Julia Alvarez

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a coming of age novel for teens and adults by Julia Alvarez, tells the story of four sisters from the Dominican Republic who are forced to flee their island home after their father protests Trujillo’s dictatorship. Taking place over thirty years in the sisters’ lives, the book consists of fifteen interwoven stories, with a particular focus on Yolanda, the third oldest daughter and most often considered the protagonist of the novel. Published in 1991, the book takes place primarily from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s.

The novel is structured in reverse chronological order, in three parts with five chapters each. Part 1 takes place from 1989-1972, Part 2 from 1970-1960 and Part 3 from 1960-1956. The Garcia girls are the wealthy daughters of Laura, their socialite mother and their father, Carlos Garcia, a prominent doctor who can trace his lineage back to the Conquistadores. The family lives on a compound with their many aunts and uncles, and the Garcia girls, born in the early 1950s, grow up with their large family and many cousins with whom to play.

In Part 1, the Garcia girls are adults. Yolanda becomes the primary narrator of these stories, as she tells the first and last stories in this section, which focuses on the four girls and their romantic relationships, as well as their relationship with their now aging father, Carlos. In the third story, “The Four Girls,” the sisters are reunited and share the narration with each other, demonstrating the structure of the book as a whole. Sofia, the youngest daughter, has a difficult relationship with her father – in this section, Carlos is enraged when he discovers love letters Sofia is exchanging with her German lover, causing Sofia to run away and elope. Later, she returns for her father’s birthday and introduces him to her baby son. Carla and Sandra, the second oldest and oldest daughters, are in long-term relationships, but second-youngest Yolanda struggles with love. She writes about her former relationship with John and her new crush on her psychiatrist. Yolanda is most clear in her dissatisfaction with her romantic life and her struggle to find a man who understands both her Dominican upbringing and her American ideals.

Part 2 goes back in time to the four girls’ adolescence. This section talks primarily about the family’s immigration and adaptation to life in America. The girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and also to claim parts of both teenage and American life while remembering their Dominican heritage. The girls first attend Catholic school together in New York City, and then are sent away to boarding school. The youngest, Sofia, however, is punished when her mother, Laura, finding a bag of marijuana in her room, sends Sofia back to the Dominican Republic to spend the summer with family. In another story, Carla is the victim of a racist slur, and later is a victim of sexual violence when she is forced to watch a child molester masturbate in his car. Life in America is confusing, wonderful, and dangerous for the girls, who wonder which nation to call their home.

Part 3 goes back to the girls’ early childhood, and the events that lead the Garcia family to take refuge in America. The most political and historical section of the novel, it includes a story about two of Trujillo’s agents coming to the Garcia house looking for Carlos, who is a political revolutionary. This section also talks about the family’s wealthy life in the Dominican Republic, telling the story of their Haitian maid, who practices voodoo and narrowly escaped Trujillo’s Haitian massacre in order to work for Laura. In the final story, as all four girls arrive for the first time in New York City, they experience snow, demonstrating their innocence and their idealized idea of what it means to be American.

Overall, the book deals with themes of identity and assimilation, immigration, and political persecution, as well as memory and female adolescence. All the girls, ultimately, feel torn between their mixed identities, feeling both a kinship to their first homeland and an allegiance and appreciation for their adopted home in America. Despite that, they feel conflicted by their own inability to find cohesiveness between their Dominican and American identities.

Julia Alvarez, a prominent Dominican-American novelist, poet, and essayist, has written dozens of books, including young adult novels, adult literary fiction, books of essays, and poetry. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is based loosely on her own experience fleeing the Dominican Republic due to political persecution during the Trujillo dictatorship, and the character Yolanda is often considered an alter ego of Alvarez. Alvarez deals with issues of culture, identity, and politics in much of her work. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.