Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652
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...
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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."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24
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
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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.
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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 and gringas in Santo Domingo.
On the first anniversary of the family's life in the US, Carla makes a clearly unrealizable wish:
What do you wish for on the first celebration of the day you lost everything? Carla wondered. Everyone else around the table had their eyes closed as if they had no trouble deciding. Carla closed her eyes too. She should make an effort and not wish for what she always wished for in her homesickness. But just this last time, she would let herself. "Dear God," she began. She could not get used to this American wish-making without bringing God into it. "Let us please go back home, please," she half prayed and half wished.
Chucha, the voodoo-practicing servant, predicts what the reader is made aware of through the separate but interrelated stories that make up the chapters:
I feel their losses pile up like dirt thrown on a box after it has been lowered into the earth. I see their future, the troublesome life ahead. They will be haunted by what they do and don't remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive.
They do indeed survive, and when one compares their lives with that of their island counterparts—pampered queens sheltered in a complex of family houses barricaded by a high stone wall against the violence, poverty and danger of the Dominican Republic, saddled with philandering husbands, with little more to anticipate but the next cousin's wedding—the sisters' somewhat haunted life is preferable. They are, in fact, their own women, standing up to boyfriends, husbands, lovers and parents—even the island family when it comes down to it.
Back home the girls had art lessons and learned to ride horseback. There were trips abroad and chauffeurs awaiting them in the driveway of the lush family compound. Their native Spanish is a protective garment wrapped around them, but in the US English defrocks Spanish: there are Catholic schools, redneck neighborhoods, identical suburban houses and, later, a great deal of typical American teenage life.
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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 first collection of interwoven stories. It is a threshold that, in our multicultural era, many other American writers have recently crossed, including such best-selling authors as Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid and Amy Tan. Yet stories about this experience are at least as old as the classical image of Aeneas, his son by his side and his father on his back, venturing to a profoundly foreign new world.
Julia Alvarez's Garcia girls—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, Sofia—are steeped in longstanding traditions of their own. They share a noble Spanish ancestry dating back to the conquistadores. In their homeland, the Dominican Republic, their prodigious family is wealthy and influential, occupying a Kennedyesque compound of opulent homes. But when their father, the gracious, cultured Dr. Garcia, joins in a botched attempt to oust the dictator Rafael Trujillo, the family is forced to escape to New York.
The Americanization of these grammar school girls means fighting for a distinctiveness they have never known. Back at the island compound, they lived among a multitude of aunts, uncles, cousins (Dr. Garcia himself is the youngest of 35 children, 25 of them legitimate). Every experience was a group activity: when one cousin caught the measles, all the children were quarantined together to insure a collective immunity.
With the Garcia girls' new-world individuality comes the pain of discrimination, the greenhorn's terror. Their characters are forged amid the taunts of schoolmates, who raise questions about identity in a language they barely understand. "Here they were trying to fit into America among Americans," writes Ms. Alvarez; "they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling them spics. Why had they come to this country in the first place?"
Their parents can't be counted on to answer these questions. Dr. Garcia, who after years in the United States still cringes at the sight of uniforms and black Volkswagens (the car of the secret police back home), stubbornly clings to the memories and accents of the old world. Mrs. Garcia, whose clothes and shoes match just a bit too perfectly and whose malaprops ("It takes two to tangle, you know") are an embarrassment, is a good enough mother for indulged and overprotected island girls, but for emancipated New York teen-agers she's "a terrible girlfriend parent, a real failure of a Mom."
Despite the lack of guidance, though, all four girls are determined to assimilate. Their tour through an American adolescence and young adulthood includes some familiar baggage: anorexia, experimental drugs and sex (this is the late 1960's), failed relationships, nervous breakdowns, psychiatrists, and, ultimately, the American dream of every junior Ms.: professional success harmoniously balanced with marriage and children.
Julia Alvarez, who teaches English at Middlebury College in Vermont, devotes nearly half of her stories to the mature discontents of the Garcia girls. But because their adult preoccupations are by now such cliches—the staples of women's magazines and pop fiction—these chapters are by far the book's weaker half. Much more powerful are the rich descriptions of island life and the poignant stories detailing the Garcias' first year in the United States. These come at the end of the book, curiously, for Julia Alvarez has chosen to tell her tale backwards: the first section of five stories dates from 1989 to 1972, the middle five stories from 1970 to 1960 and the last five from 1960 to 1956.
While this seems at first to be an unnecessary bit of gimmickry, it is in fact a shrewd idea: by locating the best stories last, Ms. Alvarez has made this a better book than it might otherwise have been. She has, to her great credit, beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream. Her second and more ambitious goal, however, that of translating her characters' voices into an unhackneyed American idiom, has gone unrealized. The Garcia girls may indeed have lost their accents, but in her first book of fiction Julia Alvarez has not yet quite found a voice.
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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 the Garcias, who were direct descendants of the original conquistadores, came to the United States they were forced to learn new ways. The Garcias are the central players in Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The family fled its home in the Dominican Republic to begin a new life in the United States and went from being part of an upper echelon to the challenging status of immigrant.
Alvarez centers on the Garcia family and its struggles to assimilate in the United States. Alvarez, like Sandra Cisneros, began as a poet before turning to fiction, and with the publication of her first book, she displays a talent for portraying the immigrant experience with sensitivity and light-heartedness. Alvarez never once allows the reader to think growing up in a foreign culture, especially the United States, is ever easy.
Alvarez's narrative explores the Garcias and how the four daughters come of age in the United States. The reader discovers the Garcia family—Papi, Mami, Yolanda, Carla, Sofia and Sandra—as the novel unfolds backward, the way a dying person might remember her life.
The Garcias come to the United States as political exiles after a failed coup attempt on the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Papi was one of the coup leaders. The Garcias are aided by a CIA agent with an affection for little girls. Alvarez makes another reference to this type of molestation when she tells of the time Carla was walking home from school in the Bronx and was accosted by a man in a car.
Alvarez's predominant theme with the context of assimilation is culture clash. It can be seen back on the Island between the young and the old, in the United States between the girls and the other kids and between the girls and their parents. Culture clash becomes the fundamental antagonist in Alvarez's story as each and every one of the Garcias must face up to it.
The reader is introduced first to Yolanda, the poet, as she returns to the Island in 1989 after a five-year absence. She confesses she would like to return forever because she never really felt at home in the States, even though she also discovers how Americanized she has become. Yolanda, who becomes Joe in the States, witnesses at once the charm of the Island and how foreign it has become to her liberated modern way of life.
As the tale of the Garcias in the new world progresses, each of the family members, mostly the girls, recount the troubles and obstacles they overcame. All four had to deal with the pressures of having Old World parents. This weighed heavily on the girls since it occurred when young people in the States were undergoing a cultural revolution. They had to balance living up to Papi's expectations and the anticipations of their new Anglo boyfriends.
All four daughters like life in the Bronx, where Papi has set up his medical practice, and all want more from this New World. Papi and Mami never thought the four girls would adapt so well or want so much from the States.
During their high school years, they discovered that most of what their Old World parents had told them was bad, turned out to be fun. Soon this new teenage life was in and "Island was old hat, man. Island was the hair-and-nails crowd, chaperons, and icky boys with all their macho strutting and unbuttoned shirts and hairy chests with gold chains and teensy gold crucifixes."
All through their school years the girls returned to the Island during the summers. Mami insisted they go, even if they did not want to, feeling she was making sure they never forgot where they had come from.
It was on the Island that they behaved as "alta sociedad" ladies did. They would behave like they had "never been to the States or read Simone de Beauvoir." When they began college, the trips back to the Island stopped.
Mostly the girls saw the trips as punishment. They truly wanted to become Americanized and forget the ways of the past. Most descendants of European immigrants have successfully adapted to life in the United States at the expense of the ways of the Old World, but today's immigrants from other lands still struggle to fuse the ways of the two. And this conflict pervades the lives of the Garcias.
All four of the Garcia girls were willing to trade the safety and tradition of the Old World for the freedoms and choices in the new. And as illicit love letters, bags of pot and birth control devices are found by Mami and Papi, it becomes apparent to them that their girls have become fully Americanized. But the assimilation process does not always rely on how radical chic one can become. In the case of Yolanda, her Americanization is realized as she wrote her ninth-grade valedictorian speech and finally sounded like herself in English.
As the girls come of age and find their own paths in their new homeland, the reader comes to understand how a family must grapple with the intricacies of assimilation in its attempts to determine its place in a new culture. The Garcias manage to stay together through all the conflicts, both inner and outer. Alvarez suggests that a family with strong devotion and love can conquer a new world and not have to disappear as the younger generation assimilates.
Alvarez speaks for many families and brings to light the challenges faced by immigrants. She shows how the tensions of successes and failures don't have to tear families apart; indeed, she suggests the opposite is possible. The Garcias pull together when trouble arrives. The family unit never breaks down in Alvarez's story even as the Garcia girls grow to be independent in a new land.
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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 care of, so we think relationally. I was talking about the plot as a quilt, which is a way that I think a lot of women experience plot, as opposed to the hero directed on his adventures and conquering things and getting a prize, at all odds doing what he needs to do.
