During his two visits, the grandfather had stood guard by the crib all day, speaking to little Carlos. "Charles the Fifth; Charles Dickens; Prince Charles." He enumerated the names of famous Charleses in order to stir up genetic ambition in the boy. "Charlemagne," he cooed at him also, for the baby was large and big-boned with blond fuzz on his pale pink skin, and blue eyes just like his German father's. All the grandfather's Caribbean fondness for a male heir and for fair Nordic looks had surfaced. There was now good blood in the family against a future bad choice by one of its women.
This passage describes Carlos's reaction to his grandson, Sofía's son, also named Carlos, who is the first male born to the family in two generations. The elder Carlos had been estranged from his youngest daughter Sofía after she eloped with a German man six years ago, and has only reconciled with her since the birth of her son. Sofía is offended by her father's "macho baby-talk," especially since he does not lavish such attention on Sofía’s four-year-old daughter. Here, the narrator takes an ironic tone, describing Carlos as standing "guard" to hint at his excessive devotion; similarly, the word "enumerate" suggests Carlos's undue pomp. Even the series of great men seems absurd when described as a list of "Charleses," an amusingly awkward term that indicates how little these men truly have in common with each other, or with the newborn baby. While Carlos is overjoyed that his name will be perpetuated in the United States, the passage's tone suggests that his pride in masculinity and naming is misplaced. The last line of the passage reveals how deep the misogyny and racial hypocrisy runs in the Dominican family system. The statement implies that a woman will tarnish the family honor by marrying a darker man below her station: the baby's Germanic blood will protect the family by lightening the skin of all his descendants.
"I don't want loose women in my family," he had cautioned all his daughters. Warnings were delivered communally, for even though there was usually the offending daughter of the moment, every woman's character could use extra scolding.
The daughters had had to put up with this kind of attitude in an unsympathetic era. They grew up 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 political acts against the military-industrial complex. But standing up to their father was a different matter altogether. Even as grown women, they lowered their voices in their father’s earshot when alluding to their bodies' pleasure. Professional women, too, all three of them, with degrees on the wall!
The narrator looks back on Carlos' repeated warnings to his daughters about maintaining their virginity during high school and college. The passage comes just after the birth of Sofía's son and reflects with some amusement on the daughters' continued lip service to their father's outmoded values, despite having grown into independent, sexually active adults. This conflict between their parents' conservative Dominican values and the cultural mores of the American 1960s is central to the García sisters' struggle to reconcile the two halves of their Dominican-American identity. While trying to blend into American teenage liberation, they must temper their urge towards independence and feminism with respect for a radically different cultural ideal. Their parents' adherence to traditional patriarchy is so strong that even the three eldest girls' advanced degrees and independent incomes cannot shake their father's preoccupation with their chastity.
Supposedly, the parents were heavy-duty Old World, but the four daughters sounded pretty wild for all that. There had been several divorces among them, including Yolanda's. The oldest, a child psychologist, had married the analyst she'd been seeing when her first marriage broke up, something of the sort. The second one was doing a lot of drugs to keep her weight down. The youngest had just gone off with a German man when they discovered she was pregnant.
This passage, an indirect internal monologue by Yolanda's lover Clive, offers an outsider's succinct summary of the dynamics of the García family. Yolanda's mother happens to sit next to Clive at a poetry reading and begins telling him about Yolanda's childhood, unaware that he is her daughter's lover. Although Clive is vague on the details, he captures the gist of each girl's narrative, hitting on the psychiatry that unites Carla and her husband, Sandra's unhealthy obsession with weight loss and appearance, and Sofía's central act of rebellion. His wry, somewhat amused tone suggests both respect for the girls' adventurous spirits and pity for what he perceives to be their troubled, unsettled tendencies. Such a brief outline of each daughter's life would lead a casual observer to conclude that the family is wildly dysfunctional. The novel, however, paints a more complex picture by focusing on the overpowering family devotion that binds the Garcías together despite their intense, divergent convictions.
"The others aren't bad looking, don't get me wrong. But Sandi, Sandi got the fine looks, blue eyes, peaches and ice cream skin, everything going for her!" The mother spread her arms in all directions to show how pretty and pale and blue-eyed the girl was. Bits of her Kleenex fell to the floor, and she picked off the specks from the carpet. "My great-grandfather married a Swedish girl, you know? So the family has light-colored blood, and that Sandi got it all. But imagine, spirit of contradiction, she wanted to be darker complected like her sisters."
