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 5 : Floor Show | Summary

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Summary

This story is narrated in the third person from Sandi's perspective.

Mami is lecturing the girls on how to behave at an American restaurant. The girls have heard Mami's speech, "the Epistle," many times. This dinner will be with an important American couple, the Fannings, so the girls listen. Sandi begs her mother not to order any food she doesn't like. When the other girls chime in with pleas, Mami stops them. Mami's has had a "panicked look" since their arrival in America three months ago. Mami assures the girls they'll have fun. It's a fancy Spanish restaurant and features a floor show. Sandi asks what a floor show is, and Mami gets excited. The show will be Spanish flamenco dancing, she says while demonstrating a few flamenco steps.

They hear thumps on the floor from their downstairs neighbor, an older woman the family calls La Bruja, or "the witch." La Bruja complains frequently to the building's superintendent, Alfredo, about the family's noise and the smell of their cooking. Mami has told Alfredo the family has to move around and breathe. Alfredo, a Puerto Rican immigrant, has reassured Mami she'll get used to the new country. Sandi distrusts Alfredo. She thinks he's too friendly and wishes he'd speak to them in Spanish instead of English. Sandi stomps loudly and deliberately to upset La Bruja when the girls pretend to be bullfighters. She remembers when La Bruja insulted the family with ethnic slurs in the hallway.

To the girls' relief, Papi is in a good mood on the night of the dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Fanning. Papi has been worried about the situation in the Dominican Republic. Tío Mundo is in prison, and Tío Fidelio might be dead. Dr. Fanning is helping Papi get his American medical license so he can find work. Dr. Fanning also arranged the fellowship allowing Papi and the family to move to America. Now the doctor and his wife are treating the Garcías to an expensive dinner. Mami says the Fannings are nice people and admonishes the girls to behave themselves.

The girls are wearing tights, an uncomfortable new article of clothing, that remind Sandi of the bandages on Egyptian mummies. Sandi watches Mami putting on a diamond necklace with her fancy black dress. Mami sometimes jokes about selling the necklace if the family ever gets desperate. Sandi imagines sacrificing for the family herself by selling her charm bracelet or her long hair. She wants to "present herself to the Fannings as the daughter willing to make these sacrifices." Maybe the Fannings will adopt her and give her money.

The building's doorman, Ralph, escorts the Garcías out of the door. Ralph is an Irish American who Mami says makes more money than Papi does. Mami has told the girls most of their money comes from their grandfather Papito. Papi requests a taxi, an unusual treat. The Garcías usually take the bus. Sandi squeezes her father's hand. She realizes she's been missing "this kind of special attention." At home in the Dominican Republic a large household staff tended to the children's needs, and the girls felt important.

At the restaurant the girls are awed by the elegant place settings and handsome waiters in bullfighter costumes. Papi allows the girls to order Cokes. Once the waiter leaves, Mami tells Papi how expensive Cokes are. Mami is the authority because she went to school in the U.S. and speaks without an accent. Papi says tonight's a celebration, and the girls should have what they want. He cringes when Mami adds the Fannings are paying and reminds him how well the Garcías treated the Fannings when the American couple visited the Dominican Republic.

The Fannings arrive and greet the Garcías. Dr. Fanning tells Papi about a house doctor job at a hotel. Papi looks grateful and embarrassed. Mami explains they haven't heard from their Dominican family since a recent news blackout. Meanwhile Mrs. Fanning is drinking alcohol rapidly. Sandi studies Mrs. Fanning and wonders how such a plain woman ended up with the handsome doctor. She must come from a good or wealthy family, Sandi thinks. Dr. Fanning invites the girls to order. The girls expect Mami to order for them, and she does. Dr. Fanning recommends other dishes, but Mami says the girls will like the dish she ordered. The girls know this means they'll have to like it. Sandi watches the white American guests, who could eat anywhere but chose a Spanish place. She realizes in spite of La Bruja's slurs "Spanish was something other people paid to be around." She makes flirtatious eye contact with a waiter.

