How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Study Guide

Julia Alvarez

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 1 : The Blood of the Conquistadores | Summary



The stories in Part 3 take place in the Dominican Republic from 1956–60. This section is narrated in both first and third person from multiple points of view. This story takes place in 1960 right before the García family leaves the Dominican Republic for good.

Carlos is at home when he notices two men with guns walking up the driveway. He motions to the cook, Chucha, to stay silent. Carlos runs to the bedroom, passing his four daughters and their cousins playing a game. He warns the children to be quiet. He knows Trujillo's police always question children and servants. Carlos enters a hidden room behind a walk-in closet in the bedroom. The room's supplies include bedding, water, medicine, and a revolver.

Yoyo at first thinks her father's playing a game when he runs by the children, but this time Yoyo knows it's not a game. Chucha has let in two men with guns. The men are either criminals or the secret police. Chucha speaks loudly to the guards so Carlos can hear what she's saying. Yoyo remembers getting in trouble for telling a neighbor Papi had a gun. Her parents said she almost got Papi killed. Yoyo is sure the men are here because of the story she told.

One man asks the cousins where their parents are. When he finds out the four García girls live in the house, he jokes their father should get good locks on the doors. Young Fifi asks why—she accidentally locked herself in her room a few days ago. The guard laughs and beckons to Fifi, telling her he'll show her why her father needs locks. Fifi starts crying, and Yoyo is terrified. Then her mother's car pulls into the driveway. Chucha announces, "Doña Laura is home." Yoyo feels Chucha has cast a spell over the men.

Laura pulls into the driveway and sees Chino, a longtime member of the household staff, talking to a policeman. She recognizes the black Volkswagen and feels frightened. Chino says the visitors to the house are looking for Carlos and have been there for a while. Laura gives Chino instructions to visit a man named Don Victor and tell him to come over with his tennis shoes. Victor is an American CIA agent working with Carlos. Chino understands.

The policeman, "with false politeness," tells Laura they need to ask Doctor García some questions. Laura invites the policeman to wait inside. She uses "the grand manner" of a rich woman, knowing most members of the SIM, or secret police, are poor boys from the country. The policeman politely declines. He has orders to stay outside.

Laura hopes Victor will be able to get Carlos and the other men out of the country safely. Tennis shoes is the code phrase for trouble. Victor organized a plot against Trujillo, but the U.S. State Department "chickened out" and didn't go through with it. One man, Fernando, already hanged himself after being captured and tortured by Trujillo's men.

Inside the house Laura's terrified daughters run to her for comfort. Laura knows she shouldn't have beaten Yoyo when her daughter told the story about the gun, but the pressure of "this crazy hellhole" has made her do desperate things. Laura greets the two policemen in the house. She tells them Carlos is playing tennis with Victor Hubbard, emphasizing Victor's name. Chucha mouths to her that Carlos is hiding in the bedroom. Laura serves the policemen food and drinks.

Doña Tatica, a member of Victor's household staff, answers the phone, sensing bad news. Victor's secretary is calling, telling Tatica to get Victor immediately. Full of dread, she knocks on the door of Victor's casita, or cottage. Victor is spending time with a young local woman, and the knock on the door irritates him. He hears Tatica saying he has an urgent phone call. Victor didn't expect the Dominican Republic to keep him so busy. When he arrived, he contacted his old classmate: Tío Mundo in the García family. Mundo introduced Victor to young Dominican men "the State Department wanted [Victor] to groom for revolution" against Trujillo. When Victor opens his door an overwhelmed Tatica faints in his arms.

Victor goes to Mundo's house and greets Mundo's wife, Carmen, who placed the call. Victor finds Carmen attractive, but he knows she's a devout Catholic. When Victor can't find Mundo, he wonders whether Mundo is hiding in the closet Victor told him to build. Carmen offers Victor food, and Victor reflects on Latina women's devotion to being good hostesses "even when the bullets are flying." Mundo is in the study with two other men, Fidelio and Mateo, all visibly terrified. Victor tells them it's time for "Operation Tennis Shoes."

Carla and Sandi, eating lunch at Tía Carmen's house, have noticed some unusual events today. Mami told them to leave their house. Tío Mundo came home for lunch but went to the study, where the uncles joined him. Tía Carmen jumps whenever the doorbell rings and is letting them play in the pool twice.

