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Hispanic Heritage

Julia Alvarez

Nationality: American, Dominican
Occupation: Writer, Poet

In her poetry and prose, Julia Alvarez has expressed her feelings about her immigration to the United States. Although she was born in New York City, she spent her early years in the Dominican Republic. After her family's immigration to America, she and her sisters struggled to find a place for themselves in their new world. Alvarez has used her dual experience as a starting point for the exploration of culture through writing. Alvarez's work voices many of the concerns of Hispanic women and has received critical acclaim.

Life in the Dominican Republic

Reminiscing on her youth in an article in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominican family, mine was an American childhood." As she described her family background, her father's once-wealthy family had supported the wrong side during the revolution while her mother's parents benefitted from their support of the people in power. They lived on her mother's family property. Life in the compound was somewhat communal; Alvarez and her sisters were brought up along with their cousins and supervised by her mother, maids, and many aunts.

Although her own family was not as well off as their relatives, Alvarez did not feel inferior. None of the cousins were allowed to forget that she was born in America. Her father, a doctor who ran the nearby hospital, had met her mother while she was attending school in America. While such extravagances as shopping trips to America were beyond their financial means, Alvarez's family was highly influenced by American attitudes and goods. If her mother could not buy her daughters American clothing, she made sure that Alvarez and her sisters were as fashionable as their cousins. The children ate American food, attended the American school, and for a special treat, ate ice cream from the American ice cream parlor. American cars were bought at the American dealership, shopping was done at the American's store, and American appliances were flaunted in the compound. The entire extended family was obsessed with America; to the children, it was a fantasy land.

As Alvarez acknowledges in her article in American Scholar, her family's association with the United States may have saved her father's life. The members of her mother's family were respected because of their ties with America. Alvarez's uncles had attended Ivy League colleges, and her grandfather was a cultural attaché to the United Nations. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, could not victimize a family with such strong American ties. He would not destroy them for their money, and he hesitated to struggle with them for political reasons. When Alvarez's father secretly joined the forces attempting to oust Trujillo, the police set up surveillance of the compound. It was rumored that, respected family or not, her father was soon to be apprehended. Just before the police were to capture her father in 1960, a U.S. agent, known to Alvarez as Tio Vic, warned him; he ushered the family into an airplane and out of the country. Describing the scene as their plane landed in America in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow.... All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last."

Experiences Acculturation Problems in the United States

Alvarez's homecoming was not what she had expected it to be. Although she was thrilled to be back in America, she would soon face homesickness, alienation, and prejudice. She missed her cousins, her family's large home in the compound, and the respect her family name demanded. Alvarez, her parents, and her sisters squeezed themselves and their possessions into a tiny apartment. As she related to Brújula <> Compass, the experience was like a crash: "The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl." Alvarez became an avid reader, immersing herself in books and, eventually, writing.

Alvarez went on to college. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing and became an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Ingram Merrill Foundation in addition to a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature. She published several collections of poetry including Homecoming, which appeared in 1984, and by 1987 she was working on a collection of stories. When Alvarez published How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in 1991, the 290-page novel received considerable attention. The past decade had seen a surge of ethnic novels, and Garcia Girls came to be known as a notable example of the genre.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Rather than a straight narrative, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a reverse-chronological order series of 15 interwoven stories chronicling four sisters and their parents. A comparison with Alvarez's article in American Scholar suggests that these stories are autobiographical; like her family, the Garcia family is Dominican and displaced in America. Like Alvarez and her sisters, the Garcia girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and assimilate themselves into American culture.

The first group of stories is dated "1989-1972." Thus, the novel's first story seems to be its ending. Entitled, "Antojos," which is Spanish for "cravings," this story is a memory of one of the sisters, Yolanda, and her return to the Dominican as an adult. Yolanda (whose story ends the novel and acts as Alvarez's alter ego) has secretly decided to make her home here, having found life in the United States unfulfilling. When she ignores the warnings of her wealthy relatives and drives into the country for the guava fruit she has been craving, she faces disappointment. She is regarded as an American despite her native roots, and although she finds her guavas, her romantic journey is marred by her feelings as an outsider. Alvarez ends this story ambiguously--similar to the rest of the stories. The attempts of Yolanda and her sisters to lead successful lives in the United States are presented more as memory fragments than stories with definite beginnings and endings.

The next story focuses on Sofia, the youngest of the girls. At this point, however, the four girls are women, with husbands and careers. The details of Sofia's break with her father over her decision to take a lover before marriage are presented, and the events at a birthday party she prepared for her father are recounted. Sofia cannot be totally forgiven, nor can she ever return to the Dominican Republic; in the process of becoming an American girl of the 1960s, she has gone beyond the moral limits imposed by her father, who personifies life in the old world.

The third story relates some background information as it reveals a mother's perceptions of her four girls. During a family gathering, Mamita tells her favorite story about each of the girls, and the reader learns that Sandi spent time in a mental institution after almost starving herself to death. The fourth story about Yolanda reveals that she too had a mental breakdown of her own after a failed relationship, and in the next story she becomes the narrator. In "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story," Yolanda's tale of her reluctance to sleep with the dashing young man she loved because of his casual approach to the matter explains her ensuing trouble with men as well as her problems assimilating into American youth culture: "Catholic or not, I still thought it a sin for a guy to just barge in five years later with a bottle of expensive wine and assume you'd drink out of his hand. A guy who had ditched me, who had haunted my sexual awakening with a nightmare of self-doubt. For a moment as I watched him get in his car and drive away, I felt a flash of that old self-doubt."

