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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 2, Chapter 1 : A Regular Revolution | Summary



The stories in Part 2 take place between 1960–70, moving backward in time. The four García girls narrate "A Regular Revolution" with a single voice in first-person plural.

In the García family's first four years in the United States, Mami and Papi had green cards but weren't citizens. The girls waited to go home. Then Papi visited the Dominican Republic and declared "no hope for the Island." He got his American citizenship, and the family was there to stay. The García girls were devastated, for they were poor in the United States with secondhand furniture and "rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another." Several incidents unsettled the family, including schoolchildren yelling ethnic slurs at them. Mami then sent the girls to private preparatory schools where they'd meet "the 'right kind' of Americans."

The girls didn't mix well with their rich white classmates who assumed the mysterious Garcías were wealthy children of dictators "like all third world foreign students in boarding schools." Still the García girls felt a new freedom. They could smoke, flirt, and forge their mother's signature to participate in activities. Soon they had no desire to return to the Dominican Republic, associating the Island with "the hair-and-nails crowd, chaperones and icky boys with all their macho strutting."

Mami and Papi began fearing they'd "lose their girls to America." The political situation in the Dominican Republic had calmed down, and the family was more financially stable. So Mami and Papi sent the girls to spend summers with their Dominican family. They secretly wanted their daughters to marry Dominican men. The girls resisted the idea, and soon their parents threatened to send them "back home" whenever they misbehaved. All four girls, not only "the bad daughter" of the moment, would be shipped back.

Once the three oldest were in college, the sisters developed an "underground system." They'd rotate answering their parents' evening calls each weekend. But the parents somehow always called the daughters who weren't home. Each of the girls got into trouble for "skirmishes." Fifi smoked. Carla used hair removal cream. Yoyo brought home a book with illustrations of the female body. Sandi spent the night away from her dorm room. Finally the girls "took open aim and won," earning back their summers.

The last summer they're sent back to the Island they stay up late. Mami reminds them about the importance of family. After Mami leaves, Fifi asks her sisters whether she should take a small bag of marijuana on the plane. Carla thinks she'll be caught. Yoyo and Sandi recommend hiding the drugs. As the girls hear a parent's footsteps, Fifi hurriedly tosses the bag behind a bookcase but forgets about it the next morning.

After three weeks Mami visits the Island to have a talk with the girls. The sisters wonder which of their many offenses Mami has discovered. It turns out Mami's maid Primitiva found the drugs. Mami is now worried her daughters are all pregnant addicts. Fifi surprises her sisters by taking full responsibility, as the girls are used to sharing "the good and the bad that came our way."

Mami's recently been taking courses in business and economics, perhaps starting "her own little revolution" and consents to punish only Fifi. She offers a choice: Fifi can stay on the Island for a year or live at home and attend a local Catholic school. Fifi chooses the Island. She's unhappy in the United States and ready for something different.

The next Christmas the other daughters hear Fifi is doing well on the Island, taking secretarial classes and "seeing someone nice." Afraid their parents will send all of them back, Carla, Sandi, and Yolanda are disturbed by the change in their sister. When the three older girls visit the Dominican Republic again, Fifi has changed. She's dressed up, and her hair is elaborately curled. Yoyo calls her "a Spanish-American princess." She tells her sisters she's dating an illegitimate cousin, Manuel Gustavo. Manuel's origins, she says, have been the source of family gossip, and the sisters are glad Fifi has retained her old rambunctious personality.

At first the sisters welcome Manuel as their "favorite cousin." But they begin to see he's jealous and tyrannical in the relationship. He won't let Fifi wear pants in public or leave the house without permission. More disturbingly Fifi agrees to his rules. The sisters cheer when she briefly stands up to him but are dismayed when she quickly begs his forgiveness. Yoyo tries unsuccessfully to tell Manuel and the rest of the family about the feminist authors she's reading. The girls are giving up trying to "raise consciousness" with their conservative Dominican family. When Carla asks Manuel why it upsets him when Fifi goes out alone, he tells them "women don't do that here." Women may have rights, he says, "but men wear the pants." The sisters know they have one week to win Fifi back.

At night the girls usually go out with a large group of cousins. Carla rides in the car with Fifi and Manuel as a chaperone. Once off the compound, Fifi and Manuel ride off alone. Fifi tells her sisters she and Manuel will soon become sexually involved, but she has no birth control. Concerned she'll be stuck marrying Manuel if she gets pregnant, they make her promise to get contraception before she has sex. Otherwise they'll report her to the adults.

