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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 | Part 1, Chapter 5 : The Rudy Elmenhurst Story | Summary



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

She and her sisters "took turns being the wildest." Yolanda was the wildest for a short time in boarding school, where her "vivaciousness" led to male attention. In college Yolanda realized she couldn't keep boyfriends because she refused to sleep with them, although she was "pretty well Americanized" and no longer Catholic. Having attended college in the late 1960s when many students were sexually active "as a matter of principle," she's not sure why she never slept with her "persistent" boyfriend Rudy Elmenhurst.

In an English class Yolanda met Rudolf Brodermann Elmenhurst, who breezed into class late. He borrowed a pencil from her and stopped by her dorm in the evening to return it. To her surprise he asked her out to lunch, and the two began a relationship. Yolanda admired Rudy's "sexy, instinctive way with his body." She didn't understand the sexual entendre in the poem he wrote for class. A virgin and unsure "how sex worked," she was fascinated by language. Rudy began staying later and later in her dorm room hoping she'd sleep with him.

Uncomfortable at school among students who felt more at ease with sex and personal freedoms, Yolanda became more uncomfortable as the relationship progressed. She was wary of consuming substances around Rudy, although he insisted he wouldn't rape her. She feared pregnancy. She objected to the vulgar terms Rudy used for sexual activity. If he'd used more romantic language, Yolanda might have enjoyed herself. She was just starting to explore the physical pleasure she could find in her body. But Rudy, she complains, "had no sense of connotation in bed."

Rudy explained English words for female sexual anatomy and convinced her she wouldn't get pregnant. Yolanda wondered if her "upbringing had disconnected some vital nerves." Rudy's parents were happy he was dating someone from another culture. Yolanda didn't want to be treated "like a geography lesson" but lacked the English vocabulary to explain this.

Though attracted to Rudy, Yolanda wanted to wait until they were in a serious relationship, but he wanted to have sex for fun. The two fought, and Yolanda left the room, hoping he'd come after her. Yolanda stayed up all night thinking no one would understand "my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles." She feared she'd always be lonely in the U.S. She held her crucifix for comfort. The next morning Yolanda ran into Rudy and his parents, who complimented her "'accentless' English." Yolanda still had feelings for Rudy but felt the man should pursue the woman and waited for him to come to her. Then she saw him at the spring dance with another girl and realized how quickly he'd moved on.

Five years later in graduate school Yolanda gets a call from Rudy. She's had lovers and exchanged her "immortal soul for a blues kind of soul." Rudy's parents live in the neighborhood and he wants to visit. When Rudy arrives with a bottle of expensive wine, Yolanda is nervous and eager, wanting to catch up after five years. Rudy sees she has moved on from her "hang-ups" and wants to have sex. Yolanda kicks him out, angry at Rudy's assumption she'd do whatever he wants. Yolanda struggles using her cheap corkscrew to open the wine Rudy left behind. She sprays herself with wine and drinks out of the bottle like "some decadent wild woman."


As the narrative moves closer to childhood, the girls' identities begin to fracture as they no longer have the experience and knowledge of adults. Now they're struggling to fit into American youth culture. Yolanda reveals how she began to associate language with misunderstanding and confusion and how she negotiates her split identity. The title "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story" and first-person perspective give readers the sense Yolanda is confiding in them directly.

One way Yolanda understands her past is by treating it like a story with a plot and conclusion. Like her mother in Part 1, Chapter 3 Yolanda assigns meaning and purpose to past life events. Only by narrating her past can she understand her present and future.

For the García girls being the "wildest" is a badge of honor, for they want to be more American, and being American means being wild. But Yolanda, the "lapsed Catholic," can't complete the transition to a free, rebellious American girl. Although she doesn't fully understand her reluctance to sleep with Rudy in college, she knows what the reluctance represents. Part of her will always be an immigrant who can't make it in the new country.

