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Julia Alvarez | Biography

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Finding a Home in Books

Award-winning author Julia Alvarez frequently writes about characters who search for their identities in two different cultures. Though Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950, her family soon moved back to their home country, the Dominican Republic. Involved in an underground attempt to overthrow Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, Alvarez's father feared imprisonment for his political activities and hurried the family out of the country in 1960. This time they settled in New York for good.

New York City overwhelmed 10-year-old Alvarez, where she rode an escalator and an elevator for the first time. With high expectations for the "land of liberty," she faced instead a hostile world where she didn't know the language and suffered bullies' taunts. Alvarez knew the family couldn't go back to the Dominican Republic, but the United States didn't feel like home.

She struggled to master English and was a poor student at first. But the more she read, the more she realized stories could be a second home, welcoming everyone in a way the world did not. Readers could travel anywhere and imagine the lives of any character. In "the grand democracy of books" Alvarez discovered the freedom she hadn't found in American life—"a portable homeland, the table set for all." And she wanted to be a storyteller herself. Written English was another revelation, for she was used to the "oral culture" of the Dominican Republic where stories were told and retold, not written down. As a young girl Alvarez loved to make up stories but never associated storytelling with acts of reading and writing until she came to America.

Alvarez believes learning English as a second language was excellent training for a writing career. She needed to observe each word intently to figure out its meaning. Alvarez loved exploring words in English, learning their "reputations and atmospheres, their exact weights and balances, their smells and sounds and textures." She regrets never learning to "craft" Spanish, her first language, in a similar way. In school she was discouraged from speaking, reading, or writing Spanish. Alvarez now describes Spanish as an oral or "childhood language." The idea of learning a new language features strongly in her writing. Her novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents recounts how four girls raised to speak Spanish must learn English to survive in New York. The girls are frequently caught between two languages as they grow into young women.

Teaching and Learning from Other Writers

Alvarez continued her study of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, graduating in 1971. She went on to earn a master's degree in creative writing at Syracuse University in 1975.

Though Alvarez wanted to be a writer, she had few professional role models whose life stories resembled her own. In the early 1970s it was hard to find American writing, outside of sociology, focusing on people of color. Although the civil rights movement was still fresh in American minds, "Latino literature or writers were unheard of," Alvarez says. She'd been inspired, however, by Harlem renaissance writer Langston Hughes's poem "I, Too, Sing America." Like Hughes, an African-American, Alvarez could claim her own place as an American through writing. As a child she admired Scheherazade, the fictional storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights (1704), a young woman of color who outsmarts a powerful sultan.

In her first 13 years of life after college, Alvarez was mobile, with more than 15 different addresses. She worked as a "migrant writer" and teacher in programs bringing poetry to schools in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Delaware. She taught high schoolers, college students, bilingual students, and senior citizens, holding positions at the University of Illinois and the University of Vermont. In 1991 she found a permanent position at her alma mater, Middlebury College.

Novels, Children's Books, and Other Publications

Another 1991 milestone for Alvarez was the publication of her first novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. The book follows the lives of four sisters who emigrate from a troubled Dominican Republic to New York City, similar to Alvarez's own childhood journey. The sisters struggle to maintain their Dominican identities as their young adult lives become increasingly American. The book was a resounding success.

Alvarez loved teaching but decided to scale back her classroom responsibilities and focus on writing, remaining a writer-in-residence at Middlebury. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is a fictional account of the real Mirabal sisters, Dominican women who were killed fighting the Trujillo dictatorship. Although Alvarez's first two books are her best known, she explored different characters in the novels In the Name of Salome (2000) and Saving the World (2006). Her novel ¡YO! (1997) focuses on the character Yolanda García from How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.

In addition to novels Alvarez has written essays, poetry, and children's books. Her writing for children and young adults includes The Secret Footprints (2000), the Tía Lola series, Before We Were Free (2002), and Return to Sender (2009). Many of her books focus on young Latin American and Dominican women and families. Her nonfiction book Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (2007) explores the Latin American ritual of quinceañeras, or parties to celebrate a young woman's 15th birthday. Something to Declare (1998) is Alvarez's collection of autobiographical essays.

Alvarez won the 1991 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. She also has won the 2009 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature, the 2002 Hispanic Heritage Award, the 2015 Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, a National Medal of Arts, and the Vermont Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Her books have been selected for community-wide reading programs such as One Book/One City. Cultural identity is an important aspect of Alvarez's work. However, she hopes readers consider her work universal. "Good books are good books," she says. "They break down boundaries."

Alvarez's books have faced challenges and bans. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents includes frank discussions of sexuality. In the Time of the Butterflies includes detailed references to bombs and violence. These bans disturb Alvarez, who recalls how Trujillo's repressive government silenced criticism and dissent. Censorship, she believes, is another way to silence writers' voices. She thinks books should portray the full and complex human experience rather than stick to approved topics. "Literature grants us our full humanity, our good and our bad sides," Alvarez says.

Activism, Farming, and Building Community

As her writing career progressed Alvarez connected with fellow Latina writers Denise Chavez, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo, all Americans of Mexican heritage, and nicknamed Cisneros as "Las Girlfriends." Facing similar obstacles launching their careers in the United States, the women read each other's work and encouraged one another, as female writers of color fought to be taken seriously in the American literary landscape of the 1960s–70s. Alvarez's three fellow writers provided a community and strengthened her sense of Hispanic identity, sharing what Alvarez calls the "dual culture" of Hispanic and American lifestyles.

Alvarez maintains ties to the Dominican Republic through activism. In 1996 she and her husband, Bill Eichner, founded Café Alta Gracia, a "sustainable farm–literacy center" in the Dominican Republic. Alta gracia means "high grace," a term often used for the Virgin Mary in Catholic religious tradition, Maria de Altagracia being the Dominican Republic's patron saint. The café ensured small farmers received a fair-trade price for organically grown coffee. Alvarez and Eichner started a school on the farm, combining their goals of environmental sustainability and education. Alvarez also founded Border of Lights, a collective focused on political justice in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The collective meets annually on the border between the two countries to commemorate Trujillo's 1937 massacre of Haitians.
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