Sandra has recently been committed to a private mental hospital for an eating disorder and nervous breakdown during graduate school. Laura describes Sandra to the doctor, emphasizing her pale, blue-eyed appearance as her most important distinguishing characteristic. This episode is the novel's first lengthy discussion of Sandra. However, later chapters reveal Sandra as a complex and conflicted person obsessed with the dynamics of social power. She recognizes that her beauty gives her influence, but she becomes a manic dieter and is never satisfied with herself. She is both the most beautiful and the least happy sister, but Laura fails to understand the connection between the two poles. To Laura, stuck in the traditional Dominican value system that privileges fair good looks, Sandra's appearance has a straightforward advantage: it will help her find a husband. Laura's uncontrolled, dramatic gestures indicate her bafflement at Sandra's condition. She sees the woman's role as being attractive, finding a husband, and keeping house, a model that leaves no room for an ambitious, beautiful daughter who would prefer to be ugly. From this passage, the reader begins to realize that Laura's inability to understand or sympathize with Sandra's state of mind has probably exacerbated her daughter's illness.
Our next workshop, no one understood what my sublimated love sonnet was all about, but Rudy's brought down the house. Suddenly, it seemed to me, not only that the world was full of English majors, but of people with a lot more experience than I had. For the hundredth time, I cursed my immigrant origins. If only I too had been born in Connecticut or Virginia, I too would understand the jokes everyone was making on the last two digits of the year, 1969; I too would be having sex and smoking dope; I too would have suntanned parents who took me skiing in Colorado over Christmas break, and I would say things like "no shit," without feeling like I was imitating someone else.
During her first year at a co-ed college, Yolanda begins to discover how her immigrant upbringing has affected not only her relation to English and language, but to sexuality as well. The Americans around her seem more comfortable in their skin, just as they are more comfortable with the language. Yolanda, meanwhile, cannot use English casually, nor can she shed her belief in the sanctity of sex. In this chapter, Yolanda tries to understand why she refused Rudy's persistent requests to sleep with her and took such offense at the crude slang he used to describe sex. This interior monologue clarifies the relation Yolanda perceives between linguistic vernacular, a sense of belonging or acceptance, and an uninhibited attitude towards sex.
We don't even try anymore to raise consciousness here. It'd be like trying for cathedral ceilings in a tunnel, or something. Once, we did take on Tía Flor, who indicated her large house, the well-kept grounds, the stone Cupid who had been re-routed so it was his mouth that spouted water. "Look at me, I'm a queen," she argued. "My husband has to go to work every day, I can sleep until noon, if I want. I'm going to protest for my rights?"
Having adjusted to American teenage life, the García sisters are increasingly disturbed by the misogynist culture that even women in the Dominican Republic embrace. Here, the three older sisters are visiting Sofía during her year in the Dominican Republic, and commenting on the atmosphere of political indifference among Dominican women. The chapter is written in the first person plural ("we") so that the three sisters seem to act as a coalition, unified against the culture they fear is sapping Sofía's independent spirit. The passage hints at how different the sisters' worldview might have been had they remained on the Island and grown up as privileged, pampered women in an unquestioning patriarchy. The metaphor of Dominican culture as a tunnel reflects the narrow blindness with which the sisters see Dominican women obeying and supporting the patriarchy. The concept of "rights," of which Tía Flor is so incredulous, becomes a temple of enlightenment and freedom compared to the closed darkness of Dominican culture. Additionally, the euphemistic detail of the Cupid who has been "re-routed" suggests the girls' amusement at the sanitized attitude older Dominican women take towards sex.
As usual, we're to wait for the lovers at Capri's. Twenty minutes before our curfew, they'll pick up Carla, and we'll all head home again like one big happy group of virgin cousins. But tonight, as we've agreed, we're staging a coup on the same Avenida where a decade ago the dictator was cornered and wounded on his way to a tryst with his mistress. It was a plot our father helped devise but did not carry through, since by then we had fled to the States. Tonight, we are blowing the lovers' cover. First step is to get Mundín to drive us home. Male loyalty is what keeps the macho system going, so Mundín will want to protect Manuel.
