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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 4 : An American Surprise | Summary



Carla narrates this story in first person.

Papi has returned from a trip to New York City, and the three oldest girls run to greet him. Papi says he's brought back a surprise, and the girls clamor to know what it is. But they have to wait. Papi murmurs to Mami, "Prices have skyrocketed." Carla stays after everyone else has left, listening to the pantry maid Gladys sing a song about New York. Gladys wants to be a famous actress, though Mami says Gladys is only a "country girl." Carla enjoys being around Gladys and watches as the maid sets the table for dinner.

Carla follows Gladys to the maids' room. Chucha, the cook, and Nivea, another maid, are on their beds. Chucha tells Carla Mami doesn't want her back there. Gladys assures Chucha it's fine. Chucha retorts she's been with the family for 32 years and knows how things work. Gladys hopes she'll be in New York in 32 years. As Gladys starts singing, Chucha tells her she has her head in the clouds. "Watch out for the thunderbolt," Chucha warns.

Gladys says she prays every night to go to New York. She shows Carla the maids' "makeshift altar" with pictures and statues of Catholic saints. Nivea, a darker-skinned maid nicknamed after an American face cream her mother used to lighten her skin, asks what surprise Carla's father brought her and reminds Carla how lucky she is to have a father who brings her presents. To Gladys, who's only been with the family a month, Nivea describes the dancing dolls from Papi's most recent trip. Carla says she doesn't know what this trip's gift is. He'll show them after dinner. Nivea remembers she has to help prepare dinner and grumbles.

It's 20 days until Christmas, and Carla is excited as she listens to Papi describe New York City during the holidays. Finally after dinner Papi asks Gladys to bring his suitcase. He's gotten Mami a perfume bottle and the girls small statues. Yoyo gets a statue of an old man and a whale. Sandi gets a statue of a girl jumping rope. Carla gets a statue of a girl in a nightgown staring up at the clouds. The girls are puzzled by the gifts. Then Papi and Mami explain the statues are mechanical banks. When Papi pulls a lever on Sandi's statue and the jumping girl rotates, the girls, Mami, and Gladys are all fascinated. Papi lets an enthusiastic Gladys turn the lever on the mechanical bank. After Gladys leaves the room, Mami observes Gladys's childlike excitement was as if she'd seen the real New York. Gladys particularly likes Carla's bank, thinking it resembles the Virgin Mary. As Christmas approaches, the banks become less exciting, and the girls add them to their shelves of neglected toys.

The household bustles with Christmas preparations. On Christmas Day Carla gets the gift she wanted: a baby doll. The girls get plenty of presents, and the household staff members get wallets. That night Carla is too excited to sleep. Gladys enters her room and, to Carla's surprise, offers to buy her bank for ten pesos. Gladys will even throw in her new wallet. Carla doesn't like the bank anymore, but she's torn about the right thing to do. Mami told her never to give away a gift she's received. And Gladys should keep the money. Still, giving away the bank seems like a generous act. Carla tells Gladys she can have the bank for free. Gladys is surprised and Carla urges her not to tell.

A few weeks after New Year's Mami notices the bank is missing. Carla and Gladys exchange a guilty look. Carla keeps quiet and helps Mami search her room. Later Mami inspects the maids' room. Then she sees Gladys running down the hall in tears. Worried, Carla finds her parents in the study. She says she gave the bank to Gladys as a present. Mami's about to scold Carla, but Papi lightly says he'll have to get the girls better presents. Then Carla sees the chauffeur, Mario, driving Gladys away. She pleads with her father not to fire Gladys. Papi starts to say the family can't trust Gladys anymore. Then he tells Carla Gladys asked to leave and will be happier elsewhere. When Carla turns the lever on the bank, it gets stuck, and the statue's arms freeze.


This chapter explores young Carla's emerging ideas of class consciousness and moral responsibility. It also expands on the symbol of New York City. Who gets to live the dream and who doesn't?

The class differences in the compound are hinted at through details. The García de la Torre family has chauffeurs, servants, and a fancy table set for dinner. Meanwhile Gladys admires the American magazines Carla's mother discards. The García girls treat their old toys with casual disregard, but the maids value possessions like mayonnaise jars and candles. Carla observes how the maids live differently than she does, but she sees this difference as the natural order of things. She's still a young girl excited for her presents.

The differences between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. are less evident. But New York City, in particular, is presented like an image in a storybook: an almost sacred place "where the snow fell from heaven to earth." The girls' gifts from the city enchant the adult maids. New York City is the center of the world where wealthy Americans live, and to the young Garcías it's impossible to picture. Gladys, too, can only imagine it. Her dreams are more poignant because, as Chucha points out, she's unlikely to get there. If someone's "head is in the clouds" they're out of touch with reality. The "thunderbolt" of the real world will arrive. New York City, like the angelic Virgin Mary, is associated with clouds and dreams. Carla's mechanical bank shows Mary's ascension into the clouds, above the real world. After Gladys admires the bank, Papi comments the maids are "like children" in awe of wonders they can't access. The deeply religious Gladys considers any portrayal of the Virgin Mary a sacred icon. Many characters in the book, like staff members Chucha and Milagros, give supernatural meaning to objects. Gladys especially is hoping for specific aid. She makes a "slow, dazed, sign of the cross" when she turns the handle on the Mary bank, approaching the gift as holy. The bank itself, she believes, can get her to New York.

The young recipients of the gifts, however, are easily distracted. The description of the household Christmas decorations reveals the active mind of young Carla, easily able to replace smaller delights with larger ones. The celebratory mood sends the message Christmas is a special, unusual time. People can make requests or engage in acts of goodwill on Christmas they never would otherwise. The normal rules don't apply. Christmas also carries the possibility impossible dreams may come true.

Carla's new Christmas presents make the bank seem old and cheap by comparison. But when Gladys asks for it, Carla knows the bank represents the maid's dreams and plans. Carla considers the feeling of the holiday, where everyone is more generous than usual. She sees the difference between what she has and what Gladys has. Although Carla makes what she thinks is the right moral decision, she knows she's disobeyed spoken and unspoken rules. One unspoken guideline requires everyone to stick with the identity they're born with and whatever circumstances this identity affords them. Carla is a rich de la Torre girl whose father buys her gifts. Family loyalty, manners, and gift-giving traditions are guidelines Carla is trained to follow. She transgresses an identity boundary she doesn't fully understand. And the penalty falls on the person she's trying to help.

The image of "leftover holiday cheer" in the coming weeks signifies a loss of innocence. Carla is going to learn an uncomfortable lesson about how the world works. Consequences tend to fall on the people who have the least to begin with, or the most to lose. Hope and faith, like Gladys's New York dreams, aren't always enough. Indeed Gladys's fate resembles Carla's when Carla emigrates. Gladys loses everything, her future suddenly uncertain. Papi promises Gladys's future will be better, but both father and daughter know it probably won't be. His explanation resembles the stories the Garcías tell to survive. Even though the Garcías eventually end up in New York City, they don't achieve the wealthy American life the bank represents. Like the statue's arms stuck "halfway up, halfway down" the dream seems always out of reach.

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