In How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, Julia Alvarez discusses the four girls’transition from the Dominican Republic to America. The Garcia’s are an immigrant family who must find a balance between their identity as Dominicans and their new identities as Americans. Yolanda, the sister on whom the story primarily focuses, must find a balance between the strict and old fashioned culture she comes from and the new, innovative and radical culture she is now learning to embrace. Immigration challenges Yolanda and her sisters to create a bi-cultural identity—a task at which they ultimately fail.
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They embark on a search to find themselves, feeling torn between two distinctly different and opposing female identities—the sheltered Dominican women, with old fashioned values versus the American teenaged girls who experience the lure of the ‘60’s hippy culture.Migration between two very different cultures invariably creates a tension between the old and familiar past, and the new and unknown future.
Dominican people began immigrating to the United States with the fall of Trujillo and the first wave of Cuban exiles in the 1960’s. The constant movement back and forth between North American and Hispanic cultures left the Dominicans in a perpetual search for self-definition in a place where bi-cultural identities were difficult to create. The girls find difficulty with learning the language and maintaining the values they were taught in the Dominican Republic. (Luis)
In the Dominican Republic the girls had a native language they knew and a cultural identity. When Yolanda returns to the Dominican Republic, she has lost her fluency in Spanish and in a state of panic, resorts back to English. Unable to remain fluent in both languages, she struggles to speak Spanish and has even more difficulty with key words like antojo which ironically means a craving for something or the desire of someone who has been taken over by a saint (Alvarez 8-9). Yolanda’s language struggles symbolize her inability to be both Americanand Dominican.
In the United States, all of the Garcia girls struggle to learn English. “The struggle to master a second language is
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a constant reminder to these girls of their weakened position as strangers in a new land” (Hoffman). The girls’ difficulty with language shows their need to find strength and the self- assurance. To form a bi-cultural identity, they must keep up their native tongue while learning to live in an entirely new language. This struggle with the English language affects Yolanda the most out of the four sisters because she is a writer. She understands the power of words because, as a writer, words are her means to becoming who she wants to be. When she struggles to find the right words to use in her writings, she also struggles to define herself (Hoffman).
Yolanda describes her experience with English as “English was then still a party favor for me-crack open the dictionary, find out if I’d just been insulted, praised, admonished or criticized” (Alvarez 87). Yolanda’s moment of self-discovery comes when she is asked to write the teacher’s day address and finally “She began to sound like herself in English” (Alvarez 143). Her inability to maintain a bi-cultural identity linguistically is shown through her old fashioned Dominican father who considers her words to be “boastful, disrespectful and insubordinate” (Hoffman). Yolanda’s feelings of linguistic inadequacy with the English language show a boundary she must overcome with immigration. (Luis)
Carla, the oldest Garcia daughter, also experiences difficulty with English. Carla is harassed by a man in a car who is naked and asks her for directions. When he asks her to get into the car, she runs away and tells her mother who calls the police. Carla does not have sufficient English vocabulary to explain her trauma to the police officer and feels ashamed at her inadequacy with English. Mami also struggles with the police officer because she cannot understand what it means to file a police report. It is because of the language barrier that Carla and her family cannot deliver this pervert the justice that he deserves.
In the Dominican Republic, a woman’s honor is of the upmost importance. They are expected to remain pure until marriage, and if a woman’s virtue is compromised, it is a scandal that brings shame and disgrace to her family. Sofia, the youngest Garcia daughter, cannot even go and buy contraception in the Dominican Republic because it would be considered shameful to her family. Carlos Garcia always cautioned his girls “I don’t want loose girls in my family” (Alvarez 28).
