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 3 : The Four Girls | Summary

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Summary

This story is narrated in the third person and discusses all four García girls.

Their mother still calls them "the four girls" when they're in their late 20s and early 30s. As children they dressed alike, each girl's outfits and accessories a different color. The color code saved the mother time. When the girls wanted individual clothes "she couldn't indulge identities." As women the girls criticized the color system as harmful to their development. Carla, the eldest daughter and a child psychologist, thought the system "weakened the four girls' identity differentiation abilities." When the family is together, though, the girls praise the good work their mother did raising them.

The mother has a "favorite story" about each of the girls. At Carla's wedding she told the story about young Carla wanting red sneakers. The family couldn't afford them, so their mother accepted some from a family friend. But they were white, and Carla insisted on red. Carla's father helped her paint the white sneakers with red nail polish. The family interrupts at several points during the story. They've heard it before.

Yolanda has become a teacher. She wanted to be a poet but hasn't written anything in years. The mother often came to Yolanda's poetry readings despite the sexually suggestive nature of the poems. At one reading the mother sat beside Yolanda's lover Clive. Though she didn't know who he was, she immediately started talking about Yolanda. Clive knew the sisters had gone through divorces and personal troubles despite their "heavy-duty Old World" parents. The mother told a story about losing three-year-old Yolanda on a bus in New York, only to find her reciting a poem to the passengers.

The mother no longer has a favorite story about Sandra, for the recent past with Sandra is painful. She and the girls' father committed Sandra to a psychiatric hospital. Instead of telling a story the mother relates Sandra's symptoms to the psychiatrist Dr. Tandlemann. Though Dr. Tandlemann thinks Sandra's had only "a small breakdown" the mother thinks something more is going on. The mother has had trouble with all her daughters, especially with their "bad men," but only Sandra, she thinks, has gone crazy.

Sandra always took pride in her looks, the mother explains. Then Sandra started a restrictive diet and went away to graduate school. Soon Sandra's parents found out she was in the hospital. Dangerously thin, Sandra was determined to read all the great books ever written before she stopped being human. Sandra was convinced the change was already happening. Her parents tried to feed her, but she wouldn't eat. One morning they found her staring at her "monkey hands."

The mother tells Sofía's story to a strange man at the maternity ward when Sofía's daughter is born. Sofía was the most difficult birth, taking 24 hours of labor. But Sofía's always been lucky. Her parents were so tired after her birth they missed burglars breaking in and stealing all their things. But the burglars were caught and the stolen goods returned. She adds Sofía was lucky to meet her husband, Otto, on a church trip to Peru.

On the Christmas after Sofía's daughter's birth the sisters gather at Sofía's house. They tell each other the truth about their lives. Sandra has just been released from the hospital, and Yolanda's lover, Clive, has left her again. Psychologist Carla encourages her sisters "with calls to self-improvement." Sandra discusses the man the girls' mother, Mami, met at the hospital. All the girls have heard different versions of the story of how Sofía and Otto met. Mami's version is romantic and far from the truth. Sandra and Yolanda mock their father Papi's exaggerated disowning of Sofía after discovering her love letters. Sofía is still estranged from Papi, but Carla reassures her he'll come around. As Papi, Mami, Otto, and Carla's husband file in to join the girls, Mami begins another story about Sofía's birth. Everyone listens.

Analysis

This chapter is about how stories, told and retold, can reshape history. The mother's storytelling reveals the girls' adult identities and explores their traumas. Alvarez says during the cultural transition of the García sisters "the telling of stories ... becomes the string in the labyrinth for them." Trapped in the labyrinth of a new country the family members use stories to locate themselves again and learn where they're going.

The chapter demonstrates the symbols of names and nicknames. Depending on the story, the third-person narrator will use different names to refer to the characters. In this story and in Part 1, Chapter 2 the narrator calls the García parents "the father" and "the mother." This technique shows the story will focus on the parents' roles within the family, not on their roles as individuals. Likewise the girls are lumped together with their extended family by the nickname "the four girls." At the beginning of the story the girls are only the first, second, and third girl, and the baby. Once the mother tells their individual stories, the girls are referred to by name.

Carla's response to her mother's color-coding system reflects Sofía's relationship to her father in Part 1, Chapter 2. Both adult daughters criticize and challenge their parents, making the parents reflect on where they might have gone wrong. When the mother is confused by "psychology talk," she sees how the roles of parents and children have been reversed. The daughter is asserting power over the mother by speaking a language the mother doesn't understand. Still the adult women want the approval of their parents. Sofía wants to reconcile with her father. Carla relishes being "the favorite of the moment" at her wedding.

The language Carla discusses in her paper mirrors the "identity differentiation abilities" used to refer to the girls. At first they're a group, a family unit. Then they become individuals. This change represents both the ordeal of growing up and the process of acculturation to the United States. As young girls in the family-oriented Dominican Republic the Garcías defined themselves as part of a family unit. As young women in America, a country that encourages individual expression, they had to reshape themselves.

The mother's "favorite story" reveals how she lives in the past, a past she reshapes and remakes. Having lost authority in her daughters' lives, she takes control of their memories. She has the final word when Carla and Sandi are bickering, insisting, "Listen to my story." She retells the tales to make them neater and more plot-centered than real life, as if there's a plan all along. Her plots are "providential," relying on the right thing happening at the right time. Like her daughter Yolanda, the writer, Mami has a narrative and a purpose in mind.

