How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary and Analysis of "An American Surprise"

In this chapter, Carla recounts an episode from her childhood in the Dominican Republic, just after Sofía’s birth. Her father has recently returned from a visit to New York. He always brings surprise presents for the girls from F.A.O. Schwarz, and this year has brought each of them a cast-iron mechanical bank for holding pennies. Sandra’s bank is a girl who jumps rope when a penny is inserted, Yolanda’s is a bank of Jonah and the whale, and Carla’s bank is a figure of the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven.

The family has a new pantry maid, Gladys, who wants to move to New York and become a famous actress. She is deeply Catholic, and calls the Statue of Liberty the “American Virgin” (260), a saint that will help Gladys find her way to New York. Gladys is riveted by the mechanical ascension of the Virgin Mary bank.

A few weeks later, Christmas comes. Carla receives a baby doll that cries and drinks, and soon forgets the now-broken Virgin Mary bank. Gladys, who receives a leather wallet from the family for Christmas, comes into Carla’s room that night and offers to buy the bank. Since it is broken, Carla decides to give her the bank for free, but is worried that giving away her father’s present will bring punishment on them both, so warns Gladys not to tell her parents.

Soon, however, her mother notices the missing bank. When Carla tells her that she does not know where it is, Laura looks through the servants’ quarters and finds it. Gladys is dismissed, and her sobbing prompts a confession from Carla. Laura hurries off to explain the misunderstanding to the other servants and clear Gladys’ name, but the damage has already been done to Gladys’ standing in the house, and she asks to leave. In the final scene, Carla sits on her father’s lap as he looks sadly at the Virgin Mary bank. They insert a penny to watch her rise, but the lever jams and the Virgin remains stuck halfway up.


When Gladys is dismissed, the truth of her innocence emerges too late to save her standing in the household. The story’s outcome reveals the unsentimental reality of Dominican class relations, in which a simple misunderstanding can significantly alter or damage the life of a subordinate. The final, failed ascension of the mechanical Virgin Mary bank is a symbol for entrapment in a rigid social hierarchy that allows little or no upward mobility.

In particular, the image offers an allegory for the probable failure of Gladys’s dream of becoming a famous actress in New York. Gladys associates New York with the Virgin, calling the Statue of Liberty a “powerful American Virgin.” The stalled ascension symbolizes the probable failure of both Gladys’ dream and her hope for miraculous intervention from the saints. Class relations are maintained so strictly that there is little likelihood Gladys will ever leave the Island or even rise above a pantry maid. At the same time, her superstitious practices, mixing desire for personal gain with religion, will not actually help her achieve fame in New York.

The Catholicism of the servants is laced with superstition. They light candles and keep figures of saints for various sorts of luck, practices reminiscent of Chucha’s voodoo. Gladys speaks of saints as though they were tools to help her accomplish things, such as earning money or protecting one’s eyesight. When the mechanized Virgin rises, Gladys looks as though she were seeing an actual miracle, prompting Carlos’s patronizing remark that the servants are “like children” (266). Gladys seems to mistake the ingenuity of human craftsmanship for divine intervention, demonstrating the mixture of materialism and religious belief that produces superstition. Although less superstitious than the servants, the García family also focuses on the material aspects of Christian holidays, such as presents, decorations, parties and food during Christmas.

The chapter also explores the relations between masters and servants in a Dominican household. The servants often grumble about their workload, while Carlos and Laura treat them with firm discipline and patronizing kindness. The servants mix deference with criticism and complaint in their behavior towards their masters. The uneasy dynamic interferes with even the most pleasant conversation, prompting condescension on one side and grumbling on the other.

The question of moral behavior, whether according to religion, social hierarchy, or family obedience proves more complicated in this story than the rigid rules of the society allow. When Gladys asks to buy Carla’s bank, Carla struggles to reach the right decision. The moral rules dictated by her mother contradict each other in this case, and Carla senses that giving the bank away and keeping it are both partly good and partly wrong actions. She wonders how “being good worked” (270), as though morality is also mechanized and will respond if you press the correct lever. In dismissing Gladys, the Garcías initially think they are doing right to turn out a thief. However, when they learn the whole story, the moral rules no longer operate in so clear a fashion. Even after her innocence is declared, Gladys has still been shamed before her peers, and she chooses to leave rather than face the contempt of the household. No simple way exists to determine the right course of action for the Garcías or Gladys, and the moral system seems to have broken down just like the mechanical bank.