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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 3, Chapter 2 : The Human Body | Summary



Yoyo narrates this story in first person.

When she's young, she and her cousins live in houses side by side. Each García girl is paired with a "best-friend cousin" close in age. Carla, Sandi, and Fifi all pair with female cousins. Yoyo is paired with male cousin Mundín. Although Tía Carmen tries to keep the two separate as they grow older, the cousins in the compound are close. They catch the same diseases and eat meals at each other's houses. They go home only to sleep or be punished for their frequent misbehavior.

Their grandparents, Papito and Mamita, live behind a water tower on the family property. Papito spends a lot of time in New York City where he works at the United Nations. Though Papito doesn't have political ambition, Trujillo is jealous of his education and wealth. Trujillo often sends him to New York on false assignments while guards search Papito's home. The guards often steal valuables, but Papito assures Mamita "Better that than our lives." The children know nothing about political violence at the time. Their idea of violence comes from cowboys in American television shows. They notice guards raiding homes and uncles disappearing from family gatherings but believe the slogan "God and Trujillo are taking care of you."

Papito didn't want to take the United Nations post, wanting nothing to do with Trujillo. But Mamita convinced him American doctors could cure her many ailments. The family thinks Mamita's just upset about losing her youthful good looks and consider Papito a saint who "pees holy water," as a family saying goes. Mamita, tired of the saying, once stole holy water from the cathedral and put it in Papito's drink. Mamita does take care of Papito by monitoring his diet because American foods upset his stomach.

Mamita brings toys back from every trip to New York City. She brings Yoyo a drum, watercolors, and a cowgirl outfit. She takes Tía Mimí, one of the aunts, on a New York trip. Considered the family genius, Mimí knows Latin and took courses at an American college. But the family worries about her. She's unmarried at 28 and reads all day. When Mimí goes to New York she brings back "Tía Mimí's idea of fun": educational toys. Most of the children get books. Mundín gets an enviable gift, a see-through doll with puzzle pieces. The pieces represent different parts of the human body. Mimí wants to encourage Mundín's interest in medicine. Yoyo's fascinated by the doll but wonders where the "pee-er" is.

Mamita brought the cousins more entertaining presents. Mundín gets a pack of modeling clay, and Yoyo begs him to let her play with it. When Mundín keeps the clay to himself, Yoyo decides to read the book she got from Mimí and becomes engrossed in the story. In Yoyo's book a sultan has captured a girl named Scheherazade and plans to kill her. But Scheherazade and her sister trick the sultan into listening to Scheherazade's stories all night.

Yoyo looks up from her book to see Mundín has created a clay snake and thinks he may be prepared to negotiate a toy trade. But first he scares younger girls Fifi and Carmencita. When the girls scream, Mundín's mother calls for him, and Fifi threatens to tell. Mundín tries to bribe her with the clay and Yoyo protests. She says she'll give him anything for it. Mundín says he'll give Yoyo the clay if she'll "show me you're a girl." Mundín motions to the coal shed at the back of the property, next to the palace of Trujillo's daughter and son-in-law. Papito hasn't put up a wall for fear of snubbing the Trujillo family. The children aren't allowed to play in the coal shed since Mundín and Yoyo set off firecrackers too close to Trujillo's grandson. But Mundín and Yoyo frequently play there anyway. Yoyo and Fifi follow Mundín into the shed. Fifi immediately lowers her panties to show her bellybutton, which she thinks is the part Mundín has in mind. Yoyo, however, knows better, having been warned by older women to "guard our bodies like hidden treasure." Yoyo defiantly drops her panties and shows Mundín what he wants to see. But when he divides the clay equally between Yoyo and Fifi, Yoyo protests. Fifi wasn't part of the deal. Mundín hears his mother calling. She's increasingly upset, and Mundín pleads with Yoyo to cover for him. She agrees only when he offers to give her his human body doll. Angry with Fifi for ruining her chances at getting all the clay, Yoyo pulls up Fifi's pants, and they compare the amounts of clay they have received.

