How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez’s first novel, has an episodic plot covering a time span of thirty-three years, from 1956 to 1989, revolving around the García family—the parents and their four daughters, Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia. Set against a backdrop of the political upheavals in the Dominican Republic and in the turbulent years of the 1960’s in the United States, the narrative focuses on the struggles of the García family to make sense of the practices and expectations in the New World and reconcile them with the traditions they brought with them.
Arranged in three sections, the events are arranged in reverse chronological order. Beginning with the present, section 1 covers the present, 1989-1972; section 2 focuses on the events of ten years (1970-1960) following the family’s arrival in the United States; and 3 on the period 1960-1956, prior to the family’s escape. The narrative point of view shifts between objective third person and first person. Collectively, these stories chronicle the life of the García family just before and a decade after their move to America.
The book begins and ends with Yolanda, the compiler of these memories. Also, her experiences reflect typical difficulties faced in the process of assimilation. In “Joe,” Yolanda is in a mental hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown after ending her latest relationship. As she reminisces, it becomes clear that her and her boyfriend’s difference in temperament had caused their problems: John was a pragmatist, while she was a romantic idealist. He dealt with dry facts; she wanted to savor words. However, John attributed their differences to her ethnic background.
Similarly, Rudy (“The Rudy Elmenhurst Story”), the first love of Yolanda’s life, expected her to be a passionate Latina. Circumscribed by her ethnicity in the States, she returns to the Dominican Republic to reclaim her heritage (“Antojos”). She observes at the outset that her mode of dressing, loving, and thinking is very different from that of the islanders. Finally, Yolanda’s encounter with two farmworkers brings her to the realization that she is now more of an American than a Dominican and that the island has no easy solution to her identity crisis.
Yolanda has always desired to be a writer. “Daughter of Invention” describes the preparation of her first formal speech. In an effort to find her own voice, she emulates Walt Whitman’s proud and distinctive tone. The resulting work is a remarkable accomplishment—so she thinks—until she hears the father’s verdict that it is disrespectful, and he shreds the papers into pieces. Her mother picks up the pieces, literally and figuratively, and, putting an end to her own dreams, symbolically passes on the torch of creativity to Yolanda.
Yolanda’s imaginative storytelling and her curiosity, tools of trade for a writer, are highlighted in “The Human Body.” Coveting her cousin’s gift of modeling clay from their grandmother, Yolanda is willing to trade anything, even show her private parts, to get the clay. When caught in a prohibited area, Yolanda saves her and her cousin from the wrath of elders by an imaginative but credible tale. Yolanda makes an appearance in “The Drum,” the final selection. An incident depicting a typical childhood obsession ends up revealing Yolanda’s artistic temperament and her preoccupation with the life of imagination.
Another theme—the failure to communicate or the inability to deal with an unanticipated situation—is a prime concern of many immigrants and is the subject of Carla’s recollections in “Trespass” and “An American Surprise.” When a stranger exposes himself to Carla on her way home from school, she cannot come up with appropriate words to communicate with a police officer. The humiliation caused by one’s inability to share thoughts seems an insurmountable hurdle to the newcomer. “An American Surprise” refers to a toy bank that...
(The entire section is 1,584 words.)