One night the group of cousins, minus Fifi and Manuel, wonders what to do. Mundín, a male cousin and the "official escort," suggests visiting a brothel. Mundín is disturbed when his sister Lucinda implies she's sexually active. The cousins are shocked to see Fifi and Manuel at the brothel, too. The three older sisters privately hatch a plan to save her.

When the cousins go out on the last Saturday night of the trip, the girls put their plan into action. Their "coup" will take place on the same avenue where their father once assisted in a plot against Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. First the girls will have Mundín drive them home, counting on Mundín's "macho loyalty" to cover for Manuel, who will still be away with Fifi. At first Mundín refuses to drive all the girls home at once. Someone has to stay and cover for Fifi and Manuel, who can't return home alone. The sisters remind him girls aren't supposed to be in public without their chaperones. Finally when they threaten to tell Mundín's father about the brothel visit, he agrees to take them home.

When the cousins return to the compound without Fifi and Manuel, the adults are disturbed. They know what's going on and worry about Fifi's reputation. Mami accuses the remaining sisters of "being bad daughters." Mami vows she won't send the girls to the Dominican Republic anymore if they're causing trouble. Tía Carmen, the girls' aunt, protests she loves the girls and needs to see them every year. The sisters unexpectedly become homesick. Fifi and Manuel return around midnight. The sisters hear Fifi packing her clothes. They're worried about what might have happened with Manuel. When the sisters check on Fifi, she angrily calls them traitors.


The sisters narrate with one voice to show how their lives are intertwined in adolescence as they grow away from their parents. The girls are "one-and-a-half" generation immigrants, or immigrants who moved to a new country as children. They stick together and help each other. Their parents force them into togetherness as well, threatening to punish them all for one girl's misbehavior.

The title of the chapter marks the women in the family as revolutionaries. The book uses the term revolution in the political sense describing Papi and his colleagues' attempt to overthrow Trujillo. But revolts also can change the course of everyday life. Papi's minor "revolution" begins when he makes the life-changing decision to keep the family in the United States.

Like a political revolution, the girls' revolt begins when they no longer want to be controlled. Many factors control them: their parents' expectations, the bigotry and threats surrounding them in New York, and patriarchal, or male-centered, guidelines in Dominican culture. The García sisters want to change the rules. Revolutions produce instability, and this chapter shows how instability changes power dynamics in the family. The revolution marks the girls' transitions from teenagers to independent women who determine their destinies.

The "underground system" of taking their parents' calls has parallels to political revolution as well. The girls know what they're doing is risky, but they need freedom. Meanwhile their parents are wary of what their daughters' growth and exploration might mean. Mami doesn't want Carla altering her body or Yoyo exploring her sexuality through books. In the generation gap parents see taboos as protections from all kinds of evil. To the adolescent Garcías the protection feels like oppression. The imagery of violent revolution recurs later when Sandi waves a hand towel "like the flag for our side." The girls try to convince Mundín by giving him "churlish Che Guevara" smiles, resembling Cuban revolutionary Guevara. Their coup is staged on the same street where their father attempted to stage a coup against Trujillo. Both daughters and father are fighting to earn back rights from a tyrant.

The narrative is also marked by the idea of conquistadores, or explorers or conquerors, discovering new countries. The Garcías land in New York as explorers, not sure what they're getting into. The beginning of the story shows how the daughters proceed to conquer new territory in their own way. They acculturate by adapting the habits of American teenagers. As adolescents they want to be accepted by their peers. As immigrants they want to succeed by fitting into the dominant culture. Like Papi reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they stake their claim in a scary new country. To survive and thrive they have to become different people. In the Dominican Republic the sisters were aristocracy with an important name. Now their name means nothing, and they reshape their sense of shelf. Their rich prep school classmates have the family names of successful products like the Hoover vacuum. The Garcías learn money and branding, not blood and heritage, get people social currency in America. They know perverts, racists, and danger are out there. But in adolescence they discover they can break taboos like kissing and survive intact. They can be braver, freer people.

Soon their sense of home changes as they feel removed from Dominican culture. Their Dominican relatives are identified by social and cultural habits that now seem strange to the Americanized Garcías. The "hair-and-nails crowd" of their female cousins seems like a restricted, required expression of femininity. The "icky boys" appear to be another aspect of patriarchy and power the García girls reject. Their parents' protectiveness becomes an effort to rein in the lives the girls feel they were meant to lead.

The girls know names can give and take away power. They translate their relatives' names into English, asserting their dominance of the language. The names change to concepts and objects, diminishing the authority of their Dominican family. Renaming in English is another mode of escape. In the Dominican Republic they feel physically trapped. The image of the trapped, dazed lizard in the laundry parallels the girls' constant desire for escape by any means possible.

