Julia Alvarez 1950–
Dominican-American novelist and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Alvarez's career through 1995.
Best known for her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), Alvarez is noted for portrayals of familial relationships, the Hispanic immigrant experience, and for insights into such issues as acculturation, alienation, and prejudice. Alvarez frequently blurs the lines between poetry and fiction and uses circular rather than chronological narrative structures. Writing about How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Jason Zappe has stated 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."
Born in New York City, Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic until the age of ten. She was encouraged by her parents, especially her mother, to consider herself American and therefore different from the rest of their extended family. In 1960 Alvarez and her family fled the Dominican Republic because of her father's involvement in a plot to overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had ruled the country for nearly thirty years and was ultimately assassinated in 1961. The family moved back to New York City, and Alvarez grew up in the Bronx, where her father established a medical practice. Alvarez has noted that her subsequent feelings of alienation "caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl." She immersed herself in books and eventually began to write. Alvarez went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing and became an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. Her first collection of poetry, Homecoming, was published in 1984. Alvarez has since earned numerous 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.
Critics note that in Homecoming Alvarez uses simple, eloquent language and a wide range of narrative techniques to address such themes as family ties and love. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, while often called a novel, is a series of fifteen short stories interwoven to tell one tale in reverse chronological order. Spanning the years from 1956 to 1989, this work chronicles the lives of the García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolonda, and Sopía—from their upbringing in the Dominican Republic to their escape to the United States. Largely autobiographical, the work explores such issues as acculturation, coming of age, and social status. Alvarez's next novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is set in the Dominican Republic and relates in fictional form the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, the Butterflies, or Las Mariposas. As active opponents of Trujillo, three of the four sisters were murdered by the government in 1960. In arguing for the importance of the part they played in Dominican history and consciousness, Alvarez also explores more universal themes of history, tyranny, freedom, and survival. Her bilingual collection of poetry, The Other Side / El Otro Lado (1995), addresses immigrant life, self-identity, and the contradictions that arise when memories of childhood impinge on adult realities.
The critical reaction to Alvarez's works has been generally positive, with most critics praising her sympathetic and personal portraits of families and the immigrant experience. However, some have faulted her unconventional narrative structures, particularly in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, and her uneven characterizations. Commenting on How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Ilan Stavans has stated: "Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she sets into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos." Similarly, Stavans states that In the Time of the Butterflies is "full of pathos and passion, with beautifully crafted anecdotes interstitched to create a patchwork quilt of meaning and ideology."
SOURCE: A review of Homecoming, in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 231-32.
[In the following excerpt, Muratori praises the poems in Homecoming.]
The sonnet lives … in a first book by poet and fiction writer Julia Alvarez…. "33," a sequence of forty-one sonnets that takes its title from the poet's age, fills half the volume [Homecoming]. It's a diary-like assemblage of meditations, stories, and confessions, of which the following is fairly typical:
Ever have an older lover say: God!
I once thought I used to love so and so
so much, but now that I love you, I know
that wasn't love! Even though it feels good
at our age to be flattered with being
the first woman a man has ever loved,
it burns my blood thinking of those I loved
with my whole soul (small as it was back then)
quibble if what they felt for me was love
now that they've had a taste of the real stuff.
I say, Don't trust those men with better,
bigger versions of love if they refuse
the small shabby sample they gave others
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SOURCE: "No Place Like Home," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 8, Nos. 10-11, July, 1991, p. 39.
[In the following review, Milanés calls How the García Girls Lost Their Accents a portrait of "its protagonists' precarious coming of age."]
As so many immigrants and exiles know, you can never go back home. It's never the same—or rather we are not the same. In Julia Alvarez' novel the sisters Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofía lose their island accents, life and ways, but How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents 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.
On the first anniversary of the family's life in the US, Carla makes a clearly unrealizable wish:
What do you wish for on the first celebration of the day you lost everything? Carla wondered. Everyone else around the table had their eyes closed as if they had no trouble deciding. Carla closed her eyes too. She should make an effort and not wish for what she always wished for in her homesickness. But just this last time, she would let herself. "Dear God," she began. She could not get used to this American wish-making without bringing God into it. "Let us please go back home, please," she half prayed and half wished.
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SOURCE: "Speaking American," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14.
[Rifkind is an American critic. In the following review, she provides a mixed assessment of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, stating that in this work Alvarez "has not yet quite found a voice."]