Then Mundín's mother enters the shed with the gardener, Florentino. Even though Florentino has covered for the children before, he tells Mundín's mother he warned the children to stay out of the shed. Mundín's mother asks what the girls are doing there. Mundín returns, terrified when he sees his mother. Mundín's fear pains Yoyo. She lies and says the children were hiding from Trujillo's guards. She knows the guards usually raid the house after her grandparents return from New York City. Florentino backs up Yoyo's story. Mundín says nothing. Yoyo senses Mundín's mother knows the children were misbehaving. But even a mention of the guardia makes the family worry about bigger issues. They secure themselves in their houses and hide objects that might disappear on a raid. Florentino picks up the pieces of the human body doll, which Mundín dropped in his shock. The children try to play with the toy again. But most of the pieces are stepped on or missing. They can't finish the puzzle.


The adult Yoyo knows more about Trujillo's repressive dictatorship and how it affected her family. This story shows how proximity to the dictatorship affected her childhood and the survival skills she developed.

To the cousins in her expansive Dominican extended family the United States is an unreal, idealized land. Fascinated by Hollywood imports like cowboys and cowgirls on television, the children imagine violence as gunfights in the Wild West. They don't absorb the violence around them, for they believe adults are taking care of things. They have faith in the superiority of American products and the goodness of Trujillo. Adult Yoyo knows both the United States and Trujillo aren't nearly as noble as her childhood self imagined them. Small details show the day-to-day difficulties of living under Trujillo. Papito's United Nations work is dictated by the government's whims. A high wall around the family property may be seen as "a snub" to the dictator's relatives. Even if the rhythms of daily life seem normal, the family is always on edge.

Yoyo, meanwhile, is beginning to develop her distinctive character. She doesn't fit into the "young lady señorita" mold as a child. The adult Yoyo, bookish and divorced, can relate to the unmarried, avid reader Tía Mimí. Both women step outside the norms of their culture. Yoyo also notices the differences between cultures and generations. Three of the adult García women have degrees because the family considered education important. But Mimí was pulled out of school because "too much education might spoil her marriage." As a child Yoyo is already rebelling against the limited models of who she can be when she grows up. The "grownup beautician games" she avoids foreshadow the hair-and-nails crowd of Yoyo's cousins as young women. Further the interest Yoyo takes in Scheherazade's story, which also inspired the young Alvarez, foreshadows her career as a writer.

In this chapter Yoyo tells a story of her own: her first major lie, which covers a variety of off-limits behaviors. The cousins have an ordinary childhood competitiveness, curiosity about sexual organs, and fascination with the forbidden. These aspects of childhood combine with the stress of living in a dictatorship where many activities are forbidden. The coal shed, for instance, is off limits because Mundín's firecrackers got the family into trouble with the secret police. The story also examines ideas of the illicit and the forbidden, and the coal shed takes on an aura of danger seen through guilty children's eyes. It's damp, dark, and smells like soil. The hoses lie "coiled like a family of dormant snakes." Stakes are high for the cousins' misbehavior, which can draw the entire family into its consequences.

As in Part 1, Chapter 5 Yoyo is negotiating boundaries around her body. The human body doll shows organs normally hidden from view. The children wonder about the possibilities of revealing other hidden parts. Secrets and hidden things are connected to risk and excitement. In the shed she encounters a way to find out secrets, a way that brushes up against danger. Yoyo's religious education connects childhood rule breaking with sin and eternal consequences. Mundín's smile is connected to male aggression and compared to "a liquid spilling and staining something it mustn't."

Like the adults living in the dictatorship, the children cower in fear of authority. There's a constant atmosphere of distrust—the young cousins manipulate each other by threatening to tattle. The ever-present fear of being caught makes the chapter a microcosm of Trujillo-ruled life. The children learn to think quickly on their feet and be silent about the truth.

Yoyo, like Scheherazade, tells a story to get herself out of trouble. She picks the story she knows will captivate and distract her audience. Her lie shows the way truth becomes distorted in the retelling. The entire family will act as if Yoyo's version of events is true, even if Mundín's mother doesn't quite believe her. In the end Yoyo loses the human body doll, the toy she lied to get in the first place. She reaches an unhappy conclusion of childhood: the forbidden is often more exciting from a distance. Once the secrets of the human body are revealed, they lose their magic.

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