The memories in the second section of the novel recall the years from 1960 to 1970. The girls are younger, and they are experiencing their first years as immigrants. Attempts they made to reconcile themselves to their new culture are challenged by their parents, who want their children to "mix with the `right kind' of Americans," and the girls are threatened with having to spend time on the Island, which they have come to dread. In this section, the girls save their sister from a macho cousin's imposition, a pervert exposes himself to Carla, and Yolanda sees snow for the first time and thinks it is fall-out from a nuclear bomb.

The final story in this section, "Floor Show," focuses on Sandi's perception of events as the family spends a scandalous evening with an American doctor and his drunkenly indiscreet wife in a Spanish restaurant. Sandi is shocked and upset when this woman kisses her father and later dances with the flamenco dancers that the young girl so admires. Cautioned by her mother to behave at the important dinner, Sandi does as she is told and stays quiet until she is offered a flamenco doll by the American woman, who seems to understand her desire for it. "Sandi was not going to miss her chance. This woman had kissed her father. This woman had ruined the act of the beautiful dancers. The way Sandi saw it, this woman owed her something." The woman gave Sandi something more than the doll; her smile "intimated the things Sandi was just beginning to learn, things that the dancers knew all about, which was why they danced with such vehemence, such passion."

In third and final section, "1960-1956," America is still a dream--the family is still on the island. The first story is divided into two parts and recalls the family's traumatic encounter with the guardia, or secret police, and their subsequent flight from their home. From that moment on, the tales regress to the girls' early memories of life in the huge de la Torre compound. Yolanda tells of the presents her grandmother brought the children from America and an ensuing encounter with her cousin, Sandi recalls her art lessons and the fright she had at the instructor's home, Carla remembers the mechanical bank her father brought her from F.A.O. Schwartz in New York and the maid who desperately wanted it.

Finally, Yolanda concludes the novel with one of her earliest memories--she stole a kitten (which she named Schwartz, after the famous toy store) from its mother and then abandoned it, even though she had been warned by a strange hunter: "To take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live." The mother cat haunted the girl until she left the island, and, as Yolanda confides in her narration, "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."

The praise Alvarez received for her first novel outweighed the criticism that a new novelist often encounters. The New York Times Book Review found that Alvarez "beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Hispanic's critic wrote, "Well-crafted, although at times overly sentimental, these stories provide a glimpse into the making of another American family with a Hispanic surname." And the Library Journal reported, "Alvarez is a gifted, evocative storyteller of promise."

Recent Work Receives Praise

Alvarez followed up the success of her first novel with In the Time of Butterflies in 1995. The story follows the lives of the four Mirabel sisters during the time of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez fictionalized the lives of these real-life revolutionaries--three of whom were murdered for their resistance to regime--to form this compelling novel. The following year, Alvarez published a second collection of poetry titled The Other Side, which was also released in Spanish under the title El Otro Lado.

Alvarez revisits the Garcia characters in her 1997 novel, Yo!, which is constructed via a series of monologues about the character Yolanda as told by those around her. Besides providing a profound character study of Yolanda, the book is a meditation on the writing life and continues to explore the theme of cultural duality introduced in Alvarez's earlier works. The myriad of voices and stories create a multifaceted novel that spotlights the Hispanic experience.

Alvarez told Brújula <> Compass that while she had a few ideas for her next work and thought she may write another novel, she was not certain what she would write. "That is the most passionate part of the process of writing. It is only possible to discover it as it is done; upon writing the ideas ... a direction is found. A voice is discovered, the rhythm, the characters, but one cannot know beforehand." Her work is praised for its significance to Hispanic culture and to Hispanic women in particular. In the words of a critic for Más, Alvarez brings "a bilingual and bicultural vision" that highlights women's experiences.

 

UPDATES

January 12, 2004: Alvarez won the 2004 Pura Belpre Author Award, for Before We Were Free.Source:American Library Association, www.ala.org, January 12, 2004.

August 27, 2004: Alvarez's book In the Time of the Butterflies was chosen for the One Book, One Chicago reading program. Source: Chicago Public Library, www.chipublib.org, August 27, 2004.

August 2, 2007: Alvarez's novel Once Upon a Quinceanera was published by Viking. Source:Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com, August 8, 2007.

 

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Addresses: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, PO Box 2225, Chapel Hill, NC, 27515.

WORKS

Selected writings

  • Homecoming. New York: Grove Press, 1984.
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. New York: Plume, 1991.
  • In the Time of Butterflies. New York: Penguin USA, 1995.
  • The Other Side/El Otro Lado. New York: New American Library, 1996.
  • Yo! New York: Algonquin, 1997.

 

FURTHER READINGS

  • Alvarez, Julia. "An American Childhood in the Dominican Republic." American Scholar, Winter 1987, pp. 71-85.
  • Book Review. Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, August 11, 1991, p. A13.
  • Book Review. Publisher's Weekly, April 5, 1991, p. 133.
  • Brújula <> Compass, January-February 1992, p. 16.
  • Estrada, Mary Batts. "Four Sisters and a World of Difference." Washington Post, June 20, 1991, p. D11.
  • Fisher, Ann H. Book Review. Library Journal, May 1, 1991, p. 102.
  • Freeman, Judith. "A Powerful Move Back to Ethnic Roots." Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1991, p. E4.
  • Heller, Amanda. Book Review. Boston Globe, May 26, 1991, p. A13.
  • Hispanic, June 1991, p. 55.
  • Más, November-December 1991, p. 100.
  • Nuestro, November 1984, pp. 34+; March 1985, pp. 52+; January-February 1986, pp. 32+.
  • Rifkind, Donna. "Speaking American." The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14.
  • School Library Journal, September 1991, p. 292.

 

SOURCE CITATION

Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 2. Gale, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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