How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Study Guide

Julia Alvarez

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Antojos | Summary

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Summary

The book begins with a family tree showing the García girls' origins. They're descended from Spanish conquistadores, the 16th-century Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru, on their mother's side. A distant grandfather married a Swedish woman, giving the family European blood. Their mother, Laura, is part of the wealthy de la Torre family. Their father, Carlos, is one of 35 siblings in the large García family. Most relatives mentioned in the book are from the de la Torre family.

Part 1 focuses on the García sisters' adulthoods in America. This story is narrated in third person from Yolanda's perspective.

In 1989 Yolanda García, a Dominican American woman in her 30s, returns to the Dominican Republic, for the first time in five years, to visit her large extended family. Yolanda watches her well-dressed aunts and cousins in the house before she enters. She feels shabbily dressed in comparison. Tía Carmen scolds a maid, Iluminada, for not getting cake matches. The family is welcoming Yolanda back with an "Island cake." Yolanda's family greets her enthusiastically as "Miss America." Her cousin Lucinda says she's too thin. Tía Flor says, "Welcome home to your little Island!" Tía Flor tells a story about her chauffeur running out of gas in a low-income neighborhood. The "little cousins" show Yolanda her cake. The children argue about whether the five candles represent the Dominican Republic's five major cities or the five years Yolanda has been away.

Yolanda sits with her aunts and cousins looking over the large compound where the family lives. Lucinda asks about the "four girls," Yolanda and her three sisters. Yolanda tries to answer in Spanish and is scolded when she slips into English. Her aunts say her Spanish will improve with practice. Yolanda feels she might go "blank over some word in English" when she returns to the United States. Secretly she's not sure she'll go back at all.

The aunts and cousins ask what Yolanda wants to do while she's visiting. "Any little antojo," Tía Carmen tells her. When Yolanda asks what an antojo is, Tía Carmen explains it's "like a craving for something you have to eat." Another aunt explains antojo "is a very old Spanish word." Yolanda does have a craving: for guavas, a tropical fruit. She plans to pick some when she travels north. The aunts are critical. "A woman just doesn't travel alone in this country," Tía Flor says. Yolanda's cousin's wife, Gabriela, offers to lend her a car. When Yolanda says she'll take the bus, the aunts and cousins laugh. Buses are for campesinos, or farmers, and their animals. The family keeps mentioning "trouble" and "the way things are," and Yolanda is curious what they mean. The aunts acknowledge recent "incidents" and rumors of "guerrillas in the mountains." Gabriela assures Yolanda everything's fine.

The cake is ready. As everyone sings "Bienvenida" or "Welcome" to Yolanda, she reflects on the 29 turbulent years she and her sisters spent in the United States. She wishes "Let this turn out to be my home," as she blows out the candles.

Later in her visit Yolanda drives up to the foothills. The green hills and solitary farmhouses make Yolanda realize "this is what she has been missing all these years." She pulls over to let a crowded bus pass, and the men on the bus call out to her. Yolanda turns on the radio. She imagines "the faint, blurry voice on the airwaves [as] her own ... calling for help," wondering if the voice would call in English or Spanish. Driving past roadside stands Yolanda sees plenty of food but no guavas. She passes a large compound similar to her family's. The residents may be her relatives—rich Dominican families tend to intermarry. Yolanda's family gave her a list of relatives to visit, but she plans to travel on her own.

Yolanda stops at a small cantina or bar. A poster advertising soap is tacked to the roof. The blond woman on the poster has "her mouth opened in a wordless cry." An old woman with a shy little boy in tow serves Yolanda. She asks the woman where she can find guavas. The boy, José, says he can find some for her in a nearby grove. Several other little boys admiring Yolanda's car offer to go with him. Yolanda says she'll drive the boys up to the grove, and they pile excitedly into her car. She takes a bumpy, isolated road up to a guava grove and harvests several guavas with the boys.

On the way back to the car Yolanda worries she's lost. She remembers "the warnings of her old aunts" about rape and murder. It's nearing sunset by the time Yolanda finds the car. Most of the little boys have run off "to gather kindling," leaving only José with her. When she starts driving back, she gets a flat tire almost instantly. She sends José to the compound she spotted earlier. Maybe someone there can change a tire. José recognizes the compound as "the Miranda place," and Yolanda realizes the Mirandas are on her list of relatives.

