Fragmentation of self
Perhaps one of the most prominent themes in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is that of the fragmented concept of the self. The fragmentation of one's personal identity is a serious issue suffered by all four García girls throughout the course of the novel. Their immigration has left them as multiple beings, torn between their Dominican and American identities. As a college student, Yolanda encounters a boy named Rudy Elmenhurst, who is relentless in his attempts to pressure her into bed with him. When he can bear frustration no longer, Rudy lashes out and ends their relationship, leaving Yolanda devastated and hoping for his return. The inner turmoil evoked in Yolanda by this traumatic episode is evident through her realization of "what a cold lonely life awaited [her] in this country. [Yolanda] would never find someone who would understand [her] peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles". Julie Barak, of Mesa State College, has described this passage as a poignant and elegant reprisal of the recurrent sense of being divided selves and speaking divided languages found throughout the majority of the text.
The Flamenco dance in the "Floor Show" chapter evokes similar feelings of desolation in Sandra, as Mrs. Fanning's drunken interruption of the distinctly Hispanic dance performance makes "a parody of it, a second-rate combination of cultures that Sandi cannot find fulfilling. She is searching for a unified self, something noble, true, beautiful. Just as she gets close to it, however, it is ruined, dissolving into a gauche pastiche too similar to her own divided life in the States".
Latin American literature scholar, Jacqueline Stefanko, along with several of her peers, has made pointed mention of the significant implications Yolanda’s multiple nicknames hold for her fragile and fragmented sense of self. Stefanko observes that "as Yolanda's names proliferate on the page, we begin to see the multiplicity of her identity [and] realize the struggle Yolanda must engage in to not be fragmented in a society that marginalizes her". Scholar William Luis reinforces the notion that Yolanda’s shattered identity stems largely from the "multiple names used [to refer to her]. She is Yolanda, Yoyo, Yosita, Yo and, last but not least the English Joe. And above all, she is 'Yo,' the Spanish first person pronoun, the 'I' of the narrator."
Julie Barak finds the wording of Yolanda’s note to her husband, John, explaining why she must leave him, quite significant with reference to her divided self-concept. Yolanda began "I'm going home to my folks till my head-slash-heart clears. She revised the note. I'm needing some space, some time, until my head-slash-heart-slash-soul- No, no, no she didn't want to divide herself any-more, three persons in one Yo."
Quest for clarification of identity
The search for a clear and distinct personal identity is thematically quite closely related to that of the fragmented self. The quest undertaken by the García sisters for the clarification of their confused identities, however, is an attempt to achieve a solution to the problem posed by the fragmented self, and thus warrants separate categorization. Scholar William Luis reminds readers of Alvarez that "Yolanda's search for her Dominican identity must be understood within the context of the 1960s in the United States". As they begin to grow, the girls resent their parents who appear oblivious to their need to "fit in America among Americans; they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling them spics".
Luis uses the term "onomastic displacement" with reference to the multiple nicknames that fragment Yolanda's concept of a whole and unified self. This continuous onomastic displacement incites in Yolanda the desire to question her divided identity, to seek unity, clarity and a coherent understanding of her circumstances. Yolanda achieves this clarity through the act of writing and even as a young girl she revels in the completion of her speech for the Teacher's Day address because "she finally sound[s] like herself in English!" Unlike her sister Sandi, "whose artistic predilections were crushed as a child, Yolanda faces and works through her identity problems in her writing". Barak views Yolanda's writing as a process that can be used to reunite the fragments of her identity; as an aid in the acceptance of "her own 'hybrid' nature... bringing both her worlds and all her selves into balance". It is thus only through writing, the expression of Yolanda's most intricately personal thoughts and revelations, that the protagonist can retain the hope of restoring her unified personal identity.
