The Struggles of Cultural Assimilation

In the ambit of Latin American Literature, Julia Alvarez rose from relative obscurity to prominence. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, she has become one of the most successful and most established Latina writers of her generation. The scope of her oeuvre is extensive, covering works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has also written short stories, children’s stories, and essays. Her works have been critically acclaimed, some earning her prestigious literary awards. She has received various encomia such as the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature in 2002 and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award in 2009. Apart from her writing endeavors, Alvarez has taught in various schools across the United States and has also served as a panelist, consultant, and editor. Commercially successful and critically acclaimed, Julia Alvarez is, without a doubt, an important voice in contemporary Latin American literature.

It was with poetry that Alvarez’s literary career commenced. One of her earlier, The Homecoming, published in 1984, was a collection of poetry. In 1991, Alvarez made a successful crossover into fiction writing with the publication of her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Her debut novel was both a critical and commercial success, immediately establishing her status as a rising literary star. Told in reverse chronological order, the novel charted the story of the titular Garcia sisters: Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia. The sisters were born to a well-to-do family; the Garcias were one of the Dominican Republic’s prominent families. The patriarch, Carlos, was a successful physician while the matriarch, Laura, was born into an equally prominent family.

The four sisters grew up in comfort in the nation’s capital of Santo Domingo, then known as Ciudad Trujillo. At first, everything seemed to be fine albeit with the growing havoc happening in other parts of the country caused by one of the world’s most infamous dictators, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. They were protected from these atrocities by their parents and the battalion of aunts and uncles that surrounded them while growing up. The sisters had everything life had to offer, including a big house, and servants at their disposal. They also have an endless supply of playmates in their cousins. The Garcias were the portrait of a happy family and everything was going their way. What they never expected was that Trujillo’s tentacles would one day force themselves into their safe haven. In haste, the family fled the Dominican Republic and settled in New York City.

“The daughters had had to put up with this kind of attitude in an unsympathetic era. They grew up in the late sixties. Those were the days when wearing jeans and hoop earrings, smoking a little dope, and sleeping with their classmates were considered political acts against the military-industrial complex. But standing up to their father was a different matter altogether. Even as grown women, they lowered their voices in their father’s earshot when alluding to their bodies’ pleasure. Professional women, too, all three of them, with degrees on the wall!”

~ Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Moving to New York City, however, solved only one-half of their problems. Like fishes out of the water, the Garcias struggled to meld into their new environment and assimilate into the American culture. It was easier said than done. Their early days in New York City eroded all the images of the United States. The image of the American dream they have conceived while they were staying in Ciudad Trujillo was a far cry from the reality that was now before them. They were too used to the comforts of their home that getting stripped of these privileges came as a shock to the system. Even the patriarch, who was a successful physician in the Dominican Republic struggled to establish a new practice in the United States. While there were new experiences that excited them, these were far outweighed by the disadvantages of being in a place that is too foreign.

The migrant experience was the prevalent subject that the novel has underscored. The novel vividly captured how drastic changes come with steep prices. Not that the Garcias were expecting any of it. In choosing to be a part of a new country, albeit forced, one must inevitably learn to adapt to its customs. Apart from the struggles of assimilating seamlessly into the American culture, the Garcias also had to contend with other forms of danger that they had not encountered in their homeland. They also had to grapple with discrimination and prejudice. These experiences also served as eye-openers as they exposed them, particularly the four sisters, to the ugly realities lurking beyond the comforts of their home. For instance, in one episode, the eldest daughter, Carla, had to deal with a pervert.

Because of their experiences, the Garcia family transformed into a microcosm for one of today’s major concerns, the diaspora. This makes their story reverberate into the contemporary. The story of the Garcias is also representative of their time. The assassination of Rafael Trujillo and the ensuing violent reprisals after the incident led to hundreds of thousands of Dominicans fleeing the country now in the throes of collapse. The Dominican diaspora further escalated due to other factors such as the military government that replaced Trujillo, the revolutions that have become prevalent, and the political and economic instability. It was also due to the instability that many Dominicans wish to the time before Trujillo’s regime. Trujillo, after all, was able to usher in a certain degree of peace and economic stability.

