Julia Alvarez

In her poetry and prose, Julia Alvarez (born 1950) has expressed her feelings about her immigration to the United States. She was born in New York City of Dominican parents, who returned to their native land with their newborn daughter. After her family's reimmigration to the United States when Alvarez was ten, she and her sisters struggled to find a place for themselves in their new world. Alvarez has used her dual experience as a starting point for the exploration of culture through writing.

Alvarez's most notable work, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, fictionally discusses her life in the Dominican Republic and the United States and the hardships her family faced as immigrants. Apparently the culmination of many years of effort, the 15 stories which make up the novel offer entertaining insights for a wide variety of potential readers that includes both Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

Background in the Dominican Republic

Reminiscing about her youth in an article in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominican family, mine was an American childhood." Her family lived close to her mother's family. Life was somewhat communal; Alvarez and her sisters were brought up along with their cousins and supervised by her mother, maids, and many aunts. Although her own family was not as well off as some of their relatives, Alvarez did not feel inferior. Her father, a doctor who ran the nearby hospital, had met her mother while she was attending school in the United States. While such extravagances as shopping trips to America were beyond their financial means, Alvarez's family was highly influenced by American attitudes and goods. Alvarez and her sisters attended the American school, and for a special treat, ate ice cream from the American ice cream parlor. The entire extended family was obsessed with America; to the children, it was a fantasy land.

As Alvarez acknowledges in her article in American Scholar, her family's association with the United States may have saved her father's life. The members of her mother's family were respected because of their ties with America. Alvarez's uncles had attended Ivy League colleges, and her grandfather was a cultural attaché to the United Nations. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, could not victimize a family with such strong American ties. However, when Alvarez's father secretly joined the forces attempting to oust Trujillo, the police set up surveillance of his home. It was rumored that, respected family or not, her father was soon to be apprehended. An American agent and the offer of a fellowship at a New York hospital helped the family escape the country. Describing the scene as their plane landed in the United States in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow. … All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last."

American Experiences

Alvarez's homecoming was not what she had expected it to be. Although she was thrilled to be back in America, she would soon face homesickness, alienation, and prejudice. She missed her cousins, her family's large home, and the respect her family name demanded. Alvarez, her parents, and her sisters squeezed themselves and their possessions into a tiny apartment. As she related to Brújula Compass, the experience was like a crash: "The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl." Alvarez became an avid reader, immersing herself in books and, eventually, writing.

Alvarez went on to college. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing and became an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Ingram Merrill Foundation in addition to a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature. She published several collections of poetry including Homecoming, which appeared in 1984, and by 1987 she was working on a collection of stories. When Alvarez published How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in 1991, the novel received considerable attention. The past decade had seen a surge of ethnic novels, and Garcia Girls came to be known as an exemplary example of the genre.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Rather than a straight narrative, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a reverse-chronological order series of 15 interwoven stories chronicling four sisters and their parents. A comparison with Alvarez's article in American Scholar suggests that these stories are based on her own experience; like her family, the Garcia family is Dominican and displaced in America. Like Alvarez and her sisters, the Garcia girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and assimilate themselves into the American culture.

The first group of stories is dated "1989-1972." Thus, the novel's first story seems to be its ending. Entitled, "Antojos," which is Spanish for "cravings," this story is a memory of one of the sisters, Yolanda, and her return to the Dominican Republic as an adult. Yolanda—whose story ends the novel and who acts as Alvarez's alter ego—has secretly decided to make her home there, having found life in the United States unfulfilling. When she ignores the warnings of her wealthy relatives and drives into the country for the guava fruit she has been craving, she faces disappointment. She is regarded as an American despite her native roots, and although she finds her guavas, her romantic journey is marred by her feelings as an outsider. Alvarez ends this story ambiguously—similar to the rest of the stories. The attempts of Yolanda and her sisters to lead successful lives in the United States are presented more as memory fragments than stories with definite beginnings and endings.

The next story focuses on Sofia, the youngest of the girls. At this point, however, the four girls are women, with husbands and careers. The details of Sofia's break with her father over her decision to take a lover before marriage are presented, and the events at a birthday party she prepared for her father are recounted. Sofia cannot be totally forgiven, nor can she ever return to the Dominican Republic; in the process of becoming an American girl of the 1960s, she has gone beyond the moral limits imposed by her father, who personifies life in the old world.

The third story relates some background information as it reveals a mother's perceptions of her four girls. During a family gathering, Mami tells her favorite story about each of the girls, and the reader learns that Sandi spent time in a mental institution after almost starving herself to death. The fourth story about Yolanda reveals that she too had a mental breakdown of her own after a failed relationship, and in the next story she becomes the narrator. In "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story," Yolanda's tale of her reluctance to sleep with the dashing young man she loved because of his casual approach to the matter explains her ensuing trouble with men as well as her problems assimilating into American youth culture: "Catholic or not, I still thought it a sin for a guy to just barge in five years later with a bottle of expensive wine and assume you'd drink out of his hand. A guy who had ditched me, who had haunted my sexual awakening with a nightmare of self-doubt. For a moment as I watched him get in his car and drive away, I felt a flash of that old self-doubt."