Later Sandi, Papi, and Mrs. Fanning visit the restrooms. Mrs. Fanning mispronounces the Spanish words for men and women on the bathroom doors. Sandi notices Papi is "stiffly well-mannered" around American women. In the restroom Sandi notices her reflection in the mirror and thinks she is pretty, able to pass for American with her light hair and blue eyes. As Sandi opens the women's bathroom door, she sees Mrs. Fanning kiss Papi on the lips. Sandi is stunned. When Sandi and Papi emerge from the restrooms, Papi explains Mrs. Fanning is drunk. He says he can't do anything to insult the Fannings since they provide his only opportunity in America and asks Sandi to keep the kiss a secret from her mother. Mrs. Fanning emerges and flirts with Carlos. Sandi is disturbed and wishes she'd never seen the kiss.

Back at the table Sandi realizes the attractive waiter could kiss her on the lips and doesn't look at him again. Sandi starts watching the Fannings and their "mysterious behavior." Mrs. Fanning keeps drinking wine. Dr. Fanning is critical and says she's had enough. The Fannings begin to argue. Little Fifi is upset by the argument, and Mami smiles to reassure her. When the food arrives, Sandi doesn't like anything on her plate. She sees how little power her parents have compared to the Fannings. She imagines acting like an American girl and rebelliously refusing to eat her food.

Her father points out the dancers have begun the floor show. Six male and six female dancers perform a complicated, sensual flamenco dance. Sandi feels "strange, disquieting joy" watching the dancers, proud to share their Spanish heritage. Then a drunken Mrs. Fanning runs up to the stage, joining the dancers. The restaurant's management and guests laugh as a male dancer partners with Mrs. Fanning. But to Sandi Mrs. Fanning has ruined the show. Angry with his wife Dr. Fanning wants to leave. But when the restaurant brings a free bottle of champagne, the Fannings toast the Garcías and welcome them to the country. Sandi sees how grateful her parents are. A female dancer approaches the table selling Barbie dolls wearing the dresses of Spanish señoritas. Fifi eagerly accepts a Barbie, but then declines when she sees Mami's warning look.

Sandi remembers Mami telling them not to ask for anything special. When Sandi looks at the doll, though, she asks Papi for one. She knows Papi will want to be generous and make a good impression. When Papi says yes, the other sisters clamor for Barbies too. Mami firmly tells them no. Meanwhile the Fannings are paying the check, and Papi is uncomfortable. In the Dominican Republic it was an honor to pay for the meal. Now he can't even afford dolls.

Hearing Mami's sharp voice the Fannings ask what's going on. Sandi thinks Mrs. Fanning owes her something for kissing her father and ruining the dance and tells the Fannings the girls want dolls. The Fannings happily agree to pay and reject Papi's offer of money. Mami, speaking "in a hard voice with the promise of later punishment," tells the girls to thank the Fannings. Sandi stands up and touches her doll's head to Mrs. Fanning's cheek, pantomiming a kiss. Sandi says "Gracias," or Thank you.

Analysis

This story reveals how the Garcías negotiate the delicate boundaries of their new position in the U.S. as they encounter barriers of class, ethnicity, and gender. Sandi is discovering who gets power in the new country and what her identity as a Dominican American will mean. Still tense and watchful, the Garcías want to prove they belong. Mami's instructions to the girls are called "the Epistle" after a sacred religious text. The stakes are high, and if any of the girls step out of line, they'll be punished. The Garcías want to put on a performance of grateful immigrants who honor their benefactors.

Sandi isn't sure why their family needs to perform. She's unimpressed with American behavior so far. Her downstairs neighbor is overtly prejudiced. And although the Puerto Rican superintendent Alfredo understands how the family feels, he asks them to confine themselves to appease a powerful, complaining American. He speaks English to them, adopting the dominant language of the country. In defiance Sandi plays louder, making her presence known. The physical movement of dancing, like play, expresses joy and freedom. It's a freedom the Garcías moved to the U.S. to find but haven't found yet.

As information is revealed slowly about the family's involvement in the failed coup, the implication is Papi narrowly escaped such a fate himself. The intervention of the Fannings saved him, and now Papi is dependent on Dr. Fanning to find a job. Papi associates manhood with financially providing for his family, and he's now failing. His status as an immigrant with "foreign education" complicates his ability to practice his professional training. Even his heavy accent prevents him from giving directions to the cab driver. The girls see how their father can't adapt to this new role of a lowly job seeker in a foreign country. For one night he wants to play the role of a wealthy, well-dressed man.