When I was teaching Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, I remember one of the reviews said this is just a collection of stories, which it is in part. Rayna Green, who edited That's What She Said: Contemporary Poetry & Fiction by Native American Women came and talked to my class when I was in Washington, D.C., and she was saying how Native American people experience the truth. It is something you get at, that's right there, but the truth is all the points around the truth, around the circle. Each little perspective somehow is what the truth is, and that, therefore, Louise Erdrich, in a way, was picking up plot that was out of her experience. It's that sense of moving in a circle.
You still moved from A to B in The Garcia Girls, but it's not necessarily one direction.
Yes, it's not one direction. We found this our in the women's movement: you don't just move forward. All of a sudden, women of color were saying, this is a middle-class movement. Then you have to fix up your business here, between each other. It wasn't just a forward directed thing, it was more moving in a circle, and it's not as quick probably.
But at least you sound optimistic when you say moving forward.
Well, I hope so. Some of the stuff happening now with the supreme court and abortion programs, you wonder where we're going.
That's true. In terms of the women's movement, I remember there was a theme in your novel when the sisters gang up to save Fifi from the macho Dominican boyfriend. At one point they are promoting women's rights, and they said they had given up with the various aunts and cousins because there wasn't any point in discussing those things down there. Do you feel like that's changing at all for women in the Dominican Republic?
Oh yes. One of the things that I've discovered going back now on my own, not to visit family, is that there's a whole world out there beyond my family and my cousins and their orientation. One member of my family is a little bit of a maverick there and was involved with a center for women that's very active in all of Central America but based in the Dominican Republic. They were giving seminars and had women from all over Central America and other Caribbean countries. I took a seminar and I realized, "Hey, there's another world here." I've become very close with one of the writers there, Chiqui Viceoso. She's in Breaking Boundaries, that book on Latino writing. It's criticism and testimonials, as they call them, on Latino writers. Chiqui has a testimonial in there. Anyhow, she is a writer there, and she's also very active politically, and through her also I've been thrown into another world that doesn't have anything to do with my family.
And so that must be an issue of class as well?
It's an issue of class, but not completely. There are some women there who had privileged backgrounds, but they just changed their orientation and made other choices from the ones their families had made for them—I'm thinking of my maverick cousin who really has made other choices too. But it does have to do with class somewhat too, that's really true. There is another organization of campesinos (rural workers) that is very much a grassroots kind of thing coming out of the Dominican Republic. It's a little country that's going to really break loose one of these days.
Break loose from …?
Well, we had this President who's been there forever—I think he's eighty-four or eighty-six. He's spent this last term mostly obsessed with the idea of [celebrating] Columbus, spending all this money on buildings and doing construction mostly for tourists, internal imperialism in a way, getting the country all spiffed up for foreigners. So I think his term is going to be up, he's going to die soon, and what happens in terms of leadership will really be interesting.
Do you think that women will play a more active role in national politics?
Yes, absolutely. At least, I hope so.
I guess you have to be hopeful. I loaned The Garcia Girls to a Puerto Rican friend of mine. She read it and liked it very much, but she said, "You know it's strange, this doesn't feel really Latina to me." And I said, "Well it's the Dominican Republic, it's not Puerto Rico." And she said it's very strange because she didn't relate to it as a Latina. Do you feel like the label, Latina writer, is …?
Inaccurate? I don't know. I think when I write, I write out of who I am and the questions I need to figure out. A lot of what I have worked through has had to do with coming to this country and losing a homeland and a culture, as a way of making sense, and also it has to do with the sisterhood of my sisters and myself. They were the only people I really had as models. We were moving in a circle, because none of us knew any more than the other one but all we had was each other, not feeling part of this world and not really feeling part of the old world either.
It reminds me of my students in ethnic literature, who [sometimes] complain, why do we have to label, why do we have to say African American woman writer, why do you have to say Chicana lesbian writer. Why can't you just say writer or American writer? I'm never really sure how to respond. On the one hand, that specificity is important in terms of this person, writing as a Latina and about those kinds of tensions in a culture. On the other hand, everybody should just be allowed to be a writer.
I think part of my experience has been that for a lot of my professional life, I haven't been part of the community. I have two sisters who live in the Boston area, and they work in Latino communities. Their work is there, their friends are there, they speak Spanish with their friends, and I always feel a yearning when I'm with them. I live in Vermont, where I don't have that kind of connection at all. I always feel like I don't have that context. When I met Sandra Cisneros, I felt like she's got her country here, she's got a community in San Antonio that I've never experienced living in this country. There was a conference in New York [on women writers]. Some Dominicanas and a woman who does ethnic literature called me up after it. Someone had shown them a poem by Julia Alvarez, who was teaching out in Illinois. They called me up and said, "Julia, who are you?"
"Where have you been?"
So the next conference they had, I went. I felt … I didn't know you all were [out there]. I've been reading American Latina writers, but I hadn't had the interchange, the dialogue. That I really miss.
Like a home away from home. In your poetry, were you writing self-consciously as a Latina, as an immigrant in the way the novel is addressing those kinds of issues?
Not at all. It's really funny because when the poet Marilyn Haphern read my book of poems, Homecoming, she said, "You know I read that book, and, except for the first poem, 'Homecoming,' I wouldn't know that you were a Latina." It was interesting and made me think about a couple of things. First of all, that book is very much finding a voice as a woman. That was the primary thing that I was addressing, because when I first went to college I didn't have any writing sisters and most of my teachers were males. The two female authors that I read were Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson in a survey course.
We all have that in common.
So when I got out of grad school, the writing program, and was starting to write, I was really blocked because I was trying to sound like those guys, and I didn't have anything to say like them. I was at Yaddo, the writing colony, and I could hear all the typewriters going when I was having the worst writer's block because I was getting ready to write my great work, and I didn't hear those voices. What happened was that I went outside my study room—you're not supposed to bother anybody until dinner—and the only people around were all the maids. There was somebody vacuuming the big mansion, and the cook was making our lunches. So I went downstairs and sat on the stool and talked to the cook and paged through her cookbook. I started writing down lists of words about cooking and started talking to her about cooking. And I started writing what became the whole first section of the book of poems, the housekeeping poems. I went back to the voices that I did hear—my mother, my aunts, maids, all talking about cooking and making beds and ironing and all that stuff—and used those as my metaphors. What I think I was trying to do in that book was to validate that this was something I could write about. I was so blocked, I didn't think that that was literature.
I didn't either, I don't think.
So I wasn't writing a lot about the Dominican Republic, and I think the other thing was that when I started to write more and more about that experience, it came out in narrative rather than lyric.
Why did you switch genres?
"Homecoming" is a narrative poem, longer than the others. It's almost as if it's the beginning of a story. Well, I started writing stories, thinking that I would just write a few.
In terms of teaching, we're always trying to impress on our students the idea of difference and, despite the women's movement, the differences between women are as important as the differences between women and men. There are, for example, different Latina voices …
It's interesting. I find that true, in terms of being a Latina writer and being compared especially to Sandra Cisneros, whose book came out at a different time. At the same time, I guess I want to see a real cohesiveness happen, a real dialogue happen among Latinas and Latina writers. Yesterday, in Iowa, this Chicana who runs the women's center there started talking about how there are certain words that you just can't say in English because it doesn't get to what it is you have to say, and we started talking about what some of those words were. That dialogue was so amazing. I hadn't thought about that, but it's true.
Do you ever write in Spanish?
Not at all. I consider Spanish my childhood language, a language that stayed static at ten. I use it with my parents, and I use it with the family. Now, I do want to study more and get back into it because of Chiqui and my friends in the Dominican Republic. Some of them are writers.
I was thinking as I was reading, would this be something you'd like to see translated into Spanish?
They sold the Spanish rights.
Did you have a good translator?
I don't know. The publisher chooses the translator, and I guess you only have veto power if you don't like it. My friend Chiqui tried to translate a group of my poems into Spanish, and she is a poet too, so they just sound wonderful in Spanish. But I had somebody translate a story of mine into Spanish for a critical article, and it just didn't sound right. Mostly because she translated it into what I felt was good Spanish.
Proper Spanish, you mean?
Yes, Castillian Spanish instead of what I'm used to speaking.
One thing I really liked in the novel were the different voices, especially near the end where you had the two guardia and the Haitian maid.
Yes, I thought that was great. Was that hard to do, especially the two men who are sort of the enemies and obviously there's a huge class difference between them. Even though they're threatening the family, they're really doing it from a position of not being empowered themselves?
Yes, yes. That story, "Blood of the Conquistadores," was one that I really had to write because I have no memories of our last day on the island. I think it's the pivotal day of my life, and I can't remember anything that happened.
I did an experiment. I wrote the story, and I wanted to get all the points around the circle, to build that day as it might have happened, doing it with a fictional family instead of the real family. Afterwards I wrote every member of my family and asked them if they would write to me their memory of the last day. All my sisters, my parents, wrote me a little page of memory, and then I sent them the story. There is the issue about writing out of autobiography, that people will think it's true or that you're lying. So what I did was I showed them that what each had come up with was different from what I had done in the story.
And yet it was one experience.
