How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary and Analysis
This chapter tells the story of Carla's seventh grade year, when she attends a Sacred Heart school a few miles from home. She has only lived in the United States for a year, and her English is poor and heavily accented. At the same time that she is struggling to learn English, she must also adapt to a strange, maturing body. Since she has only begun to go through puberty, she learns the English terms for body parts and sexual organs before knowing the Spanish ones. Specifically, she learns crude playground slang that compounds the humiliation she feels about her changing body. She is teased cruelly by a gang of blond boys during recess, who shout racist and crude slurs, and molest her by pulling up her shirt.
One day, walking back from school, she is trailed by a man in a green car who stops and beckons her to the car. As she dutifully goes over to speak with him, she notices his vague, dazed look. She is shocked to discover that he is naked from the waist down and is masturbating, although she knows no words in Spanish or English to describe what he is doing. When her mother calls the police, they interview Carla about the experience, growing impatient with her inability to articulate answers to many of her questions. She imagines them as older versions of the boys on the playground, and is frightened by the threatening sexuality of their gun holsters.
Thereafter, her mother drives her to and from school. The boys stop tormenting her when they see her mother's new behavior, interpreting it as a defense against them. For the second half of seventh grade, Carla attends a public school much closer to her house.
Carla grapples with the slippery qualities of language throughout this chapter. She strives to understand why “trespass” means different things in the Lord’s Prayer and on a sign in a neighboring lot, and struggles to describe to the police the relatively simple image of a man masturbating. Although she sees the image vividly in her head, she lacks the tools to put it into communicable form, in either English or Spanish. The sexual content of the experience is no less an obstacle than her poor English. She realizes she has no word for genitalia in any language, although the policemen are able to follow her euphemistic substitutions easily enough. Her exertion reveals the immense distance that a personal experience must cross in order to be comprehended by others, a fact we often take for granted, and which the policemen do not seem to sympathize with.
The defining quality of the policemen is their indifference to her difficulties putting the image into words. Carla compares the policemen’s faces to images in a movie she is watching. The metaphor suggests that the true drama is occurring in Carla’s mind as she confronts the imperfect bridge that language throws over the terrifying gulf between individuals. Images on a screen, by contrast, are inhuman and require no reciprocity.
The two new realms Carla is entering—America and sexuality—are equally incomprehensible, hostile, and inescapable for her. When the boys on the playground use ugly words to describe her new body, she feels almost as if they have “the power of spells” (153) to create the body itself. Their language may not be literally magical, but it has the power of metaphor: it comes to define her body for her, rather than allowing her to come to her own private understanding of her sexual being.
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