Julia Alvarez published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, in 1991 at the age of 41. Built from interrelated stories she had been publishing in magazines and literary reviews throughout the 1980s, it was the first major novel about the Dominican-American experience to be published in English. It garnered the 1991 Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and was selected as a notable book by the New York Times and the American Library Association. The novel's success gave Alvarez the opportunity to make a living with her writing, and she went on to publish many books of poetry, nonfiction, and five more novels. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), also set during the Trujillo Era of Dominican history, was made into a feature film in 2001. Since then, other Dominican-American novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz, have gained widespread popularity. In 2008, the Roundhouse Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland held the world premiere of a stage adaption of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Karen Zacarías.
In writing the novel, Alvarez drew on her own family's experience fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship. Like the fictional Carlos García, her father was involved in the underground opposition to Trujillo and brought his family to the United States in 1960 to protect them from reprisals. Alvarez modeled Papito on her grandfather, a Cornell graduate who was appointed a Dominican representative to the United Nations. Her mother was the first girl in her family to attend an American boarding school, an immersion in American culture similar to that of Laura García.
Though the novel is not explicitly political, various historical events arise that establish the novel's timeline. While living in New York, Carlos reads about the free elections of 1963, which resulted in the election of Juan Bosch's leftist government. Soon after, Carlos makes a trial visit to the Dominican Republic, but loses hope when a revolution breaks out during his stay. Although Alvarez mentions no specific details, this revolution is likely the coup of September 1963 in which Bosch's government was overthrown and replaced by nineteen months of military rule. The sexual revolution in the United States is also omnipresent, creating a gulf between the liberated, feminist García daughters, and their conservative, "Old World" parents. Although the novel makes only passing references to these events, they form an inescapable backdrop to the lives of the four sisters struggling to reconcile their Dominican heritage with the freewheeling culture of 1960s and 70s America.