Two men approach Yolanda as she waits by the car. They're wearing work clothes and carrying machetes. Yolanda is too afraid to speak or move. The men ask if she needs help, guessing she's American and can't speak Spanish. Yolanda explains her situation in English, and the men finally recognize the name Miranda. They change her tire, refuse her offer of payment, and then disappear into the grove, which is growing darker as the sun sets. José returns in tears. He said the guard at the compound didn't believe his story. Yolanda gives him the dollar she promised him, but she can tell he's still ashamed and upset. She drops José off at the cantina and waves goodbye to the woman.

Analysis

The family tree shows the significance of family connections to the girls' sense of identity. Many of the tree's details are woven into the family lore. The "Swedish girl" who married their great-great-grandfather is responsible for the second García daughter's light skin and blue eyes. Tía Mimí's late marriage, a subject of family gossip in Part 3, Chapter 2, is indicated by "m. finally" next to her name. Cousin Manuel Gustavo's "illegitimate" origins, discussed in Part 2, Chapter 1, show in his birth "by una mujer del campo" or a woman from the countryside. As the girls seek the culture they've left behind, they'll consult the family tree.

The girls' complete family name is García de la Torre. Last names in Spanish-speaking countries often follow this convention. The father's last name (García) is first, followed by the mother's last name (de la Torre). The de la Torres are a prominent Dominican family in the book. Although they go by the last name García in the United States, the girls often refer to themselves as de la Torre family members.

Because the novel moves backward in time, "Antojos" is chronologically the last story. Yolanda has already become an American, having lost her accent and most of her Spanish. Now she's trying to see which parts of her Dominican heritage she has kept. Readers see the family the way Yolanda sees them as an outsider. The cousins and aunts are presented as a group in "flashes of color" and "the greys and blacks of widowhood." She thinks individual family members and servants resemble works of art. Cousin-in-law Gabriela fits the image of a "romantic heroine," and maid Iluminada makes a "gesture of pleading." Art and imagery help Yolanda keep her family at a distance. She doesn't want to get too emotionally involved.

Yolanda notices details about the family's privileged status, like the "well-tended gardens" and the casual demands made of the servants. The tone indicates the routines of the wealthy de la Torre clan seem strange to Yolanda now. She judges her cousin Lucinda's elaborate outfit and makeup, a style implied to be popular in the Dominican Republic, as reminiscent of "call girls." On her travels she sees the abundant food and can't believe the island has as much poverty as people claim. Engaging with the country as an outsider, she is projecting her American ideas onto its reality.

In turn she imagines how the family will judge her as an unkempt foreigner "like one of those Peace Corps girls" or American women who visit Latin American countries. Visual signifiers like clothing show how Yolanda doesn't belong, even in the company of her own family. She identifies more as American than as Dominican. She thinks she can take public transportation alone the way she might in an American city. To her family this assumption shows how long she's been gone. She's forgotten essential details of Dominican life.

Further on readers begin to understand what language means to Yolanda, as her two languages vie for attention. When speaking one language for a while, she forgets words and phrases in the other. Language represents the entanglement of her two identities and the resulting confusion she feels when engaging with the world. The past continues to intrude on the present as her relatives coax her to speak her first language.

Soon Yolanda starts to see the past more clearly than the present. She recognizes her adult cousin Carmencita but not Carmencita's daughter who looks like the version of Carmencita Yolanda remembers. The face is a "ghostly resemblance" showing how the past will never rest. Yolanda's cake is a literal illustration of her Dominican roots, including the country's major cities and the route she plans to travel. She wants to find the home in her past she can't find in her current life.