Yes, and also that I didn't remember anything. That's why I had made it up. It isn't that I was using something that had happened, but that I was recreating it. One sister insisted that her memory was that we had all rolled the car out of the driveway so that the secret police wouldn't hear it, instead of turning on the motor. Then, because I compared notes with everyone, I told my older sister that that was Teeta's memory, and she said, that didn't happen at all, that was from The Sound of Music. So, what came out of all this was memory, and it's very tricky. I mean, memory is already the story you made up about the past.
But for the voices that weren't in your family, that was pure fiction on your part, wasn't it?
Yes, but also identification, just imagining from people I knew growing up. One of the reasons I don't speak "good" Spanish is that I learned it from the maids. They're the people I spent time with when we were little. My sisters talk about where their [current political involvement] comes from, given some of our cousins in the Dominican Republic and their concerns. Part of it is that our mother was very removed and didn't do a lot of mothering and parenting. The ones who we were close to, who hung out with us, fed us, were the maids, and that's where we have the emotional connection.
It sounds like the nineteenth-century in this country. Many Whites had closer emotional ties to their Black nannies, and of course, literally you had Black women who had to nurse White kids and to leave their own children. It sounds similar.
Yes, in some ways. I think that we all feel a connection and a real tension in conflict. For instance, two sisters find it very hard to go back.
They don't have connection to some of the aunts and cousins; you just connect out of something so old. When I've been down there recently, I lived in a village. I didn't live with family. That's the next thing I'm writing about. It was a real education for me. Also, it made me think about what my choices are in the future. I don't think I want to keep on for the rest of my life teaching at Middlebury College. Part of it is that Bill, the guy I married, is part of a project called Volunteer Eye Surgeons International. They go to third world countries and volunteer time. He's been to the Dominican Republic several times, and there's a clinic set up, kind of an outreach clinic. What we're thinking of is living part of the time there and maybe starting some sort of project.
Has your family given you a hard time about the novel?
Let's put it this way, the person that I thought would give me the hardest time—my father—not at all. He called up after he read it, weeping, saying that he was so proud of me. My sisters were a little taken aback. I think it's really hard to read something that is close enough to the truth, but has been reworked and remade and recast, and not feel somehow exposed. We all went through a real rebellious phase when we came and were suddenly exposed to the sixties and war protests and drugs and sex. We'd been raised in such a tight little controlled family. But the things that happened in the story aren't things that necessarily happened to us, though those issues did come up, so that feels like an exposure. But each one reacted differently, and they all have come around. One of them said that it was really hard for her, but she really felt that it was for her to deal with. But they're also very proud of me and feeling kind of mixed. The one is my mother, it's still, oh dear …
Has she read the whole thing?
I think so. It reminds me very much of one of the things I teach in minority women's literature—how strong the mandate of silence is. The grandmother of all these books is Maxine Kingston's The Woman Warrior; it starts out with "My mother told me never ever to repeat this story." [This] is even stronger, I think, for immigrant and minority populations where it feels like it's a betrayal of the group to go outside of the group somehow, to tell the story.
It's interesting that your father really liked it. As I was reading, I kept getting a sense of how the father in the book is a little Trujillo, all of the metaphors of control and benevolence with a twist. The daughters sort of resent him and yet feel that they need that kind of person. It's a great metaphor for how these dictators get there in the first place.
I think it also points to how the fictional family is also different from the real family. In some ways, I feel that my real mother has been a muse, but it's been much more complicated.
The mother in the book seems to act as sort of a buffer between the daughters and the father.
Yes, and some of that has happened in my real family, but the mother wants her daughters to flourish and do things and so forth. She herself has caught the bug of wanting to be her own woman, that kind of thing.
Oh, yes. I was going back to what you had said earlier on about feeling that in this country you're also part of the other country even though, for example, your Spanish was cut off. But in terms of writing, you've found some kind of a balance between the tradition of the family and all of those Dominican aspects of your life that are really important but which you had to change to be an American.
Sometimes it hits me that I think I write out of feeling that it doesn't quite balance and that I need to figure it out. For instance, what I'm working on now—I don't know if it will come to anything, you never do until it comes to something—is how people become politicized. How does that happen? Let's say someone living in this country goes back to the Dominican Republic and encounters a whole world of people who are very politically involved, very leftist, very radical, have made some choices about their lives and given up a lot of ways of thinking out of a real sense of commitment. When I went back there and lived in this village, I went down to write. All of sudden, I was getting involved in different things happening in the village, including that there was no school, and why wasn't there a school, and then trying to get the village kids involved in raising money for a school by doing an art project. It took a lot of time, and the NEA was ticking away, and I wasn't getting any writing done. Then the resort across from this village fenced off their land, so to get to work the villagers had to go way around the peninsula, and nobody has a car, and it takes an hour and a half, etc. So I got involved in going to the managers and talking, and going to a lawyer, and all of a sudden, my life as a writer … I saw that if I lived there, I don't know that I would continue as a writer.
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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 affirmative action in life and literature, those looking for themes like drug addiction, poverty, and Hispanic stereotypes are in for a surprise. Much in the tradition of nineteenth-century Russian realism, and in the line of the genuine "porcelain" narrative creations of Nina Berberova, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has as its protagonist the García de la Torre, a rich family in Santo Domingo and its surroundings whose genealogical tree reaches back to the Spanish conquistadores. Through the García family's sorrow and happiness, through the spiritual and quotidian search that leads to their voluntary exile in the United States, the dramatic changes of an entire era are recorded. Energetic, curious, and bellicose, their collective plight is a struggle to keep up with the times, and also, an adjustment to a culture that isn't theirs.
The plot focuses on the relationship of four sisters: Carla, Sandra (Sandi), Yolanda (Yo, Yoyo, or Joe), and Sofia (Fifi). Their aristocratic upbringing as S.A.P. s—Spanish American Princessés—takes them from their "savage Caribbean island" to prestigious schools in New England and from there to an existence as middle-class citizens in the Bronx. They undergo discrimination and suffer from linguistic misunderstandings. They iron their hair according to the latest fashion and buy bell-bottom-pants with fringe. As women in difficult marriages and troubled breakups, theirs is the customary rite of passage of immigrants assimilating into another reality. Their rejection of the native background, nevertheless, is told with humor and has a sense of unrecoverable loss because, for as much as the García sisters want to become American, they remain conscious of the advantages of their Dominican selves. Hence, Alvarez's is a chronicle of the ambivalence with which Hispanics adapt to Anglo-Saxon idiosyncracies.
Made of fifteen self-contained chapters collected in three symmetrical parts, more than a novel the volume ought to be read as a collection of interrelated stories. Each segment reads as an independent unit, with the same set of characters recurring time and again in different epochs and places. As a whole, the narrative spans three decades, the first chapter beginning in 1988 and the last reaching as far back as 1956. Similar to some plots by the Cuban musicologist Alejo Carpentier and the British playwright Harold Pinter, the García girls, as if on a journey back to the source, navigate from maturity to adolescence, from knowledge to naïveté, from light to darkness—that is, their lives are perceived in reverse. In the process, the characters slowly deconstruct their personalities and reflect upon their Catholic education at home in the hands of a "respectable," highly schematic father. In his 1982 autobiography Hunger for Memory, Richard Rodriguez, while attacking bilingual education, discussed the impairment of the native tongue and the acquisition of the "father" tongue, English. Because Alvarez is uninterested in such meditations, her book, in spite of the title, isn't about language. Here and there the narrative does offer insightful reflections on the transition from an ancestral vehicle of communication to an active, convenient one. Yet the idea of "losing" one's accent is nothing but a metaphor: a symbol of cultural abandonment.
A secondary leitmotif also colors the plot—that of the coming of age of a candid female writer and her indomitable need to describe, in literary terms, her feelings and immediate milieu. Yoyo, the author's alter ego, is a sensible, extroverted adolescent who loves to write poetry. In "Daughter of Invention," perhaps the volume's best story and one recalling Ralph Ellison's first chapter of Invisible Man, she is asked to deliver a commencement speech. Her mother helps her out. In search of inspiration, Yoyo finds Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in particular "Song of Myself," and writes a speech celebrating her egotism, her excessive self-interest. The theme infuriates her father. In a rage of anger, he tears up the manuscript. But the mother's support encourages the girl to deliver the speech, which she does quite successfully. She is praised by her own repentant father with a gift of a personal typewriter.
Obviously, as a whole How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is Yoyo's product. Although its content is told by shifting narrators, she is the soul inside the text. She contrasts and ponders. She is puzzled and flabbergasted by the circumstances around her. The world gains and loses its coherence in her mind. In an illuminating segment about Pila, a bizarre maid with voodoo powers who inspired nightmares, Yoyo writes about her first discovery of things Dominican. Hers is a story of wonder and disbelief. Accustomed to a certain climate of order and to the rules set forth by her parents, she is disoriented by the behavior of the maid. After a series of mishaps that involve a cat and strange tales by a grandmother, the section concludes:
[After those experiences] we moved to the United States…. I saw snow. I solved the riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was. I went away to school. I read books. You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits what's left in the hollow of my story? I began to write, the story of Pila, the story of my grandmother…. I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia. There are still times I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear [Pila], a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.
