and themes. It's precisely such hype and labeling that Yo! set out to interrogate. "One thing I didn't like about it from the beginning, which didn't have to do with the people involved, is I thought how I would feel if I was a Latino writer and I saw the Girlfriends and these are the [only] Latino writers. I felt there should have been 100 writers on either side of us. Not that I think it was a terrible thing. I just wonder and worry about what all of this publicity and labeling comes to."
Discussing the extravagant antics of book marketing, the 22-city tour she is about to embark on and the persistent film interest in her work (Butterflies has been optioned to Phoenix Pictures), Alvarez grows antsy. "As you talk, I realize I am always that immigrant. This, too, I am experiencing and watching. But I don't put faith in it. In a minute, it can be swept away." She needn't worry. Once an author without an address, a language or a home-land to call her own, Alvarez now has a loyal readership that in years to come will undoubtedly only grow larger.
Source: Jonathan Ring, "Julia Alvarez: Books That Cross Borders," in Publishers Weekly, December 16, 1996, pp. 38–9.
The following review praises How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, alternately describing the novel as "a tour deforce," "delightful," and "brilliant. "
In the mood for a Dominican author writing in English? You are likely to find only one: Julia Alvarez, who left her country at ten and now lives and teaches at Middlebury College. Besides a book of Page 185 | Top of Article poetry published in 1986 (intriguingly titled Homecoming), she is the writer of this delightful novel, a tour de force that holds a unique place in the context of the ethnic literature from which it emerges. In the age of affirmative action in life and literature, those looking for themes like drug addiction, poverty, and Hispanic stereotypes are in for a surprise. Much in the tradition of nineteenth-century Russian realism, and in the line of the genuine "porcelain" narrative creations of Nina Berberova, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has as its protagonist the García de la Torre, a rich family in Santo Domingo and its surroundings whose genealogical tree reaches back to the Spanish conquistadores. Through the García family's sorrow and happiness, through the spiritual and quotidian search that leads to their voluntary exile in the United States, the dramatic changes of an entire era are recorded. Energetic, curious, and bellicose, their collective plight is a struggle to keep up with the times, and also, an adjustment to a culture that isn't theirs.
The plot focuses on the relationship of four sisters: Carla, Sandra (Sandi), Yolanda (Yo, Yoyo, or Joe), and Sofia (Fifi). Their aristocratic upbringing as S.A.P.s—Spanish American Princesses—takes them from their "savage Caribbean island" to prestigious schools in New England and from there to an existence as middle-class citizens in the Bronx. They undergo discrimination and suffer from linguistic misunderstandings. They iron their hair according to the latest fashion and buy bell-bottom pants with fringe. As women in difficult marriages and troubled breakups, theirs is the customary rite of passage of immigrants assimilating into another reality. Their rejection of the native background, nevertheless, is told with humor and has a sense of unrecoverable loss because, for as much as the García sisters want to become American, they remain conscious of the advantages of their Dominican selves. Hence, Alvarez's is a chronicle of the ambivalence with which Hispanics adapt to Anglo-Saxon idiosyncracies.
Made of fifteen self-contained chapters collected in three symmetrical parts, more than a novel the volume ought to be read as a collection of interrelated stories. Each segment reads as an independent unit, with the same set of characters recurring time and again in different epochs and places. As a whole, the narrative spans three decades, the first chapter beginning in 1988 and the last reaching as far back as 1956. Similar to some plots by the Cuban musicologist Alejo Carpentier and the British playwright Harold Pinter, the García girls, as if on a journey back to the source, navigate from maturity to adolescence, from knowledge to naïveté, from light to darkness—that is, their lives are perceived in reverse. In the process, the characters slowly deconstruct their personalities and reflect upon their Catholic education at home in the hands of a "respectable," highly schematic father. In his 1982 autobiography Hunger for Memory, Richard Rodriguez, while attacking bilingual education, discussed the impainnent of the native tongue and the acquisition of the "father" tongue, English. Because Alvarez is uninterested in such meditations, her book, in spite of the tide, isn't about language. Here and there the narrative does offer insightful reflections on the transition from an ancestral vehicle of communication to an active, convenient one. Yet the idea of "losing" one's accent is nothing but a metaphor: a symbol of cultural abandonment.
A secondary leitmotif also colors the plot— that of the coming of age of a candid female writer and her indomitable need to describe, in literary terms, her feelings and immediate milieu. Yoyo, the author's alter ego, is a sensible, extroverted adolescent who loves to write poetry. In "Daughter of Invention," perhaps the volume's best story and one recalling Ralph Ellison's first chapter of Invisible Man, she is asked to deliver a commencement speech. Her mother helps her out. In search of inspiration, Yoyo finds Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in particular "Song of Myself," and writes a speech celebrating her egotism, her excessive self-interest. The theme infuriates her father. In a rage of anger, he tears up the manuscript. But the mother's support encourages the girl to deliver the speech, which she does quite successfully. She is praised by her own repentant father with a gift of a personal typewriter.
