‘How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents’ Holds Particular Relevance in These Times

Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is more relevant in America in 2019 than Alvarez might have imagined her debut novel would be in 1991.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent
Julia Alvarez
Apr 2019 (reprint)

The landscape of the immigrant narrative is populated with sweetness, grace, and more than a moderate degree of hardship on the road to some sort of “dream”, American or otherwise, as seen in novels as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (A.A. Knopf, 2013), Edwidge Danticat‘s Breath, Eyes, Memory (Vintage, 1994), or Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (Arte Público, 1984). If the narrative of the immigrant is one of alienation, assimilation, then transformation, the “immigrant narrative” is a label that restricts rather than defines. Of these three examples, only Cisneros was born in the United States. Her book (about the Mexican-American experience) and the other two (Adiche’s Nigerian perspective and Danticat’s Haitian) are prime examples of how to tell the story of understanding the complex skill set required in adapting to the peculiar and particular demands of living and succeeding in the United States.

It is by no means a coincidence that these examples come from women authors. Is there something essential about a woman’s perspective that makes the immigrant narrative universal? Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill has re-released Julia Alvarez’s 1995 novel In the Time of the Butterflies and 1997’s Yo in new paperback editions, and this 2010 edition of her debut novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, makes for an impressive beginning to a powerful career. These novels celebrate the strong voice and distinctive vision of writers who are less defined by her “female immigrant voice”, per se, than the refined and elevated work itself.

In her debut novel, Alvarez embraces the determination and survival instincts over three decades in the lives of four sisters. Though she begins with the women’s lives in the United States and ends 30 years earlier, in their Dominican Republic childhoods (an approach which requires focus and attention from the reader), the through line is clear: Sofia, Sandra, Yolanda, and Carla Garcia have no choice but to adapt to new lives in New York City. Physical roots might have been torn from their Dominican homeland, but psychic and emotional roots — as seen in the way they speak to one another to many deeper examples — will never be broken.

Determining a logic to the reverse chronology storytelling is essential. In its first part, (1989-1972), we meet Yolanda, the strongest voice in this narrative, as she takes us through the opening and closing chapters (“Antojos” and “The Rudy Elmenhurst Story”, respectively.) Voice perspective shifts from first to third, but the focus is consistent.

Yolanda has returned to the Dominican Republic after many years away and the scenes include a birthday party and a road trip. “The Four Girls”, the third chapter in Part One, illustrates the connection these women have always had with each other. One (Yolanda) becomes a teacher and writer. Another (Sandra) suffers a nervous breakdown. Carla, the eldest, reviews family transgressions with her analyst husband. Sofia is married to a chemist. In the final section of Part One, “The Rudy Elmenhurst Story”, narrated by Yolanda, we get a clear sense of the complex differences between her upbringing and the difficulties of American relationships:

“I would never find someone who would understand my particular mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles.”

Rudy’s parents compliment her on her “accentless English”. Rudy and Yolanda have an active intimate relationship. He assumes she would be more “hot-blooded”, and his ideas sting her. A connection is made, but nothing is ever consummated on a long-term basis. “Had I been raised with the tradition of stuffed animals,” she reflects, “I would have hugged my bear or stuffed dog or rabbit…” Instead, as a lapsed Catholic, she pulls a crucifix from the bottom of one of her dresser drawers. Five years later, they reunite, but the spark of something that could have been does not come to fruition.

Part II, covering 1970-1960, focuses on the collective family experience as newly arrived Dominican immigrants to the United States. The girls end up at a Boston prep school. Fifi (Sofia) smokes dope in the bathroom. Carla experiments with hair removal cream. Yolanda dares to bring the then-scandalous book Our Bodies, Our Selves into the house. Fifi is sent back to the Dominican Republic for a year to spend time with her family and perhaps resurrect what it means to be a Dominican girl. Racism shows itself clearly in the light of day as Carla falls victim to school boys. Alvarez writes:

“…it was hard for Carla to tell with American boys how old they were. They were like cars to her, identifiable by the color of their clothes and a general age group…”

Later, as she has to describe to police what she saw when confronted by a suspected child molester, Carla’s difficulty in testifying is compounded (as one would expect) by language obstacles:

“Carla was forced to confront the cop’s face…There was no…recognition [in this face] of the difficulty she was having in trying to describe what she had seen with her tiny English vocabulary.”

Part III, covering 1960-1956, is the most political section of this novel and perhaps the strongest. In “The Blood of the Conquistadores”, Trujillo’s agents come to the Garcia house looking for Carlos, the family patriarch, whose resistance activities were proving untenable for the increasingly dictatorial government.

In “The Human Body”, Yolanda and Sofia and their male cousin Mundin take things a little too far while playing in a dirty shed near the house. Alvarez makes it clear that the Garcias were an upper-class Dominican family. Their Haitian maid, rich with voodoo practices from her own culture, understands she’s one of the lucky ones as she escapes the country to live with and work for the Garcias in the United States.

The pacing and perspective might take some time to fall into perfect concordance with each other as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents reaches its conclusion. Alvarez would refine this approach, and many of the same characters, with 1997’s Yo! The root of Alvarez’s structural approach and stylistic methodology allows the reader to more closely and intimately connect with the memories of these characters. Is her style meant to reflect a collective cultural amnesia brought on by the demands of a diasporic culture? An argument can be made for that perspective. The essence of the Garcia sisters’ relationship dissolved when they had to flee their homeland after the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, but it was resurrected, and grew stronger, when they came to the United States.

At times seemingly cluttered and confusing, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents will prove stronger on second read, and especially pertinent within the contemporary 21st century cultural context where the “other” (especially those whose native language is Spanish) is constantly being challenged and threatened by the current American ruling government. In other words, this story is more relevant in 2019 than Alvarez might have imagined it would be in 1991.

RATING 9 / 10