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Critical Review by Elizabeth Starcevic
SOURCE: "Talking about Language," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, August-September, 1992, p. 15.
Starcevic is a critic and professor of Spanish. In the following review, she praises Alvarez's portrayal of the family in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents but faults her for not having "consistently developed voices."
[In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents], it is the voices of the García girls, the four lovely daughters of Mami and Papi García, who singly and in chorus offer the shifting choral poem that recounts their life as "strangers in a strange land." (Julia Alvarez left the Domincan Republic when she was ten years old. She published Homecoming, her first book of poetry, in 1986.) Privileged children of a privileged Dominican upper-class family, they are forced to leave their idyllic family compound to come and live in New York. Their father, Carlos García, one of thirty-three children, is a well-established professional in his country. Their mother, Laura de la Torre, traces her heritage back to the conquistadors and never forgets to mention a Swedish grandmother among her ancestors. Her father, a representative from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, is involved in national politics, but with a difficult and complex relationship to the reigning dictator Rafael Trujillo. Carlos García and many of his relatives and friends become involved in an attempt to overthrow Trujillo that is at first supported and then abandoned by the United States. García is aided in his flight from his homeland by one of the Americans who implement this policy of fluctuating imperialism.
The threads of politics, race, and class surface often in this circular depiction of the García family's life in the United States. Beginning and ending in the Dominican Republic, in a quest to perhaps go home again, the stories unfurl from the present to the past, from 1989 to 1959. They are grouped in three sections with five stories each. Weaving together the life "before" and the life "after," these histories of immigrant experience are filled with humor, love, and intimate detail.
The shock felt by the girls when they abruptly change their life circumstances seems unbearable at first. Initially in limbo and wishing to return to their home, the girls experience racism, sexism, perversion, and a poverty that they were totally unused to. Isolated by language, they bond together within their already clannish patriachal family, which is also being bombarded by the demands of the new world. Traditional roles are challenged, and upheaval permeates their interactions.
Alvarez on Her Childhood in the Dominican Republic:
Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominican family, mine was an American childhood. Technically, I am American, for I was born in New York City and lived there for three weeks before my parents returned "home," their first emigration having failed owing to my mother's homesickness. That technicality of birth, however, would not have amounted to anything but paper citizenship if it hadn't been backed up by a sense of the honor and privilege the certificate conferred on me. "Just remember," my father explained to my older sister and me. "You could become president. You were born there." My mother referred to her first two daughters as her Americanitas and to the last two as criollas (homemade). My cousins would often ask me what I remembered about living in that magic land. I'd claim to recall a great many things from those first three weeks. Only once did my memory fail me, when I said that snow came in several colors.
When my parents returned to the Dominican Republic right after I was born, they moved into a house on my grandparents' property, where the extended family lived—grandparents, uncles, aunts, a band of cousins—all of us fans of the Americans. My mother's family had had money for a while, and in the last three generations—what with half-a-dozen revolutions, changes of governments, as well as hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, and several American marine occupations—they had learned that a good education is the best investment. The sons and daughters were sent off to the United States to boarding schools. Upon graduation, the girls were brought home because too much schooling might spoil them for marriage. The sons went on to good colleges—Cornell, Yale, Brown.
Julia Alvarez, in The American Scholar, Winter, 1987.
Although Carlos García is drawn as the patriarch and all the girls seek his approval, it is Laura de la Torre who plays the significant role as a mediator between two cultures. Educated in the United States, she merges the self-confidence of her wealthy background with a receptivity toward the new challenges. Energetic and intelligent, she is always thinking of new inventions. Her creativity is stymied, yet she finds other outlets in the activities of her children and her husband. She is a vivid, alive character whose contributions to the necessary adjustments of her new life are both critiqued and appreciated by her daughters. Through her stories about them we discover their accomplishments and their defeats, their adventures and professional advances. When Mami tells their story, each girl feels herself to be the favorite.
Carla, Yolanda, Sandra, and Sofía García grow up in a tumultuous period in the United States. This is the time of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, drugs, and feminism. While trying to negotiate the strict limits imposed on them by their parents, the sisters develop as a group and individually. "The four girls," as they are called, constantly see themselves as part of a similarly dressed collective, understanding only later that this made their mother's life easier while making them miserable. Their parents, while appreciated and loved, were not really able to guide them in their new tasks. Indeed, the cultures often seem to war against each other as the girls are told to be good, Catholic, respectful, unsullied virgins in an atmosphere that pushes for new mores and individualistic attitudes. They are sent to prep school in Boston and later go on to college. Marriages, divorces, breakdowns, and careers all form part of the adjustment. At least one, Yolanda, the poet, the writer whose voice is perhaps the strongest throughout the novel, decides as an adult to consider spending some time in the Dominican Republic and perhaps discovering at last her real home. There is overlay, however, in the cultural clashes. On one of their visits, these "American" sisters, who no longer fit as Dominicans, unite to rescue Sofia, the youngest. Having fallen in love and become emptyheaded almost simultaneously, she is ready to go off to a motel with her macho cousin, who believes that using condoms is an offense to his manhood.
In these visits and in their memories of their birthplace, we learn of the prejudices toward Haitians and darker-skinned country girls who are both needed and looked down upon. The portrayal of Chucha, the ancient Haitian servant, who is feared for her temper, her voodoo spells, and her practice of sleeping in a coffin, offers a glimpse into the historical complexity of the relationships of the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola. Comfort and ease that are taken for granted are provided by a series of servants who may spend their entire lives in the compound. Their livelihood depends on the whims of the employer, and one of the Garcías' maids is abruptly dismissed for having one of the children's toys in her possession even though Carla had given it to her as a gift.
The class privilege that was abruptly disturbed by the failed coup attempt does not disappear completely in the new world. Carlos García obtains a job immediately through his American benefactor Dr. Fanning. Little by little he is able to establish a practice and to provide ever greater comfort for his family. The Garcías are helped as well by Mrs. García's father. It is on a special evening out with the Fannings that we see the problematic relationship of U.S. neocolonialism replayed and that Sandi learns the power of emotional blackmail.
Scenes of pain and hardship but also of great humor are found throughout the novel. We listen to Laura García describe finding her husband and Carla in the bathroom painting white sneakers red with nail polish. Or, shades of magical realism, we watch Sandi discover one of the island's famous sculptors, naked and chained, in a shed strewn with giant figures in wood. Eventually she sees that he has sculpted her face on the statue of the virgin for the annual nativity crèche. Banding together, the sisters play on the names of their family in Santo Domingo, translating them literally so that they sound silly in English.
Language is a central feature of the book, beginning with the title. From Mrs. García's "mixed-up idioms that showed she was green behind the ears," to Yolanda's poetry, to the author, the girls, the mother and the father, all the aunts who want them to speak Spanish, the nuns and the police who want them to speak English, all the characters talk about language.
These are stories about relationships. Women are at the center, and we see the world through their eyes but also hear of it through their mouths. These are people of an oral tradition, and even though they have moved on to a writing stage, the power of the voice is what carries them. The book is uneven, and its organization into individual stories highlights this. The author has not really found consistently developed voices. Nevertheless, as we are pulled backward toward the moment when these Dominicans will become immigrants, we are pulled into the world of this family, we are drawn into their hopes and their dreams and their strategies for living, and we are glad. We enjoy what we learn, we enjoy the music of this chorus, we feel included in their lively, passionate world, and we want more.
This section contains 1,643 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)