The entire volume is a gathering of memories, a literary attempt to make sense of the past. Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she steps into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos. The political reality in the Dominican Republic, although never at center stage, marks the background. The repressive thirty-year-long Trujillo dictatorship, which culminated with the leader's assassination in 1961, makes the Garcías happy but complicates their lives. The democratic elections that brought Juan Bosch into power bring a period of tranquillity, interrupted by the 1965 civil war that brought the U.S. intervention and ended in the election, supervised by the Organization of American States, of Joaquín Balaguer. The family is pushed to an exile that makes its religious faith stumble and its traditions collapse. Yet How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, unlike scores of narratives from south of the Rio Grande, is free from an anti-American message: in Tennessee Williams's terms, its primary concern is a minuscule glass menagerie, the fragile life of a group of individuals swept by epic events they constantly fight to ignore.
While imperfect and at times unbalanced, this is a brilliant debut—an important addition to the canon of Hispanic letters in the U.S. By chosing to write for an English-speaking audience, Alvarez is confessing her own loyalty: albeit reluctantly, she is in the process of losing her accent. Still, the accent refuses to die.
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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 produced a steady stream of immigrants. New York City contains the largest urban concentration of Dominicans in the world. U.S. Dominican literature was bound to appear.
Legitimately surprising are the maturity and technical polish of Julia Álvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Granted, the author is no novice, having a Ph.D. in literature, a decade of experience teaching writing, and a book of poetry (Homecoming,) to her credit. Nevertheless, common wisdom about ethnic literatures claims that each group must crawl before it walks, and so Álvarez's sprint out of the narrative starting blocks demands theoretical rethinking of ethnic literary development.
Álvarez utilizes a standard immigration motif: her narrative charts family history both to trace adjustments to the changing cultural environment and to recover its roots in the land of origin. During the voyage the reason necessitating immigration is found, the essential catalyst in transforming citizens of one nation into immigrants who eventually become ethnic residents of a new country. The paradigm, however, has been dominated by patriarchal codes, the conflict within the acculturation family often being portrayed as the disintegration of the father's position as head of the family and a shift of focus to the mother. García Girls both appropriates and violates this pattern. The García family experiences a sometimes painful liberation from patriarchy, but the search for roots, instead of nostalgically confirming the old chauvinist system, debunks it.
Álvarez structures the narrative in temporally receding subsections, from 1989 to 1956, shifting the perspective among four sisters to create multiple points of view and an air of a family project. From the start the search motif emerges, with one of the sisters back on the island visiting her family and hoping she has finally found a real home after twenty-nine years of unsettled life. When she goes out on her own, however, she is disoriented by the mixture of her U.S. openness (unbecoming an island woman of the upper class), forgotten cultural codes, and the desire to retrieve island pleasures. She never does reach the familial estate where, as a child, she was taught to ride English style. Instead she is caught in a sign of racial, class, and national conflict, which, ironically, turns out to be the real roots she is hunting for—though readers only understand the full import of the discovery in the final chapters. In the end not only is patriarchy debunked but a matrilineal line of mixed blood and class is affirmed, albeit as a repressed contributor to origins. A most entertaining, significant contribution to U.S. Latino literature.
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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. She published Homecoming, her first book of poetry, in 1986.) Privileged children of a privileged Dominican upper-class family, they are forced to leave their idyllic family compound to come and live in New York. Their father, Carlos García, one of thirty-three children, is a well-established professional in his country. Their mother, Laura de la Torre, traces her heritage back to the conquistadors and never forgets to mention a Swedish grandmother among her ancestors. Her father, a representative from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, is involved in national politics, but with a difficult and complex relationship to the reigning dictator Rafael Trujillo. Carlos García and many of his relatives and friends become involved in an attempt to overthrow Trujillo that is at first supported and then abandoned by the United States. García is aided in his flight from his homeland by one of the Americans who implement this policy of fluctuating imperialism.
The threads of politics, race, and class surface often in this circular depiction of the García family's life in the United States. Beginning and ending in the Dominican Republic, in a quest to perhaps go home again, the stories unfurl from the present to the past, from 1989 to 1959. They are grouped in three sections with five stories each. Weaving together the life "before" and the life "after," these histories of immigrant experience are filled with humor, love, and intimate detail.
The shock felt by the girls when they abruptly change their life circumstances seems unbearable at first. Initially in limbo and wishing to return to their home, the girls experience racism, sexism, perversion, and a poverty that they were totally unused to. Isolated by language, they bond together within their already clannish patriachal family, which is also being bombarded by the demands of the new world. Traditional roles are challenged, and upheaval permeates their interactions.
Although Carlos García is drawn as the patriarch and all the girls seek his approval, it is Laura de la Torre who plays the significant role as a mediator between two cultures. Educated in the United States, she merges the self-confidence of her wealthy background with a receptivity toward the new challenges. Energetic and intelligent, she is always thinking of new inventions. Her creativity is stymied, yet she finds other outlets in the activities of her children and her husband. She is a vivid, alive character whose contributions to the necessary adjustments of her new life are both critiqued and appreciated by her daughters. Through her stories about them we discover their accomplishments and their defeats, their adventures and professional advances. When Mami tells their story, each girl feels herself to be the favorite.
Carla, Yolanda, Sandra, and Sofía García grow up in a tumultuous period in the United States. This is the time of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, drugs, and feminism. While trying to negotiate the strict limits imposed on them by their parents, the sisters develop as a group and individually. "The four girls," as they are called, constantly see themselves as part of a similarly dressed collective, understanding only later that this made their mother's life easier while making them miserable. Their parents, while appreciated and loved, were not really able to guide them in their new tasks. Indeed, the cultures often seem to war against each other as the girls are told to be good, Catholic, respectful, unsullied virgins in an atmosphere that pushes for new mores and individualistic attitudes. They are sent to prep school in Boston and later go on to college. Marriages, divorces, breakdowns, and careers all form part of the adjustment. At least one, Yolanda, the poet, the writer whose voice is perhaps the strongest throughout the novel, decides as an adult to consider spending some time in the Dominican Republic and perhaps discovering at last her real home. There is overlay, however, in the cultural clashes. On one of their visits, these "American" sisters, who no longer fit as Dominicans, unite to rescue Sofia, the youngest. Having fallen in love and become emptyheaded almost simultaneously, she is ready to go off to a motel with her macho cousin, who believes that using condoms is an offense to his manhood.
In these visits and in their memories of their birthplace, we learn of the prejudices toward Haitians and darker-skinned country girls who are both needed and looked down upon. The portrayal of Chucha, the ancient Haitian servant, who is feared for her temper, her voodoo spells, and her practice of sleeping in a coffin, offers a glimpse into the historical complexity of the relationships of the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola. Comfort and ease that are taken for granted are provided by a series of servants who may spend their entire lives in the compound. Their livelihood depends on the whims of the employer, and one of the Garcías' maids is abruptly dismissed for having one of the children's toys in her possession even though Carla had given it to her as a gift.
The class privilege that was abruptly disturbed by the failed coup attempt does not disappear completely in the new world. Carlos García obtains a job immediately through his American benefactor Dr. Fanning. Little by little he is able to establish a practice and to provide ever greater comfort for his family. The Garcías are helped as well by Mrs. García's father. It is on a special evening out with the Fannings that we see the problematic relationship of U.S. neocolonialism replayed and that Sandi learns the power of emotional blackmail.
Scenes of pain and hardship but also of great humor are found throughout the novel. We listen to Laura García describe finding her husband and Carla in the bathroom painting white sneakers red with nail polish. Or, shades of magical realism, we watch Sandi discover one of the island's famous sculptors, naked and chained, in a shed strewn with giant figures in wood. Eventually she sees that he has sculpted her face on the statue of the virgin for the annual nativity crèche. Banding together, the sisters play on the names of their family in Santo Domingo, translating them literally so that they sound silly in English.
Language is a central feature of the book, beginning with the title. From Mrs. García's "mixed-up idioms that showed she was green behind the ears," to Yolanda's poetry, to the author, the girls, the mother and the father, all the aunts who want them to speak Spanish, the nuns and the police who want them to speak English, all the characters talk about language.
These are stories about relationships. Women are at the center, and we see the world through their eyes but also hear of it through their mouths. These are people of an oral tradition, and even though they have moved on to a writing stage, the power of the voice is what carries them. The book is uneven, and its organization into individual stories highlights this. The author has not really found consistently developed voices. Nevertheless, as we are pulled backward toward the moment when these Dominicans will become immigrants, we are pulled into the world of this family, we are drawn into their hopes and their dreams and their strategies for living, and we are glad. We enjoy what we learn, we enjoy the music of this chorus, we feel included in their lively, passionate world, and we want more.
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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.
One invitation I accepted was to a public school in New York City with a large population of Dominican kids. I would be a role model of what one of their own could achieve in this country. After my talk, my agent told me about a conversation she had overheard. Two sugar-cane-brown Dominican girls had been waiting eagerly for me to enter the classroom. When I did, one turned to the other and said, "What she got to say to us? She's a white girl."
"But by the time you were through talking," my agent assured me, "they were laughing with you."