Household servant Adela brings a box of Russell Stover chocolates from America. The box is getting low. Papito and Mamita, the girls' grandparents, usually bring back chocolates from the United States. But it's August, and their grandparents have been in the United States since Christmas. Mami claims the grandparents are seeing specialists for Mamita's health. Carla has heard the Dominican government disapproves of Papito quitting his United Nations post. Whenever guards come to Papito's house, Chino tells Victor to bring his tennis shoes. But Victor never brings tennis shoes. He simply gives the guards some money to leave. Mami has warned Carla not to tell her friends the guards come to the house. As the children pass around the box of chocolates, Victor asks them who wants to go to New York. Carla, Sandi, and the cousins want to go. Victor asks Carmen whether she wants to go to. The children think Victor's playing a game, but Carla notices Carmen's hands are shaking.

Laura is still sitting with the guards in her home, afraid to say the wrong thing. She is relieved when Victor arrives with Carla and Sandi. The guards put their hands on their gun holsters, and Laura introduces Victor as the consul at the American Embassy. She whispers to Victor she's told the guards Carlos and Victor are playing tennis. As Laura greets her daughters she notices how closely they're watching her for cues about how to act and is sad to see "they are quickly picking up the national language of a police state."

Victor acts friendly with the guards, who seem nervous around him. Victor then tells everyone Carlos has earned a fellowship at an American hospital. The family's papers have been cleared for Immigration. Laura realizes this news means the family is really leaving. Looking at the "glorious light" of her home she thinks how much she'll miss it and imagines her ancestors, "the fair-skinned Conquistadores," discovering the Dominican Republic.

The guards, Pupo and Checo, bought lottery tickets earlier in the morning. The man who sold the tickets warned them to "watch yourselves." Their day did, in fact, turn out surprising. Their supervisor, Don Fabio, gave them an assignment to follow "this García doctor." On his own initiative Checo searched the doctor's property, which they weren't told to, but both guards know they'll be promoted if they discover some incriminating information. If they find nothing or detain an important family, they'll be given worse jobs. From Chucha's behavior Pupo can tell the house is "a stronghold of something, call it arms, call it spirit, call it money." Then Victor "the red-haired gringo" arrives. When Victor asks the guards who their supervisor is, Pupo knows they've made a mistake. The Garcías are an important family with connections. Victor calls Fabio and says there's been a misunderstanding. He assures Fabio he'll get Doctor García out of the country. Pupo and Checo know they'll be punished.

Sandi, Fifi, Yoyo, and Carla watch the men leave. Mami tells them to pack their best clothes and pick one toy to take to the United States. The girls go to their bedrooms and discuss which toy they'll each take. Sandi can't pick just one toy to fill "the hole that was opening wide inside [her]." She'll spend the rest of her adult life using her looks, her school achievements, and her lovers to try and find what she's missing.

Carlos has heard the tones of conversations but couldn't make out what anyone said. He wonders whether he felt this way as a young child, noticing only "impressions and tones and presences." Carlos is the youngest of 35 children. Most of his past has come from the narratives of older siblings. Hearing the voices of his wife and daughters, Carlos prays Laura won't say something she shouldn't. Then he hears Laura calling to Victor, who is a CIA agent not a consul. Victor's "orders changed midstream," and he abandoned the plot to assassinate Trujillo as a result. Carlos puts his ear to the front panel of the room. He hears Laura opening the closet door and can tell she's preparing to talk to him.


The first section of Part 3, Chapter 1 details the book's climactic event. The third-person narration switches among multiple characters, giving readers a sense of chaos and confusion. Because readers don't know who will take over the story next, they can share the characters' uncertainty and anxiety. By using a chorus of voices Alvarez stretches time in the narrative. Though the events take place in a short time span, the multiple voices extend the time the reader spends in a single moment. Further the present tense narration gives the section immediacy. The event is happening now, recurring and repeating itself. Similarly Carlos's traumatic memories of the dictatorship will last in New York as though he constantly relives them.

The title reminds readers of the family's descent from the conquistadors, the Spanish conquerors of Mexico in the 16th century. The Garcías, like their ancestors, will travel to a new land. The word conquistadores connotes courage and discovery as well as violence and domination. The conquistadores took over the lands they discovered—the word is similar to the English conquerors. Similarly the image of blood can represent both pride in family lineage and the threat of death. Images of destruction and violence recur in Part 3, Chapter 2, from the guards' guns to the raid on the house after the family leaves.

The section focuses in part on language, beginning with Carlos's minute-by-minute anxiety. Silenced, he gestures for the family to be silent, too. The limits of language are reflected here in that silence can say a great deal, in this instance stifling and hiding a secret. Chucha's silence protects the family and intimidates the guards. Chucha is established as a powerful force, whose Haitian religious practices, strange to the Dominican family, give her an aura of mystery. Later in the section the narrator reveals the children are learning a nonverbal language of silence, secrets, and performance. Laura refers to "the national language of a police state" as a mode of communication similar to a written language. Carlos won't lose this language for a long time after his American arrival.

