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 2 : Daughter of Invention | Summary

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Summary

This story is narrated in the third person from the perspectives of Mami, Papi, and Yoyo. Mami and Papi are called by their first names, Laura and Carlos.

After Laura arrives in the United States, she gets ideas for inventions. Trips to department stores inspire her. She stays up late sketching new devices and household gadgets.

Meanwhile she's having trouble with her daughters. At first she, like Papi, doesn't want them to become American. She won't give them permission to go to movies or shopping malls. When Yoyo, the sisters' spokesperson, says the girls refuse to return to school, Mami says they have to attend school: it's the law. Yoyo calls Laura "Mom," a word she uses only when she's upset. Laura feels she's "a good enough Mami but ... a real failure of a Mom."

When Laura gets excited about an invention, she shows Yoyo the sketch. Yoyo spends evenings writing poems in "her new language" English. Laura's daughters don't know why she spends so much time on inventions. What's the point? While their mother creates gadgets to help "American Moms," her daughters need help figuring out their new identities. At least their mother is occupied, Carla says. They know Mami needs to define herself, too. Her family name "García de la Torre" garners respect in the Dominican Republic but means nothing in the United States.

One morning Laura wakes Carlos with a cry. He is terrified by her cries. Though he knows they're safe in the United States, he dreams of being captured by soldiers in the Dominican Republic. But Laura is upset because someone else has patented one of her inventions, a suitcase with wheels. After this disappointment Laura gives up inventing—Americans "always have the head start"—she thinks and instead helps Carlos run his medical office.

Laura takes out her pencil and paper a final time to help her daughter. In ninth grade Yoyo is selected to write a speech for Teacher's Day. Faced with a foreign country, Yoyo has found a second home in language and has become a student teachers admire. But she's nervous, never having written a speech. When Yoyo begs her mother to get her out of the speech, Laura encourages her with an American saying that Laura phrases as "Necessity is the daughter of invention." Carlos gives Yoyo tips on how to deliver a talk.

While reading the work of American poet Walt Whitman one night Yoyo becomes inspired and writes her speech easily. She's thrilled "she finally sounded like herself in English." Laura loves the speech and tells Yoyo to share it with Carlos, who is reading news from the Dominican Republic, where Trujillo's dictatorship has fallen and the country is about to hold free elections. He feels hopeful and wonders whether to move the family back. But his wife is used to New York now, where she can be an "independent nobody" instead of a "failed housewife."

Yoyo proudly reads her speech to her father. To Laura's and Yoyo's shock, Carlos is appalled and won't permit Yoyo to read it in school. Laura reminds him they're in America where free speech doesn't come with a penalty. But Carlos insists the speech is "boastful" and shows disrespect and ingratitude toward Yoyo's teachers. He brings up passages Yoyo took from Whitman, including the line "I celebrate myself." While Laura tries to stand up for her daughter, Carlos rips the speech into pieces.

Yoyo is sobbing in despair. The assembly's the next day. Thinking of the worst insult she can use against her father, Yoyo calls him a chapita, or cop. Chapita was a nickname used for Trujillo. Carlos is enraged, having lost friends and relatives to Trujillo and fearing anyone in uniform. He chases Yoyo to her room, but he can't get in through the double locks Laura has installed. Later in the evening Laura and Yoyo write another speech together. The new speech is unoriginal and full of "stale compliments" but is received well in school.

The next day Laura explains to Yoyo that Carlos loves her and wants only to protect her. To make amends Carlos buys Yoyo the one gift she wants, an electric typewriter. Just as Yoyo is beginning to succeed at writing, her mother is giving up inventions. Yoyo thinks of Laura's speech as "her last invention." Afterward Laura lets Yoyo be the inventor in the family.

Analysis

"Daughters of Invention" was Alvarez's original title for the novel, as the sisters "reinvent themselves in a new language, a new country, a new way of being." However the word invention is more frequently associated with creating new devices. Laura's illustrations and ideas become recreations of her own identity: she wants to forge something new. The use of Laura's first name indicates she is her own person first, before her roles as a mother or wife.

Inspired by the technology available in the United States, Laura thinks invention is a way to make a mark in this new country. The conventions of the time period and demands of the family mean Laura must stay at home while her husband works. She engages as creatively as she can in the domestic sphere. Inventions are a language of their own, transcending written and spoken language to make a new device everyone can use. In this story she bonds with Yoyo, the daughter who shares a desire to create across languages.