Later, at a conference on Dominicans in the United States, I confided to my friend Sergio what had happened. "The thing is," I argued, as if the girls might hear me, "I've got family their color. My own abuelita [grandmother] looks pretty dark in her photos."
"And I've got cousins who could make you look tanned!" Sergio smiled. His own rich brown skin belied the New York winter outside and glowed with tropical warmth. My olive color had waned into a white blah.
"Dominicans learn that kind of talk here," Sergio continued. "That idea of us, the Blacks, and them, the whites, isn't a Dominican discourse in the D.R." He reminded me that ours is a racially mixed society: Black, white, mulatto, with whatever diluted bit is left of the Taino Indians. Almost every family has a variety of shades. "You know how the saying goes?"
We laughed and then, in unison in Spanish, we repeated it, "We all have a little black behind the ears."
Perhaps because of what that saying affirmed, I had never thought of myself as the wrong color Latina. I was just one of a rainbow coalition of colors in my large extended family.
Or so I had convinced myself, wanting to submerge completely the issue of race in ethnicity. But incidents such as the one in the public school got me thinking. Had I been unconscious of racism until we came to the United States? If we were a rainbow-coalition family of different shades, why was the black shade relegated to behind the ears, like dirt that wasn't supposed to show? Wasn't it clear that the pot of gold was clearly toward the lighter end of that rainbow?
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, my cousins and I were always encouraged to stay out of the sun so we wouldn't "look like Haitians." At family gatherings, when features were declined down to which great-aunt gave us our noses or pairs of eyes, dark coloring was ascribed to someone's "not thinking ahead." As we girls grew up, we had endless bedroom comparison sessions of your good hair versus my bad hair, my fine nose versus your flared one, your light shade of café con leche versus a potential boyfriend's heavy-duty, full-strength cafecito color.
All of us aspired to be on the lighter side of the spectrum. Don't get me wrong. None of us wanted to be white-white like those pale, limphaired gringos, whites who looked as if they'd been soaked in a bucket of bleach. The whiter ones of us sat out in the sun to get a little color indio, while others stayed indoors rubbing Nivea on their darker skin to lighten it up!
During one of my summer visits, I fell in mad, passionate love with a dark-skinned cousin; my primo was far enough removed that our kids wouldn't come out funny. "Just dark," an aunt teased, but there was no real prohibition in the remark. Albertico, or Tico as I nicknamed him, came from una familia muy buena, a family with money and prestige. Color cut across class lines. As another Dominican saying goes: A rich Black is a mulatto; a rich mulatto is a white man. I would be making good match.
And so would he, I learned. Besides my dowry of coming from a good family myself, I had white genes to bring into Tico's family pool. His mother courted me, sending over desserts: poufy macaroons, a flan swimming in sugar syrup, a white frosted production that looked like a trial run on a wedding cake. "Why?" I asked.
"She likes you." Tico smiled, his nostrils flaring.
"She doesn't even know me," I argued. I had talked to Doña Mercedes maybe twice.
"She likes what she sees."
That was long ago, but during a recent trip "home," I witnessed an instance of racism I didn't like seeing. The incident gave me some insight into the roots of the Dominican racism I had grown up with.
I was visiting La Romana where Haitian sugarcane workers flood the market on Saturdays to shop. Two equally Black men were arguing in loud voices over some mistake in an exchange of pesos. One insulted the other, "Negro maldito!" Cursed Black!
"Aren't they both Black?" I asked the Dominican friend who was with me.
"Oh no," he explained. "The Haitian one is Black, the other one is Dominican."
A week after my return from my trip, I finally reached my friend Sergio on the phone. "Ven acá!"—Come here!—I confronted him. "You told me that racism is a discourse Dominicans learn in the States." I related my recent thoughts about growing up thinking light is right, as well as the incident I had witnessed on the street.
"I didn't say we didn't have racism," Sergio responded. "I said we didn't think of ourselves as Blacks and whites, them and us. See, Dominicans see the real Blacks as the Haitians, the real whites as the Americans. It's the old house-slave mentality, a little above the dark field hands but below the white masters."
"What's going to change that kind of attitude?" I asked him.
"What they call here 'role models,'" Sergio answered.
"Black ones?" I asked in a small voice, fearing I'd be canceled out.
"And white ones with all that black behind the ears getting onto the piece of paper," he said, laughing that bubbly Creole laughter I would have identified as Dominican anywhere. I was laughing, too, thinking of my olive-skinned Papi and my dark abuelita and my white prima and my india niece—claiming them all.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005
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 alternatives."
"So-so" isn't the meaning either, because the Dominican expression isn't at all meant to suggest bland stasis, mediocrity. It's much more intriguing than that. "How are you doing?" "I'm between Lucas and Juan Mejía." And who are these guys?… The very story that inspired the saying is gone. So … you have to go on and tell the tale of why you feel the way you do. What are the forces you're caught between? How did you get there? And how does it feel to be there?
Alvarez's oeuvre is precisely about this type of crisis—the identity of the in-betweens—and about why she feels the way she does in somebody else's country and language (she immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 10). Although this subject is ubiquitous in ethnic literature in general, her pen lends it an authenticity and sense of urgency seldom found elsewhere. In fact, in the current wave of Latina novelists she strikes me as among the least theatrical and vociferous, the one listening most closely to the subtleties of her own artistic call. She stands apart stylistically, a psychological novelist who uses language skillfully to depict complex inner lives for her fictional creations.
Alvarez's journey from Spanish into English, from Santo Domingo to New York City, from Lucas to Juan Mejía, was the topic of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, a set of loosely connected autobiographical stories published in book form in 1991, about well-off Dominican sisters exiled in el norte. The critical reception was mixed, though readers wholeheartedly embraced the book as charming and compassionate—a sort of minor echo of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate—and it was welcomed with the type of jubilation often granted works by suddenly emergent minorities. After all, Dominican literature, in Spanish or English, is hardly represented in bookstores and college courses here. Indeed, not since the early twentieth-century larger-than-life scholar and essayist Pedro Henríquez Ureña delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1940–41, on the topic of literary currents in Hispanic America, had a writer from the Dominican Republic been the target of such admiration here.
In spite of Alvarez's fairly conservative, yet semi-experimental approach to literature, what makes her a peculiar, nontraditional Dominican writer is her divided identity. "I am a Dominican, hyphen, American," she once said. "As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen—the place where two worlds collide or blend together."
Alvarez's novelistic debut evidenced a writer whose control of her craft was sharp but less than complete—some of the autonomous segments of García Girls were not knit together well, for example, leaving the reader holding several frustratingly loose ends. Now, three years later, such shortcomings have been largely erased, as her haunting second novel easily surpasses her earlier achievement. And while this vista of the political turmoil left behind by émigrés like the García girls still may not be proportional to her talents, it is extraordinary in that it exhibits quick, solid maturing as an artist. In spite of its title, In the Time of the Butterflies is not crowded with magic realist scenes à la Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Instead, it's a fictional study of a tragic event in Dominican history, when, on November 25, 1960, three outspoken Mirabal sisters, active opponents of the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, were found dead near their wrecked Jeep, at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff in the northern part of the country. Today the Mirabals are known throughout the Caribbean as The Butterflies—Las Mariposas. Alvarez uses her novel to explore their tragic odyssey and, metaphorically, bring them back to life.
The novel's 300-plus pages are full of pathos and passion, with beautifully crafted anecdotes interstitched to create a patchwork quilt of memory and ideology. We see the sisters as teens, fighting with Papá, marrying, leading double lives, commenting on the Cuban revolution, becoming rebels themselves, going on to bury husbands and sons. The organization is symmetrical: The book's major parts are laid out in four sections, one devoted to each of the three murdered sisters and one to the fourth sister, who escaped their fate. We have thus a quatrain of novellas, only one of which doesn't end in tragedy. Here's how Alvarez has Dedé, the surviving Mirabal sister, remark on the assassination:
It seems that at first the Jeep was following the truck up the mountain. Then as the truck slowed for the grade, the Jeep passed and sped away, around some curves, out of sight. Then it seems that the truck came upon the ambush. A blue-and-white Austin had blocked part of the road; the Jeep had been forced to a stop; the women were being led away peaceably, so the truck driver said, peaceably to the car.
While the Mirabal incident might seem a bit obscure to American readers (most of Dominican history, perhaps even the U.S. invasion, does), it offers an amazing array of creative opportunities to reflect on the labyrinthine paths of the Hispanic psyche. Others in the Dominican Republic have used this historical episode as a spring-board to reflect on freedom and ideology, among them Pedro Mir in his poem "Amén de Mariposas" and Ramón Alberto Ferreras in his book Las Mirabal. Alvarez takes a decidedly unique approach: She examines the martyrdom of these three Dominican women as a gender battle-field—three brave, subversive wives crushed by a phallocentric regime. In an openly misogynistic society, the Mirabals are initially dealt with by the government in a delicate, somewhat condescending fashion, which of course doesn't exclude the oppressive power from annihilating them in the end.
