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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 | Themes


Acculturation and Assimilation

The novel follows the Americanization of the García girls, examining what they lose and what they gain by fitting into a new culture. They go through two processes common for immigrants: acculturation and assimilation.

Acculturation happens when immigrants adopt the customs and behaviors of a new culture while maintaining aspects of their old culture. Part 2 focuses on how the Garcías acculturate in New York. With neighbors and classmates openly hostile to difference, the girls try to blend in. Yoyo, Carla, and Mami work to master the new language. Mami insists they speak English at home, and her almost-correct English phrases show an attempt to speak in the idioms Americans use. Papi still speaks Spanish, a language his daughters start to forget. By Part 2, Chapter 1 the girls know English slang, calling the Dominican Republic "old hat." They love the freedom American teenagers have. Their parents fear their daughters will assimilate.

Assimilation happens when immigrants abandon their old culture in favor of the new or "dominant" culture they now live in. Part 1 explores the effects of assimilation on the García women. They graduate from American colleges, marry American men, and embark on American careers. Yolanda lapses from Catholicism, a religion connecting her to her Dominican roots. Sandi and Yolanda suffer mental breakdowns brought on by confusion about their identities. In Part 1, Chapter 2 Papi realizes his daughters have grown into women he barely recognizes. He recalls sending them to school to "smooth the accent out of their English." Now they're Dominicans in heritage only. When Yolanda returns to the Dominican Republic in Part 1, Chapter 1, she resembles an American tourist struggling to gain the respect of the locals. After assimilation she feels disconnected to her home.

Family Relationships

Relational identity is crucial to the book. The girls are all daughters, sisters, cousins, and eventually wives. Sofía becomes a mother. Each new identity comes with its own privileges, responsibilities, and drawbacks.

The words used to refer to characters change throughout the book depending on which identity they inhabit in the story. In Part 1, Chapters 2 and 3 the girls aren't always identified by name, but called the oldest, second, third, and youngest daughter and sister. Their individual identities take a backseat to their position in the group of girls. Part 1, Chapter 3 highlights the role each girl plays within the group and how this role influences their individual personalities. Carla's analytical career choice is affected by her maternal role among the sisters. Fifi is the troublemaker, Sandi the good-looking sister, and Yoyo the sensitive artist. Each girl tries to live out this role and sometimes gets into trouble for it. Sandi's frustration with her looks leads to an eating disorder and psychological dissociation. Fifi's rebelliousness leads to conflict with her estranged father. Yoyo's love of language hinders her communication.

Likewise the girls' parents are identified by their first names, Carlos and Laura, when their individual stories are highlighted. When they play the distant role of older parents, they're called the mother and the father. When they're caretakers of young daughters, they're given the Spanish names Mami and Papi.

Family relationships change the way the Garcías see themselves. The girls look to their noble conquistador heritage for strength. Their maternal surname, de la Torre, marks them as Dominican aristocracy. Sometimes group identity gets in the way of individuality. In Part 2, Chapter 5 the girls are urged to make the family look good at an important dinner. Young Sandi fears becoming another "anonymous de la Torre child" in her large extended family. Yolanda feels held back by her family when she visits the Dominican Republic as an adult. Family members push her to visit distant relatives and discourage her from traveling alone. No matter how American the girls become, they'll always be connected to their family, for better or worse.

Power and Limits of Language

The book shows how complicated learning a second language can be. The Garcías must master written and spoken English to survive in the United States. But Spanish, their first language, is still part of their identity. Language becomes much more than a communication tool. It shapes the girls' experience and self-image.

Alvarez explores the possibilities of language and translation through wordplay. One of Yolanda's nicknames, Yo, is the same as the Spanish word for I. When Yolanda's name is translated into various English nicknames, like the nicknames her husband gives her, she worries she's losing herself. When Mami practices her English in Part 2, Chapter 2 she uses English idioms or sayings, getting the meaning but not the exact wording correct. For instance she tells Yoyo, "Necessity is the daughter of invention," which is a variation of the expression "Necessity is the mother of invention" from Greek philosopher Plato's Republic (c. 360 BCE).

Language demonstrates belonging. Yolanda's lost Spanish shows her alienation from the Dominican Republic as a grown woman. Even though she knows academic English at her American college, she hasn't mastered the conversational slang her classmates use, and she feels out of place. Carla and Papi are both marked as outsiders by their strong accents.

Language also shows ownership. When Yolanda matches the word snow to the weather phenomenon in Part 2, Chapter 4 she feels more at home in her new country. In Part 2, Chapter 1 the girls translate their family's Spanish names into English words. Their second language becomes a secret language of superiority, giving them power over their family.

When language is lost, the characters lose authority, power, and confidence. Thus they lose the ability to control their own experience. Carla doesn't have the words to describe her traumatic experience to the police in Part 2, Chapter 3. The impossibility of communicating what she saw leaves her as shaken as the event itself did. Part 1, Chapter 4 demonstrates how Yolanda's relationship trauma came from the absence of mutually understood communication. It resulted symbolically in the loss of a common spoken language.

Gender Roles

The García women navigate the delicate balance of achieving independence while playing the maternal roles expected of women. Relationships and cultural belonging are both complicated by gender expectations.

Fifi becomes estranged from her father when she defies expectations for women by starting a sexual relationship with Otto before marriage. Carlos worries his daughters will be "loose women" and damage the family reputation. Though women are held to high standards, men seem to have more opportunities. When his grandson is born in Part 1, Chapter 2, Carlos heaps praise and encouragement on the baby, encouragement Fifi notices he didn't give his granddaughter. As Fifi attempts to fit back into Dominican life in Part 2, Chapter 1, she dates Manuel, a young man with rigid behavioral expectations for her. Fifi's sisters think Manuel is curtailing her freedom by insisting she fit gender roles. Mami later insists her daughters' troubles in the United States have stemmed from "bad men," implying the girls' husbands and boyfriends have power over their fates.

García women feel they're excluded from both Dominican and American cultures by not living up to gender standards. Laura worries she's a failure in Dominican culture for not giving birth to a son who will carry on the family name. Sandi, her mother claims, wanted to resemble "those twiggy models" in American magazines and stopped eating. Yolanda's first relationship with an American college boy fails because he expects her to have casual sex without commitment, when young American women in the 1960s were having casual sex as an act of political rebellion. As a college student Yolanda can't yet bring herself to meet her boyfriend's expectations. But she chafes under the restrictions of Dominican culture too, where she can't go anywhere without a chaperone. For the Garcías being a woman is challenging everywhere.

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