Julia Alvarez Alvarez, Julia - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Homecoming (poetry) 1984
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (novel) 1991
In the Time of Butterflies (novel) 1994
The Other Side/El Otro Lado (poetry) 1995

Fred Muratori (review date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Homecoming, in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 231-32.

[In the following excerpt, Muratori praises the poems in Homecoming.]

The sonnet lives … in a first book by poet and fiction writer Julia Alvarez…. "33," a sequence of forty-one sonnets that takes its title from the poet's age, fills half the volume [Homecoming]. It's a diary-like assemblage of meditations, stories, and confessions, of which the following is fairly typical:

        Ever have an older lover say: God!
        I once thought I used to love so and so
        so much, but now that I love you, I know
        that wasn't love! Even though it feels good
        at our age to be flattered with being
        the first woman a man has ever loved,
        it burns my blood thinking of those I loved
        with my whole soul (small as it was back then)
        quibble if what they felt for me was love
        now that they've had a taste of the real stuff.
        I say, Don't trust those men with better,
        bigger versions of love if they refuse
        the small shabby sample they gave others
        the tribute of believing it was true.

The poem rhymes, or half rhymes, somewhat modestly, but its decasyllabic lines are consistent and again we find a volta four lines from the end. The everyday language of the poem, with its plethora of monosyllabics, its conversational expressions, and its parenthetical aside, flows rapidly within a highly controlled enclosure. The poem springs from a feeling of betrayal and outrage (tempered with a bit of savvy irony), and its final admonishment has a bitter edge. But again the sonnet form encourages a surprise reversal as the poet, in a moment of resolve, understands that a profession of "real love" may be true and false at the same instant, that the defining of love is an ongoing process of revision and comparison, and that a belief in one's feelings at the moment they're felt is the least one can demand of another. The poem's exasperation is all the stronger for its containment; the piece demonstrates how effectively formal limitations and direct, "natural" language can work together. It specifies a place where emotions and the intellect can meet on common ground. This is diary verse with a difference.

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés (review date July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "No Place Like Home," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 8, Nos. 10-11, July, 1991, p. 39.

[In the following review, Milanés calls How the García Girls Lost Their Accents a portrait of "its protagonists' precarious coming of age."]

As so many immigrants and exiles know, you can never go back home. It's never the same—or rather we are not the same. In Julia Alvarez' novel the sisters Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofía lose their island accents, life and ways, but How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is not simply about adjustment and acculturation. It is about its protagonists' precarious coming of age as Latinas in the United States...

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Donna Rifkind (review date 6 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Speaking American," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14.

[Rifkind is an American critic. In the following review, she provides a mixed assessment of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, stating that in this work Alvarez "has not yet quite found a voice."]

To speak without an accent is the ultimate goal of the immigrant, yet the literature of immigration requires an accent to lend it authenticity and flair. This threshold—between accent and native speech, alienation and assimilation—is the golden door through which the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez sails with How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, her...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Jason Zappe (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in The Americas Review, Vol. XIX, Nos. 3-4, Winter, 1991, pp. 150-52.

[In the following review, Zappe offers a positive summation of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, stating Alvarez "shows how the tensions of successes and failures don't have to tear families apart."]

When the conquistadores, the first immigrants to the New World, landed in the Caribbean they weren't forced to adopt to new ways. They retained the privileged position of conqueror and did not have to learn a new language, or a new culture or to endure endless and merciless racial abuse.

But when...

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Julia Alvarez with Catherine Wiley (interview date March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, March, 1992, pp. 9-10.

[Wiley is an American educator and critic who has written works on feminism and drama. In the following interview, Alvarez discusses such subjects as her identity as a Latina, the Women's movement, and her family.]

[Wiley]: You've said that maybe what we are doing is moving forward in a circle, in reference to women's issues, I think.

[Alvarez]: About plot and about how we tell stories, about how women are [supposed to be] relational instead of directional. We think of others, of the whole network and how, in the traditional household, everyone's being taken...

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Ilan Stavans (review date 10 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Daughters of Invention," in The Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23-5.

[Stavans is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, he calls How the Garcá Girls Lost Their Accents "a brilliant debut."]

In the mood for a Dominican author writing in English? You are likely to find only one: Julia Alvarez, who left her country at ten and now lives and teaches at Middlebury College. Besides a book of poetry published in 1986 (intriguingly titled Homecoming), she is the writer of this delightful novel, a tour de force that holds a unique place in the context of the ethnic literature from which it emerges. In the age of...

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Bruce-Novoa (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1992, p. 516.

[Juan D. Bruce-Novoa, who frequently writes under his surname only, is a Costa Rican-born American critic and educator. In the following positive review, he discusses the narrative structure of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.]

U.S. Latino literature is dominated by male Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans. It may therefore surprise readers to discover that possibly the best novel in this category during 1991 comes from a Dominican American woman. However, the U.S.'s long involvement in Dominican internal affairs has...

