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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 3 : Still Lives | Summary



Sandi narrates this story in first person.

As a child Sandi and several other children take art lessons from Doña Charito, a German woman who married Don José, a Dominican man. Having spent time in European museums, Doña Charito, whose Spanish is heavily accented, has strong opinions about art. She and Don José met in Madrid where he was studying medicine on a government scholarship. Though Don José didn't want to become a doctor, he was poor and needed the scholarship money. In Madrid he bought art supplies and became a sculptor working in a "church-sculpture style." The couple has built a decorative cottage that residents call "the Hansel and Gretel house."

Previously Sandi has blended in with her family members as "one of the innumerable, handsome de la Torre girls." When Sandi draws a picture of family nursemaid Milagros's son, the family recognizes Sandi as a talented artist. Soon Milagros's son gets sick, and Milagros begs Sandi to heal him by releasing her son's spirit from the picture Sandi drew. Sandi burns the picture, and the son gets well. After Sandi draws cats on the side of the pantry, she's forced to scrub them off, and the pantry becomes overrun with rats. The family decides Sandi's art has special powers. They look for an art teacher and find Doña Charito.

Don José has been missing, and there are rumors he's gone crazy. Commissioned to make sculptures for the National Cathedral, he never finished the assignment. Doña Charito doesn't want to teach children's art lessons. But the de la Torre family wants to send 14 girls who all need "equal decorative skills," and they're willing to pay for it.

When the cousins arrive at Doña Charito's house, they're intimidated by the large, gaudily dressed woman. Doña Charito accuses Sandi of rudeness for ringing the bell to her house. The teacher gives the children a tour of the house filled with paintings, gives them lemonade, and leads them in physical exercises. By the time the art lesson begins Sandi is already impatient. As Doña Charito leads the cousins in checking the alignment of their paintbrush bristles, Sandi feels an urge clawing "at the doors of my will." She starts painting one cat, then another.

Absorbed in her work Sandi doesn't notice Doña Charito, who rips up Sandi's art and accuses her of defiance. Doña Charito leads Sandi to a parlor with still life paintings hanging on the walls. She tells Sandi to sit. She thinks everything she enjoys is wrong. In Catholic school she's learning how many activities are sinful, and now she reflects on how "conscience is arranging [my life] ... like a still life or tableau" before she even starts living.

Growing restless from sitting, Sandi tiptoes to the door to find her shoes. She hears a man cursing outside. Normally she would be frightened, but she's in a rebellious mood. She goes outside and walks to the window of a shed on the property, looking to find one of Doña Charito's secrets. Learning secrets is the best way Sandi knows to get revenge.

Inside the dark shed Sandi sees giant animals carved from logs. A large sculpture in the middle of a room resembles a woman. Sandi recognizes "the rays of the Virgin's halo" on the sculpture's head. She's surprised when a live man, nearly naked, emerges from beneath the sculpture. A ring around his neck attaches to a chain near the door. The man becomes visibly aroused as he works on the sculpture. Then the man climbs on top of the sculpture and sets the chisel near its head. Sandi, thinking the sculpture is a live woman, cries out to warn her. The man notices Sandi and lunges toward the window. Sandi falls down in shock and breaks her arm. The man studies Sandi's face as she's frozen in terror. Soon Sandi screams and runs back to the house. Doña Charito runs out to find her. Sandi is crying and shows Doña Charito her broken arm but doesn't reveal what she saw in the shed. Doña Charito is sympathetic and picks up Sandi, who can see "shards of things she had broken over the years" in the woman's eyes.

Sandi's mother arrives and takes her to the hospital. Sandi's arm remains in a cast for months. She gets special treatment from the family and doesn't have to continue art lessons. Her cousins, to their dismay, are made to continue the lessons since the family has already paid. Their final art project is a still life. Once Sandi's arm heals, she feels changed, now "sullen and dependent ... tender-hearted, and whiney." But she can no longer draw. Sandi does experience a final triumphant moment during the year. She and her family visit the National Cathedral for the nativity pageant. When the nativity scene is revealed, Sandi recognizes the manger's animals as the sculptures she saw in the shed and knows the sculptor was Don José, who finished his commission for the Cathedral. To Sandi's delight the face of the sculpted Virgin Mary resembles her own face.


