In 1960, ten-year-old Julia Alvarez left her home in the Dominican Republic for the United States, and by 2013, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama and had an honorary doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. So, to end Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re Spotlighting Alvarez’s debut book, which has been widely studied and lauded as a hallmark in Latino Literature. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is an episodic novel that encapsulates the Dominican immigrant identity in the United States and their struggles of assimilation, heritage, and identity.
When Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía were children, their family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. But that was 30 years ago, and now the sisters who are “too American” for their parents find themselves lost in an identity they never had the chance to form. As the narrative progresses (or regresses), short vignettes of each sister encapsulating their lives move backward in time toward their beginnings in the Dominican Republic. They struggle to cope with the distinct differences in women’s liberation and expectations between their two homes. In the United States, they are expected by their peers to be free-spirited, educated, and beautiful. At the same time, their visits back home are shadowed by the traditional values of Catholicism, a patriarchal society, and their own set of beauty standards. Torn between being acceptable in each culture but still their own people, each member of the family faces immense pressure and collapse. Their mother dreams of becoming an inventor, and their father struggles with sudden poverty; Sandra becomes weighed down by the impossibilities of beauty and stress, while Yolanda, a struggling writer, is caught between her cultures of liberation, joy, and failure. Even 30 years after immigrating, each of the four sisters tries their best to live up to unreachable standards and criticism but never quite feels whole, as if some part of themselves was left back in the Dominican Republic, where they were pushed too soon from their nest.
Told using a reverse timeline, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents keeps the reader in a sense of hesitation and disarray as we are pulled further back into the sisters’ own discordant existence between cultures. Their story is complex and reflects the natural uncertainties and confusion of being out of one’s space and into a new and unknown environment. Perfect for reading groups of mature Young Adult readers and above, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents opens itself up to deep and possibly intense discussions of the self. The stories explore the Female experience as much as it explores the Immigrant one, as a perfect study of Intersectionality (a type of analysis coined by feminist scholar and American Civil Rights leader Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). Exploring how every aspect of our identities is shaped by the other, or as Alvarez puts it in her Authors Note: “There is nothing shameful in being a complex human being.”
Last week (October 1-7) was Banned Books Week– and Julia Alvarez is no stranger to censorship. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has had its fair share of challenges and bans- even being banned from the whole of Johnston County, NC, including classrooms and school libraries. During that time, Alvarez spoke with the National Coalition Against Censorship about her experience.
Here is a small excerpt:
NCAC: How does removing a book from a school district affect students’ educational experience?
Julia Alvarez: The sad thing about the controversy, over and above the fact that students have missed out on the reading experience of that book, is what this models for them about an experience that is difficult or upsetting. I grew up in a dictatorship, where you couldn’t talk about difficult situations – there was this culture of silence. We would run into a problem and have no one to talk to. What’s modeled there by banning the book is what I find most upsetting: that it is appropriate behavior in a free country when someone is expressing something we don’t want to hear, to silence them.
NCAC: Why do you think it is important to teach literature that some might deem controversial or difficult?
Julia Alvarez: Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them. The whole point of reading a book in class is to have discussion about what these situations are like. You have writing, discussion, and classroom exercises on it, and kids come out of it having digested the experience with ways to feel and talk about it. How wonderful!
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books. 1991