The memories in the second section of the novel recall the years from 1960 to 1970. The girls are younger, and they are experiencing their first years as immigrants. Attempts they made to reconcile themselves to their new culture are challenged by their parents, who want their children to "mix with the 'right kind' of Americans," and the girls are threatened with having to spend time on the island, which they have come to dread. In this section, the girls save their sister from a macho cousin's imposition, a pervert exposes himself to Carla, and Yolanda sees snow for the first time and thinks it is fall-out from a nuclear bomb.

The final story in this section, "Floor Show," focuses on Sandi's perception of events as the family spends a scandalous evening with an American doctor and his drunkenly indiscreet wife in a Spanish restaurant. Sandi is shocked and upset when this woman kisses her father and later dances with the flamenco dancers that the young girl had so admired. Cautioned by her mother to behave at the important dinner, Sandi does as she is told and stays quiet until she is offered a flamenco doll by the American woman, who seems to understand her desire for it. "Sandi was not going to miss her chance. This woman had kissed her father. This woman had ruined the act of the beautiful dancers. The way Sandi saw it, this woman owed her something." The woman gave Sandi something more than the doll; her smile "intimated the things Sandi was just beginning to learn, things that the dancers knew all about, which was why they danced with such vehemence, such passion."

In third and final section, "1960-1956," America is still a dream—the family is still on the island. The first story is divided into two parts and recalls the family's traumatic encounter with the guardia, or secret police, and their subsequent flight from their home. From that moment on, the tales regress to the girls' early memories of life in the huge family compound. Yolanda tells of the presents her grandmother brought the children from America and an ensuing encounter with her cousin, Sandi recalls her art lessons and the fright she had at the instructor's home, Carla remembers the mechanical bank her father brought her from F.A.O. Schwartz in New York and the maid who desperately wanted it.

Finally, Yolanda concludes the novel with one of her earliest memories—she stole a kitten from its mother and then abandoned it, even though she had been warned by a strange hunter: "To take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live." The mother cat haunted the girl until she left the island, and, as Yolanda confides in her narration, "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 her, 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 praise Alvarez received for her first novel outweighed the criticism that a new novelist often encounters. The New York Times Book Review found that Alvarez "beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Hispanic's critic wrote, "Well-crafted, although at times overly sentimental, these stories provide a glimpse into the making of another American family with a Hispanic surname." And the Library Journal reported, "Alvarez is a gifted, evocative storyteller of promise."

Alvarez's second novel, In the Time of Butterflies, was published in 1994. This work recounts the lives and tragic end of the Mirabel sisters—Patria, Minerva, and Maria Terese (Mate)—who were assassinated after visiting their imprisoned husbands during the last days of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Each sister in turn relates her own aspect of the narrative, beginning with their childhood and gradually defining how they came to be involved in the liberation movement. Their story is framed by that of the surviving sister, Dedé, who adds her own tale of suffering to the memory of her martyred sisters. In the Time of Butterflies received a favorable reaction from reviewers, some of whom admired Alvarez's ability to express the wide range of emotions brought on by the revolution. For example, the reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that "Alvarez captures the terrorized atmosphere of a police state, in which people live under the sword of terrible fear and atrocities cannot be acknowledged. As the sisters' energetic fervor turns to anguish, Alvarez conveys their courage and their desperation, and the full import of the tragedy." The novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in 1994.

A collection of poems entitled The Other Side/El Otro Lado, was published in 1995. It deals with similar themes of biculturalism and the power of language. In the book's title poem a spirit conjuror commands Alvarez to serve her own people in the Dominican Republic. But in the end she returns "to the shore I've made up on the other side, to a life of choice, a life of words." Her next work, Yo!, published in 1997, is based on Yolanda, one of her characters from her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Each section of the novel is told from different characters' perspectives, all of whom depict Yolanda as they see her in order to provide a complex portrait.

Further Reading on Julia Alvarez

American Scholar, Winter 1987, pp. 71-85.

Atlanta Journal, August 11, 1991, p. A13.

Boston Globe, May 26, 1991, p. A13.

Brújula Compass (Spanish-language; translation by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), January-February 1992, p. 16.

Hispanic, June 1991, p. 55.

Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1991, p. E4.

Library Journal, May 1, 1991, p. 102; August 1994, 123.

Más, (Spanish-language; translation by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), November-December 1991, p. 100.

New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14; July 16, 1995, p. 20.

Nuestro, November 1984, pp. 34+; March 1985, pp. 52+;January-February 1986, pp. 32+.

Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991, p. 133; July 11, 1994, p. 62.

School Library Journal, September 1991, p. 292.

Washington Post, June 20, 1991, p. D11.