The official newspaper of the Trujillo regime, El Caribe, treated the deaths of Minerva, Patria and María Teresa Mirabal and their driver, Rufino de la Cruz, all between 25 and 37 years of age, as an accident. Not only did it report the incident without much explanation, it failed to mention the sisters' anti-Trujillo activities. Nor did it acknowledge that a fourth sister wasn't among the victims and had thus survived. Assuming her role as historian and marionetteer, Alvarez fills in the gaps. She didn't know the sisters personally and she laments at the end of her volume that the reluctance of people in the Dominican Republic to speak out or open up to strangers, as well as the chaotic state of affairs in the nation's libraries and research centers, made it difficult for her to gather historical data. But her task was hardly biographical. "I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination," she writes. "A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart."
Alvarez writes, for instance, that Trujillo himself had a crush on Minerva, who responded publicly by slapping him in the face. She also analyzes the religious education María Teresa received and later metamorphosed into antiauthoritarian animosity. Much in the Butterflies novel resembles How the García Girls Lost Their Accents: Hispanic domesticity is at center stage, analyzed in light of the intricate partnerships and rivalries of the four sisters. The male chauvinism that dominates the Hispanic family is meant to mirror and complement Trujillo's own machismo, with home and country approached as micro- and macrocosms. The style is deliberately fragmentary and openly Faulknerian. Alvarez's pages made me think, time and again, of the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua: By intertwining disparate literary forms (journals, first-person accounts, correspondence, drawings, etc.) Alvarez allows each Mirabal to acquire her own voice. Pasted together, their voices provide a sense that Truth, capital "T," is a collective invention.
Unlike many Latino writers of her generation, Alvarez abandons the United States in theme and scenario to analyze the role of women under dictatorships in the Southern Hemisphere. Trujillo's presence is felt from afar, as an overwhelming shadow controlling and destroying human happiness—so overarching is the dictator, in fact, that it seems to me he becomes the central character. The Mirabal sisters fight el líder as both a real and a ghostlike figure. Their opposition is also an attack against phallocentrism as an accepted way of life in Hispanic societies. In this respect, In the Time of Butterflies ought to be equated with a number of Latin American works about dictators (known in Spanish as novelas del dictador), including Miguel Angel Asturias's El Soñnar Presidente and Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme. And it is a first-rate addition to the shelf of works by Latina literary artists who write about chauvinism, from Delmira Agustini to Rosario Ferré. In her Postscript, Alvarez writes:
During [Trujillo's] terrifying thirty-one-year regime, any hint of disagreement ultimately resulted in death for the dissenter and often for members of his or her family. Yet the Mirabals had risked their lives. I kept asking myself, What gave them that special courage? It was to understand that question that I began this story.
Fiction as an instrument to decodify a tyranny's hidden and manifest tentacles. Fiction as a tool of journalism and vice versa. Fiction as a device to reclaim a stolen aspect of history. Ironically, it is precisely at this level that Alvarez's volume is simultaneously invigorating and curiously disappointing. The author herself appears at the beginning of the plot: It is 1994 and, as an American woman with broken Spanish, she is eager to interview Dedé. Dedé offers much data about her sisters' journey, from their convent education to their first love affairs and subsequent marriages to high-profile activists in the fifties. Indeed, Dedé serves as the backbone to the entire story. But Alvarez leaves reaction to the Mirabals' assassination to a twenty-page epilogue, in which we find out about public outrage and the spectacular, media-oriented trial of their murderers, which took place a year after Trujillo was killed in 1961. Interleaving news clips, court testimony, interviews and other paraphernalia throughout her narrative might have helped—anything, to insert the Mirabals more firmly in the flux of Dominican memory.
Notwithstanding this structural handicap, In the Time of the Butterflies is enchanting, a novel only a female, English-speaking Hispanic could have written. By inserting herself in the cast as la gringa norteamericana, Alvarez links the old and the new. At a time when many Latino writers seem so easily satisfied exploring the ghetto, in fictional terms, of drugs, crime and videotape, Alvarez, a writer on a different kind of edge, calls attention to the Latin American foundations of Hispanic fiction in English and dares once again to turn the novel into a political artifact. The inside covers of her book are illustrated with typography listing women and men assassinated by Trujillo. Recalling the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., the names seem endless, an homage to patriotic anonymity. Alvarez pays tribute to only three of these names, but the rest are also evoked in her lucid pages. Her novel is a wonderful examination of how it feels to be a survivor, how it feels to come from a society where justice and freedom are unwelcome and where the answer to the question "How are you?" often has to be, Entre Lucas y Juan Mejía.
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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 less than bright and engaging.
Perversely enough, though, Alvarez's new novel is wonderful in ways that occasionally blunt its emotional impact. Based loosely on a true story, In the Time of the Butterflies is about four middle-class sisters of the Dominican Republic who, along with their husbands, helped overthrow the corrupt and violent dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The revered Mirabal sisters were known by their code name, Las Mariposas—the Butterflies—and their politics cost them their lives. Three were assassinated in 1960, shortly before Trujillo's fall.
In the novel's postscript, Alvarez writes of her desire to humanize the Mirabals, who are "wrapped in superlatives" and have "ascended into myth" in the Dominican Republic. At this, she succeeds splendidly. The sisters—Patria, Minerva, Dede, and Maria Teresa—are each brought vividly to life. Alvarez tells their stories individually, in monologues and journal entries, and their voices are happily idiosyncratic.
The Mirabal house may be a place where, as Minerva notes, the young girls "had to ask permission for everything: to walk to the fields to see the tobacco filling out; to go the lagoon and dip our feet on a hot day; to stand in front of the store and pet the horses as the men loaded up their wagons with supplies." But it's also a house that brims with food and warmth and games, and as the girls grow they learn how much better their lives are than most people's under Trujillo's regime.
The girls' political and sexual awakenings, as often happens, coincide. There's a stunning scene in which Patria, while praying, finds her intense religious feelings crossing over into earthier regions: "My mouth, for instance, craved sweets, figs in their heavy syrup, coconut candy, soft golden flans. When those young men whose surnames have been appropriated for years by my mooning girlfriends came to the store and drummed their big hands on the counter, I wanted to take each finger in my mouth and feel their calluses with my tongue."
It's in this first half of In the Time of the Butterflies that the book seems most confident. Alvarez writes compellingly about growing up under a brutal political regime that squashed dissent and encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors. (Alvarez's own family fled the Dominican Republic when she was ten.) It's only later, when the Mirabal sisters themselves become political, that the book sometimes seems less convincing.
When several of the sisters begin dating men with ties to the country's leftist resistance movements, they themselves get drawn in. Before long, the sisters are hiding weapons shipments, making homemade bombs, and "the whole family walked around in fear" of being found out.
These scenes are well sketched, but Alvarez doesn't provide enough background (factual or emotional) for them. Although we learn about the horrors of Trujillo's regime, the country's politics are not discussed in any depth. Worse, you get no clear sense of what attracts the girls to radical politics, beyond glamour and simple reactionary anger. One minute they are kissing boys behind shrubs; the next, they're whipping up Molotov cocktails.
Alvarez's prose is almost too willfully deft and playful to impart a sense of gravity and drama to these proceedings. You're let down emotionally, because you never quite feel the danger the sisters are in. The bad guys rarely seem more than self-important stooges, the equivalent of Keystone Cops, and the sisters' encounters with them feel almost like games. Later in the book, when the sisters and their husbands are imprisoned and treated badly, this problem is only exacerbated. Prison seems merely like a particularly shabby summer camp.
It's an old, creaky literary game, knocking a novelist for being too "writerly"—somehow too good at what she does. And Alvarez is far more than an air-dancing acrobat, shedding bright bits of fluff. On the basis of her first two books, she's shown a remarkable ability to climb inside the heads of her characters and distill complicated emotions into a sharp sentence or two. She's among America's finest young writers.
Here is a language of abundance; she sings hymns to the outsized joys and sorrows of quotidian existence. In In the Time of the Butterflies, however, her exuberance betrays her somewhat. This is a worthy novel with a mixed palette of human emotion, but Alvarez has sketched too frequently with pastels.
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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 bewildering and alienating. It makes growing up, which is by its very nature self-absorbing, doubly so. A person can emerge not a harmonious blend, but simultaneously two (or more) selves in conflict. This predicament is much more dramatic when people speak two or more languages, for the inner life can be like a United Nations debate, complete with simultaneous translations and awkward compromises.
All this is, of course, the stuff of literature, which is why it has become the central concern of Hispanic writers in this country. It was the explicit theme of Julia Alvarez's delightful first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and it is the subtext of her second. In the Time of the Butterflies. But by dealing with real historical figures in this novel, Ms. Alvarez has been much more ambitious than she was in her first, as if she needed to have her American self learn what it was really like in her native land, the Dominican Republic.
On the night of Nov. 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal—three sisters returning from a visit to their husbands, political prisoners of the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo—were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. This was one of those appalling atrocities that galvanize opposition to a murderous regime and signal the beginning of its demise. Indeed, Trujillo was slain six months later, and the Dominican Republic began a tortuous and tortured attempt at democracy. The Mirabal sisters, already admired for their resistance to the Trujillo regime before they were murdered, became part of the mythology of the Dominicans' struggle for social and political justice, and the day of their death is observed in many parts of Latin America today.