Some have found new homes in the United States while some have settled in Spain. Some of those who were able to flee to the United States did so by using rafts. The Garcias, meanwhile, were lucky for they were assisted by Mr. Victor, a member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The novel was brimming with discourses on the various definitions of home. But in moving to a foreign land, one carries with him or her vestiges of their homeland. The most pervasive, and perhaps the most burdensome, were their memories of their homeland. On one hand, these memories can keep one sane in times when they find themselves in dire straits. It is these memories that remind them that they are a part of something bigger. When the situation has stabilized, the Garcias did not hesitate to return to their homeland, albeit The story itself is a homage to memory.

“All around her are the foothills, a dark enormous green, the sky more a brightness than a color. A breeze blows through the palms below, rustling their branches, so they whisper like voices. Here and there a braid of smoke rises up from a hillside–a campesino and his family living out their solitary life. This is what she has been missing all of these years without really knowing she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never.”

~ Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

In their move to the United States, the Garcias also carried with them the traumas and the horrors caused by the regime. They had a natural distrust of the American police, a distrust akin to their distrust of Trujillo’s Military Intelligence Service (SIM). Paranoia gripped Carlos and Laura, whose memories of Trujillo’s atrocities remain fresh despite the passage of time. At the back of their mind is the fear that the SIM will find a way to retaliate. Fear continued to permeate the present. In the opening section of the novel, titled Antojos (“cravings), an adult Yolanda found herself lost in a guava field in the Dominican Republic. In her isolation, fear started trickling into Yolanda as she was reminded of her aunt’s caveats. Women were discouraged from roaming around the fields unaccompanied lest they be kidnapped, raped, or killed: “No dominicana with a car would be out at this hour getting guayabas.”

One of the most relevant subjects that the novel grappled with was the definition of identity. The book’s title was an allusion to this major theme. Coupled with the four sisters’ struggles to integrate into the American culture was their struggle into discovering who they are. They were constantly caught in the middle of the present and their heritage. At times, they have to sacrifice some parts of their heritage in order to fit into the idea or the image of belongingness to their new culture. Part of the sisters’ struggles was finding people and individuals who can relate to their inner conflicts and to the eccentricities of their mixed heritage.

Historical contexts formed an integral part of the Garcias’ story. Carlos and Laura formed their family during one of the most turbulent chapters in the Dominican Republic’s history. From 1930 to 1961, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina wreaked havoc across the nation. Trujillo would go on to be known as one of world history’s most infamous autocrats. His cruelties knew no bounds, from plotting the assassination of fellow heads of state to kidnapping and murdering prominent activists. Backed by the loyalty of the military, he extensively sent them to spy on those who were suspected of treason and of planning to overthrow the government. It was in these dire straits that Carlos found himself but thankfully, he was bailed out at the last minute by the very same CIA agent who egged him to be an activist.

In writing her debut novel, Alvarez echoed details of her own family history and her own struggles. Shortly after birth in 1950 in New York City, Julia Alvarez and her family returned to their homeland, the Dominican Republic. It was a tumultuous period as Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina had a firm grip on power. His atrocious regime came to an end with his assassination on May 30, 1961. A year before the autocrat’s assassination, the Alvarez family was forced to return to New York City. The Alvarez patriarch was suspected of being involved in an elaborate plot to overthrow Trujillo. After spending the first decade of her life in Santo Domingo (then Ciudad Trujillo), the young Julia initially struggled to assimilate into her new environment. Yolanda, the third daughter, was Alvarez’s alter ego.

“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 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.”

~ Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

All of the novel’s wonderful elements were carefully woven together by Alvarez’s descriptive prose. The language was one of the novel’s strongest points. Alvarez took on some liberties with the novel’s structure. Rather than a straight chronological story, the novel was comprised of episodes that ran in a reverse chronological story, so the story started in 1989 and concluded in 1956. While the innovation is laudable, the fragmented form of storytelling weighs down on the novel’s overall impact. It didn’t provide enough time for the readers to inhabit the four sisters’ minds. This kept them from the reader’s reach. As the story constantly switches from a first-person point-of-view to a third-person point-of-view, the sisters lost their individuality and their voices can be interchanged. The readers never get to know them fully. “The mother still calls them the four girls even though the youngest is twenty-six and the oldest will be thirty-one next month. She has always called them the four girls for as long as they can remember, and the oldest remembers all the way back to the day the fourth girl was born.”

