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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Study Guide

Julia Alvarez

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Context


The Novel's Structure

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has a unique structure. The 15 stories that comprise the novel feature different narrators. The stories switch between first- and third-person perspectives and between present and past tense. The book unfolds in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1989 and ending in 1950.

Alvarez frequently employs multiple points of view in her work. As a woman from a social, family-centered culture she "[sees] the world not through a single bead but a necklace." In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents the changing points of view demonstrate how characters' identities change. To understand her characters better Alvarez sometimes writes a story from both first- and third-person perspectives. She then chooses the better technique to "reveal the character's emotional state" and reflect the story she wants to tell.

She organizes the novel in reverse chronological order to immerse readers in the experience of being an immigrant. "You're always ... [returning] to where you came from to measure who you are today," she says. She contrasts the novel with a traditional Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, which has a "forward trajectory" as the protagonist grows and learns. Alvarez breaks with this format deliberately in the book. To keep their memories alive the García family must constantly recall the past. Readers use their memories similarly to understand how events unfold in the book. In Part 1 readers hear the Garcías' childhood recollections as adult women. Only in Parts 2 and 3 do readers get the full narrative of formative childhood events in the García girls' lives. Like the Garcías, readers move backward in time. The structure of the novel shows how the past continues to affect and shape the present.

Trujillo's Dictatorship

In 1924, after eight years of occupation by the United States, the Dominican Republic held free elections. Horacio Vásquez was elected president, and the United States left behind a trained National Guard. When the Dominican military revolted against President Vásquez in 1930, Rafael Trujillo, one of the National Guard officers, helped plan the revolt. He won the next election by having opposing candidates threatened or killed. Trujillo then took advantage of a devastating hurricane in the capital city a month into his presidency when the need for disaster relief led the government to suspend the constitution and give Trujillo complete authority.

Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930–61 as one of Latin America's most brutal dictators. He led through terror, eliminating opposing political parties and censoring the press. No one could practice a profession without his approval. His government monitored telephones, censored mail, and enforced rules through the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM): the Military Intelligence Service, which was in fact his secret police. The novel also refers to Trujillo's police as guardias or guards. Constant spying led to an atmosphere of distrust. Trujillo hoarded national resources for himself, his friends, and his increasingly wealthy family. Statues of Trujillo were declared national monuments.

One of Trujillo's most notorious crimes was the 1937 massacre of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Trujillo focused the killings, which lasted for days, on the border region between the countries. Though the exact death toll is unconfirmed, as many as 30,000 people may have died in what became known as the "Parsley Massacre." Because Haitians and Dominicans pronounced the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, differently, the word indicated national origins. Part 3 of the novel reveals the Garcías' Haitian cook, Chucha, who takes refuge with the family during the massacre.

Crucially Trujillo remained friendly with the United States. By 1930 the United States realized they'd need a cordial business relationship with Latin America to fight the worldwide economic depression. The American need for stability continued through World War II (1939–45) and the resulting Cold War (1947–91) over nuclear proliferation and the spread of communism between Russia and the United States. Trujillo supported the United States in both wars. Despite embezzlement, Trujillo improved aspects of the Dominican economy, including modernized roads and infrastructure and a thriving sugar industry. With new schools and hospitals the literacy rate grew by more than 60 percent, and medical services improved. But most of the Dominican Republic's new wealth went straight to Trujillo and other residents of the capital city.

Dominicans grew restless for freedom in the late 1950s. Military dictatorships throughout Latin America were toppling. The Roman Catholic Church, an influential force in the largely Catholic Dominican Republic, spoke out against human rights abuses, and a group of exiles attempted to overthrow Trujillo in 1959. Venezuela requested a commission to investigate the Trujillo regime.

Trujillo increased military spending and cracked down on his repressive policies. But he was on his way out. In 1960 after Trujillo tried to have Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt assassinated, the United States broke ties with the Dominican Republic, and the State Department began working to get Trujillo out of power.

Economic and diplomatic pressure didn't convince Trujillo to step down. By 1961 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was secretly supporting Dominican opponents of the dictator. The United States' effort to overthrow Trujillo is represented in Part 3 of the book by the character of CIA agent Victor Hubbard. Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961, the year after Alvarez's family—and the García family in the novel—emigrated. Although the country didn't stabilize immediately, Trujillo's death was considered the end of a long, repressive era.

Growing up in a dictatorship shaped Alvarez's approach to writing. Without a free press or public libraries, stories were told rather than written—and even storytelling was risky. Alvarez recalls a "culture of silence" where people couldn't discuss problems openly. She has since become critical of censorship in literature, believing censorship encourages a similar culture of silence.

Immigrant Trauma and Displacement

Throughout the book Alvarez explores the traumatic psychological effects of immigration, some of which follow the García women into adulthood. Yolanda García struggles to express herself through language. Sandra García suffers a breakdown and becomes disassociated from her body. Carla García deals with prejudice, loneliness, and alienation at school.