In an epilogue, Ms. Alvarez, who was 10 years old when her family came to the United States in the year the Mirabal sisters were assassinated, runs through the usual commonplaces about the freedom of the historical novelist in the handling of facts, and expresses her desire to do more than merely add to the deification of the Mirabals. In fictionalizing their story she has availed herself of the liberties of the creative writer, to be sure, but alas, I am afraid she did not escape the temptation to monumentalize.
Ms. Alvarez's plan is flawless. As she proved in her first novel, she is skilled at narrative construction, though she lacks a compelling style and her English is sometimes marred by Hispanisms. (Once we accept the idea of English-speaking Mirabals, there is no reason for them to have accents.)
In the Time of the Butterflies opens with a thinly disguised version of Ms. Alvarez, an Americanized Dominican woman who wants to write something about the Mirabals and is looking for information. She visits the family home, now a kind of shrine, run by Dedé, the surviving fourth sister, who had remained at home that night, and who, expectedly, is tortured by guilt and haunted by the burden of memory. Dedé's recollections and musings open and close the novel, nicely framing the action.
The core of the book is made up of chronological reminiscences by the murdered sisters from childhood to the time of their brutal demise. Because we know their fate in advance, everything is colored by sadness and anger. The Mirabals are a traditional provincial Dominican family, portrayed in clichéd fashion—a middle-class rural clan anchored by the inevitably philandering but supportive patriarch and the warm, caring and wise mother. Happy, bourgeois families like the Mirabals were, for many years, the heart of the Trujillo dictatorship's support.
As Ms. Alvarez tells their story, the Mirabal sisters are drawn into politics by Trujillo's intolerable wickedness rather than by any deeply felt or intellectually justified commitment. The sisters appear, on the whole, to be reactive and passive. Their education in religious schools, and their chaste and rather naïve development into woman-hood, take up too many tedious pages. Probably to heighten the evil import of Trujillo's deeds, the Mirabals are portrayed as earnestly innocent and vulnerable, but that diminishes their political stature and fictional complexity.
Ms. Alvarez clutters her novel with far too many misdeeds and misfortunes: rape, harassment, miscarriage, separation, abuse, breast cancer. Are the sisters victims of fate, Latin American machismo, American imperialism or only the particularly diabolical nature of Trujillo's dictatorship? Eulogy turns into melodrama and history becomes hagiography. There is a touch of the maudlin even in the title—the Mirabals were affectionately known in their lifetime as the mariposas, the butterflies. There is indeed much too much crying in this novel.
Hispanic Americans today have "old countries" that are neither old nor remote. Even those born here often travel to their parents' homeland, and constantly face a flow of friends and relatives from "home" who keep the culture current. This constant cross fertilization makes assimilation a more complicated process for them than for other minority groups. This "living origin" is a determining factor for Hispanic writers in the United States, as William Luis, a professor of Latin American literature at Vanderbilt University and the leading authority on this phenomenon, has pointed out. This is why the most convincing parts of In the Time of the Butterflies have to do with Dedé, the survivor, and her anguished role as memorialist, which in turn becomes Ms. Alvarez's role. It is here that we best understand the depths of Ms. Alvarez's despair and the authenticity of her effort to represent the inner drama of her conversion to an American self.
There is for Hispanic writers in the United States the added burden of a very active, popular literary tradition in Spanish, including some of the most distinguished names in contemporary world literature. Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz. In its concern with history and dictatorship, In the Time of the Butterflies seems to be echoing Garcia Marquez, and the emphasis on a clannish rural family is reminiscent not only of that modern master but also of his disciple Isabel Allende.
But the actual history in In the Time of the Butterflies is very blurry. I find no connection between the specific dates Ms. Alvarez gives to mark periods in the Mirabals' lives and either Dominican or broader Latin American history. Serious historical fiction establishes links between individual destiny and pivotal political events. It shows either the disconnection between the individual and the larger flow of sociopolitical movements or, on the contrary, the individual as a pawn of history. In either case there is irony, but in this novel the reader is not made aware of a broader, more encompassing political world.
In the Time of the Butterflies reads like the project the Americanized Dominican woman at the beginning of the novel ("a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names") would have come up with after pondering the fate of the Mirabal sisters from her perspective as a teacher on a United States college campus today. Had Julia Alvarez concentrated more on her dialogue with Dedé she would have produced a better book. It would have had the touch of irony provided by the realization that the gringa dominicana would never really be able to understand the other woman, much less translate her.
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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 version of their story. In the Time of the Butterflies is the result.
The novel relates the lives of the three Mirabal sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa—in their own words and as recalled by Dedé, their surviving sibling. Spanning the period from 1938 to the present, the novel focuses on the era of the Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961. It reveals how each of the sisters, known together as the "mariposas" (butterflies), becomes a dissenter and ultimately a martyr.
The life of the Mirabal family was fairly normal until Trujillo tried to seduce Minerva, who spurned him. Like her namesake of Greek mythology, Minerva proves to be a warrior committed to defend both home and country from enemies. Until that time, the Mirabals, who operated a rural store, enjoyed a growing business, were respected in their community, were involved in their church, and had the opportunity to educate their daughters. Through education, the daughters grow aware of the possibility of a free society and eventually commit themselves to making it a reality. In spite of the need to be wary in both speech and action, the Mirabals' family life is marked by both hilarity and personal sadness. As the regime increasingly squeezes them, they eschew material acquisitions and further embrace one another. This solidarity, coupled with their resistance to Trujillo, makes the Mirabals enemies of the regime but heroes to their people.
The story is related through first-person accounts of each sister, resulting in multiple perspectives of central events. It is embellished with María Teresa's diary entries and sketches, as well as bits of poetry and song. Alvarez not only opens a window on the remarkable daily life of that period, but also provides a chilling view into the heart of Trujillo's darkness. Alvarez states: "I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination." She indeed realizes this goal….
Alvarez's grasp of metaphor and humor will delight the enthusiasts of Barbara Kingsolver's prose.
When the final pages of [this book] turned, I think that the reader will agree with the words of Julia Alvarez: "A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart."
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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 "Making Up the Past." As the poems move from childhood memories to adult realities, they become less succinct, less headed toward closure. Lines stretch out. Anger enters. The setting of the long title sequence is ironic: at an artist's colony not far from her native town, the author suffers in the midst of a lengthy writer's block as she is joined by a lover she's not sure she loves. Yet she reaches out, in the final poem, not to all the people she might have been but toward the mute girl.
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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 Sestina," a meditation on leaving her native Dominican Republic for an alien land and strange language. She ends with the title poem "The Other Side / El Otro Lado," a long, multipart narrative recounting her return to her homeland as a woman transformed—translated—by the years she has lived in America from native to guest. The speaker may claim "There is nothing left to cry for, / nothing left but the story / of our family's grand adventure / from one language to another," but this poetry resonates precisely because that story embodies larger questions about self-identity. A meticulous examination of self-evolution, Alvarez's assured collection reveals that change can take us across borders so slowly that only on reaching the other side can we see the distances we've come.
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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 Duvalier? Were there no women in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro? The history textbooks tell the story of Spanish America's bloody national struggles for independence, decolonization and freedom as if women were never there, as if women had no place in the nation and in history. Is there really no story for those women other than the romance?
Latina fiction writers in the United States have lately begun to seek answers to these questions. They increasingly cross the border into Latin America, claiming its history as their own and translating it into English for North American readers. The Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros has a short story, "Eyes of Zapata," in her recent collection Woman Hollering Creek, in which a mistress who has known him since childhood imagines the Mexican revolutionary as sadly tender and vulnerable. Cristina García, the Cuban American writer, creates a feisty protagonist in her novel Dreaming in Cuban, based on her own grandmother who stayed behind on the island; this Cuban grandmother, her ears decorated with drop-pearls, single-handedly watches over the northern coast to prevent yanqui invasions that might topple Fidel Castro, who she imagines will one day thank her personally for her heroic patriotism.
In her engaging new novel [In the Time of the Butterflies], the Dominican American poet and writer Julia Alvarez joins these Latina writers in the feminist quest to bring Latin American women into the nation and into history as agents, out from under the shadows of those larger-than-life men who, too often, have treated the countries under their rule as personal fiefdoms. Yet Alvarez goes further: she explores the sly ways dictators plant pieces of themselves "inside everyone of us." This point comes to life in a brilliant scene in which the Mirabal family, haplessly trying to stay on the good side of the Dominican dictator, attends a party at Trujillo's mansion. There, Minerva, the Mirabal daughter most committed to the struggle to topple the regime, is surprised by her disappointment when Trujillo doesn't immediately ask her to dance. As she sagely observes, "This regime is seductive. How else would a whole nation fall prey to this little man?" When Trujillo finally asks her to dance, she catches herself, as they make small talk, lying to protect a friend: "Instantly, I feel ashamed of myself. I see now how easily it happens. You give in on little things, and soon you're serving in his government, marching in his parades, sleeping in his bed." Women's resistance to dictators, Alvarez shows us, is fraught with problems, not the least being their susceptibility to the erotic power of charismatic male leaders.
