Themes and Meanings
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents explores the personal, social, and political dimensions of the immigrant experience. Julia Alvarez spent her first ten years in the Dominican Republic in circumstances similar to those of her characters. She, too, emigrated to American and spent time “losing her accent.” Like Yolanda, Alvarez is a writer, poet, and teacher. This is a work of fiction, not an autobiography; however, Alvarez uses her personal knowledge of the immigrant experience to inform her novel. That politics force displacement is a major theme in the book. While America may be the land of opportunity for some, it proves to be a land of limited opportunity for others. For Carlos, professional and social status pale in comparison to what he possessed in his former life, though he gains freedom from political tyranny. Mrs. García exchanges her opulent home, servants, and the reputation that comes with being a de la Torre for her discovery and assertion of her intelligence and independence.
Biculturalism is another of the author’s major concerns. Alvarez explores the difficulty her characters have reconciling the two very different cultures that shape their lives. For the García girls, the social liberation of the 1960’s and 1970’s—women’s rights, sexual freedom, drugs, and self-exploration—contradicts the strict behavior prescribed by Latin culture. In their attempts to be good Dominican girls—chaste, respectful of their elders, and obedient to all male relatives—they draw attention to their difference. In adopting more and more American values, they sacrifice an important part of their identity. Assimilation exacts a high personal and social price.
The themes of culture clash, custom and tradition, and change and transformation together form the major conflict in How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. All the members of the de la Torre-Garcia family experience a clash between the fast-paced American way of life and the more conservative Latin culture of the Dominican Republic. The clash stems from the conflict between their desire to retain the customs and traditions of their homeland and their need to affect some change in order to adapt to their new surroundings in New York City. When they first move to America, each family member feels strong links to the traditions of their homeland. The girls especially have a hard time adapting to life in America, at least at first. Before they immigrated, their only sense of America came from Papi's presents, which prompted them to think that it must be a wondrous place where all the children played with expensive toys. After they immigrated, however, they discovered a place where language and skin color could prevent a smooth assimilation. As recalled in Carla's story "Trespass," the changes they undergo to fit in are not always comfortable: "[The boys] were disclosing her secret shame: her body was changing. The girl she had been back home in Spanish was being shed. In her place—almost as if the boys' ugly words and taunts had the power of spells—was a hairy, breast budding grownup no one would ever love."
Closely linked to the central conflict revolving around the clash of cultures the family experiences is their pursuit of the American dream of success. This pursuit is one of the reasons why both Papi and Mami understand the need to adapt to their new home. The family enjoyed the benefits of their upper-class status in Santo Domingo, but when they relocated to the United States, they lived in relative poverty in a poor section of New York City. Their poverty in their early years in America especially embarrasses Papi. His self-confidence and insistence on being treated as head of the family returns, however, when he establishes a successful medical practice in New York. As the novel progresses, it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences in class conflicts as the Garcias experience them in the United States and in the Dominican Republic....
(The entire section is 2,943 words.)