This passage makes one of the few explicit comments on the parallel between the Dominican family patriarchy and Trujillo's dictatorship. The three elder sisters have concocted a scheme to separate the teenage Sofía from her cousin, Manuel Gustavo, whom she has been dating while living in the Dominican Republic. Earlier in the chapter, the sisters compare Manuel's domineering behavior to tyranny, implying that Trujillo's dictatorship gains some of its staying power from the patriarchal culture the expects masculine dominance and demands unquestioning submission from women. Trujillo fulfills the traditional model of a macho man, but Manuel's pettiness and ignorance indicate how superficial and uninspiring that masculine archetype is when viewed critically. One of the novel's ironies is that the girls' father, who risked his life to oust Trujillo, nevertheless unwittingly perpetrates a private form of patriarchal despotism over his wife and daughters. As outsiders to the masculine structure and to Dominican culture, the four girls are among the few who can clearly and critically analyze the "macho system."
"By all means, wait for him, but please not under this hot sun." Laura switches into her grand manner. The grand manner will usually disarm these poor lackeys from the countryside, who have joined the SIM, most of them, in order to put money in their pockets, food and rum in their stomachs, and guns at their hips. But deep down, they are still boys in rags bringing down coconuts for el patrón when he visits his fincas with his family on Sundays
Laura relies on her high social status to intimidate the two thugs from the secret police (SIM) who have come to the house to interrogate Carlos. Her assumptions about their backgrounds turn out to be accurate, as an internal monologue by one of the thugs, Pupo, reveals. The machismo of the SIM agents, who want to enjoy creature comforts while exerting power through intimidation, is defined largely by the sexualized violence suggested by their guns. However, Laura believes that they adopt this swaggering attitude to cover their ingrained subservience to members of the upper classes. The passage comments on the rigid social hierarchy that allows little social mobility and is reinforced by class-based stigmas. The caste system relies so heavily on a culture of obedience that even semi-trained government agents, when encountering signals of high social rank, will revert to the behavior of their social class of birth.
It seemed with so much protocol, I would never get to draw the brilliant and lush and wild world brimming over inside me. I tried to keep my mind on the demonstration, but something began to paw the inside of my drawing arm. It clawed at the doors of my will, and I had to let it out. I took my soaking brush in hand, stroked my gold cake, and a cat streaked out on my paper in one lightning stroke, whiskers, tail, meow and all!
I breathed a little easier, having gained a cat-sized space inside myself. Doña Charito's back was to me. The hummingbird on her Hawaiian shift plunged its swordlike beak between the mounds of her bottom. There would be time.
In this passage from her girlhood in the Dominican Republic, Sandra describes her compulsion to draw and her frustration with Doña Charito's lectures during her first art lesson. Like Yolanda's nervous, creative energy, which she imagines as a bird flapping free of her chest, Sandra's urgent desire to draw or paint takes the form of an animal that clamors for freedom. This metaphor compares creativity to an untamed, animalistic impulse that Sandra can set free by drawing. Sandra's sensuous, lively visions align with the Dominican attitude towards art, which the servants and even her family members view superstitiously. A servant, Milagros, believes a drawing of her baby has the power to afflict him with fever, and the family wonders if erasing Sandra's cats from a stucco wall has brought a rat infestation. This notion of art as living and active conflicts with the formal, academic studies Doña Charito wants to impose on her pupils. Sandra's innate childhood creativity is unfortunately delicate and is stamped out of her by months of isolation and pampering after she breaks her arm.
Then we moved to the United States. The cat disappeared altogether. I saw snow. I solved the riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was. I went away to school. I read books. You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what's left in the hollow of my story? I began to write, the story of Pila, the story of my grandmother. I never saw Schwarz again. The man with the goatee and Kashtanka vanished from the face of creation. I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia. There are still times I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.
In this strange paragraph that closes the novel, Yolanda muses on the relation between real life and storytelling by exploring the subtle, unexpected ways that a seemingly trivial event in her childhood has influenced her life over the years. When she was a young girl, she stole and then abandoned a kitten called Schwarz, and was haunted by visions of the mother cat for months. The accumulated effect of these visions was anxiety, insomnia and the excitement of an already active imagination. Although young Yolanda could not articulate her feelings fully, she later came to identify the sinister vision of the cat with guilt and fear. Throughout the novel, Yolanda explains that she tells stories to understand how past events came about and have shaped her present self. The black cat thus becomes a symbol of unresolved emotions that compel her to write (to practice her art) in order to tame and understand them. The cat can be a violent, wild, and uncontrollable animal, and so suggests a fierce, irrational, and wordless energy that she must struggle to put into words and fit into a pattern in her life, and thereby subdue. The potency of the final image, however, hints that the cat can never be fully tamed, and will always lurk in corners of her unconscious where her rational mind cannot reach.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The confusion the girls feel at trying to become "American" is especially emphasized by the fact that neither their father or their mother can help them transition into using English comfortably. Yolanda tries to find American language...