How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez deals with various themes such as cultural assimilation, fragmentation of self, identity, and coming of age. The book is divided into three parts, each one representing a period in Garcia girls’ lives. Part I tells about the adult lives of sisters in America, Part II depicts the sisters’ immigration, and the last Part III, describes the heroines’ childhood in the Dominican Republic. The second part of the book is especially notable because it illustrates the collision between two cultures, Dominican and America.
One of the reasons that make the depiction of modern Latin American culture convincing is the author’s biography and influence. Julia Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic, where she spent ten years of her life before migrating to the USA (Series 1). This aspect of the author’s life reflects the novel’s plot because the main characters also escape their homeland, which was under the reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo at that time, to the USA. According to Suárez, the tyranny of Trujillo and his anti-Haitian campaign inflicted fear upon many Dominicans, which Alvarez inherited in the early years of life (122). The forceful flee from the country created an additional level of difficulty for the Garcia sisters, which altered their sense of identity, representing Alvarez’s struggle with hers.
The novel accurately depicts the hardships that immigrant families face in the United States. In the second part of the novel, the girls describe their new experience in the USA: “We had only second-hand stuff, rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another” (Alvarez), 95). Despite coming from a wealthy background, the Garcia sisters were surrounded by the predominantly white society, which imposed their own interpretation of wealth onto them. As Alvarez describes, the girls’ “privilege smacked of evil and mystery whereas they came in recognizable pantyhose packages and candy wrappers and vacuum cleaner bags and Kleenex boxes” (95). This striking contrast between the “old money” of the Garcia family and the “new money” of American capitalist society in the sixties reflects the theme of the past and present in the novel. Luis explains that the displacement of Caribbean people and their attempt to adopt American culture created tension between the past in the homeland and the present in the new country (839). However, later in the book, the sisters adjust to the new environment, detaching themselves from the traditional Dominican upbringing.
The beginning of Part II conveys how each sister adopted new values of the American culture. Sandi tried to use a Tampax, Fifi started smoking in the bathroom, Carla was experimenting with the hair removal cream, and Yolanda brought home a feminist book. Their parents met all these “disruptions” in the Dominican family with disapproval, yet, the process of assimilation could not be stopped. If, at first, the sisters missed the Island and did not feel welcome in their new home, soon enough, their preferences switched, and going back to the Island became a form of punishment.
“Mami” and “Papi” of the Garcia family tried to isolate their children from the “perverted” values of the American society and strengthen the connection to the roots by making them visit the Island in the summertime. In one of the scenes, the girls were making fun of their family’s ethnic surnames and translating them into English (Alvarez 98). Even though this antagonization of the historical roots was purely humoristic, it represents the sister’s shifted attachment from Latin to American culture, specifically to “white” culture. According to Bonilla-Silva, more than 60% of Latinos living in America identify themselves as “white,” while almost 30% of all assimilated Dominicans refer to themselves as “white.” This puts an interesting perspective on Garcia girls’ Latin identity, stripped away from them in their early years. Moreover, the sisters have to confront American culture and racism in their formative years, which distorted their view on their ethnicity.
This fragmentation of self does not only affect the girls but also their parents, and Garcia’s sisters could see this change. For example, in Part II, when the family comes back to the US after visiting the Island, the reader follows the progression of the relationship between the children and their mother. Despite acknowledging the racism her daughters have to encounter daily in school, Laura Garcia disregards their protests and scolds them for acting provocatively (Alvarez 120). Yolanda, disappointed in Laura, calls her “Mom” instead of “Mam” to show how much she had failed as a mother: “She was a good enough Mami, fussing and scolding and giving advice, but a terrible girlfriend parent, a real failure of a Mom” (Alvarez 120). Laura was more resentful towards the American culture than her children. This scene illustrates the difference in their treatment of her because she did not want to give up on her strict Latin mother identity in the new home.
In conclusion, the portrayal of the modern Latin American culture in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is accurate because the author spent her childhood away from her native home. Moreover, Alvarez also managed to provide a comprehensive and nuanced look at the new identity Latin people had to create in order to assimilate into the new culture. By associating and accepting the new country’s values, Garcia girls have disconnected with their ethnic roots in favor of surviving in a predominantly white environment.
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Plume, 1991.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “We are all Americans!: The Latin Americanization of Racial Stratification in the USA.” Race and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2002, 3-16.
Luis, William. “A Search for Identity in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” Callaloo, vol. 23, no. 3, 2000, 839-849.
Series, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Suárez, Lucía M. “Julia Alvarez and the anxiety of Latina representation.” Meridians, vol. 5, no. 1, 2004, 117-145.