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Elizabeth Starcevic (review date August-September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Talking about Language," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, p. 15.

[Starcevic is a critic and professor of Spanish. In the following review, she praises Alvarez's portrayal of the family in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents but faults her for not having "consistently developed voices."]

[In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents], it is the voices of the García girls, the four lovely daughters of Mami and Papi García, who singly and in chorus offer the shifting choral poem that recounts their life as "strangers in a strange land." (Julia Alvarez left the Domincan Republic when she was ten years old....

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Julia Alvarez (essay date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Black behind the Ears," in Essence, Vol. 23, No. 10, February, 1993, pp. 42, 129, 132.

[In the following essay, Alvarez discusses issues of color in relationship to the Dominican immigrant experience.]

When [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents] came out last year, invitations streamed in to speak at gatherings as one of a new wave of Latina writers, "a woman of color" who had made a splash on the mainstream shore. I didn't know if anyone had seen my picture on the back cover, or even read my book, but I was worried that I'd get to the gathering and disappoint everyone by turning out to be the wrong kind of Latina, a sorry white one.


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Ilan Stavans (review date 7 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Las Mariposas," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 15, November 7, 1994, pp. 552, 554-56.

[In the following mixed review, Stavans calls In the Time of the Butterflies "simultaneously invigorating and curiously disappointing."]

Not long ago, I heard Julia Alvarez call attention to an intriguing linguistic tic in her native Dominican culture: When you ask somebody what's up and no easy reply can be found, people are likely to say, Entre Lucas y Juan Mejía. "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" isn't the right equivalent in English, Alvarez added, "because you aren't describing the sensation of being caught between a pair of bad...

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Dwight Garner (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Writer's Revolution," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 32, Winter, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, Garner finds In the Time of the Butterflies "a worthy novel with a mixed palette of human emotions, but Alvarez has sketched too frequently with pastels."]

Julia Alvarez is a dreamboat of a writer. Her language is fresh and economical. She zeros right in on piquant details. Best of all, her feeling for the complex chemistry between Latin American women (primarily groups of daughters) is a joy to behold. Her two novels—How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, and now, In the Time of the Butterflies—sit lightly on the lap. They're never...

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Roberto González Echevarría (review date 18 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sisters in Death," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 28.

[Echevarría teaches Hispanic and comparative literature. In the following mixed review, he comments on character, plot, and theme in In the Time of the Butterflies.]

Hispanic writers in the United States have published several novels of unquestionable merit, the most recent success being Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Most deal with the pains and pleasures of growing up in a culture and a language outside the mainstream. If becoming an adult is a trying process under ordinary circumstances, doing so within varying and often conflicting expectations can be even more...

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Janet Jones Hampton (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Time of the Tyrants," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[Hampton is a professor of Spanish. In the following review, she applauds In the Time of the Butterflies.]

Julia Alvarez came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1960 with her family to escape the tyranny of the Trujillo regime. Shortly after their escape, the Mirabal sisters, who were part of Alvarez's father's resistance group, were murdered by the regime, becoming martyrs. Intrigued by the courage of these sisters, Alvarez, the highly acclaimed author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, decided to write a fictional...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Rochelle Ratner (review date 15 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, in Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 7, April 15, 1995, p. 80.

[In the following review, Ratner praises The Other Side/El Otro Lado.]

Alvarez (author of … How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) writes poems as impressive as her fiction. In the opening sequence [of The Other Side/El Otro Lado] writing of a loving maid and governess, she portrays with graceful simplicity the world of haves and have nots suggested in the duality we find in the title. Whereas poets from similar backgrounds—uprooted, mocked—write bitterly of the past and ambivalently of the future, Alvarez optimistically sets about...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 24 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 17, April 24, 1995, p. 65.

[In the following review, the critic lauds The Other Side/El Otro Lado as a "meticulous examination of self-evolution."]

Widely known for her novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, Latina author Alvarez claims her authority as a poet with this collection. Tracing a lyrical journey through the landscape of immigrant life, these direct, reflective and often sensuous poems are grouped into five sections which, like the points of a star, indicate a circle. Alvarez begins with "Bilingual...

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Ruth Behar (review date May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revolutions of the Heart," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 8, May, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Behar contextualizes In the Time of the Butterflies as a historical novel about Latina women and revolution.]

So often I have wondered: Where are the women among those gigantic looming shadows of the male liberators, tyrants, generals, colonels and revolutionaries who have ruled the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the past century? Did women not fight alongside Simón Bolivar and José Martí? Have women not shared beds with revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, or dictators like Batista and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. The Antioch Review 49, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 474-75.

Brief plot summary of the novel.

Cain, Michael S. Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. Multicultural Review 1, No. 1 (January 1992): 42.

Praises Alvarez's insights into family dynamics but notes that she sometimes leaves "frustrating gaps in the story of this family's journey between cultures."

Gambone, Philip. Review of The Other Side/El Otro Lado, by...

(The entire section is 345 words.)