Julia Alvarez 1950–
Dominican-American novelist and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Alvarez's career through 1995.
Best known for her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), Alvarez is noted for portrayals of familial relationships, the Hispanic immigrant experience, and for insights into such issues as acculturation, alienation, and prejudice. Alvarez frequently blurs the lines between poetry and fiction and uses circular rather than chronological narrative structures. Writing about How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Jason Zappe has stated 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."
Born in New York City, Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic until the age of ten. She was encouraged by her parents, especially her mother, to consider herself American and therefore different from the rest of their extended family. In 1960 Alvarez and her family fled the Dominican Republic because of her father's involvement in a plot to overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had ruled the country for nearly thirty years and was ultimately assassinated in 1961. The family moved back to New York City, and Alvarez grew up in the Bronx, where her father established a medical practice. Alvarez has noted that her subsequent feelings of alienation "caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl." She immersed herself in books and eventually began to write. Alvarez went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing and became an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. Her first collection of poetry, Homecoming, was published in 1984. Alvarez has since earned numerous awards and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature.
Critics note that in Homecoming Alvarez uses simple, eloquent language and a wide range of narrative techniques to address such themes as family ties and love. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, while often called a novel, is a series of fifteen short stories interwoven to tell one tale in reverse chronological order. Spanning the years from 1956 to 1989, this work chronicles the lives of the García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolonda, and Sopía—from their upbringing in the Dominican Republic to their escape to the United States. Largely autobiographical, the work explores such issues as acculturation, coming of age, and social status. Alvarez's next novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is set in the Dominican Republic and relates in fictional form the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, the Butterflies, or Las Mariposas. As active opponents of Trujillo, three of the four sisters were murdered by the government in 1960. In arguing for the importance of the part they played in Dominican history and consciousness, Alvarez also explores more universal themes of history, tyranny, freedom, and survival. Her bilingual collection of poetry, The Other Side / El Otro Lado (1995), addresses immigrant life, self-identity, and the contradictions that arise when memories of childhood impinge on adult realities.
The critical reaction to Alvarez's works has been generally positive, with most critics praising her sympathetic and personal portraits of families and the immigrant experience. However, some have faulted her unconventional narrative structures, particularly in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, and her uneven characterizations. Commenting on How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Ilan Stavans has stated: "Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she sets into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos." Similarly, Stavans states that In the Time of the Butterflies is "full of pathos and passion, with beautifully crafted anecdotes interstitched to create a patchwork quilt of meaning and ideology."