When Sofia returns to the Dominican Republic after living in the United States, she begins to date her uncle’s illegitimate son Manuel. Manuel is extremely controlling and sexist, and also refuses to use protection. Sofia’s sisters go on an adventure with their cousin Mundin to a sleazy motel in town and see Manuel’s car. The sisters are outraged that Sofia is sleeping with Manuel and decide to go home. Once the sisters are home Mami asks them where Sofia is and they say she is with Manuel. Mami is outraged that Sofia is with a man unsupervised and is afraid this will cause a huge scandal to the family and ruin Sofia’s reputation. Yolanda also experiences the old world values about sex with her college boyfriend, Rudy Elmenherst, saying “I’d just gotten over worrying I’d get pregnant from proximity, or damned by God should I die at that very moment…” (Alvarez 97). The beliefs of the Garcia family and Yolanda show the old world values of the Dominican Republic.
It is later on in the book that Sofia falls in love with a German tourist named Otto. Sofia’s father finds sexually explicit letters from Otto and is furious with her, saying “Has he deflowered you? That’s what I want to know. Have you gone behind the palm trees? Are you dragging my good name through the dirt? That is what I would like to know!” (Alvarez 30) In the traditional Dominican culture, a man’s honor is measured by how well he can protect the chastity of the women in his family. Carlos Garcia is personally hurt and offended when he finds out that Sofia has lost her honor and never fully forgives her for her actions. Sofia’s escapades show the importance of honor and the extremely religious value of purity that are a part of the Dominican culture.
The Garcia girls adapt to the North American environment which is far more liberal and permissive than the traditional Dominican environment in which they were raised. (Luis). The girls grew up in the United States in the late sixties “Those were the days when wearing jeans and hoop earrings, smoking a little dope, and sleeping with their classmates were considered to be political acts against the military-industrial complex” (Alvarez 28) Sex in American culture was considered a norm in the 1960’s.
Rudy is American, and believes sex to be casual and no big deal. He refers to it crudely a “just getting laid.” Yolanda, the native Dominican, sees it as an expression of long term commitment to another person. Yolanda cannot comprehend how casually the American’s discuss and have sex. The parties at college reveal a much more indulgent atmosphere with drugs and heavy drinking. Yolanda refuses to try the drugs, claiming “I was less afraid of what they would do to my mind than I was of what Rudy might do to my body while I was under the influence” (Alvarez 95).
Yolanda is so scared of sex, she does not even want to put herself in a position where she could be persuaded to have sex or even be taken advantage of. In this respect, Yolanda still clings to her old fashioned values, wishing to be courted and sought after. She wants sex to matter, saying “I wanted to feel we were serious before we made love” (Alvarez 99). Rudy decides to end things with Yolanda because she will not have sex with him or have “fun”. Sex was expected in college relationships in the United States.
Yolanda meets Rudy again in the story about five years later when she is in grad school in upstate New York. By then she has become an accomplished poet and a Bohemian, having fully adapted to the 1960’s American way of life. She has even had a few sexual partners and is on birth control.
Rudy calls Yolanda and asks her if he can come over. When he asks her to have sex, she throws him out. Yolanda also begins to drink wine from the bottle, showing that she is yielding to American values and an American way of life. Once she crosses the cultural gap, there is no turning back. Gone are the old traditions of her former life, replaced by a new set of values that are incompatible with the old fashioned Dominican ways. For her, life is one way or the other, but not both. Thus even the thought of a bi-cultural identity seems absurd. (Hoffman).
The Garcia girls neglect their Dominican traditions and adopt North American culture. The girls’ adaptation of American culture and neglect of Dominican culture shows that they have not achieved a bi-cultural identity. Yolanda is a perfect example of an inability to incorporate two cultures into her life when she returns to the Dominican to try to rediscover her Dominican identity but instead finds herself permanently changed by North American culture.
Yolanda cannot go back to her old life and her old innocence, the life she had before she fell into the way of life of young adults in the sixties experimenting. When the Garcia girls lose their accents it could be considered a loss of their identity as a Dominican. The Garcia sisters ultimately become Americanized and lose sight of the strong values and lessons they were taught as girls growing up in the Dominican Republic. The Girls inability to link old world values to a life in the new world shows an inability to create a bi-cultural identity.See More on Dominican Republic, Language