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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Study Guide

Julia Alvarez

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Course Hero. "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Feb. 2018. Web. 27 May 2023. <>.

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Part 2, Chapter 3 : Trespass | Summary



This story is narrated in third person from Carla's point of view.

The Garcías celebrate their one-year anniversary of coming to America. They have a cake with a candle, and Mami asks everyone to make a wish. Carla feels she "lost everything" the day they came to America and wishes to return home. Her wish is expressed as a prayer to God, since she's not used to "American wish-making." But Carla knows the family's getting more settled in this new country. They've just moved into a house on New York's Long Island. Carla notices a puzzling sign on a fence in the neighborhood reading PRIVATE, NO TRESPASSING. She always has thought "trespasses" were sins and now thinks the sign is encouraging people to "be good." Mami explains the meaning of the sign and the fact that many English words have multiple meanings.

Carla's sisters attend a nearby Catholic school. But the school doesn't have a seventh-grade spot for Carla. The principal suggests Carla repeat the sixth grade, but Carla doesn't want to be held back another year. Mami won't let her go to public school. Instead Carla enrolls in another Catholic school farther away, and she rides the bus by herself. She's nervous about the solo ride but quickly learns the bus route by heart.

At her new school a group of boys chase her, throwing stones. They yell ethnic slurs and mock her accent. Carla dreads school but appreciates her new independence. She's also noticing strange changes in her body. Every day at school brings "a host of confused feelings."

Carla watches the boys who torment her. They're fascinated by the cars outside the school gate. Carla herself can't tell cars apart except for color and size. She recognizes black Volkswagens since these were the cars the Dominican secret police drove. She imagines herself "in a flashy red car the boys would admire" but can't imagine her old-fashioned parents driving her. One day Carla notices a lime green car following her home from school. When the horn honks, Carla turns to the car. The American man in the driver's seat seems strange and beckons to her. He smiles with "a bruised, sorry quality." His red shirt is unbuttoned, and he's naked below the waist. The man asks Carla where she's going and urges her to come inside the car. Carla silently backs away from the car, watching the man. His arm pumps several times and then he's still. Carla runs home and tells her mother what happened.

Mami calls the police, making the situation more frightening, for the family still fears the police. When the officers arrive, Carla stays in the kitchen while her mother talks to them in the living room. The officers want to speak to Carla because they can't file charges otherwise. Mami remains reluctant to involve Carla, who she promised wouldn't have to talk, until one officer asks her to help them "as a responsible citizen." Carla knows the policeman has said "the magic words." Her parents are only legal residents but want to be seen as citizens. Intimidated by the officers who are "so big, so strong, so male, so American," Carla can't describe the make and model of the man's car, and the officers grow impatient. With limited English vocabulary she struggles to describe what the man looked like and what he was doing. She has no words in either language to describe the strange man's genitalia. She imagines the boys who torment her in school will look like the policemen when they grow up. She briefly considers reporting the boys to the officers. But the interview ends too quickly.

From then on Carla's mother escorts her to and from school. The boys' teasing stops, and they ignore her, but she's still taunted by their insults in her dreams. At night she prays for everyone she loves until she feels safe enough to go to sleep.


This chapter, like several others in the book, includes many tropes of the coming-of-age story. Carla encounters the threat and mystery of masculinity. She has a growing desire for independence from the family unit. She's close to the alien, inscrutable worlds of adults and sex. Her body is changing, and so are her surroundings. Though she imagines a new American future like a "flashy red car," in the end she longs for stability.

This chapter considers also how various characters are "trespassing." The word connotes danger and transgression, a sense someone has gone where they don't belong. Not yet citizens and still alienated in their new country, the Garcías imagine they're "trespassing" wherever they go. School bullies tell Carla she's in the wrong place: she's gone where she doesn't belong. A trespass can also be a sin or crime, as it's used in the Christian prayer Carla thinks of when she hears the word. The girls consider "trespasses" when they struggle with doing the right thing and when they see others commit crimes. The man Carla meets is trespassing in both senses of the word. He's in the wrong place and doing something wrong. He intrudes in Carla's world and violates her sense of the order of things.

The Long Island suburb gives Carla a sense of physical alienation. The ground itself is foreign. The grass resembles carpet, and the houses are indistinguishable from one another. To orient herself in an unfamiliar space she memorizes her route to school.

Language is a powerful tool shaping self-image. With the bullies' ethnic slurs Carla hears how the English language can be used to hurt her. New words begin to inform her conception of herself. She associates the ability to speak English with true status as an American, fearing her incomplete English will prove "she didn't belong here." Language continues to get in the way when she can't tell cars apart. As Part 1, Chapters 4 and 5 established, naming objects or concepts correctly is crucial to understanding them. Carla lacks the vocabulary to describe the man, his actions, and his car. Both languages fail her, leaving her with no way to process what happened, internally or externally. The incident would be traumatic even for someone without Carla's identity confusion and vulnerability.

Carla is alienated from her body too. She's losing her old self or "the girl she had been back home in Spanish." With the loss of an old language comes the loss of an old existence. Just as her new body doesn't seem like her real self, the bodies of Americans seem like costumes. Their faces all look "bland and unknowable." Americans, particularly adults, aren't fully realized as people to her. This confusion illustrates the strangeness of her new setting.

Her mother and the rest of her family have no less trouble negotiating their American existence, apprehensive around authority and afraid of uniformed police. Their fear affects their relationship to the country and those around them. Carla answers the policemen's questions "not knowing she could refuse." The Garcías still aren't sure what rights they have or how to stand up for themselves. Mami's conversation with the police reveals she's as powerless as Carla. She's a female immigrant civilian around two male American-born police officers. The unequal power exchange is represented by the tones of their voices. Mami's "small, accented woman's voice" represents a lack of status in the new country. The policemen are impatient when Mami doesn't know legal procedures, steps they claim she "should have learned." When the officers call Mami a "citizen" the word offers her belonging and status.

Carla feels a measure of danger at the officers' presence. Masculinity and police uniforms represent violence in her mind. The officers' casual assumption of authority reminds her of the boys from school. She sees the men at a physical remove; one officer has "the face of someone in a movie Carla was watching." Carla sees herself and her adolescent body, which is "betraying her" by growing into someone she doesn't recognize, from the same distance. She's becoming an American adult.

Carla is beginning to associate America with the intrusion of evil into a safe life. There's a situational irony in her alienation. Her family fled from the Dominican Republic for their safety and came to a place where Carla feels her safety threatened even more. Her ability to communicate and advocate for herself is compromised. She can't tell the policemen how they can protect her from the torment she fears most. The shades of her house close "like eyes that saw no evil" or like grownups who can't protect her any longer. The boys continue to trespass in Carla's thoughts.

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