Widely known as the "little Caesar of the Caribbean," Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was the Dominican Republic's brutal dictator for 31 years, from 1930 to 1961. In August of 1960, during the last year of his rule, Julia Alvarez fled to the United States with her parents and three sisters; her father had participated in an underground plot to over-throw Trujillo which the secret police had uncovered. In her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, she chronicled her upper-class family's life in exile in New York City, alternating between the voices of four sisters as they came of age.
Though only ten years old when her family went into exile, Alvarez was haunted throughout her childhood by the story of another four girls, the Mirabal sisters, who stayed behind in the Dominican Republic and suffered a cruel fate in Trujillo's final hour. Their story, an eerie shadow biography and counterpoint to the story of the García girls, is the subject of this new novel. Returning home through steep mountains on the night of November 25, 1960—they had been to see their husbands, jailed as political prisoners—three of the sisters, Patria (aged 36), Minerva (34) and María Teresa (25), were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. The sisters, members of the same underground as Alvarez' father, had once been harassed and jailed themselves for speaking out against the regime, but they refused, in the spirit of their code name Las Mariposas—the Butterflies—to clip their wings. Less than a year later, Trujillo was assassinated.
The fourth sister, Dedé, to whom Alvarez dedicates her novel, is introduced in the opening pages. In 1994 Dedé is 66 years old. She is inspired to look back again at her memories of the events leading to the night of her sisters' murders by the visit of an inquisitive gringa dominicana who speaks an uneasy Spanish, an obvious alias for Alvarez. Ironically, it is Dedé, the sister who was ambivalent about participating in the underground and remained home on that night, who tells the story of her sisters and oversees their transformation (in real life and in the novel) into national and even international heroines. (Today in Latin America, November 25th is the International Day Against Violence Toward Women.)
The revolution against Trujillo Alvarez depicts is the individual revolution taking place in the hearts of each of the Mirabal sisters, who at different times, for different reasons and in different ways, join in the common struggle to liberate their nation and their psyches from the power of dictators. Reproducing the structure of her first novel, Alvarez crafts separate voices and personas for them as they come of age and define themselves as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and, most wrenchingly, citizens of a fatherland that sacrifices its women when they become too strong.
Patria, the eldest, is devoutly Catholic and comes to the underground resistance against Trujillo through her religious thirst for justice. Yearning for redemption, she views the struggle in terms of a need for trust and national reconciliation:
"I wanted to start believing in my fellow Dominicans again. Once the goat was a bad memory in our past, that would be the real revolution we would have to fight: forgiving each other for what we had all let come to pass." Minerva, the most fearless and earnest revolutionary of the four, questions every form of patriarchal authority, and even dares to slap Trujillo as they dance at his mansion when he rams his groin into her dress. María Teresa, the youngest and most naive, is presented through her diaries and drawings, preciously full of exclamation points and bubbling emotions. While her child's voice is irritatingly cute, her adult voice is more subtle, particularly when she questions Minerva's unwavering passion for the revolution. "For me love goes deeper than the struggle," María Teresa admits, "or maybe what I mean is, love is the deeper struggle. I would never be able to give up Leandro to some higher ideal the way I feel Minerva and Manolo would each other if they had to make the supreme sacrifice."
Finally there is Dedé, the survivor, who never completely signs on to the resistance. After the nightmare of the Trujillo dictatorship she belatedly but firmly develops the courage to make her own choices: to divorce her husband (for her, the revolution is about a feminist rethinking of home rather than of nation) and to bring up her sisters' children without resentment, even at the cost of sheltering them from the full weight of their own history.
This is a historical novel in which forgetting wins out over remembering. Alvarez offers us a paradox: her novel bears witness to the urgency of her quest for memory, but for her characters healing comes only through forgetting. By the end of the novel Fela, the former black servant of the Mirabal family who has become a spirit medium, announces that the dead sisters are at peace and no longer clamor to speak through her body. In turn, Minou, Minerva's daughter, announces that she and her husband hope to build a house "up north in those beautiful mountains"—where her parents happen to have been murdered. Dedé decides that Minou's obliviousness to history is the forgiveness that brings forth a different future: "She's not haunted and full of hate. She claims it, this beautiful country with its beautiful mountains and splendid beaches—all the copy we read in the tourist brochures." But life in the Dominican Republic in a post-Trujillo, post-revolutionary time is chillingly carefree, with "Free Zones going up everywhere, the coast a clutter of clubs and resorts." Dedé notes that "We are now the playground of the Caribbean, who were once its killing fields. The cemetery is beginning to flower." Yet she can't help asking herself: "Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?"
As in a Greek tragedy, we know from the beginning the destiny that awaits the Mirabal sisters. It is the development of their characters rather than the unfolding of the plot that carries the narrative forward. And yet, as with any well-told tragic tale, we expect to be devastated by their deaths when we finally get to them. Although the last 150 pages of the book read quickly, as the story pushes past the slow-moving girlhood stories to the metamorphosis of the sisters into The Butterflies, the narrative edges closer and closer to tragedy, yet never quite hits the mark. Alvarez chooses to scrunch up time at the end of the novel, letting the assassination of the sisters unfold in a twenty-page epilogue told in Dedé's voice.
To be sure, it is exquisitely written. In a touchingly banal detail, a store-owner recalls that, just before starting up the mountain, the youngest of the sisters wanted ten cents' worth of cinnamon, yellow and green Chiclets. "He dug around in the jar but he couldn't find any cinnamon ones. He will never forgive himself that he couldn't find any cinnamon ones. His wife wept for the little things that could have made the girls' last minutes happier." But to crush the reader's heart with the full impact of the murders, Alvarez needed to keep us longer with the sisters—to expand not shrink time as they climb the mountains to their death.
As a Cuban-born Latina, I read with special interest the many allusions Alvarez makes to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. For Latin American and Caribbean leftists in the 1950s who dreamed of undoing the legacy of poverty, inequality and racism and struggled against nearly impossible odds to overthrow dictators, it was difficult not to be swept off your feet by the young guerrilleros Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. For the Mirabal sisters of Alvarez' novel, Fidel and Che become models of young revolutionary manhood, forming a stark contrast to the power-hungry, lecherous, aging figure of the dictator Trujillo. Patria imagines that the Lord himself has directed her to name her youngest son Raúl Ernesto, Che for short. Minerva takes to reciting the famous words Castro uttered after serving time in jail for his revolutionary actions: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!"
In the Time of the Butterflies demonstrates that history has more than absolved the Mirabal sisters. Whether history can absolve revolutionaries who become dictators is a question I would have liked to see Julia Alvarez pose, if only because it is a burning one for those of us who still want to believe in the possibility of revolutions for the Caribbean that don't turn sour. Had Alvarez developed the voice of her alias, the gringa dominicana who returns to her abandoned homeland to learn about The Butterflies from the history-weary Dedé, she might have been able to offer a more nuanced view of what revolutions look like the morning after. But rather than explore the limits of recovering and reclaiming the past, she chooses to downplay the role of the novelist bearing witness to history. She forfeits a golden opportunity, I think, to add depth to her story and break with the predictable four-voice narrative. In a brief "real life" postscript, Alvarez claims that only through fiction's transformations is it possible to understand a history as complex as that surrounding the Mirabal sisters. The notion is tantalizing but unsatisfying: why did she not weave the story of that transformation into the novel itself?
Yet despite these criticisms, I am in debt to Julia Alvarez for her creative ambition, which she largely fulfils: for showing that although revolutions turn sour, they matter. And for showing that when they turn sour for women, they must be remembered even more adamantly. For the history of any nation rightly belongs not to women who forgive and forget but to those who forgive even as they remember.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345
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 Julia Alvarez. The New York Times Book Review, No. 29 (16 July 1995): 20.
Notes that The Other Side/El Otro Lado continues the bicultural themes of Alvarez's previous works.
Miller, Susan. "Caught Between Two Cultures." Newsweek 119, No. 16 (20 April 1992): 78-9.
Compares How the García Girls Lost Their Accents to other Latino writing, including Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban and Victor Villasenor's Rain of Gold.
――――――"Family Spats, Urgent Prayers." Newsweek 124, No. 16 (17 October 1994): 77-8.
Praises In the Time of the Butterflies for its portrayal of Latina women.
Oliver, Bill. "From Tangents to Trespasses." New England Review 15, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 208-12.
Lauds How the García Girls Lost Their Accents for its thematic depth and portrayal of family relations.
Omang, Julia. "For This They Died?" The Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 February 1995): 8.
Praises In the Time of the Butterflies for its revealing portrayal of Dominican history.
Powers, Katherine A. "A Tale of Tragedy on a Caribbean Island." The Christian Science Monitor (17 October 1994): 13.
Praises In the Time of the Butterflies for its depiction of male/female and sororal relationships.
Walsh, Elsa. "Arms and the Women," Book World—The Washington Post (27 November 1994): 7.
Laudatory review of In the Time of the Butterflies in which Walsh states that the work is "at once personal and political, both sweet and sweeping in scale."
Wiley, Catherine. Review of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. The Bloomsbury Review 12, No. 2 (March 1992): 9.
Praises How the García Girls Lost Their Accents for its "plurality of voices."