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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 5 : The Drum | Summary



Yoyo narrates this story in first person.

When Yoyo is young, her grandmother, Mamita, brings her a drum from New York. Yoyo immediately starts playing the drum until Mami insists she stop. Mamita, a tiny woman whose nickname means "little mother," tells Yoyo the drum is from a magic store: F.A.O. Schwarz. Mamita promises Yoyo can visit New York City someday if she's good. Yoyo plays the drum for weeks. Then she loses both drumsticks. However Yoyo still wears the drum around her hips on its strap.

She often explores the family's large yard. There's a coal shed on the property with fires for boiling white laundry. The children think the coal shed is haunted, and they'll sometimes run through it and "turn an empty barrel over, spilling the Devil out." They're also fascinated also by the family's laundry maid, Pila, who has lost one eye and has pink splotches on her dark skin. Part Haitian, Pila is feared by the Dominican maids who associate Haiti with voodoo. Pila is rumored to have haunted the shed with "her story devils and story ghosts." Yoyo, curious about the world and its forbidden thing

By the time Yoyo gets the drum, the family has fired Pila for stealing, though Mami took pity and didn't press charges. But Yoyo is still curious about the coal shed and enters it alone one day. She has the drum with her as usual. She looks under each barrel for ghosts, but doesn't find any. However she does find a small litter of kittens. She especially likes one with white paws and a white spot on its ears, since it's "a curiosity." Yoyo isn't sure what to do. She has several rules in her "natural lore" of superstitions and stories but can't remember which apply to kittens. Nor can she think of an adult to ask.

Yoyo leaves the shed and is about to play her drum with dowels when she sees a strange man with a dog. The man, "a dashing, handsome, storybook kind of man," wears a goatee and riding boots and carries a gun. Noticing Yoyo the man makes friendly conversation. Yoyo knows he's safe, since strangers often visit her grandfather, but she's worried the dog will attack the kittens.

In a hurry Yoyo asks the man her questions about kittens. Can she take a kitten away from its mother without the mother cat blinding her? How long should she wait before keeping a kitten as a pet? The man tells her kittens belong with their mother. They both see the large black mother cat entering the coal shed. The dog lunges for the cat, and the man pulls him back. The man explains kittens will die without their mother. But he tells Yoyo the kitten will be ready to be her pet in a week. A flock of birds passes by, and the man leaves. Yoyo hears his gun a moment later.

She decides she'll wait a week and name her kitten Schwarz after the American toy store. But first she'll reassure the kitten she's coming back. Yoyo reenters the coal shed and comforts a frightened Schwarz, intending to leave the kitten in the shed. Then in a change of mind—"call it coincidence, call it plot"—she realizes the man is shooting his gun because he's hunting. Yoyo thinks he's "saying one thing and doing another" like many adults in her life, and she takes Schwarz with her.

As she crosses the yard with Schwarz, Yoyo sees the mother cat. She instantly recalls the story of how Pila lost her eye: a cat scratched it out. Yoyo quickly hides Schwarz inside the drum. When the mother cat turns to her, Yoyo bangs the drum with her dowels to distract the cat. But the cat follows Yoyo back to the house. Yoyo imagines the mother cat calling for Schwarz. Inside Yoyo retrieves an injured Schwarz from the drum. The kitten's loud meows make Yoyo feel guilty. To stop Schwarz's meowing she tosses the kitten out of the window. Yoyo watches Schwarz limp across the yard. She can't leave the house, for her parents know a man is shooting illegally in their orange grove. At night Yoyo wakes to find the mother cat sitting at the foot of her bed. The cat meows all night. Yoyo tells Mami, who makes sure the windows are locked the next night. But the mother cat appears at Yoyo's bed night after night. Though Yoyo gives the drum away, the cat haunts her for years until the family moves to the United States.

Yoyo sees snow and concrete in New York. Mamita grows so old she doesn't remember who Yoyo is. Yoyo tells the reader she's "collapsing all time now." As Yoyo grows up, she begins to write stories, like the stories of Pila and Mamita. She changes into "a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils." She still wakes up in the middle of the night and sometimes sees the cat at the foot of her bed. The cat's still meowing, Yoyo says, "wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art."


This chapter, along with Part 1, Chapter 1, act as bookends for the novel. Both chapters show Yolanda's severed relationship to her home country and her desire to rewrite the past. The final chapter shows how Yoyo becomes the woman she is at the beginning: curious, lost, and haunted by ghosts.

