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1 Julia Alvarez and the Autobiographical Antojo Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle I yearned to write the story of my life into a book a girl might want to read, a girl like me, no longer frightened by the whisperings of terrified adults, the cries of uncles being rounded up, the sirens of the death squads racing by toward a destination I could change with an eraser or a trick ending. —Julia Alvarez, “Ars Politica”1 When Julia Alvarez became the first Dominican American woman to be published by a major American press, she gained international recognition for celebrating her Dominican American culture and for examining the painful memories of her exile in the United States. In Alvarez’s first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), and its sequel, ¡Yo! (1997), she coyly adopts as a figure for herself the character of Yolanda García, whose nickname is Yo, also “I” in Spanish .2 These thinly veiled autobiographies are based on the Alvarez family ’s escape from one of the cruelest dictators of the twentieth century, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. They tell the fictional story of the García de la Torre family—Mami, Papi, and four daughters—whose flight from the Dominican Republic occurs under similar circumstances. In the first chapter of García Girls, Yo, a budding writer, returns to the Dominican Republic with an antojo, or a craving, to reconnect 21 22 Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle with her Dominican heritage. Her homesickness manifests itself in a physical craving for fresh guavas, which she picks herself despite the taunting she faces as a conspicuous, unchaperoned Américana climbing trees in unfamiliar fields. This opening story serves as a powerful trope for Alvarez’s desire to affirm her identity in this two-part figural autobiography of a life straddling pre- and postexile lives. Each novel’s cycle of autobiographically identifying stories marks the pursuit of yet another variety of antojo. Also known as a distinguishing feature or birthmark, the antojo additionally serves as the autobiographically identifying mark of the author. Both functions come together in the desire for autonomous self-representation and as the autobiographical mark she seeks. Alvarez’s use of the antojo proves to be an equally powerful motif infusing Alvarez’s entire body of work with autobiographical gestures. It invites readings of her corpus as one extended, fictionalized, autobiographical project into which she inserts herself as a figure, character, voice, or otherwise autobiographical presence.3 The antojo lends itself as a valuable model for understanding the oblique autobiographical references Alvarez makes to herself and to her family not just in García Girls and ¡Yo! but in virtually all of her novels, poems, and literature for younger readers. My reading of several of Alvarez’s major works demonstrates that as an autobiographical practice, the antojo enables her recognition and representation within three separate networks which make her and mark her in three distinct, yet interrelated ways. The antojo locates her within a web of family history in which the practice of censored family storytelling has the potential to blur, erase, or otherwise remove her from the power of articulating an autonomous individual self. Her self-representation in counternarratives—antojos which are revisionary and often politically charged—constructs an irrepressible self which demands attention and refuses to be silenced. The antojo also locates her within the larger political history of women raised in the thirty-one-year dictatorship referred to as “The Era of Trujillo.” In addition to negotiating the tyrannical control that Trujillo maintained over public and private life, families struggled to protect their daughters from his infamously predatory pursuit of young girls by teaching them silence and invisibility .4 While the autobiographical antojo ties Alvarez to communities of origin, such as her family and her preexile home, the antojo also ties her to less-formally constituted communities such as those of women writers of color. Writing, in fact, becomes the one net- 23 Julia Alvarez and the Autobiographical Antojo work she occupies that can best satisfy her antojo. By collapsing the representational distance between her self and her characters, writing enables a coarticulation of literary selves, which remedies a dearticualtion —or separation of selves—to which she has grown so accustomed since exile. In all three networks, the antojo serves to reconstruct, represent, and reconcile a fractured self in constant struggle with the burdens of exile. The autobiographical antojo both makes and marks her exilic self precisely because “its representation is its construction” (Autobiographics...


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