Meanwhile the girls have to hide their true selves. Their quiet movement to keep La Bruja from complaining is a mask. Their tights are a mask, trapping them and making them like mummies, like pale white Americans. Their good manners and willingness to eat food they might not like are masks as well.

Sandi sees the importance of performance and sacrifice. She wants to distinguish herself from her sisters because she's tired of being lumped in with "the four girls." Maybe, she imagines, she can join the coveted higher class the Fannings belong to and reclaim power for her family and herself. She sees what American girls feel entitled to: getting an allowance, refusing to eat their food. As Sandi discovers her new immigrant identity, she contemplates what American behavior she can get away with.

Observing the adults around her, Sandi wonders what makes some adults leaders and others followers. Who gets to make the decisions? Does the doorman Ralph make more money than Papi because he's white? Does "special attention" like a taxi make someone more deserving? How will her family change now that Mami's replaced Papi as the guide? Why is Spanish a "secret language" they're free to speak only in certain places?

Sandi pays attention to how she's seen by others in the restaurant. She's intrigued by the attractive male waiters and the world of flirtation and marriage they represent. She notices how white people, who seem to have unlimited choices, have chosen to eat in a restaurant representing her culture. Maybe she has more power in this country than she thought. But Sandi takes her cues from her parents. Her father acts like a servant around American white women, joking falsely and loudly with Mrs. Fanning, then snapping at his daughter. Sandi isn't used to seeing Papi with such little self-respect. Why must he work so hard to gain the Fannings' approval when the Fannings can get away with speaking "grossly inadequate Spanish" on their visit to the Dominican Republic? They don't have to adapt to another culture the way the Garcías do. And when Papi urges Sandi to forget the inappropriate kiss, Sandi realizes Mrs. Fanning can do whatever she wants.

The pretty girl Sandi sees in her reflection in the restroom mirror shows her she might have some power in America, too. Her light skin and blue eyes give her the ability to "pass as American." Sandi has figured out whiteness, or proximity to whiteness, gives people opportunities in this country. She can use her looks as her ticket to belonging. But other possibilities make her apprehensive. A pretty girl could be kissed by one of the waiters on the lips someday. Both fascinated and repulsed by adult sexual behavior, Sandi still doesn't understand its rules. Mrs. Fanning's drunken kiss shows Sandi how flirtation power dynamics can complicate flirtation. Her father doesn't want to be kissed, but if he says anything, the conflict he causes might be even worse. By asking Sandi to keep an adult-level secret, Papi is initiating her into an even more confusing world. He uses a "serious, hushed voice" Sandi associates with danger and risk. Again Papi has to negotiate for his survival. Sandi's parents thus lose authority in front of her eyes. If they can be new people in this country, maybe she can, too. She could have the defiance of an American girl.

The sensuality and wild movement of the flamenco dancers show another way of being Hispanic or Spanish in America. The dancers aren't afraid to express their bodies loudly while "tossing their heads boldly like horses." Their sexuality is defiant. Sandi's own joy is expressed in physical energy. The dancers show her she doesn't have to restrict herself to be a Dominican American. Nonetheless the dancers are performing for the mostly white audience. Mrs. Fanning doesn't question whether she belongs on the stage. When Mrs. Fanning joins the dance, Sandi realizes how some Americans might see her Hispanic culture. Like the floor show, Spanish or Dominican culture is seen as a performance, an exotic spectacle. It's something new and different for white people to enjoy. The story contrasts Mrs. Fanning's entitlement with the emotional gratitude the Garcías feel at being welcomed.

Sandi wants to reclaim authority for her family, having been reminded all evening how much the Garcías owe the Fannings. Her father's self-esteem takes another hit when he couldn't have "the honor of paying." But in Sandi's eyes the Garcías have paid plenty. Mrs. Fanning, she thinks, isn't giving the Garcías the same respect they're giving her. When Sandi requests the doll, she's experimenting with being an American girl who gets what she wants. The Barbie kiss on Mrs. Fanning's cheek reminds the woman Sandi has power over her: an important secret. By saying Thank you in Spanish Sandi reminds herself her identity is distinctly Hispanic.
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