The impact of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in the Latin American literary canon cannot be denied. In her debut novel, Alvarez was able to exhibit her descriptive prose and beautiful language while grappling with several seminal and timely subjects, including uprootedness, assimilation, memory, history, and the migrant experience as a whole. Through the struggles and the coming-of-age stories of the four Garcia sisters, Alvarez provided an intimate peek into the struggles that migrants encounter in their new environment. This makes the novel reverberate on a global scale. The novel also vividly highlighted the constant internal tug-of-war born out of the muddling of identities. These experiences pierced the promise of the American Dream many hold on to. Nevertheless, beyond these trials, hope beacons.

“Then we moved to the United States. The cat disappeared altogether. 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 in what’s left in the hollow of my story?”

~ Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Ratings

68%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

My first encounter with Julia Alvarez was through must-read lists. Her novel, In The Time of the Butterflies, was part of some of these lists. In 2020, her latest novel, Afterlife, was part of my Books I Look Forward to List. Unfortunately, it was the only book on the list that I was not able to acquire and read. My first dip into her prose finally came in the form of her debut novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a book that was also a part of my first-ever Latin American Literature reading month. Needless to say, I was excited to read the book. At first, it was going well. The descriptive prose was reeling me in. Yolanda seems to be a strong character. However, as the novel started moving forward, I started getting confused. I appreciate the innovation behind the structure. I was, however, undone by the lack of cohesion. The novel came across as disjointed pieces that were hastily woven together. This didn’t allow for a deeper study of the primary characters. There were, nevertheless, bright spots. Alvarez’s language was beautiful. Despite this less-than-stellar experience, I am still looking forward to reading Alvarez’s other works.

Book Specs

Author: Julia Alvarez
Publisher: Plume
Publishing Date: 1992
Number of Pages: 290
Genre: Bildungsroman

Synopsis

Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that comprise this exquisite first novel. Just as it is a feature of the immigrant experience to always be looking back, the novel begins with thirty-nine-year-old Yolanda’s return to the Island in “Antojos” (“Cravings”) and moves magically backward in time to the final days before the exile that is to transform the girls’ lives. Along the way we witness their headlong plunge into the American mainstream, but although the girls try to distance themselves from the Island by ironing their hair, forgetting their Spanish, and meeting boys unchaperoned, they remain forever caught between the old world and the new. With bright humor and rare insight, Julia Alvarez vividly evokes the tensions and joys of belonging to two distinct cultures in a novel that is utterly authentic and full of irrepressible spirit.

About the Author

Julia Alvarez was born on March 27, 1950, in New York City, New York, to immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Shortly after her birth, her family moved back to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where she attended the Carol Morgan School. Due to her father’s involvement in the plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, the family returned to New York City in 1960.

Alvarez resumed her studies at Abbot Academy. She then attended Connecticut College from 1967 to 1969. During her stay, she won the Benjamin T. Marshall Poetry Prize. She transferred to Middlebury College, where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree. She received her master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975. Post-graduation from graduate school, Alvarez took a position as a writer-in-residence for the Kentucky Arts Commission. Prior to starting her literary career, Alvarez has held teaching positions across the United States. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, where she teaches creative writing.

As a writer, Alvarez’s career began in poetry. Her earlier works include The Homecoming, a poetry collection published in 1984 before an expanded version was published in 1996. Alvarez’s first foray in prose was How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). It was critically acclaimed, winning the Pen/Oakland Josephine Miles Award. It was also listed by both the American Library Association and the New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), received the same level of acclaim. It was nominated for the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award. Yo! (1997) was a sequel to her first novel. Her latest novel, Afterlife, was published in 2020.

Over the course of her career, Alvarez has published a score of children and young adult fiction, short stories, poetry collections, and nonfiction works. The scope of her work made Alvarez one of the most recognized and most successful Latina writers of her generation. On top of her literary works, she has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. She also received the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1974, the Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature in 2009, and the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature in 2002.

Alvarez is currently residing in Champlain Valley in Vermont.