As a college student she hesitates to claim the English language. Despite her academic and writing talent, she feels unworthy of being an English major. Her "immigrant's failing, literalism" shows a struggle to understand obscure English idioms, which native speakers use frequently. She's left out of class discourse, lingo, and inside jokes and, consequently, left out of the communal culture. The teacher has a hard time pronouncing her name. Her monogrammed pencil has an "Americanized, southernized" version of her name, another indication the language wasn't designed for her. Whenever Yolanda's name changes, she loses a sense of who she is.

Social cues are another type of language Yolanda tries to master in her new environment. She does things others don't, like whisper in complete sentences and bring all the semester's books to the first day of class. Her "vocabulary of human behavior" has no room for the brazen and flirtatious Rudy. Yolanda roots herself in language to understand behavior. She calls upon tools like vocabulary, connotation, and literary analysis to interpret how people act. Rudy's vulgar bedroom language and inability to respect her boundaries becomes his absent "sense of connotation."

As in Part 1, Chapter 4 she considers it crucial to give everything its correct name. At first she's detached from the physical experiences of her own body because she lacks the vocabulary to describe them. She hasn't learned to treat language casually or use American slang the way Rudy can. She associates the loose manipulation of language with other rebellious, free behavior her classmates enjoy. People who don't have her family restrictions, and who don't have to navigate her own tricky transition, can use language however they want. They can speak in the vocabulary of sexual double entendre. She, however, can't afford to be so casual with language.

But as Yolanda spends more time in college, she learns language has different possibilities. Poems don't always contain "lofty sentiments." Poems can be lewd and confrontational, and they can discuss the body. Words themselves, she has discovered, are neither sacred nor set apart from human experience. Words interact with physical activity and affect her physical desire. They permeate everything and bring power. When Rudy teaches her the English terms for female sexual anatomy, he's asserting authority over her own discovery of her body.

Immersed in a new "decadent atmosphere" with new rules, Yolanda worries she won't be able to control what happens. She imagines how her parents would react to Rudy's behavior and to hers. She sees how different the culture she's entering is from the one she can't leave behind. Though Yolanda may know she won't be "damned by God" or get pregnant from just being near a boy, her old worries never go away. What Rudy calls her "hang ups" may be a permanent part of her.

Once Yolanda understands her own desires better, she knows the act of sex means something different to her than it does to Rudy. She considers sex a "momentous rending of the veil" to be taken seriously. Rudy's words diminish the act, making it casual and "fun." Their language indicates she wants a deeper connection than he's willing to give.

When Rudy dumps her, she learns he's unwilling to see who she truly is. He objectifies her as a "hot-blooded" woman based on stereotypes about her heritage. His parents encourage him to treat their relationship as a learning experience. They compliment her on her lack of an accent, making Yolanda realize the more American she acts, the more praise she'll get.

Unwilling to fully reject or accept either Dominican or American culture, she'll lose part of herself either way. This awareness of her dual nature foreshadows her troubled relationship with John in Part 1, Chapter 4. It also gives readers context for her contemplated move back to the Dominican Republic. In the U.S. she has intense feelings she doesn't know how to express. When she tries to reconcile with Rudy, she's limited by fear, vocabulary, and a Dominican cultural taboo on women approaching men.

Five years later Yolanda is confident enough in her command of English to attend graduate school and be more comfortable with casual sex and drug use. She has lost her anxiety around "soul and sin." But the core values that led her to reject Rudy remain the same. To Yolanda his real "sin" is his casual disregard for her needs or desires. After kicking Rudy out of her apartment Yolanda discovers the failure of their relationship was his fault, not hers. But Rudy's legacy is still the "nightmare of self-doubt" continuing to haunt Yolanda. She's struggling to see herself as a "decadent wild woman" with the confidence to dismiss lovers and drink expensive wine straight from the bottle. Her inability to open the bottle symbolizes her failure to perform the wild woman's role. She's pretending to be someone she doesn't really feel like she is inside.

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