The Garcías are forced to flee the Dominican Republic because of their father, Carlos's, involvement in a plot to overthrow Trujillo. When the plot fails, Carlos risks imprisonment or death if he's caught. An American doctor arranges a fellowship for him in New York, and a CIA agent helps the family escape safely. They join the immigrants who are displaced or forced to leave their country of nationality, many fleeing from conflict and oppression. This reason for immigration comes with its own special trauma because the immigrants don't leave by choice and often have few material resources or connections in their new countries.

Once the García girls realize they're in the United States to stay, they try to behave like Americans. Their adaptation to the "dominant," or majority, culture includes two different processes: acculturation and assimilation. Acculturation means "adopting some aspects of the majority culture, like the language and the clothing, but retaining the culture of origin." For their first few years in America the girls acculturate. They speak Spanish with their parents and maintain ties to the Dominican Republic. Yolanda's struggle to acculturate results in a "mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles."

Assimilation, a frequent effect of acculturation, means "choosing aspects of the majority culture over the culture of origin." Assimilated immigrants may want to blend in with the majority culture to feel accepted. In exchange they may lose a sense of their own cultural background and identity. As adolescents the García girls "develop a taste for the American teenage good life" and begin to look down on certain aspects of Dominican culture. When the girls stop speaking English with an accent, they reach another mark of assimilation.

This change in identity is challenging. The novel explores assimilation's psychological effects, including the girls' lingering homesickness and experiences with mental illness. Losing a culture can come with depression and grief. Many immigrants experience a feeling called "cultural bereavement," or grief at the loss of their first cultural identity. When Yolanda revisits the Dominican Republic in Part 1, Chapter 1, she realizes she's been missing the culture without knowing it.

The stresses the Garcías face transitioning to their new country also come from financial strife and role reversals. Jobs for new immigrants may be hard to come by. Carlos García faces challenges getting a medical license because of "some hitch about his foreign education." The family, rich in the Dominican Republic but poor in the United States, deals with a loss of social status.

The family dynamic changes too. The García girls are one-and-a-half generation or "1.5 generation" immigrants, people who arrive in the new country as children or teenagers. Young immigrants in this position often have their foot in both cultures. By attending school and mingling with their peers, they can adapt to the new culture faster than their parents can. Yet these young immigrants face "the expectations and demands of one culture in the home and another at school." Cultural conflict often results at home. In Part 2, Chapter 2 Yolanda and her father clash over a speech she's writing for school. While Yolanda wants to write in an independent American style, Carlos thinks her speech shows disrespect for authority. His memories of the Dominican dictatorship are still fresh, but Yolanda, trying to make a name for herself in America, doesn't understand her father.

Dominican and American Cultures

After Trujillo's 1961 assassination many Dominicans joined the Alvarez family in moving to the United States, gaining citizenship and negotiating their new dual identities. This process often came with dramatic changes, several of which are described in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.

The Dominican Republic is a religious country. More than 90 percent of Dominican Americans identify as Christian and 50 percent as Roman Catholic specifically. The family unit, or la familia, as well, is important in Dominican culture. Adult children may live with their parents to maintain the family connection. Children are encouraged to marry within their culture. Alvarez describes moving "outside this tight circle of familia-religión-cultura" to pursue a writing career. Her family, she says, wanted her to marry a Dominican man and raise children of her own.

In the Dominican culture of the 1960s–70s, the father was the head of the household, controlling the budget and making final decisions. Women controlled the domestic sphere. Male children were highly valued. Alvarez recalls young women were not encouraged to pursue careers. As a child she often heard the saying that men belong to the world while women belong at home. Young Alvarez was surrounded by many resourceful Dominican women who "exercised [their] power privately, within the home."

As American culture of the 1960s was becoming more flexible about gender roles and the women's rights movement was gathering steam, Dominican American family dynamics shifted as well. Women became primary household wage earners and controlled the family budget. Other changes after immigration included a tendency for Dominican American women to have fewer children than Dominican women. Dominican families, like the large de la Torre family in the novel, tend to be large and extended to include aunts, uncles, and cousins. After a long period of U.S. residency Dominican Americans tend to live in smaller nuclear families, though they still value extended family relationships.

The novel explores friction between Dominican Americans and their relatives who remain in the Dominican Republic. Dominican Americans' manners and lifestyle may be seen as too "liberal" or "Americanized" for Dominicans back home. In Part 2, Chapter 1 the teenage García girls, fully Americanized, spend a summer in the Dominican Republic with their cousins. Their American attitudes towards women's rights and freedom in relationships are criticized by more traditionally minded family members.

Anticipating conflict from her own Dominican family after writing the book, Alvarez assumes they won't like the community shown "in a less than perfect light" to the larger world. She quotes Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston, who warns about family secrets: "My mother told me never ever to repeat this story." But Kingston and Alvarez tell their stories anyway.

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