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 4 : Joe | Summary



This story is told in third person from Yolanda's point of view.

Yolanda's nickname is Yo or Yoyo, sometimes mispronounced as Joe in English. From a third-story window she watches her psychiatrist, Dr. Payne, play tennis. She begins talking to him from the window, telling him she loved her husband, John, in the beginning. She imagines herself and John "at the beginning of time" expressing their love to each other. Yolanda is afraid when she and John begin to speak, for "there was no telling what they could say."

In Yolanda's memory she and John come up with nicknames for each other. John can't think of a word to rhyme with her name and calls her a squirrel instead. Yolanda lapses between English and Spanish as she tries to think of words.

Later John tells Yolanda she needs a psychiatrist. Yolanda feels John is making her feel crazy for being herself. She doesn't trust his methodical behavior and thinks he believes "in the Real World ... more than ... in her." When Yolanda finds John has made a pros-and-cons list about marrying her, she confronts him. John tries to make up with her, but she refuses. When he brings her irises, Yolanda realizes she doesn't understand his words anymore. Nor can he understand her.

Yolanda leaves him a goodbye note but isn't sure what to say. She returns to her parents' house where her parents worry about her. She quotes poetry constantly, speaking in "comparisons" and "riddles." With her parents' permission, Dr. Payne checks Yolanda into a psychiatric facility where she continues quoting poetry. After a while Yolanda begins to feel more nearly whole. When her parents visit and her mother asks what happened with John, Yolanda answers, "We just didn't speak the same language." She tells her parents she loves them, the word love affecting her deeply. Later she asks Dr. Payne what love is, afraid he will discover she loves him. Dr. Payne says, "We constantly have to redefine the things that are important to us."

As Yolanda remembers the dissolution of her relationship, she keeps watching Dr. Payne. She imagines a raven flying out of her mouth and attacking him. She repeats words to herself—love, amor, Yolanda, blue—searching for rhymes.


Breaking with conventional narrative more than any other chapter, "Joe" is lyrical and dreamlike, taking place mostly inside Yolanda's mind and mirroring Yolanda's mental state. Readers, like Yolanda, may be confused and unsure what they're really seeing.

One of the story's main ideas is the importance of names. For Yolanda her name is her self. When she's given the name "Joe," a name for an American man, she loses a part of who she is. The misunderstanding is more than a miscommunication. It's an erasure. When Yolanda names objects in the room—"scarf, mirror, soap, umbrella"—she's getting a grip on her surroundings and her world. She sees power in naming. If she knows what to call something, she'll understand and master it. Yolanda believes the words people use to name things matter. When John tells her she needs a shrink, she asks him to use a different word, less diminishing and small, for the same concept. She struggles to write a specific goodbye letter, trying to name the problem. She fears anything unnamed, or incorrectly named, might cease to exist.

Another main idea is the failure of language to communicate emotion. Yolanda loves language. She plays with words and rhymes in English and Spanish. She imagines "a room tycoon" and tries out the evocative sounds of different words. But language has serious consequences. After her divorce she can use meaningful words only "at a cost." She knows words like love can change a relationship.

The idea of stories told and retold returns in this chapter. Yolanda sees herself as a character in a story she's narrating. She becomes "a woman at the window, a woman with a past" like the protagonist in a novel. She distances herself from the world and sees it as art, picturing the tennis player below her "on his way to a tennis date." This re-imagining of the world is one of her coping skills established in Part 1, Chapter 1 where she saw Dominican servants in gestures she recognized from paintings.

Another way Yolanda tells stories is by collapsing and drawing out time. She imagines herself and John meeting at "the beginning of time," like characters in a fairytale. They're in a primal landscape surrounded by animals and "creatures of the imagination." They repeat the word love, a word with significant meaning to her, though it may not mean the same thing to him.

But before Yolanda unravels how things went wrong, she has to start with language. Her divorce was a crisis of multi-leveled misunderstanding. Though both Yolanda and John spoke English, they didn't communicate. Even for people who share a common first language, accurate communication can be difficult. Yolanda's bilingual mind and the esteem in which she holds language compound this struggle for her. In Part 1, Chapter 1 Yolanda recalls a man asking which language was her "mother tongue," which language did she love in? This chapter reveals she can't answer the question.

At first she treats language as a game. The rhymes she and John create represent her detachment from English and her search for her real identity, represented by her name. How can she rhyme with her name if she isn't sure what her name is? Yolanda's many nicknames are "bastardized, breaking" versions of her name, breaking her, she feels, into a smaller person. When John nicknames her "Violet," he transforms her again. Each name is a new persona. Other rhymes Alvarez uses, such as the rhyming verbs hawed, guffawed, and blahhed to describe John's speech, increase the musical, textured feel of the story. Words can be heard, touched, tasted, and experienced in many ways.