To speak without an accent is the ultimate goal of the immigrant, yet the literature of immigration requires an accent to lend it authenticity and flair. This threshold—between accent and native speech, alienation and assimilation—is the golden door through which the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez sails with How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, her first collection of interwoven stories. It is a threshold that, in our multicultural era, many other American writers have recently crossed, including such best-selling authors as Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid and Amy Tan. Yet stories about this experience are at least as old as the classical image of Aeneas, his son by his side and his father on his back, venturing to a profoundly foreign new world.
Julia Alvarez's Garcia girls—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, Sofia—are steeped in longstanding traditions of their own. They share a noble Spanish ancestry dating back to the conquistadores. In their homeland, the Dominican Republic, their prodigious family is wealthy and influential, occupying a Kennedyesque compound of...
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SOURCE: A review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in The Americas Review, Vol. XIX, Nos. 3-4, Winter, 1991, pp. 150-52.
[In the following review, Zappe offers a positive summation of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, stating Alvarez "shows how the tensions of successes and failures don't have to tear families apart."]
When the conquistadores, the first immigrants to the New World, landed in the Caribbean they weren't forced to adopt to new ways. They retained the privileged position of conqueror and did not have to learn a new language, or a new culture or to endure endless and merciless racial abuse.
But when the Garcias, who were direct descendants of the original conquistadores, came to the United States they were forced to learn new ways. The Garcias are the central players in Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The family fled its home in the Dominican Republic to begin a new life in the United States and went from being part of an upper echelon to the challenging status of immigrant.
Alvarez centers on the Garcia family and its struggles to assimilate in the United States. Alvarez, like Sandra Cisneros, began as a poet before turning to fiction, and with the publication of her first book, she displays a talent for portraying the immigrant experience with sensitivity and...
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SOURCE: An interview, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, March, 1992, pp. 9-10.
[Wiley is an American educator and critic who has written works on feminism and drama. In the following interview, Alvarez discusses such subjects as her identity as a Latina, the Women's movement, and her family.]
[Wiley]: You've said that maybe what we are doing is moving forward in a circle, in reference to women's issues, I think.
[Alvarez]: About plot and about how we tell stories, about how women are [supposed to be] relational instead of directional. We think of others, of the whole network and how, in the traditional household, everyone's being taken care of, so we think relationally. 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.
When I was teaching Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, I remember one of the reviews said this is just a collection of stories, which it is in part. Rayna Green, who edited That's What She Said: Contemporary Poetry & Fiction by Native American Women came and talked to my class when I was in Washington, D.C., and she was saying how Native American people experience the truth. It is something you get at, that's right there, but the truth is all...
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SOURCE: "Daughters of Invention," in The Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23-5.
[Stavans is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, he calls How the Garcá Girls Lost Their Accents "a brilliant debut."]
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 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,...
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SOURCE: A review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1992, p. 516.
[Juan D. Bruce-Novoa, who frequently writes under his surname only, is a Costa Rican-born American critic and educator. In the following positive review, he discusses the narrative structure of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.]
U.S. Latino literature is dominated by male Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans. It may therefore surprise readers to discover that possibly the best novel in this category during 1991 comes from a Dominican American woman. However, the U.S.'s long involvement in Dominican internal affairs has produced a steady stream of immigrants. New York City contains the largest urban concentration of Dominicans in the world. U.S. Dominican literature was bound to appear.
Legitimately surprising are the maturity and technical polish of Julia Álvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Granted, the author is no novice, having a Ph.D. in literature, a decade of experience teaching writing, and a book of poetry (Homecoming,) to her credit. Nevertheless, common wisdom about ethnic literatures claims that each group must crawl before it walks, and so Álvarez's sprint out of the narrative starting blocks demands theoretical rethinking of ethnic literary development.
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SOURCE: "Talking about Language," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, p. 15.
[Starcevic is a critic and professor of Spanish. In the following review, she praises Alvarez's portrayal of the family in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents but faults her for not having "consistently developed voices."]
[In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents], 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...
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SOURCE: "Black behind the Ears," in Essence, Vol. 23, No. 10, February, 1993, pp. 42, 129, 132.
[In the following essay, Alvarez discusses issues of color in relationship to the Dominican immigrant experience.]