Obviously, as a whole How the García Girls Lost Their Accent is Yoyo's product. Although its content is told by shifting narrators, she is the soul inside the text. She contrasts and ponders. She is puzzled and flabbergasted by the circumstances around her. The world gains and loses its coherence in her mind. In an illuminating segment about Pila, a bizarre maid with voodoo powers who inspired nightmares, Yoyo writes about her first discovery of things Dominican. Hers is a story of wonder and disbelief. Accustomed to a certain climate of order and to the rules set forth by her parents, she is disoriented by the behavior of the maid. After a series of mishaps that involve a cat and strange tales by a grandmother, the section concludes:
[After those experiences] we moved to the United States.… I saw snow. I solved the riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My Page 186 | Top of Article grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was. I went away to school. I read books. You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits what's left in the hollow of my story? I began to write, the story of Pila, the story of my grandmother.… I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insonmia. There are still times I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear [Pila], a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.
The entire volume is a gathering of memories, a literary attempt to make sense of the past. Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she steps into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos. The political reality in the Dominican Republic, although never at center stage, marks the background. The repressive thirty-year-long Trujillo dictatorship, which culminated with the leader's assassination in 1961, makes the Garcías happy but complicates their lives. The democratic elections that brought Juan Bosch into power bring a period of tranquillity, interrupted by the 1965 civil war that brought the U.S. intervention and ended in the election, supervised by the Organization of American States, of Joaquín Balaguer. The family is pushed to an exile that makes its religious faith stumble and its traditions collapse. Yet How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, unlike scores of narratives from south of the Rio Grande, is free from an anti-American message: in Tennessee Williams's terms, its primary concern is a minuscule glass menagerie, the fragile life of a group of individuals swept by epic events they constantly fight to ignore.
While imperfect and at times unbalanced, this is a brilliant debut—an important addition to the canon of Hispanic letters in the U.S. By choosing to write for an English-speaking audience, Alvarez is confessing her own loyalty: albeit reluctantly, she is in the process of losing her accent. Still, the accent refuses to die.
Source: Ilan Stavans, a review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23–5.
The following excerpt offers a mixed review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, ultimately concluding that "we feel included in their lively, passionate world, and we want more."
It is the voices of the García girls, the four lovely daughters of Mami and Papi García, who singly and in chorus offer the shifting choral poem that recounts their life as "strangers in a strange land." (Julia Alvarez left the Domincan Republic when she was ten years old. She published Homecoming, her first book of poetry, in 1986.) Privileged children of a privileged Dominican upper-class family, they are forced to leave their idyllic family compound to come and live in New York. Their father, Carlos García, one of thirty-three children, is a well-established professional in his country. Their mother, Laura de la Torre, traces her heritage back to the conquistadors and never forgets to mention a Swedish grandmother among her ancestors. Her father, a representative from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, is involved in national politics, but with a difficult and complex relationship to the reigning dictator Rafael Trujillo. Carlos García and many of his relatives and friends become involved in an attempt to overthrow Trujillo that is at first supported and then abandoned by the United States. García is aided in his flight from his homeland by one of the Americans who implement this policy of fluctuating imperialism.
The threads of politics, race, and class surface often in this circular depiction of the García family's life in the United States. Beginning and ending in the Dominican Republic, in a quest to perhaps go home again, the stories unfurl from the present to the past, from 1989 to 1959. They are grouped in three sections with five stories each. Weaving together the life "before" and the life "after," these histories of immigrant experience are filled with humor, love, and intimate detail.
The shock felt by the girls when they abruptly change their life circumstances seems unbearable at first. Initially in limbo and wishing to return to their home, the girls experience racism, sexism, perversion, and a poverty that they were totally unused to. Isolated by language, they bond together within their already clannish patriarchal family, which is also being bombarded by the demands of the new world. Traditional roles are challenged, and upheaval permeates their interactions.
Although Carlos García is drawn as the patriarch and all the girls seek his approval, it is Laura de la Torre who plays the significant role as a mediator between two cultures. Educated in the United States, she merges the self-confidence of her wealthy background with a receptivity toward the new challenges. Energetic and intelligent, she is always thinking of new inventions. Her creativity is Page 187 | Top of Article stymied, yet she finds other outlets in the activities of her children and her husband. She is a vivid, alive character whose contributions to the necessary adjustments of her new life are both critiqued and appreciated by her daughters. Through her stories about them we discover their accomplishments and their defeats, their adventures and professional advances. When Mami tells their story, each girl feels herself to be the favorite.