The word antojo represents a heritage deep in Yolanda's blood from "before the United States was even thought of." She's reminded she was Dominican before she was American. But an antojo isn't an ordinary craving. It's given by a santo, or spirit, creating a desire a person can't explain. Yolanda's desire to connect to her culture is an antojo. She wants to avoid "the mighty wave of tradition" about how women should behave, keeping her free American identity. But the craving remains. At first Yolanda isn't sure what she's craving. She envies her cousins' stability. As "women with households" the cousins have a fixed sense of identity Yolanda and her sisters lack. But she recognizes how the family functions as a unit, and she wants to develop an independent identity. She's more comfortable traveling on her own. If Yolanda chooses her Dominican identity, her self will become an extension of the family. By putting the list of relatives in the glove compartment she signals she's choosing her American identity. In the Dominican Republic she has familial comfort and a meaningful household name. In America she has the freedom to do as she chooses. She can't have both.

When Yolanda sees the home of a working-class farmer or campesino, she responds emotionally. She feels this natural tableau is her antojo, or "what she has been missing all these years." Her home isn't in America but it's not with the wealthy, insulated family on the compound. Where does she belong? As Yolanda contemplates repatriating in the Dominican Republic, she sees images of danger and entrapment. Her family alludes to "troubles" but doesn't specify. The image of a guard imprisoned behind the Mirandas' compound wall evokes a feeling of menace and unrest. The bus reveals the presence of the military. The "undertow of men's voices" from the bus propels Yolanda to the safety of the car. She imagines the voice on the radio "trapped in a wreck." Yolanda too feels trapped in a world with unknown dangers. She knows the family wants to protect her but isn't sure from what.

The voice on the radio echoes her mental state. She feels as though she's "calling for help" and can't be heard. But she isn't sure which language she's using. Which is her "mother tongue"? A first language is referred to as a "mother tongue" because, like a parent, it's meant to be a nurturing foundation and an anchor of stability. A language can be a home. But Yolanda has forgotten Spanish and can't find a home in English. In "profound emotion," like her fear in the guava grove, she goes silent. She resembles the woman on the soap advertisement, stuck in an image and unable to communicate from "her mouth open in a wordless cry."

The protection of Yolanda's family traps her even further. So does the protection of the woman at the cantina. Yolanda doesn't want to play the role of the rich Doña with a nice car who needs to be waited on. Her family gives her a high place in the Dominican class hierarchy, but it's not a place she enjoys. She also doesn't want to be treated as a rich American tourist. When she asks to go to the guava grove herself, she's pleading to become someone else.

The woman at the cantina and the young boy are working-class Dominicans. Generous and proud of her work, she knows the lay of the land as does her grandson with his patriotic names. The young, self-sufficient José Duarte Sánchez y Mella has the names of the three fighters who earned Dominican independence from Spain, "the country's three liberators" as Yolanda calls them.

Yolanda thinks of herself as an adventurer, comfortable in the country. She finds the descent to the coast only "slightly" dangerous though "her aunts warned 'very.'" But when night falls and she can't find the car, she isn't sure she's up to the task. The ride to the guava grove is in "wilder, more desolate country." The images gradually become more menacing as the sun sets. Readers are meant to wonder what will happen when the two men appear on the road with weapons. At this point Yolanda has heard rumors of trouble and guerrilla soldiers but doesn't know whether to believe them. She reverts to American assumptions that the men will do her harm. The men identify her as an American outsider, a role she accepts when she starts speaking English.

Then she plays the role of the wealthy Dominican, mentioning a connection to the Miranda family and offering money. After invoking a name and "dragging up roots" she is able to move. Despite trying to make it on her own, she falls back on names and family connections to earn respect. She sees "Iluminada's gesture, José's gesture" in the taller man looking at the ground. She's back in a country with strict rules about the way people of different social classes carry themselves. The novelty of being treated as a rich aristocrat isn't one she can easily accept.

The reaction of the guard at the Miranda house shows how out of place Yolanda really is. A woman traveling alone is not only unacceptable, but it's unbelievable. She may have to unlearn her ideas of liberation and independence to live in the Dominican Republic. She sees the difficult position she's put José in, having to defend her behavior. As an apology she gives him more money than she promised, trying to pacify him with money as an American tourist might. No matter what Yolanda tries to do, she can't escape either her American present or her Dominican past. Like the woman in the soap poster "calling someone over a great distance," she can't make her true self known or heard.

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