The last four chapters in Part 3 deal with the García girls' desire to determine their own lives. Each girl transgresses or breaks rules. They realize, like Sandi does, they can't be the artists of their own lives. They exist only as reflections of the way other people see them. To assert their own agency, they need to defy the boundaries set for them.

Sandi's childhood is suffused with mystery and magic, both of which are transgressive, or rule-breaking, properties. She observes the eccentric Doña Charito, a representative of the European culture that seems to set the standard for art in "the grand museums of Europe." Dominican-born Don José's art takes inspiration from Western and non-Western cultures, blending the angels of Western "rococo" art with "hibiscus blossoms" found in nature. Art becomes another language threaded throughout the languages in the book. It's a way to communicate and interpret the world.

Sandi's search for a means of expression comes with a desire to distinguish herself from her siblings. In Part 2, Chapter 5 she wanted to stand out in the crowd of four sisters. In this chapter she wants to be more than "an anonymous de la Torre child." Though she'd rather draw without interruption, she realizes her artistic talent might give her the authority she's seeking. The adults around her believe Sandi's art has powers to capture spirits, for she can create a likeness of Milagros's son that actually entraps the son himself.

The trip to Doña Charito's house, for Sandi, is a brush with the mysterious and exotic. Don José's possible fate of insanity comes through the language of gossip. As its own type of oral narrative, gossip often creates larger-than-life characters. Sandi interprets Doña Charito as a superhuman creature. Doña Charito's face becomes "a pile of white cloud afire with red hair" and her tongue a "purple muscle ... like some fat beast."

Sandi wants to use drawing to understand these strange, inexplicable elements of her world. She wants to express movement in her art, not paint anything still or unmoving. The cat she paints represents the experience of self-discovery. She describes art as a force pawing at her, something desperate and whining, a trapped part of her soul insistent on emerging. The process of painting a still life, or recreating a collection of inert objects, resembles the way Sandi sees her own life. All the pieces are in place, all decisions made for her. Creators like Doña Charito, the adults who make the rules, have the power to shape Sandi's world and self. Sandi imagines how Doña Charito "could paint over my hair, blank out my features" and erase Sandi's entire existence in the process. Whoever tells the story or holds the paintbrush can make the rules.

This chapter, along with the final two chapters in the book, shows the García girls wrestling with the concept of how they should behave. To whom should they be loyal, themselves or others? Sandi decides to be loyal to herself and creates her own narratives about others by learning their secrets. Knowledge lets her reshape a world in which she's the expert.

When she peers into the shed, she stumbles into someone else's story. The unusual, aggressive nature of the "giant, half-formed creatures ... coming out of logs" approaches brutality. The sculptures are so jarring, Sandi checks to see if her own face is still there. She sees the kind of wild, maverick art missing from Doña Charito's studio. Don José's sculptures show the true power of art to confront and destabilize viewers. Fantasy and reality merge for Sandi, and she thinks the sculpted Virgin Mary is real. Though Sandi learns a secret, it's not one she expected. Don José is sculpting in a shed similar to the manger where the nativity story takes place. The Virgin Mary he's sculpting is a religious icon. His images don't evoke the purity Sandi associates with religion, but something stranger and wilder. If religion is mysterious to her, so is sex. Don José's nakedness startles her, and his halter implies imprisonment. Like Carla in Part 2, Chapter 3 Sandi has an alarming, unexpected confrontation with male sexuality. Also like Carla she lacks adequate language to describe what she's seen.

Frightened and confronted with baffling sights, Sandi has a new sympathy for Doña Charito. The older woman knows "the world was a wild place" and chooses art as a way of facing the unknown. Through Doña Charito's own brokenness Sandi sees being good isn't easy for anyone. After her injury Sandi can no longer communicate through art. She has lost a language and a way of experiencing the world. Her potential for creation and self-assertion seems stifled.

The story's ending draws subtle loose threads of the plot together. The mystery of the odd creatures in the shed and Sandi's crisis of self-image are both resolved. In the face of the Virgin Mary Sandi is finally able to see and recognize herself. The sculpture's face is her own, without a relative's mouth or eyes, the "minor distinctions" Sandi claims felt like "petty theft." She's no longer an anonymous de la Torre child. The sculpture soothes her fears of erasure. Her adult breakdown will come with dissociation from her body, but for now she has proof she exists.

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