The word Yo means "I" in Spanish. When Yolanda says, "'I' rhymes with the sky" she's thinking of her nickname's Spanish meaning. The rhyme also plays with the concept of "I." Then Yolanda recalls the Spanish word for sky, cielo, and escapes into "the safety of her first tongue." Spanish represents a place of home and safety that isn't there for her anymore. By the time she returns to the Dominican Republic in Part 1, Chapter 1 she'll have forgotten most of her Spanish. Her sense of self will permanently shift.

Images recur of Yolanda being broken and fractured into smaller pieces. She compares the grass spears John brushes from his pants to "little annoying bits of Yo." She pictures her "head-slash-heart-slash-soul" as an internal division. She's caught between two languages and two worlds. Eventually both of her languages crumble.

Language shows Yolanda how love and connection to other people can be dangerous liabilities. She and John don't mean the word love in the same way. He has physical desire for her, but his attitude toward their commitment is analytical and lacks Yolanda's passion. The repeated imagery of hearts, like Yolanda's heart-shaped face and "valentine" hairline, shows how the couple tries to overcome language barriers. A symbol like a heart can transcend language. When Yolanda finally can't understand a word John says, she uses the word love as an anchor. She hopes John is replying I love you. But she isn't sure. Love can't transcend their differences or save their marriage.

John's "Real World" is linear, organized, and simple. He's "proudly monolingual" with no interest in learning a second language. John's list making and tidy habits show a tendency to compartmentalize, to put things where they belong. Yolanda feels as though she doesn't fit anywhere, for she resists categorization. Neither can adapt to the other. Yolanda is appalled when she sees his list of her virtues and faults. The list is a precise, unforgiving mode of communication, which she sees as a direct attack. She reminds John she "was the one who tried to keep words out of it," not wanting them to wield words as weapons. Her own communication becomes more vague and surreal, resisting John's idea of the world. Eventually the conflict turns aggressive as words become violent and personified. John's kiss pushes "her words back into her throat." The trapped words "pecked at her ribs." In the hospital words turn into moths and birds flying out of her mouth.

Yolanda loses interest in any kind of communication with John, including the physical, nonverbal communication of sex. He responds with words as weapons. He repeats what she says and writes his name on her body, "branding her" and using language against her. In return she uses profanity to attack him. Their final failure to comprehend each other's spoken language symbolizes how different their worldviews are. Can they communicate in a meaningful way? Flowers, hearts, and the word love, all symbols of romance and dedication, fail them. Yolanda's loss of communication represents the alienating experience of being an immigrant, especially one who doesn't know the language of their new country. She can't express any of her needs and desires.

When Yolanda can't verbalize her thoughts, she borrows the thoughts of others. She speaks in quotes, comparisons, rhymes, and riddles. Her mother wonders how Yolanda can "remember so much." Like the rest of her family Yolanda is relying on memory to tell her who she is. Books and quotations are her way to communicate across time. Her translation of a passage from the Spanish-language novel Don Quixote shows she can still understand what written language is trying to tell her. In the "passage on prisoners" she recognizes herself.

Yolanda finally feels at home in her parents' love. When they come to visit, "the valentine appeared again on the earth"—both the "valentine" of Yolanda's hairline and the assurance of family affection. But Yolanda's still unsure what love means to her. She wants a solid definition.

Dr. Payne encourages her to let important words redefine themselves as her life changes. But after immigrating and learning another language, Yolanda has spent her life being renamed and redefined. Her doctor calls her "Joe," and her mother adds more nicknames. The ambiguity adds to her trauma. In the end she has physical allergic reactions to high-stakes words like her name. Like Sandi's crisis in Part 1, Chapter 3 Yolanda's identity crisis leads to a mental breakdown and a warped sense of self.

She fears if she lets herself be vulnerable enough to unleash words like love, she'll tell people her secrets. For instance, she might let it slip she's in love with Dr. Payne. The unspoken words emerge as a raven or "a personality disorder let loose on the world." When the bird leaves, "her heart is an empty nest." The raven represents the harm Yolanda fears her uncontrolled words can do. If she tells someone she loves them, will they both get hurt?

When the man below the window calls her, again, by the wrong name, Yolanda has to reorient herself in English. She takes refuge by speaking rhyming words aloud. The simple act of repeating rhymes helps give her command of the language again. She's rewriting her own English vocabulary to help her survive.

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