How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Essays and Criticism
by Julia Alvarez

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Effective Structuring

(Novels for Students)

Many critics have praised Julia Alvarez's sensitive and adept portrait of a family's struggle with assimilation in How the Garcia 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, Han 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 Garcia 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 Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents consists of fifteen short stories that focus on different members of the Dominican-American de la Torre-Garcia 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 Garcia 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 Santo 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...

(The entire section is 6,150 words.)