Characters in the novel, especially the girls' mother Laura, love to tell stories. Unlike straightforward facts, stories allow the listener to immerse him or herself in the life of an individual or a given moment, absorbing emotional information that would otherwise be lacking. Stories also reveal much about the storyteller. By structuring the novel as a series of stories about each character, sometimes with characters telling stories within stories, Alvarez conveys not only events in the García family’s life, but also how the characters perceive or have been shaped by those events.
The chapter "The Four Girls" shows Laura in various settings, telling stories to diverse audiences. The chapter establishes her habit of storytelling and demonstrates how shared stories express individual idiosyncrasies and create a communal history that binds those individuals into a family. Her stories also reveal her own values and attitudes. As Laura narrates the development of Sandra's nervous breakdown to Dr. Tandlemann, she unknowingly conveys her own inability to understand her daughter's struggle, alerting the doctor and the reader to her inadvertent role in Sandra's troubles. Likewise, her sanitized version of Sofía's elopement suggests the rigid morality from which Sofía fled in the first place.
Carla, as a child psychologist, treats stories as puzzles to be analyzed for clues about the subject's later development. The other sisters also look for traces of their mature selves in their stories. Sandra's stories, for instance, point to trivial instances of dissatisfaction that indicate an underlying cause of her nervous breakdown. Yolanda explains that she tells the Rudy Elmenhurst story to help herself understand why her relationship with Rudy failed. Yolanda also closes the novel by musing over whether her art—the art of storytelling—might derive from lingering childhood guilt. As a child, when her inarticulate feelings and intuitions took shape as images, she was haunted by visions of a black mother cat whose kitten she had stolen. The cat becomes an emblem for Yolanda's life of anxiety, insomnia and bad dreams—psychological disturbances that compel her to tell stories a means of picking apart her past and trying to understand herself. This seemingly disconnected final chapter thus represents a final stage in Yolanda's struggle to locate the roots of her compulsion to write. Her discovery marks the impetus behind the novel's scattered structure by showing how the act of storytelling can help the storyteller (in this case, the novel's characters themselves) find meaning and patterns in the jumble of events that compose a life.
Patriarchy and Machismo
Two forms of patriarchy dominate the novel: the traditional Dominican family structure and the tyrannical dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. For the four García sisters, the United States becomes a haven from both forms of oppression. Just as the family flees to the States seeking safety from Trujillo's police state, so the daughters venture into the freedoms of American feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Although initially forced to move to the United States, the girls soon absorb American culture and voluntarily embrace American teenage life. Once they have a taste for feminism and sexual freedom, they begin to see the Dominican Republic as a tunnel in which people blindly accept unjust traditions. The girls attempt to preach about feminism, Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Woolf to their aunts and cousins, but these relatives prefer the upper-class Dominican woman's life of refinement and leisure to pursuing ideals of freedom. In fact, the same itch for freedom that allows the four García sisters to lead full lives in the United States might have led them to sacrifice themselves for political liberty in the Dominican Republic. Three months after Julia Alvarez's own family escaped the Dominican Republic, three sisters who opposed Trujillo's dictatorship were murdered. The specter of "what could have been" thus lurks behind the novel.
The novel makes the parallel between private and political despotism explicit in the chapter "A Regular Revolution." In this chapter, he girls notice that their plot to break up Sofía's relationship with her domineering Dominican boyfriend is carried out on the same avenue where the Trujillo was ambushed on his way to visit his mistress. Their father's involvement in the failed coup had forced the family to flee the country. Now the sisters hope to drive Sofía from the country a second time, for fear that an unwanted pregnancy will compel her to marry her boyfriend and become a victim of Dominican paternalistic society.
In another scene, Yolanda, a ninth-grader beginning to adjust to American life, writes a speech inspired by Whitman. Her father tears up the "disrespectful" speech and Yolanda retaliates by calling him Trujillo's hated nickname "Chapita." Yolanda immediately regrets the unwise comparison, but Carlos is apparently disturbed by the suggestion that he could become, in his personal life, the very thing he hated in the political sphere. The next day he buys Yolanda a new typewriter and explains that he only wants to protect her. This paternalistic protection, however, may be only a gentler form of the same masculine urge to control.
Indeed, Carlos cannot shake free of his paternalism. By the time he turns 70, he recognizes that he alone of his family has been unable to integrate into American society. His professional, educated daughters and his resourceful wife do not depend on him as women are expected to in Dominican culture. He thinks in economic terms, however, not imagining how his role as their father might extend beyond material support. He fails to see how his urge to assert masculine dominance has excluded him from his daughters' growth.
The girls must adapt to American culture and to their maturing bodies at the same time. Carla, the eldest, is twelve when the family moves to the United States, and is teased cruelly at school for her accent and changing body. Her sisters have more time to absorb English and American culture before undergoing puberty, but their sexual identities are likewise shaped by their immigrant background. In college, Yolanda's discomfort with her sexuality parallels the stiff formality with which she treats English, and she wishes she could act and speak as casually as the other students who have no divided cultural loyalties.