Children and adults alike fear the police who are likened to "guardian angels," reinforcing an idea of religious authority and supernatural abilities. The family is nervous about being caught in the act. As Part 3 examines the girls' childhoods, the stories return to concepts of guilt and moral responsibility. The girls try to do right and be good, while adults wait to catch them misbehaving.

In this section the daughters imagine being caged and imprisoned. These feelings will return when they become teenagers and hate being confined to the family compound, unable to go out alone. The guards' joke about "good locks on the doors" reinforces the idea of women as vulnerable and protected. Fifi remembers being trapped by locks, and Yoyo pictures herself jailed in a birdcage. On the other hand Laura gets power from the protection of the compound. An aristocrat who uses her family name and "grand manner," or confident, regal bearing, as weapons, she also understands the poverty compelling young soldiers to join the SIM.

The narration describes Dominicans thanking "God and Trujillo for the plenty the country is enjoying." The dictator Trujillo positions himself as a godlike figure, the ultimate authority. The chapter shows how the dictator gained support by increasing the nation's material prosperity and promising wealth to soldiers. In fact Laura knows Trujillo has taken advantage of "poor lackeys from the countryside" who need money to recruit them into the secret police.

Section 1 takes place in 1960. By then, knowing Trujillo was a danger, the U.S. CIA was working with Dominican dissidents to overthrow the dictator by any means necessary. The task wasn't easy. Undercover CIA agent Victor Hubbard explains how his mission changed according to the CIA's decision to take new tactics.

Even though readers know the Garcías leave safely, the characters still fear imprisonment or death. They do what they have to for survival. Laura's third-person narration is apologetic as she regrets beating her daughter, explaining "you lose your head in this crazy hellhole." Different countries require different ways of being.

As the narrative switches perspectives, readers learn what other characters turn to in times of trouble. Tatica turns to religious faith. Victor turns to logic. The abrasive, matter-of-fact nature of Victor's narrative contrasts with the fear and modesty of Tatica's. The cultural power dynamic is clear. Victor is white, wealthy, American, and male. He holds the most authority. He also speaks multiple languages, and mastery of language is power.

Victor's view of the Dominican Republic is colonialist, reflecting the perceptions of a conquering or controlling group of those they've conquered. He calls the country El Paraiso, or paradise. He's impressed by Dominican women's hospitality and the "nice girls from polite society" at the same time as he enjoys the favors of young Dominican girls procured for him. He comments on the family's mispronunciation of the college name Yale. In fact Victor is another kind of conquistador representing the United States' interest in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez shows both outsider and insider perspectives of American and Dominican cultures, giving a nuanced portrait.

When Victor enters the study he sees a tableau of men trapped in the room. Mundo and Fidelio, two of the uncles in the study, won't be as lucky as Carlos. Mundo will be imprisoned and Fidelio possibly killed. For the moment they and other family members are frozen in both space and time. The children are frozen at the table, and Carlos is frozen in the closet at home.

As the section continues it illustrates the Garcías' different ideas of America. Carla and Sandi's vision of America comes from coveted goods like Russell Stover chocolates. They see New York City as a place of promise with buildings they've heard about but have never seen. Laura compares the family's American immigration to "the fair-skinned Conquistadores arriving in this new world" seeking gold. When Laura muses, "look at what they started," she considers the history of imperialism, conflict, and violence in Latin America leading to her family's exile.

The story's clearest representatives of violence are the guards Pupo and Checo. Their guns symbolize authority and threat, a threat associated with masculinity and uniformed police in Part 2, Chapter 3. The gun holsters give Laura a sense of "a vague sexuality behind the violence." Pupo and Checo, like the García family, feel they're being watched. They fear the mystical divine judgment of "the hand of God" and the more straightforward judgment of superior officers. No one is safe, not even the guards.

Once the family realizes they're leaving, the story focuses on a sense of loss, compared to a hole opening slowly and never quite filled. The description of Sandi's future search for what she's missing illuminates the origin behind the girls' struggles in previous chapters. She can understand her present behavior only by reflecting on her past.

Carlos, distanced from the outside world as he hides, is also thinking about his past. But his memory is composed mostly of stories from other people. Carlos's reflection leads to Sofía's retold story in Section 2 as she patches together details heard from others. Both Carlos and Sofía are the youngest children in their family. Their memories have been created for them from "faint whispers, presences, and tones." Alvarez shows how family can create a collective memory, telling and retelling history. Stories are powerful. Furthermore truth can be as dangerous as stories. Yoyo's revelation of the gun in the house is one of the first times language and speech lead her to trouble. When Carlos hopes Laura won't reveal too much to the guards, he knows stories can make or break a life.

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