Yoyo's childhood, like Sandi's in Part 3, Chapter 3, is surrounded by mystery, danger, magic, and superstition. F.A.O. Schwarz is a "magic store." New York City and its snow seem surreal. Pila seems dramatic enough to be imaginary, her odd appearance a "curiosity," and her Haitian ancestry intriguing to Yoyo. Pila has a supernatural knowledge about "everything on this earth and out of it." She may seem like a character a child would invent or exaggerate in importance. The "coal shed of devils and goblins" illustrates the rich mythology Yoyo invents for herself.

Young Yoyo already loves to create, exaggerate, and communicate. The onomatopoetic sound of the drumbeats conveys young Yoyo's joy in making noise. The older Yoyo who narrates enjoys describing the "apocalyptic, apoplectic, joy-to-the-world drumroll." She thinks of the drum's noise as another kind of "inspiration" similar to spoken language.

As in Part 3, Chapter 2 she's interested in the forbidden nature of the coal shed. Yoyo feels compelled to act in forbidden ways announcing her presence. Her urge to "touch forbidden china cups or throttle a little cousin" is a compulsion to destroy the boundaries around her and experience the world fully. By entering the shed she becomes "quite literally ... a daredevil." She is transforming into something or someone new. Yoyo is interested in whatever "curiosity" doesn't quite fit with its surroundings, whatever exists between boundaries, like herself as an immigrant to the United States. She picks Schwarz for its misfit appearance.

On her way out of the coal shed she meets another possibly imaginary creature. The man on the horse has a "storybook" appearance with his riding outfit. His facial hair makes Yoyo think of the Devil, a supernatural symbol of evil. She wonders if his eyes are real when he winks. The implied violence of the man's gun and predatory behavior of his dog add to his sense of menace, which intrigues Yoyo more than it frightens her.

The discussion of whether a kitten can survive without its mother recalls the Part 1, Chapter 1 question of Yolanda's "mother tongue." A home country or first language is often considered a nurturing, maternal element in a person's life. In Part 1 Yoyo tries to negotiate the world without the safety of her first language, Spanish. Now she contemplates taking a vulnerable kitten from the safety of its own first home.

The mother cat is connected to the García girls' nurturing homeland. Like Schwarz the girls are taken away before they're ready. When Yoyo hears the man shooting birds after he counseled her against harming animals, Yoyo realizes the world follows different rules from those she has imagined. The "moral imperative," or requirement, to keep a kitten safe is a rule people can break. If adults don't have to follow the rules, neither does Yoyo. So she takes Schwarz from his home to another world. She sets her decision in the context of a story with narrative twists and turns, "call it coincidence, call it plot." Like her mother in Part 1, Chapter 3 Yoyo likes her plots providential. This retelling gives her life meaning.

Yoyo positions herself as the new protector of the kitten, just as the United States is the new protector of the Garcías when they move. And like the U.S. Yoyo fails to protect her charge. She knows the mother cat's viciousness is a defensive move. The mother cat's howls and Schwarz's meows remind Yoyo she has broken their family bond. Schwarz doesn't feel at home with her. Faced with this unsettling feeling Yoyo wants to get Schwarz away from her as quickly as possible. She drops the kitten unprotected into the new terrain of the yard. Schwarz wanders away between homelands, much like the García children soon will do.

Ghosts of the past continue to haunt the girls, similar to the "ghostly" shadows of objects in Yoyo's bedroom at night. The mother cat's "awful death mask" shows the cat as another ghost in Yoyo's life. The cat's repeated appearances illustrate what being taken from one's homeland really means. The mother cat and kitten will always be crying out and searching for what they've lost. So will Yoyo and her sisters.

When Yoyo describes "the hollow of my story" she invokes a physical space like the hollow of her drum. Her story is a place to fit past dreams, present experiences, and future hopes all at once. Like the drum Yoyo's home is portable. She creates it through memories and carries it with her.

Yoyo's adult self is still her childhood self, curious and carrying ghosts. She mentions characters from the past she now retains as memories: her grandmother, Mamita; the mysterious man with the gun; Pila; and the kitten, Schwarz. The man and Pila are presented as somewhat unreal because they appear to the adult Yolanda as figments of distant memory. They're almost real, but not quite. As a writer Yolanda populates her own life with the devils and ghosts Pila let loose in the coal shed. She recreates people from her past as characters in her narrative. She haunts her own life with art. The "violation at the center" is the sense of loss and transformation the cat represents. Yoyo's writing will always convey a sense of absence and of missing something.

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