When [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents] came out last year, invitations streamed in to speak at gatherings as one of a new wave of Latina writers, "a woman of color" who had made a splash on the mainstream shore. I didn't know if anyone had seen my picture on the back cover, or even read my book, but I was worried that I'd get to the gathering and disappoint everyone by turning out to be the wrong kind of Latina, a sorry white one.
One invitation I accepted was to a public school in New York City with a large population of Dominican kids. I would be a role model of what one of their own could achieve in this country. After my talk, my agent told me about a conversation she had overheard. Two sugar-cane-brown Dominican girls had been waiting eagerly for me to enter the classroom. When I did, one turned to the other and said, "What she got to say to us? She's a white girl."
"But by the time you were through talking," my agent assured me, "they were laughing with you."
Later, at a conference on Dominicans in the United States, I confided to my friend Sergio what had happened. "The thing is," I argued, as if the girls might hear me,...
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SOURCE: "Las Mariposas," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 15, November 7, 1994, pp. 552, 554-56.
[In the following mixed review, Stavans calls In the Time of the Butterflies "simultaneously invigorating and curiously disappointing."]
Not long ago, I heard Julia Alvarez call attention to an intriguing linguistic tic in her native Dominican culture: When you ask somebody what's up and no easy reply can be found, people are likely to say, Entre Lucas y Juan Mejía. "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" isn't the right equivalent in English, Alvarez added, "because you aren't describing the sensation of being caught between a pair of bad alternatives."
"So-so" isn't the meaning either, because the Dominican expression isn't at all meant to suggest bland stasis, mediocrity. It's much more intriguing than that. "How are you doing?" "I'm between Lucas and Juan Mejía." And who are these guys?… The very story that inspired the saying is gone. So … you have to go on and tell the tale of why you feel the way you do. What are the forces you're caught between? How did you get there? And how does it feel to be there?
Alvarez's oeuvre is precisely about this type of crisis—the identity of the in-betweens—and about why she feels the way she does in somebody else's country and language (she immigrated to the...
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SOURCE: "A Writer's Revolution," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 32, Winter, 1994, p. 23.
[In the following review, Garner finds In the Time of the Butterflies "a worthy novel with a mixed palette of human emotions, but Alvarez has sketched too frequently with pastels."]
Julia Alvarez is a dreamboat of a writer. Her language is fresh and economical. She zeros right in on piquant details. Best of all, her feeling for the complex chemistry between Latin American women (primarily groups of daughters) is a joy to behold. Her two novels—How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, and now, In the Time of the Butterflies—sit lightly on the lap. They're never less than bright and engaging.
Perversely enough, though, Alvarez's new novel is wonderful in ways that occasionally blunt its emotional impact. Based loosely on a true story, In the Time of the Butterflies is about four middle-class sisters of the Dominican Republic who, along with their husbands, helped overthrow the corrupt and violent dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The revered Mirabal sisters were known by their code name, Las Mariposas—the Butterflies—and their politics cost them their lives. Three were assassinated in 1960, shortly before Trujillo's fall.
In the novel's postscript, Alvarez writes of her desire to humanize the Mirabals, who are "wrapped in superlatives" and...
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SOURCE: "Sisters in Death," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 28.
[Echevarría teaches Hispanic and comparative literature. In the following mixed review, he comments on character, plot, and theme in In the Time of the Butterflies.]
Hispanic writers in the United States have published several novels of unquestionable merit, the most recent success being Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Most deal with the pains and pleasures of growing up in a culture and a language outside the mainstream. If becoming an adult is a trying process under ordinary circumstances, doing so within varying and often conflicting expectations can be even more bewildering and alienating. It makes growing up, which is by its very nature self-absorbing, doubly so. A person can emerge not a harmonious blend, but simultaneously two (or more) selves in conflict. This predicament is much more dramatic when people speak two or more languages, for the inner life can be like a United Nations debate, complete with simultaneous translations and awkward compromises.
All this is, of course, the stuff of literature, which is why it has become the central concern of Hispanic writers in this country. It was the explicit theme of Julia Alvarez's delightful first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and it is the subtext of her second. In the Time of the Butterflies. But by...
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SOURCE: "The Time of the Tyrants," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[Hampton is a professor of Spanish. In the following review, she applauds In the Time of the Butterflies.]
Julia Alvarez came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1960 with her family to escape the tyranny of the Trujillo regime. Shortly after their escape, the Mirabal sisters, who were part of Alvarez's father's resistance group, were murdered by the regime, becoming martyrs. Intrigued by the courage of these sisters, Alvarez, the highly acclaimed author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, decided to write a fictional version of their story. In the Time of the Butterflies is the result.