Each family member's response to the stories displays their own self-image. The story of Carla's sneakers relies on Mami's description of the family's poverty. She wants to paint the picture of a troubled past with "no money coming in." Papi, whose own identity relies on his role as the breadwinner, reminds her he was working. He asserts his own worth specifically to his son-in-law, assuring him he repaid the loan. The daughters respond to the story from a sarcastic distance, the same distance they want from their childhood eccentricities. Carla, the child psychologist, wants to analyze her former behavior. When she and her husband search for "unresolved childhood issues" in the story of the red sneakers, Carla shows her profession is a way for her to understand her past.

Yolanda's own life story is marked by failure to reach her professional goals. Her mother gives her story "the charm of a prophetic ending" Yolanda's career lacks in real life. Mami makes her daughter a prodigy destined for success. The exaggeration in Mami's story, which describes the bus as crowded like "sardines in a can," shows how she admires what Yolanda has become and makes her daughter the heroine of an improbable tall tale. Yolanda, however, would prefer to control her own story. She wants to be called by her full name instead of her childhood nickname. She sees nicknames as ways to strip or diminish her identity, like "bastardized" or illegitimate versions of her real self. She presents a sexually active adult self in her poetry, a version of herself her parents can't fully understand or accept.

The mother tells each of the girls' stories to a male observer from outside their culture, a reader surrogate hearing the story for the first time. These observers are both confused and intrigued, adding their own commentary through the narrator. Their perspectives contribute to the shifting tone of the story, demonstrating how everyone's narrative of the Garcías is different.

Clive, Yolanda's lover, doesn't see how "pretty wild" girls can come from restrictive "Old World" parents. He sees the contradiction at the heart of the girls' existence—a conflict between the old and the new. Yolanda, for instance, remains "caught between the woman's libber and the Catholic señorita." She's too conservative for one identity and too liberal for the other. The novel reveals how none of the girls can successfully reconcile this conflict. Their wildness is a search for new ways of being. Their lives don't have happy endings.

Sandi's breakdown challenges the mother's need for an optimistic narrative. Mami wants things to work out well for her daughters, in stories if not in life. She'd rather "forget the past" and its painful events so she can tell a story with a better outcome. But Sandi is still a part of the family—Mami emphasizes to Dr. Tandlemann Sandi's role as one of "four girls."

Sandi's identity crisis is expressed through her body image. Just as her sister Yolanda doesn't feel at home in her native language, Sandi doesn't feel at home in her body. She has European features like light skin and blue eyes, features her mother considers enviable. But her light skin doesn't fit with her Dominican identity. She doesn't look like her family members. Meanwhile she's absorbed the American cultural beauty standard of thinness. Where does she fit? Who is she supposed to be? The trauma of immigration in Sandi's case leads to questioning her own existence. If she doesn't fit easily into a group or category, is she human at all? She'll have to work harder than American-born students to achieve the same success. In the end she feels she has to prove herself even to stay human. If she reads "the great works of man," she can earn her human body. This consistent struggle to prove worth through conventional success can be a side effect of immigrant displacement. Sandi wants to show she belongs. The girl walking on the hospital lawn, imagining a lawnmower as "a roaring animal on a leash," illustrates the idea of seeing things differently from what they are. Sandi sees her hands as "monkey hands." The mother sees a past that never happened.

Mami's retelling of the girls' stories becomes a way to justify the decisions she made as a mother. In her version of Fifi and Otto's meeting, Mami asserts she'd never send Fifi on an unchaperoned trip. She wants to ward off the judgment of the listener by assuring him the story has a happy ending. By triumphantly telling the story of Fifi's luck, Mami hopes to pass the same luck to her granddaughter.

The sisters defiantly relate their "true stories" to one another, full of unresolved problems. Readers learn the girls have distinct identities within the group, though some don't want to inhabit those identities. Sandi and Yolanda, both emotional and fragile, have an instinctive understanding of each other. Sandi has adopted her mother's desire to forget and rewrite the past. Yolanda is "sensitive to language" and especially to names—she wants to be called by the right name. Carla and Fifi have both taken on maternal roles. Carla finds purpose in "calls to self-improvement" the way Mami finds purpose in stories. Fifi's identity has changed with the birth of her daughter. She's now called the "new mother" by the narrator and becomes a peacemaker among the sisters.

The girls, like their mother, use stories of the past and the present to reveal their own needs and desires. Sandi doesn't fill in details about the man she's seeing, for she wants to wait for a better ending. Yolanda uses love stories with happy endings to analyze the past and figure out where she went wrong. Both Mami and Yolanda need "providential" plots to put their lives in perspective.

García family members inhabit the identities of one another through mimicry. The narrator points out who's a good mimic or storyteller and who isn't. The good mimics can create a new version of the person they're imitating. The four girls use mimicry as one of their tools to rewrite the past with humor, wit, or a different outcome. Their retelling helps them cope with troubling events of the past. "Nothing like a story to take the sting out of things," Fifi says as her sisters give an exaggerated, comical version of Papi's disowning his youngest daughter. Yolanda and Sandi's version of the story takes it out of Fifi's hands. Fifi and other Garcías let their narratives be retold and rewritten by other family members. She likes her family's "exciting stories" better than the boring truth of how she really met Otto. Her story becomes woven into the family narrative, different for every member. Though the girls find a common ground in family stories, they all want their lives to be self-determined. Yolanda's baby blanket for Fifi's daughter includes all four of the girls' childhood colors. The new baby can pick who she wants to be.

At the end everyone discards their narratives and listens to "the mother." Even if they don't always agree with her, she's the matriarchal keeper of the family's history.

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