In her three novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and ¡Yo! (1997), all of them autobiographical, Julia Alvarez tells of how she and her family, persecuted during the regime of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo, were forced from their country and resettled in Queens, New York during the 1960’s, when she was in her teens. Julia’s family moved from a position of privilege in their native country to one of marginal existence and frequent humiliation in the family’s adopted home.
Taunted by schoolmates who called her “Spic,” mocked her accent, and threw stones at her, Julia was determined to learn English so well that people would one day take notice of how she used the language. She recounts how the early indignities she suffered at the hands of ruffian classmates made her determined to use writing as a means of revenge upon them. Writing also offered her a means of finding her own identity.
Something to Declare is so titled because Alvarez, in answering questions from audiences she has addressed throughout the country, boiled the questions down essentially to inquiries about whether she had anything left to say. Her resolute answer is that she indeed still has something to declare. This book’s twenty-four essays are divided into two sections, the first reflecting on her growing up as a part of two distinct cultures, the second focusing on what it is that made her a writer and what underlies her writing.
Although this collection of essays is written at a level that a broad range of general readers, particularly young adults, can easily understand, the subtleties, political and psychological, that lurk beneath their surfaces result in a complex presentation. After one has finished reading the essays, these subtleties suddenly come to the fore, causing readers to reconsider what they have read in a broad and sophisticated context. Many of Alvarez’s personal revelations become political revelations. The Trujillo regime casts a long, dark shadow over the essays, even those in which Trujillo is not specifically mentioned.
During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Alvarez’s parents and the adult members of her extended family lived in constant fear because the father, Papi, and other members of this distinguished family were members of an underground bent on overthrowing Trujillo. As the political environment deteriorated, the family was placed under virtual house arrest. Although its members went about their daily routines, the driveway leading to their home was blocked at night by the black automobiles of the secret police. The family, although under constant threat, shielded their children from the fear that most of the time gripped the adult members.
In one telling episode, Alvarez recounts how she broke a blue crystal ball poised on a pedestal beneath a tamarind tree in the garden. She and her cousin took rakes and tried to conceal her destruction, but Mami appeared and looked accusingly at the quick- witted Julia, who, fabricating a tale, told her that the two of them had rakes because they had chased off the man who had broken the ball. The family, thinking that one of Trujillo’s guards had been on the grounds and realizing how vulnerable they all were because of their involvement in the underground, shrank back, terrified by the possibility that the story Julia had concocted to save her own neck might be true.
A large part of each essay concerns the coming of age of a sensitive young girl who, because she was thrust into a second culture at an age when she was forming her basic cultural notions, felt a degree of alienation from each of her two worlds. Members of her family who remained in the Dominican Republic sensed what it was like suddenly to be pulled from one culture and thrust headlong into another, particularly when the dislocation imposed upon those undergoing it involved a whole new socioeconomic order.
The family that remained at home concluded that what had happened to Julia and her three sisters “was that they had settled in the United States of America where people got lost because they didn’t have their family around them to tell them who they were.” The Alvarez girls essentially knew who they were, but they were fully aware that “in America, you didn’t go by what you family had been in the past, you created yourself anew.” Many of these essays pinpoint the moments in which Julia Alvarez had to struggle to create herself anew.
At age thirty-nine, Julia marries Bill, a physician from Nebraska, himself transplanted to Vermont. This...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)