While the girls fear the suffocating family compound, their parents fear the uncharted possibilities of their new land, filled with "wild and loose Americans." Mami imagines exaggerated downward spirals after the girls commit single offenses. Papi, tasked with protecting the family name, worries the girls' reputation, if damaged, could harm his own sense of identity.

When Mami enlists them to keep Fifi's offense a secret from Papi, she's drawn into the girls' revolution. Mami also has to break out of gender roles to live the "bigger-than-family-size life" she wants in America. Her outward adherence to Dominican tradition is a code, a way to protect her daughters. She accepts Fifi's admission of sole responsibility. The other daughters see how Fifi has sacrificed herself for the cause of revolution and want to help her in return.

Fifi has the same "response to traumatic cultural displacement" Yolanda considers in Part 1, Chapter 1. Fifi sees if she can go home again. But Fifi, the youngest when the girls left the Dominican Republic, has grown up almost entirely in America. To repatriate, or return to her home country after exile, she'll have to adopt a whole new self. As the other sisters see at the airport, Fifi is giving the new self her best effort. She has the visual signifiers of femininity in Dominican culture. The other Garcías see Fifi representing a certain ideal of class and wealth, one they belittle as a "Spanish-American princess." Fifi has matched her purse to her shoes in a gesture her sisters find pitiful. They see Fifi trying to present herself as an ideal Dominican woman by wearing the right clothing. The Garcías, who have struggled to be good enough in the United States, know the feelings of this painful process of fitting. They sense the pressure Fifi feels to be in a relationship. By following the gossip of the alta sociedad, or the upper-class women on top of the power hierarchy, Fifi shows she's learning social survival skills.

The older García girls now view America as the dominant or "superior" culture, comparing it to elevated "cathedral ceilings" and the Island's rules to "tunnels." They want to transform other members of the family through the culturally liberal ideals of the 1960s. Yoyo mentions French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir and suffragette Susan B. Anthony. The older girls associate reading with enlightenment and choice, becoming concerned when Fifi "rarely reads anymore." They're encouraged, however, by Fifi's breaking taboos and seeing an illegitimate cousin.

Fifi's attempted repatriation shows how the Garcías and their family fit into whatever culture they're in at the moment. Mundín, who has had a "liberal education in the States," switches back to the social codes of the Dominican Republic when he's home. Boundaries shift as cultural guidelines shift. By the end of the summer the girls want more boundaries transgressed. The idea of a "guerrilla revolution" is inherently violent. The term foreshadows the ending: someone is bound to get hurt.

As the girls grow increasingly worried about Fifi and Manuel's relationship, they take on the role of their parents. Like Mami and Papi they want to save someone absorbed in what they view as the worst aspects of another culture. Family members like Mundín enable Manuel's overprotective tyranny. Fifi responds by becoming obedient, loyal, and jealous. She's now an American trying to assimilate into Dominican culture, playing the role she thinks is expected. She's also rebelling against her sisters by breaking out of the bond they've created and staying in a relationship they don't support.

The question of women's rights reveals different morals among women of different generations and cultures. The younger García girls think Fifi has the right to free speech, choice, and options to go where she pleases. Yoyo considers the larger goal of the "invisible sisterhood." Tía Flor thinks as long as she has material goods and status, she has enough rights. She accepts that men and women are socialized differently and migrate to different patios in the evening. The group of cousins can't agree on what Fifi's rights are and whether they're being violated. Mundín, for instance, thinks Fifi has the right to join Manuel in the brothel if she wants. The García sisters defend Fifi's right to reject Manuel and live an independent life. Their revolution thus becomes a referendum on how young women are treated in restrictive patriarchal cultures. The war for "Fifi's heart and mind" turns into a clash over gender roles and cultural guidelines. Each side is being tested to see how far its morals will bend. Lucinda's frank sexual talk crosses a boundary for her brother Mundín. Manuel's refusal to use birth control crosses a boundary for Fifi's worried sisters. Male loyalty and female loyalty are both at play. And both sides face another set of adversaries: adults who can enforce consequences. The cousins use these consequences as threats and coercion.

The girls' victory ends up hollow. In their insistence on preserving her rights, they've abandoned loyalty. Despite their controversial "American ways" Tía Carmen gives them a stamp of approval. They're still "good girls." The suffocating compound might be a place where they belong. The girls realize once the doors are finally open, maybe they don't want to leave. They're constantly redefining home. The sisters can't leave behind their Dominican heritage to become completely American. Likewise Fifi can't abandon her American upbringing and be "all Island." The final sentence returns to the idea of explorers on "virgin sand." Fifi's life is uncharted territory, and she's afraid. Between homelands she and her sisters will always be discovering their own lives as if they were discovering new countries.

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