While the girls struggle to fit into a foreign society and new bodies, they must conceal their sexual activity from their parents. The four girls come of age during the sexual revolution in 1960s and 70s America, when feminism encouraged women to take control of their bodies and pursue sexual pleasure uninhibited by cultural prejudices. This attitude differs dramatically from the machismo and emphasis on female virginity in Dominican culture. These conflicting sets of sexual values are a principal source of controversy between the four feminist, Americanized daughters and their conservative parents.
Language, a fundamental marker of social belonging, plays a crucial role in the daughters' lives and identities as Dominican immigrants growing up in the United States. Spanish and English imply different cultural contexts: for example, as teenagers, the girls switch from "Mami" to "Mom" when they want their mother to feel that she has failed them as an American-style parent.
At the novel's opening, the adult sisters are more comfortable with English than with Spanish. As it moves back in time, however, the novel reveals their initial struggle with this alien language in which racial slurs and crude terms are hurled at them. When they first immigrate, language and sexuality are the two most troubling aspects of their cultural displacement. Since the girls undergo puberty soon after immigrating to the States, they learn sexual terms in English before Spanish, and their discomfort with English contributes to their confusion about their new bodies.
Yolanda, as a poet and the novel's primary narrator, has the closest and most troubled relation to language. Because she learns English as a second language, Yolanda develops sensitivity to the musicality of the words. She searches for a romantic partner who treats language with reverence, but without much success. The intensity of Yolanda's relation to language nurses an uneasy relativism in her, and she resists the idea that the outside world is more "real" or meaningful than her surreal poetic visions.
The Garcías' fundamental belief in the importance of family keeps them unified despite their strong, divergent personalities and sometimes contradictory convictions. Dominican family structure conforms to a rigid hierarchy intended to preserve the family honor and the power of the family patriarch. Carlos's concern with how his daughters' sexuality reflects on his name and reputation derives from this traditional structure. Since family ties determine social status, cousins often marry each other to keep money and influence from passing out of the family. The García girls resent this hierarchical system, but the Dominican attitude toward family keeps the de la Torre clan, and the six Garcías, closely knit. This Dominican value of family unity remains intact even as the girls pursue an American vision of individuality and personal independence.
Private and political rebellions play a crucial role in the García sisters' lives. Their father's rebellion against Trujillo's oppressive dictatorship brings them to the United States, where the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s awakens the girls' own spirit of rebellion and independence. Their rebellion is spurred by American ideals of personal growth and individual liberties, values that sometimes conflict with the set hierarchies of Dominican society. In the American cultural milieu of the time, feminism encouraged uninhibited sexual exploration, trends towards which the strong, ambitious García sisters are drawn.
Ironically, their father does not recognize the parallel between his political activities and his daughters' desire for personal freedom. His daughters, however, make this parallel explicit in various ways. The three older girls notice that their plan to free Sofía from her tyrannical Dominican boyfriend is carried out on the same avenue where conspirators attacked the Trujillo, in a plot partly organized by their father. On another occasion, Yolanda calls her father by Trujillo's hated nickname after he tears up her defiant, Whitman-inspired speech.
Also ironically, the most rebellious and promiscuous daughter, Sofía, is the only girl with a settled, fulfilling family life in the time covered by the novel. She shakes off the demands of upwardly mobile, materialistic American society by dropping out of college, and violates loyalties central to Dominican culture by running away and eloping. Yet her fiercely independent spirit helps her find satisfaction and happiness in her own way. Rebellion thus appears destructive and generative at the same time, breaking down accepted codes and driving characters to open new, sometimes frightening possibilities.
The members of the García family are creative and resourceful, qualities that enable them to adapt and flourish in a new country (as Chucha, their Haitian maid, predicts). The novel explores various forms of creativity, including the less obvious examples of using nail polish to create makeshift red sneakers or finding ways to dodge parental restrictions and sneak out to parties, football games, dates with boys and so on. Even Laura finds creative outlets for her immense energy, initially by inventing improved household devices, then by seeking ways to contribute to her husband's medical clinic and by taking adult classes in business and real estate.
Sandra's and Yolanda's stories suggest how creativity may be either nurtured or crushed in a child. Both girls have active imaginations that create vivid internal worlds that the girls yearn to express. They envision their creative energy taking the shape of animals such as birds or cats that strive to be liberated into the external world, whether through drawing or poetry. As young girls, their creativity is compulsive and untamed, transforming the world around them into a strange, lively place. Sandra sees Doña Charito's tongue as a fat purple horse and brings the hummingbirds on her shirt to life, while Yolanda imagines spirits haunting the coal shed. Unfortunately, a broken arm causes Sandra to be isolated and pampered for a number of months as a child. In that time, she becomes dependent on her mother's attention and external affirmation, and loses her urge to explore her own imagination. Yolanda, by contrast, retreats increasingly into the surreal universe she weaves in her mind using language. Oddly, Sandra's lost imagination seems to contribute to the inner emptiness that causes her breakdown, while Yolanda's breakdown is precipitated by the very intensity of her inner world, which she does not always distinguish from external reality.
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Study Guide for How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a novel by Julia Alvarez. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents study guide contains a biography of Julia Alvarez, 100 quiz questions, a list of major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.