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A Search for Identity in Julia Alvarez's How the GarcÍa Girls Lost Their Accents

From: Callaloo
Volume 23, Number 3, Summer 2000
pp. 839-849 | 10.1353/cal.2000.0148

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Callaloo 23.3 (2000) 839-849



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A Search for Identity in Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

William Luis


The displacement of Caribbean people from their islands to the United States, for political or economic reasons, has produced a tension between the culture of the country of origin and that of the adopted homeland, one representing the past and the other the future of the immigrant. As time passes, for the immigrant, the rupture with the past, strongest in political exiles, is transformed into a desire to recover a lost moment in time. But the past ceases to exist as an island reality and is interpreted from the perspective of the mainland culture.

The political migration of Dominicans from their island of origin to the United States is contemporaneous with the fall of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and the first wave of Cuban exiles at the beginning of the 1960s. During his dictatorship, Trujillo had absolute control over the military, the economy, and the people and, except for a select group, he prevented anyone from leaving the island. During this stage of Dominican history, those who did abandon the island with or without the dictator's consent sought political exile.

The situation changed radically after the dictator's death and the U.S. invasion of the island, which foiled any attempt to restore Juan Bosch to the presidency or convert the Dominican Republic into another communist Cuba. With the direct U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of the Dominican Republic and the support of Joaquín Balaguer's presidency, the number of Dominican exiles increased and their conditions changed in character, from political to economic. The Dominican migration to the United States has steadily risen, making Dominicans, second to Puerto Ricans, the largest Hispanic group in New York. 1 However, as with other immigrant groups, Dominicans found themselves looking back to understand their present and future. If writers on the island were trying to come to terms with the Trujillo dictatorship and the U.S. invasion of their country, those who traveled to the mainland wanted to recover a lost origin.

The Puerto Rican economic migration associated with Operation Bootstrap, after WWII, and the Cuban political exodus, related to the Castro takeover in 1959, produced a generation of Latino writers born or raised in the United States. The Dominican migration, which was first political and later economic, would also count among its members a significant number of writers. And just as the other immigrants or sons of immigrants have documented their experiences mainly in the cities in which they live, Dominican-American authors would also do the same, some of them writing in Spanish and others in English. 2 In her How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, [End Page 839] the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez depicts a search for identity motivated by a tense struggle between Hispanic and North American cultures.

The political exile of the García family, in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, takes place during the Trujillo dictatorship. In recreating the past, the narrator tells us that Carlos García, with the assistance of Mr. Victor, an American diplomat and member of the Central Intelligence Agency, planned to assassinate the ruthless Trujillo. But the attempt failed when the State Department did not support the plan Mr. García had been asked to organize. Accosted by Trujillo's henchmen, Mr. García received a fellowship from the United States that allowed him to leave the Dominican Republic and work as an intern in a hospital in New York City, where he moved with his wife and four daughters.

Even though How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is written in English and appears to have more in common with North American than Hispanic literature, the novel's structure recalls that of Alejo Carpentier's "Viaje a la semilla" [Journey Back to the Source]. Carpentier's story is narrated backwards; that is, it begins in a present or toward the chronological ending...