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2¡Yo! on the Margins Dividing the Family and the Ethnic Writer as Traitor Marion Rohrleitner Julia Alvarez’s debut novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, quickly “climb[ed] the canon” (Lauter 1) of U.S. American college and high school curricula following its publication in 1991. The novel was awarded the Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and was well received by general and academic audiences alike, arguably because the text can be read as a quintessential tale of immigration and as a universally accessible coming-of-age narrative alike. Alvarez’s second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, was nominated for the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award and was chosen as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read curriculum. In 2001, the novel reached an even broader demographic upon the release of a film adaptation starring Salma Hayek as Minerva Mirabal and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Leónidas Trujillo y Molina. In comparison to the popularity of her first two works of fiction, Alvarez’s third novel, ¡Yo! (1997), remains surprisingly underread, understudied, and undertaught.1 In this chapter, I explore what I consider to be the major reasons for the relative marginalization of ¡Yo! within Alvarez’s body of literary work and link these reasons to a larger discussion of the “uses” of ethnic American literature since the 1990s. I suggest that the novel’s explicit self-reflexivity and its open critique of the immigrant family do not conform to the formal and thematic conventions expected of 43 44 Marion Rohrleitner a popular contemporary Latina/o immigrant novel; instead, ¡Yo! poses a potentially uncomfortable challenge to two central and intertwined myths about contemporary ethnic American literature: the sanctity of the Latina/o immigrant family and the representational role of the ethnic writer in American culture. Why would a Latina author’s challenge to the idealized role of the nuclear family and to the expectation of the ethnic writer as representative of her community be detrimental to the reception of her fictional work? Controversy, after all, facilitates public debate, feeds media attention , contributes to sales, and often fosters currency in academia as well. The answer to this dilemma lies, in part, in the historical context from which the novel emerges. The 1990s were characterized by two apparently contradictory movements. On the one hand, literary works by Latina authors were published, read, and awarded literary prizes in unprecedented numbers. Mainstream publishing houses began to market Latinidad as a desirable commodity, and “new Latina narratives ” (McCracken 11) entered the public sphere of book clubs, college classrooms, and national book reviews. On the other hand, the 1990s witnessed the intensified militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the vilification and criminalization of Latina/o American migrants as “illegal aliens” unwilling to assimilate into a perceived national culture, and the passing of increasingly harsh anti-immigration laws that specifically target undocumented immigrants and migrant workers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean Basin. In a political climate characterized by such tensions, many Latina/o writers and artists strive to counter detrimental stereotypes about Latina/os in their work by foregrounding shared cultural values and social institutions deemed important in conservative Latina/o immigrant and mainstream American communities. In many texts by Latina/o writers published in the United States, the extended family, often led by a strict but benevolent patriarch, emerges as the central social unit to structure Latina/o immigrant communities.2 Given high divorce rates, calls for the nationwide legalization of gay marriage, and other challenges to traditional notions of the nuclear family in the United States, the literary representation of Latina/o immigrant families as stable and patriarchal social units appeals to the conservative mainstream and the religious right, and makes the growing number of Latina/os in the United States more palatable to groups otherwise less friendly to immigrants from the Southern hemisphere. 45¡Yo! on the Margins In this context, Lauren Berlant’s notions of the privatization of the American public sphere and the concomitant association of citizenship with the unborn, children, and imaginary immigrants provide a useful framework for the discussion of the reasons why ¡Yo! has fallen to the wayside of Alvarez’s oeuvre. In The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Berlant suggests that a public notion of citizenship has been replaced with an “intimate public sphere” as a result of the socially conservative policies of the Reagan era. By engaging the values of this...


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