How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Alvarez)

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Julia Alvarez, 1991
Algonquin Books
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781565129757

The Garcias—Dr. Carlos (Papi), his wife Laura (Mami), and their four daughters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía—belong to the uppermost echelon of Spanish Caribbean society, descended from the conquistadores. Their family compound adjoins the palacio of the dictator’s daughter.

So when Dr. Garcia’s part in a coup attempt is discovered, the family must flee. They arrive in New York City in 1960 to a life far removed from their existence in the Dominican Republic. Papi has to find new patients in the Bronx. Mami, far from the compound and the family retainers, must find herself.

Meanwhile, the girls try to lose themselves—by forgetting their Spanish, by straightening their hair and wearing fringed bell bottoms. For them, it is at once liberating and excruciating being caught between the old world and the new, trying to live up to their father’s version of honor while accommodating the expectations of their American boyfriends. Acclaimed writer Julia Alvarez’s brilliant and buoyant first novel sets the Garcia girls free to tell their most intimate stories about how they came to be at home—and not at home—in America.

It's a long way from Santo Domingo to the Bronx, but if anyone can go the distance, it's the Garcia girls. Four lively latinas plunged from a pampered life of privilege on an island compound into the big-city chaos of New York, they rebel against Mami and Papi's old-world discipline and embrace all that America has to offer. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 27, 1949
Where—New York, New York
Raised—Dominican Repubic
Education—B.A., Middlebury College; M.F.A.,
   University of Syracuse
Awards—Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets;
   PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Belpre Medal
   (twice); Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature
Currently—lives in Middlebury, Vermont

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City during her Dominican parents' "first and failed" stay in the United States. While she was still an infant, the family returned to the Dominican Republic—where her father, a vehement opponent of the Trujillo dictatorship, resumed his activities with the resistance. In 1960, in fear for their safety, the Alvarezes fled the country, settling once more in New York.

Alvarez has often said that the immigrant experience was the crucible that turned her into a writer. Her struggle with the nuances of the English language made her deeply conscious of the power of words, and exposure to books and reading sharpened both her imagination and her storytelling skills. She graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in 1971, received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University, and spent the next two decades in the education field, traveling around the country with the poetry-in-the-schools program and teaching English and Creative Writing to elementary, high school, and college students.

Alvarez is regarded as one of the most critically and commercially successful Latina writers of her time. Her published works include five novels, a book of essays, four collections of poetry, four children's books, and two works of adolescent fiction.

Among her first published works were collections of poetry; The Homecoming, published in 1984, was expanded and republished in 1996. Poetry was Alvarez's first form of creative writing and she explains that her love for poetry has to do with the fact that "a poem is very intimate, heart-to-heart." Her poetry celebrates nature and the detailed rituals of daily life, including domestic chores. Her poems portray stories of family life and are often told from the perspective of women. She questions patriarchal privilege and examines issues of exile, assimilation, identity, and the struggle of the lower class in an introspective manner. She found inspiration for her work from a small painting from 1894 by Pierre Bonnard called The Circus Rider. Her poems, critic Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez suggests, give voice to the immigrant struggle.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez's first novel, was published in 1991, and was soon widely acclaimed. It is the first major novel written in English by a Dominican author. A largely personal novel, the book details themes of cultural hybridization and the struggles of a post-colonial Dominican Republic. Alvarez illuminates the integration of the Latina immigrant into the U.S. mainstream and shows that identity can be deeply affected by gender, ethnic, and class differences. She uses her own experiences to illustrate deep cultural contrasts between the Caribbean and the United States. So personal was the material in the novel, that for months after it was published, her mother refused to speak with her; her sisters were also not pleased with the book. The book has sold over 250,000 copies, and was cited as an American Library Association Notable Book.

Released in 1994, her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, has a historical premise and elaborates on the death of the Mirabal sisters during the time of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. In 1960 their bodies were found at the bottom of a cliff on the north coast of the island, and it is said they were a part of a revolutionary movement to overthrow the oppressive regime of the country at the time. These legendary figures are referred to as Las Mariposas, or The Butterflies. This story portrays women as strong characters who have the power to alter the course of history, demonstrating Alvarez's affinity for strong female protagonists and anti-colonial movements. As Alvarez explains, "I hope that through this fictionalized story I will bring acquaintance of these famous sisters to English speaking readers. November 25, the day of their murders is observed in many Latin American countries as the International Day Against Violence Toward Women. Obviously, these sisters, who fought one tyrant, have served as models for women fighting against injustices of all kinds."

