|Throughthe mediums of poetry and prose, Julia Alvarez recreates the feelings of loss she experienced after her immigration to the United States, when she was ten years Old. Although born in New York City, she spent her early years in the Dominican Republic until political insurrection forced the Alvarez family to flee the country. After their arrival in New York city, she and her sisters struggled to find their place in a new world, an experience that the writer now uses as a starting point for her exploration of culture. Her most notable work, the critically acclaimed How the Garcia Girl lost their Accents, fictionally discuss being torn between two cultures and the hardships faced by her immigrant family. The culminations of many years of effort, the fifteen stories that make up the novel feature numerous memorable characters and offer entertaining insights. Hispanic women particularly find that How the Garcia Lost Their Accents voices many of their own concerns.”Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominica family, mine was an American childhood” Alvarez noted in American Scholar.
According to the writer, her father’s once-wealthy family had supported the wrong political faction during the revolution; because her mother’s parents, on the other hand, benefited from their support of the political victors, Alvarez and her parents lived on her mother’s family compound. Life among so many relatives was somewhat communal; the writer and her sisters were raised alongside their cousins by her mother, maids, and many aunts. While seemingly an ideal arrangement, Alvarez’s grandmother made life difficult for her daughter and son in law, a doctor who ran the nearby hospital and whom the revolution had now reduced to poverty.Although not as well off as her relatives, Alvarez did not feel inferior. After all, she had born in America, something that none of her cousins was allowed to forget. While extravagances like shopping trips to America were beyond their financial means, her 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 an American school, and, for a special treat ate ice cream from an American ice parlor. American cars were bought, shopping was done at American-owned stores, and American appliances were flaunted in the compound. The entire extended family was obsessed with America; to the children it was a fantasyland.
Actually, 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 all attended Ivy League colleges and her grandfather was a cultural attach„ to the United Nations. The brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, would not dare to victimize a family with such strong American ties; he made no move against their wealth and hesitated to struggle with them for political reasons. But when Alvarez’s father secretly joined the insurrectionists attempting to oust Trujillo, the police began surveillance of the compound. In 1960, just as they were preparing to apprehend him, an American agent warned the doctor in time for him to usher his family into an airplane headed out of the country.” All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods and befriended American children”, Alvarez wrote in American Scholar, describing the scene as their plane finally landed in her fantasy land” 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”
Alvarez’s “homecoming” was not what she expected it to be. Although she was thrilled to be in the United States, she soon faced homesickness, feelings of alienation, and prejudice. She missed her cousins, her family’s large home in the compound, and the respect accorded to her family name in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez, her parents, and her sisters squeezed themselves and their possessions into a tiny apartment. As she related to Brujula Compass, the experience was emotionally crushing. ” The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl.” She became an avid reader, immersing herself in books and, eventually, writing. Alvarez went to college, earning and undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing.
By 1987 she was hard at work on a collection of stories; the 290-page How The Garcia Girls lost their Accents” was published in 1991, to considerable critical attention. The previous decade had seen a surge of ethnic novels, of which Garcia Girls came to be known as an exemplary example of this new literary genre.
How the Garcia girls Lost their Accents is a reverse chronology of fifteen interwoven stories chronicling the lives of four sisters-Yolanda, Sonia Carla and Sandi-and their parents. The stories are semi-autobiographical; like their creator’s family, the fictional Garcia family is Dominican and force to flee to America, where they feel like outsiders. Like Alvarez and her sisters, the Garcia girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and assimilate themselves into American culture.
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” Well crafted, Hispanic wrote, “although at times overly sentimental, these stories provide a glimpse into the making of another American family with a Hispanic surname “. And Library Journal called Alvarez ” a gifted, evocative storyteller of promise”.
In 1994 Alvarez released her second novel, In the Time of Butterflies, which recounts an actual event in Dominican history. One night in 1960, the three Mirabal sisters were returning from a visit with their husbands, who had been incarcerated as political prisoners, when they brutally murdered on orders of Trujillo. A fourth sister, who had decided not to make this particular trip, is left to cope with the guilt and sadness caused by this tragedy, the anniversary of which is now observed as International Day Against Violence Toward Women in some sections of Latin America. Organized in a manner similar to her first novel, Alvarez layers reminiscences of the four sisters, from their childhood in a middle-class family up through the time of the murder. While some reviewers found the book too melodramatic, In the Time of the Butterflies was highly praised for its ability to express the sisters'” courage and their desperation, and the full import of their tragedy” according to Publishers Weekly.
In addition to novels, Alvarez has published several books of poetry, including 1984’s Homecoming. In 1995 she released another collection of poems as The Other Side: El Otro Lado. Grouped into five separate sections, the verses depict the life and concerns of an immigrant in the United States: self-identity, class-consciousness, childhood memories of the “old country”, and the power of language. The book ends with the title poem, a twenty-one cannon narrative that relates the poet’s experience upon returning to the mountains of her native Dominican Republic to spend a term at an artist’s colony. Seeking “something that would require all of me”, Alvarez retreats to a fishing village where, a mid the stories of those around her, she accepts her transformation into the rhythms of American life.
Married and mother of two children, Alvarez is currently professor of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, in addition to serving as Robert Frost Fellow in Poetry at the 1986 Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The winner of several other awards, she was the recipient of the General Electric Foundation Award for young writers in 1986, and 1991’s Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature. The National Book Critics Circle nominated her novel In the Time of the Butterflies for Best Book of 1994.
“That is the most passionate part of the process of writing” Alvarez once confided of her craft to Brujula Compass” 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 continues to be praised for its significance to Hispanic culture and to Hispanic women in particular. In the words of a critic, Alvarez, along with other celebrated Latina writers such an as Sandra Cisneros, brings “a bilingual and bicultural version” that highlights women’s’ experiences.
Profile by Ronie-Richele Garcia Johnson