How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991)

by Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents employs the unusual device of telling the story in reverse chronological order. It opens in 1989 when the third sister, Yolanda, is a grown woman visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic, which her family had fled for political reasons in the early 1960s. The remaining 14 chapters are interconnected vignettes featuring one or more of the four sisters — Clara, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia — as adults in America, then immigrant teenagers in New York, then children in a well-to-do Dominican family on the island.
Alvarez's own history mirrors the Garcias de la Torres'; she was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1960. As the title suggests, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is about the girls' Americanization and its attendant difficulties: clashes with their more traditional parents, ridicule from peers, the struggle to fit in and be accepted. Whereas in their native land the Garcias lived on an extended family compound catered to by servants, in America they struggle financially and are isolated by their immigrant status. The sisters attend college, wear bell bottoms, smoke marijuana, but assimilation is not comfortable or complete. They have troubled relationships; two of them have breakdowns. Yolanda, the primary narrator, finally mulls repatriating in the Dominican Republic. "So many husbands, homes, jobs, wrong turns" in her life and that of her sisters, she thinks on her visit to Dominican relatives. "Let this turn out to be my home."

The story in reverse is like a therapy session, the girls looking back to make sense of their lives. The overall impression is not depressing, however. The story is told with humor as well as pathos. It is loaded with perceptive insights about coming of age. The sisters' bond with one another as well as with their parents is touching. Finally, it's a tale of survival; despite their difficulties, the Garcia girls "make it" in America, even if America doesn't quite feel like home to them.


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