In 1997, Alvarez published Yo!, a sequel to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which focuses solely on the character of Yolanda. Drawing from her own experiences, Alvarez portrays the success of a writer who uses her family as the inspiration for her work. Yo! could be considered Alvarez's musings on and criticism of her own literary success. Alvarez's opinions on the hybridization of culture are often conveyed through the use of Spanish-English malapropisms, or Spanglish; such expressions are especially prominent in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Alvarez describes the language of the character of Laura as "a mishmash of mixed-up idioms and sayings."

In the Name of Salome (2000) is a novel that weaves together the lives of two distinct women, illustrating how they devoted their lives to political causes. It takes place in several locations, including the Dominican Republic before a backdrop of political turbulence, Communist Cuba in the 1960s, and several university campuses across the United States, containing themes of empowerment and activism. As the protagonists of this novel are both women, Alvarez illustrates how these women, "came together in their mutual love of [their homeland] and in their faith in the ability of women to forge a conscience for Out Americas." This book has been widely acclaimed for its careful historical research and captivating story, and was described by Publishers Weekly as "one of the most politically moving novels of the past half century.

Honors and awards
Alvarez has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Some of her poetry manuscripts now have a permanent home in the New York Public Library, where her work was featured in an exhibit, "The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, From John Donne to Julia Alvarez." She received the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1974, first prize in narrative from the Third Woman Press Award in 1986, and an award from the General Electric Foundation in 1986.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was the winner of the 1991 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for works that present a multicultural viewpoint. Yo! was selected as a notable book by the American Library Association in 1998. Before We Were Free won the Belpre Medal in 2004, and Return to Sender won the Belpre Medal in 2010. She also received the 2002 Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature. (From Wikipedia and Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Poignant.... Powerful.... Beautifully capture[s] the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory.
New York Times Book Review

A clear-eyed look at the insecurity and yearning for a sense of belonging that are a part of the immigrant experience.... Movingly told.
Washington Post Book World

Subtle.... Powerful... Reveals the intricacies of family, the impact of culture and place, and the profound power of language.
San Diego Tribune

The chronicle of a family in exile that is forced to find a new identity in a new land, these 15 short tales, grouped into three sections, form a rich, novel-like mosaic.... [F]irst generation American females in rebellion against their immigrant elders, and...the stories pile up with layers of multiple points of view and overlapping experiences, building to a sense of family myths in the making....  This is an account of parallel odysseys, as each of the four daughters adapts in her own way, and a large part of Alvarez's Garcia's accomplishment is the complexity with which these vivid characters are rendered.
Publishers Weekly

This rollicking, highly original first novel tells the story (in reverse chronological order) of four sisters and their family, as they become Americanized after fleeing the Dominican Republic in the 1960s.... There is no straightforward plot; rather, vignettes (often exquisite short stories in their own right) featuring one or more of the sisters...strung together in a smooth, readable story. Alvarez is a gifted, evocative storyteller of promise. —Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA
Library Journal

(Young adult.) This sensitive story of four sisters who must adjust to life in America after having to flee from the Dominican Republic is told through a series of episodes beginning in adulthood, when their lives have been shaped by U. S. mores, and moving backwards to their wealthy childhood on the island.... This unique coming-of-age tale is a feast of stories that will enchant and captivate readers. —Pam Spencer, Thomas Jefferson Sci-Tech, Fairfax County, VA
School Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the title of the novel. What steps do the Garcia girls take to "lose their accents"? In what ways does each girl try to become more American? In turn, what steps does each girl take to define herself as an individual?
2. In the first chapter, Yolanda has returned to the Island to try living her life there. What do we learn during the course of the novel that explains why she would want to leave America? What difficulties does she encounter in trying to reassimilate to Island life? After experiencing the freedoms of America, can Yolanda be happy back in the rigid structure of Island life?
3. Why do her older sisters intervene when Sofia becomes involved with Manuel? Are they more upset by the way Manuel treats Sofia, or that Sofia might stay on the Island indefinitely to be with her boyfriend? What about Sofia's transformation during her time on the Island troubles the sisters so much? In the end, were they right to ensure Sofia's return to America?
4. What is the significance of the García girls' nicknames? Why, when she gets older, is Yolanda so opposed to her many nicknames?
5. What attempts does Mami make to keep the family as a tight unit? What are the long-term effects of Mami's refusal to see her daughters as individuals? How does this effect the girls (consider Sandra's art lessons and Yolanda's writing)?
6. As children, the girls are fascinated by the presents that are brought back for them from New York. What do the toys from FAO Schwartz represent to them? In what ways are they given an unrealistic impression of America? How are they effected when the steady flow of toys and presents they received on the Island is cut off?
7. How does each character change when they are forced to leave the Island? Is America responsible for the adults that each girl becomes? Are they torn between their childhood on the Island and their adulthood in New York? Also consider how Mami and Papi change. What effect does the emigration have on Papi? How is his older self different from the way we see him when the children are young?
(Questions issued by Penguin Group USA)

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