Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
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 Sandi gives to Gladys, the maid, without her parents’ knowledge. Her failure to communicate ends in Gladys’s dismissal on a charge of theft. Sandi also recalls another incident, the dinner with their father’s benefactor, whose wife’s inappropriate actions in a state of drunkenness unnerved Sandi’s father.
Sofia’s rebellion is a direct outcome of her being caught between cultures. She is fiercely independent and leaves home, not an unusual act in America but an unforgivable act for an unmarried Dominican daughter. Years later, she is a happily married woman with two children (“The Kiss”) when she finally realizes that she will never earn her father’s forgiveness. “A Regular Revolution” returns to the year when Sofia was brainwashed during her stay with her relatives in the Dominican Republic; but for the “betrayal” by her sisters, she might have been trapped in the Dominican macho culture.
“The Four Girls” and “The Blood of the Conquistadores,” narrated through the perspective of the mother and father, provide the missing links in the plot. The mother’s observations about each of her daughters in “The Four Girls” are insightful, and the father’s narrative recreates the terror he experienced before his escape from the island.
The worlds of the García sisters in the Dominican Republic and in the first decade of their stay in New York come alive in these memories and shed light on the process of acculturation.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is Julia Alvarez’s account of the Americanization of an immigrant family. It traces the García family’s escape from Rafael Trujillo’s political dictatorship to their arrival in America and their assimilation into its culture. It is a story of what the family gains and loses in leaving their country for a new one. While the parents sacrifice money, social status, and family connections, the daughters must pay an even higher price. They lose a defining part of their identity: their country, their culture, and the extended family that could help them to know who they are. Yet they also gain the independence and self-determination that their female Dominican aunts and cousins will never realize.
The novel consists of fifteen loosely connected stories divided into three sections arranged in reverse chronological order. The story thus begins with the most recent past, when the “girls” are all adults in their twenties and thirties, confronting issues every young American woman faces—career, identity, romance, family. The opening chapter finds Yoyo back in the Dominican Republic visiting an extended family and a country that seem hardly familiar to her now. Remaining chapters in this section, dated “1989-1972,” provide a portrait of the four adult García girls, now thoroughly American, all of whom have had to determine how their Dominican past would shape their present. The second part, “1970-1960,: details the family’s political exile from their homeland to their settlement in America. Readers glimpse Laura’s imagination as she sketches new inventions to make American housewives’ lives more convenient and see the family awkwardly accommodating themselves to their American sponsors—a medical doctor and his drunken wife—in a Spanish restaurant with bad food and flamenco dancers. The final section, “1960-1956,” recalls their lives as members of the Dominican aristocracy on the island in the 1950’s. The depiction of the family’s privilege and status emphasizes the sacrifice emigration forced upon the Garcías.
In the Dominican Republic, the García de la Torres are part of a large and powerful aristocratic family. Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help overthrow the dictator Trujillo, Carlos and some of his brothers experience a fate similar to that suffered by the Cubans in the Bay of Pigs: murder, betrayal, and exile. The girls remember fondly the family compound filled with countless aunts, uncles, cousins, and servants. Parties, art lessons, and extravagant toys from F.A.O. Schwarz mix with other darker memories. The light-skinned Garcías and de la Torres, traced back to ancestors who were “fair-skinned Conquistadores” and a Swedish great-grandmother, occupy a high place in Dominican society from which their black-skinned Haitian servants are barred. The girls have only a vague awareness of the poverty that reveals itself in the naked peasant children in the marketplace and in the house servants’ gratitude toward their mother and father for giving them food and shelter. Trujillo’s presence also clouds the past. The family can see his mansion from their own compound, and the children never stray too far in that direction. More frightening, however, are the black Volkswagens (which continue to provoke a fearful reaction even years later on New York City streets) of the Dominican police, cars occupied by faceless men in dark mirrored sunglasses who could turn up at one’s door at any moment.
This country—with both the good and bad memories—has been lost to the García girls. When they lose their accents, they lose that part of themselves. By most measures, the four daughters are successful: a psychologist, a graduate student, a college teacher, and a mother and wife of a very successful researcher. The three oldest possess professional status in their own right. The youngest finds happiness in her husband and children. Even their immigrant parents have adjusted to their lives in the new country: Carlos establishes a good medical practice and gains respect from colleagues and the community; Laura’s imagination and practicality give her daughters strength and serve her husband well. However, Alvarez’s novel complicates the immigrant’s story with ambivalence: The price of the American Dream is high.
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