Carla, Yolanda, Sandra, and Sofía García grow up in a tumultuous period in the United States. This is the time of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, drugs, and feminism. While trying to negotiate the strict limits imposed on them by their parents, the sisters develop as a group and individually. "The four girls," as they are called, constantly see themselves as part of a similarly dressed collective, understanding only later that this made their mother's life easier while making them miserable. Their parents, while appreciated and loved, were not really able to guide them in their new tasks. Indeed, the cultures often seem to war against each other as the girls are told to be good, Catholic, respectful, unsullied virgins in an atmosphere that pushes for new mores and individualistic attitudes. They are sent to prep school in Boston and later go on to college. Marriages, divorces, breakdowns, and careers all form part of the adjustment. At least one, Yolanda, the poet, the writer whose voice is perhaps the strongest throughout the novel, decides as an adult to consider spending some time in the Dominican Republic and perhaps discovering at last her real home. There is overlay, however, in the cultural clashes. On one of their visits, these "American" sisters, who no longer fit as Dominicans, unite to rescue Sofía, the youngest. Having fallen in love and become emptyheaded almost simultaneously, she is ready to go off to a motel with her macho cousin, who believes that using condoms is an offense to his manhood.
In these visits and in their memories of their birthplace, we learn of the prejudices toward Haitians and darker-skinned country girls who are both needed and looked down upon. The portrayal of Chucha, the ancient Haitian servant, who is feared for her temper, her voodoo spells, and her practice of sleeping in a coffin, offers a glimpse into the historical complexity of the relationships of the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola. Comfort and ease that are taken for granted are provided by a series of servants who may spend their entire lives in the compound. Their livelihood depends on the whims of the employer, and one of the Garcías' maids is abruptly dismissed for having one of the children's toys in her possession even though Carla had given it to her as a gift.
The class privilege that was abruptly disturbed by the failed coup attempt does not disappear completely in the new world. Carlos García obtains a job immediately through his American benefactor Dr. Fanning. Little by little he is able to establish a practice and to provide ever greater comfort for his family. The Garcías are helped as well by Mrs. García's father. It is on a special evening out with the Fannings that we see the problematic relationship of U.S. neocolonialism replayed and that Sandi learns the power of emotional blackmail.
Scenes of pain and hardship but also of great humor are found throughout the novel. We listen to Laura García describe finding her husband and Carla in the bathroom painting white sneakers red with nail polish. Or, shades of magical realism, we watch Sandi discover one of the island's famous sculptors, naked and chained, in a shed strewn with giant figures in wood. Eventually she sees that he has sculpted her face on the statue of the virgin for the annual nativity crèche. Banding together, the sisters play on the names of their family in Santo Domingo, translating them literally so that they sound silly in English.
Language is a central feature of the book, beginning with the title. From Mrs. García's "mixed-up idioms that showed she was green behind the ears," to Yolanda's poetry, to the author, the girls, the mother and the father, all the aunts who want them to speak Spanish, the nuns and the police who want them to speak English, all the characters talk about language.
These are stories about relationships. Women are at the center, and we see the world through their eyes but also hear of it through their mouths. These are people of an oral tradition, and even though they have moved on to a writing stage, the power of the voice is what carries them. The book is uneven, and its organization into individual stories highlights this. The author has not really found consistently developed voices. Nevertheless, as we are pulled backward toward the moment when these Dominicans will become immigrants, we are pulled into the world of this family, we are drawn into their hopes and their dreams and their strategies for living, and we are glad. We enjoy what we learn, we enjoy the music of this chorus, we feel included in their lively, passionate world, and we want more.
Source: Elizabeth Starcevic, a review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, pg. 15.
Juan D. Bruce-Novoa, review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1992, p. 516.
Stephen Henighan, review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in Globe and Mail (Toronto), August 31, 1991, p. C6.
Cecilia Rodriquez Milanes, "No Place Like Home," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 8, Nos. 10–11, July, 1991, p. 39.
Donna Rifkind, "Speaking American," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14.
Elizabeth Starcevic, "Talking about Language," in American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, p. 15.
Ilan Stavans, "Daughters of Invention," in Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23–25.
Catherine Wiley, interview with Julia Alvarez in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, March, 1992, pp. 9–10.
Jason Zappe, review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in Americas Review, Vol. XIX, Nos. 3–4, Winter, 1991, pp. 150–52.
For Further Study
Julia Alvarez, "Black behind the Ears," in Essence, Vol. 23, No. 10, February, 1993, p. 42, 129, 132.
Alvarez talks about her Latin heritage and growing up in the Dominican Republic.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 93, Gale, 1996, pp. 1–20.
A collection of critical excerpts on Alvarez's work, including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.