The novel relates the lives of the three Mirabal sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa—in their own words and as recalled by Dedé, their surviving sibling. Spanning the period from 1938 to the present, the novel focuses on the era of the Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961. It reveals how each of the sisters, known together as the "mariposas" (butterflies), becomes a dissenter and ultimately a martyr.
The life of the Mirabal family was fairly normal until Trujillo tried to seduce Minerva, who spurned him. Like her namesake of Greek mythology, Minerva proves to be a warrior committed to defend both home and country...
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SOURCE: A review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, in Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 7, April 15, 1995, p. 80.
[In the following review, Ratner praises The Other Side/El Otro Lado.]
Alvarez (author of … How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) writes poems as impressive as her fiction. In the opening sequence [of The Other Side/El Otro Lado] writing of a loving maid and governess, she portrays with graceful simplicity the world of haves and have nots suggested in the duality we find in the title. Whereas poets from similar backgrounds—uprooted, mocked—write bitterly of the past and ambivalently of the future, Alvarez optimistically sets about "Making Up the Past." As the poems move from childhood memories to adult realities, they become less succinct, less headed toward closure. Lines stretch out. Anger enters. The setting of the long title sequence is ironic: at an artist's colony not far from her native town, the author suffers in the midst of a lengthy writer's block as she is joined by a lover she's not sure she loves. Yet she reaches out, in the final poem, not to all the people she might have been but toward the mute girl.
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SOURCE: A review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 17, April 24, 1995, p. 65.
[In the following review, the critic lauds The Other Side/El Otro Lado as a "meticulous examination of self-evolution."]
Widely known for her novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, Latina author Alvarez claims her authority as a poet with this collection. Tracing a lyrical journey through the landscape of immigrant life, these direct, reflective and often sensuous poems are grouped into five sections which, like the points of a star, indicate a circle. Alvarez begins with "Bilingual Sestina," a meditation on leaving her native Dominican Republic for an alien land and strange language. She ends with the title poem "The Other Side / El Otro Lado," a long, multipart narrative recounting her return to her homeland as a woman transformed—translated—by the years she has lived in America from native to guest. The speaker may claim "There is nothing left to cry for, / nothing left but the story / of our family's grand adventure / from one language to another," but this poetry resonates precisely because that story embodies larger questions about self-identity. A meticulous examination of self-evolution, Alvarez's assured collection reveals that change can take us across borders so slowly that only on reaching the other...
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SOURCE: "Revolutions of the Heart," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 8, May, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Behar contextualizes In the Time of the Butterflies as a historical novel about Latina women and revolution.]
So often I have wondered: Where are the women among those gigantic looming shadows of the male liberators, tyrants, generals, colonels and revolutionaries who have ruled the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the past century? Did women not fight alongside Simón Bolivar and José Martí? Have women not shared beds with revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, or dictators like Batista and Duvalier? Were there no women in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro? The history textbooks tell the story of Spanish America's bloody national struggles for independence, decolonization and freedom as if women were never there, as if women had no place in the nation and in history. Is there really no story for those women other than the romance?
Latina fiction writers in the United States have lately begun to seek answers to these questions. They increasingly cross the border into Latin America, claiming its history as their own and translating it into English for North American readers. The Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros has a short story, "Eyes of Zapata," in her recent collection Woman Hollering Creek, in which a...
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Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. The Antioch Review 49, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 474-75.
Brief plot summary of the novel.
Cain, Michael S. Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. Multicultural Review 1, No. 1 (January 1992): 42.
Praises Alvarez's insights into family dynamics but notes that she sometimes leaves "frustrating gaps in the story of this family's journey between cultures."
Gambone, Philip. Review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, by Julia Alvarez. The New York Times Book Review, No. 29 (16 July 1995): 20.
Notes that The Other Side/El Otro Lado continues the bicultural themes of Alvarez's previous works.
Miller, Susan. "Caught Between Two Cultures." Newsweek 119, No. 16 (20 April 1992): 78-9.
Compares How the García Girls Lost Their Accents to other Latino writing, including Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban and Victor Villasenor's Rain of Gold.
――――――"Family Spats, Urgent Prayers." Newsweek 124, No. 16 (17 October 1994): 77-8.
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