Laura sees the U.S. has different identities to offer than the Dominican Republic does. She softens toward the girls' desire to be Americans, insisting they speak English at home. As the parent with an American education, Laura has an authority she didn't have in the Dominican Republic. The roles of the girls' parents have reversed.

Laura has trouble with idioms and common phrases in English. When she uses expressions like When in Rome or It takes two to tango, her version is off by a word or two. She's close but not quite there, just as the family is close to becoming American but still set apart. Though the exact phrase gets lost in translation, the meaning remains. Like Yoyo in Part 1, Chapter 4 Laura is playing with the possibilities of the bewildering new language. She takes the saying Necessity is the mother of invention and uses the word daughter instead of mother. This rephrasing parallels the idea of the Garcías switching family roles. The daughters have a power their mother doesn't. As young people they can acculturate more easily than their parents. Younger members of immigrant families often take on similar leadership roles.

The story shows how García family dynamics are shifting and throwing family members off balance. They now live in "the close quarters of the American nuclear family." The Garcías no longer have aunts, uncles, and cousins nearby as an escape or a buffer zone. They're stuck with each other. And the daughters are growing older. Their increasing maturity and cultural transition means their mother plays a less important role in their lives. They translate Mami into the American Mom to remind Laura of her failure to adapt. Laura has to help her daughters navigate a transition she hasn't mastered herself.

Unable to solve the family problems, Laura becomes an expert at solving other people's problems. Like Yoyo, when she can't navigate one terrain, she takes refuge in another one. Carla recognizes Laura is fighting the same loss of status the girls contemplated in Part 2, Chapter 1. Laura's family name gets her no respect in America. When she tries to prove herself through hard work and ingenuity, she realizes Americans will always get to the patent first. Each family member has moments when they realize they can't fully remake themselves or achieve the "American dream." Laura's moment comes when she laughs at the article about the patented suitcase on wheels. She slips back into a more familiar role: supportive wife.

While Laura and Yoyo hope for transformation, Carlos's old fears persist. The family member most attached to the Spanish language and Dominican culture, he never fully loses his accent. But for Carlos old habits remain from necessity. He's had to be wary and watchful to keep himself and his family safe. His daughter Yoyo, meanwhile, is reading Walt Whitman: an American poet who exemplifies self-discovery and self-invention. His "Song of Myself" is a proud assertion of the individual. Trying to find what she can create and destroy, Yoyo sees how Whitman has created an unapologetic, unorthodox version of himself just by using language. In America, the poem implies, you can be whoever you want to be. You can defy authority. Yoyo embraces this message as what she's been looking for. She feels she's found her voice at last.

Laura has realized she doesn't have to be a failure simply because she can't sell an invention. She can be an "independent nobody." It isn't ideal, but it's an expansion of the possibilities she saw in the Dominican Republic. In Part 2, Chapter 1 Laura is taking adult education courses and possibly envisioning a career. Yoyo, Laura thinks, can progress even further.

The three family members in the story are looking toward the future. Carlos wants the Dominican Republic to have the freedom and hope he sees in the United States. He still identifies with his home country, while his wife and daughter have become acculturated, or added American habits to their Dominican lifestyle. These include the willingness to disagree openly with Carlos, still stuck in the past.

The reader sees why Carlos, "an unhappy, haunted man" with the ghosts of his past following him, cannot abandon his old ways. He learned to respect leaders and exercise caution so he could survive. For much of his life challenges to authority were a death sentence. Carlos has his own immigrant trauma. The "TV war" and "gun reports" from the García television give the reader a sense of the conflict from which the family fled. Trauma is often represented in the book as a loss of language, and Carlos, who has never lost his heavy accent, "mutilated the language in his fury" when yelling at Yoyo. Carlos also feels the keen loss of status he'll experience in Part 1, Chapter 2. Not only can he not protect "a household of independent American women," but they don't need him. He's losing his role in the family.

By calling her father a chapita or cop, Yoyo aligns Carlos with the destructive forces he's trying to escape. She places Carlos in the role of the dictator, enforcing rules and restricting her life. As an American teenager who rebels against authority, she's leaving her Dominican father behind in what Laura calls "a savage country."

At the end of the story both parents make small concessions toward Yoyo's desire to be American. Laura writes Yoyo's speech on the same pad of paper she used to invent, and Carlos buys her a typewriter. They're giving their daughter tools to use her own voice, because they sense she'll need them.

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