Biography of Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez was born to Dominican parents in New York City in 1950. When she was three months old, her family moved back to the Dominican Republic under the rule of Rafael Trujillo. Her father became involved in a political rebellion, and her family fled the country in 1960. They escaped just three months before the murder of the Mirabal sisters, vocal opponents to Trujillo's regime, on whose lives she based her second novel.

Her transition to American life was difficult, but she became an avid reader and dedicated herself to learning English fluently. She was sent to boarding school at the age of 13, and she returned to the Dominican Republic each summer. She credits a series of excellent English teachers with instilling in her a love of language and sensitivity to the sound of words. Her 6th grade teacher, Sister Bernadette, asked the class to write stories imagining they were snowflakes or pianos, creative exercises in which Alvarez reveled. Because she learned English as a second language, the musicality of the words sometimes overpowered their meanings, and she recalls repeating words like "butter" in her head for days. The early poems she wrote in English were energized by this initial strangeness of the language.

After graduating from Abbot Academy in 1967, Alvarez initially attended Connecticut College and transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont in 1969. She earned a Master's degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975. In the late 1970s, Alvarez worked as a Writer-in-Residence for the Kentucky Arts Commission. Through the 1980s, she held various positions at California State College (Fresno); College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California; Mary Williams Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware; Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; the University of Vermont; the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; and the University of Illinois (Urbana). Alvarez's first published work was The Housekeeping Book (1984).

Alvarez worked as a professor at Middlebury College from 1988 to 1998, and has been a Writer-in-Residence in the English Department since then. In 1989, Alvarez married Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist from Nebraska and the father of two daughters from a previous marriage. Her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), was the first major novel by a Dominican author to be published in English. Alvarez also has written three books of poetry, including Homecoming (1991). In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) was followed by ¡Yo!, a sequel to How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Among her many awards, recently she was honored with The F. Scott Fitzgerald Award by Montgomery College (Maryland) on October 17, 2009.

Alvarez and Eichner own La Altagracia, a "sustainable" coffee-bean farm seventeen kilometers west of the small ecotourist city Jarabacoa and seventeen kilometers east of Pico Durate, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Proceeds from the sales of coffee support their Foundation Alta Gracia, which funds a school on the farm that helps natives of all ages become literate. In addition, the school, also open to foreign students, teaches students about the farm's "sustainable" practices. Alvarez returns to the Dominican Republic and tends the farm.


Study Guides on Works by Julia Alvarez