Assimilation is a particularly difficult process for Hispanic Americans because they have "old countries that are neither old nor remote. Even those born in North America travel to their parents' homeland, and constantly face a flow of friends and relatives from 'home' who keep the culture current. This constant cross-fertilization makes assimilation a more complicated process for them than for other minority groups". Julie Barak confirms Gonzalez Echevarria’s assertions regarding Latin American immigration and continues on to demonstrate how the privileged, wealthy existence led by the García girls in the Dominican Republic serves to further complicate their process of assimilation. The girls are vastly unaware of their good fortune until they are faced with the economic hardships of immigration in the United States.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents confirms the suspicion widely expressed in circles of Latin American literature that North Americans choose not to differentiate between political and economic exile. Alvarez pointedly demonstrates the North American tendency to undervalue cultural diversity by highlighting instances of American ignorance toward distinctions between different Hispanic-Caribbean groups. The García girls are quite conflicted upon their arrival in the United States as they find that distinct cultural groups are lumped together under one broad "immigrant" category and newcomers are encouraged to assimilate silently to the American norm. Yolanda’s conflict with her father regarding the potentially controversial speech she has prepared for the Teacher’s Day Address provides a classic example of the manner in which the García girls are pressured to conform to the norm. Yolanda feels as though she has sacrificed her principles and sold out to the hyper-sensitive authorities when her father forces her to discard her empowering, rebellious achievement of artistic self-expression for "two brief pages of stale compliments and the polite commonplaces on teachers. A speech wrought by necessity and without much invention". Julie Barak affirms that "although this incident is in many ways a defeat for both Yolanda and her mother, it does teach them the lesson of conformity that is so important to living peacefully in America. Yolanda learns to fit in, to do the expected". The girls go on to attend the best schools, lose their Spanish accents and acquire the same psychological disorders as their upper-class American counterparts. Sandra battles anorexia, Carla and Yolanda both have failed marriages, Yolanda and Sandra are both institutionalized for psychiatric issues at one time or another, and Sofía is impregnated out of wedlock.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is rife with the constant presence of fear which manifests itself in a seemingly endless variety of outlets. Alvarez depicts quite vividly the fear evoked in the girls' mother, Laura, near the chronological beginning of the book, as she "sees the black V.W. [the trademark of Dominican dictator Trujillo’s henchmen], and her heart plummets right down to her toes". Even after the García family has spent several years in the United States, safe from the threat of Trujillo's retribution, a relentless paranoia continues to plague Carlos, their father, "who still lives in fear of the SIM and who is afraid to speak of 'revolt' out loud". This initial fear of Carlos' punishment for his role in the attempted assassination of Trujillo is what originally prompted the García family’s flight from the island and spawned the myriad other fears that would later plague their lives. The conflicted life the daughters would come to lead in the sexually liberated United States would be haunted by the fear of pregnancy and eternal damnation should they allow themselves to be seduced.
The Cuban Missile Crisis also becomes a significant source of fear for the girls. In a very brief chapter entitled "Snow", Alvarez reveals the impact of this widespread cultural paranoia through the character of Yolanda, who mistakes her first experience of snowfall for "the beginning of a much anticipated nuclear attack", causing a panicked outbreak of general hysteria in her classroom.
As they continue to grow and mature, the girls have many disappointing encounters which leave them fearful of the loneliness that must awaits them in this foreign country where they struggle hopelessly to fit in and be understood. Even as a grown woman, returning to her Dominican roots, Yolanda finds she can never truly escape the fear that has hovered over her for as long as she can remember. This is evident in the very first chapter, "Antojos", as Alvarez reveals the panic evoked in the adult Yolanda at the sudden realization that she is stranded in a guava field in the Dominican Republic, where women do not go about unchaperoned at night. Alvarez evokes Yolanda's fear as she reports that "the rustling leaves of the guava trees echo the warnings of her old aunts: you will get lost, you will get kidnapped, you will get raped, you will get killed".
As scholar Julie Barak has put it, "the vocabulary of fear that accompanies them is not only a part of their Spanish, but also of their English vocabulary" and the García family can therefore never hold legitimate hopes of escaping the fear.
William Luis argues that How the García Girls Lost Their Accents "is an attempt to understand memory, the past and a time before the sisters lost their innocence and accents". Memory plays a significant role in the text, as a means by which the girls can return to the past of their childhood in the attempt to make sense of their present day realities. The youngest child, Sofía carries with her only a single memory of her brief childhood on the island, in which the García's Haitian maid, Chucha, says a voodoo goodbye to the girls before they leave for the United States. Sofía feels segregated and deprived "because she has only this one memory to help her reconstruct her bicultural, bilingual self. Though this lack of memory makes her the least divided of her sisters in many ways... the most disturbed, the most rebellious against her circumstances." Ironically enough, Chucha’s voodoo prediction itself is largely concerned with the concept of memory, as she insists that after leaving the island the girls "will be haunted by what they do and don't remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive". Julie Barak confirms this notion of memory as both a positive and negative force in the García girls’ constant struggle to unearth their true identities.