Category Archives: Alvarez

To habla or not to habla, that is the question

If I’ve there’s a book that disproves Oscar Wilde’s assertion that art materializes solely from the mind of the artist with incredible but unintentional conviction, it’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It comes off as so autobiographical that I have difficulty analyzing these characters, wondering: Were these created from the author’s mind to serve a purpose? Or are they present simply because they were present?

I have little doubt in my mind that the numerous cousins, such as that materialistic one from the beginning that criticizes Yolanda’s hair, and Mundi, the good childhood friend are entirely non-fictional and existed in Alvarez’s life. So, why all the detail, intimate descriptions of life in the Dominican, life in the USA, and the thoughts in minds of people experiencing both lives when the book ends in such a surreal, hyperpersonal admission of guilt? Guilt is too broad of a term to use, because the ending exudes various trains of thought and emotion: those of nostalgia, self-pity, confusion of a child, and those of a confused adult whose confusion remains childhood confusion.

The ending punctuates my belief of its autobiographical nature when this strange cat, a metaphor for Alvarez’s concern of potential literary and personal criticism both by herself and others stalks her throughout the final chapter. This cat can be substituted as a supernatural force that somehow enters the seemingly impregnable house. Evidently this haunting icon is not a physical force but a mental one, creeping the mind of Alvarez in her youth and in her adulthood, justifying the intimicacy with which we get to know her Yolanda. She cites “At that hour of loneliness, I hear her, that black furried thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.” Alvarez experiences guilt for creating a work that straddles the border between fiction and non-fiction as haphazardly as her characters do.

I don’t think there is any critical middleground to why Alvarez employs such a strange chronology, the book is still art and thus doesn’t require an explanation for the style with which it presents itself. I don’t feel she did it to better convey the nature of the characters, because now that I’ve read the second half of the book, I have difficulty critiquing them with any presumptions I previously made! The characters of the second half don’t really think any of the same thoughts as the ones from the beginning. I felt like I was reading two different books…the first half concerning the themes we’ve all agreed upon such as identity, assimilation, fragmented self etc. and the second half seemed more a study of morality and the texture of childhood minds.

I find that Alvarez’s style is extremely visceral and foreign all at once, for her method of intertwining small remarks about tomboyism and childhood mindset with political unrest and Dominican culture leave me feeling distant and close to her writing. After reading numerous scholarly articles on the book I feel that I should be mentioning some of the incredibly complex allusions and social commentaries these academics accuse her of making, but because I never would’ve recognized what “should not be considered post-colonial uncelebrated discourse from a dehistoricized concept of cultural hybridity” I will not.

With regard to why Yolanda was institutionalized, I think it was her narcissicism that drove her insane, not America.

the Garcia Girls

i really like this book.

i really like the way alvarez describes everything, her language and form is beautiful and captivating.  i forgot how much i enjoyed this book.   
when reading part three i can feel the tension laura is feeling while trying to distract the men away from searching for her husband and while she waits for victor.  
i can feel yoyo’s fear and guilt when she thinks it is her fault that the men are there.  
and carlos’ anxiety while he waits hidden away – so close, but so far.
i like how she describes the men as “boys in rags bringing down coconuts for el patron” (202); how laura disarms the with charm while actually treating them as the boys they are – serving the cheap beer they are accustomed to in servants glasses.
i like that alvarez uses a bluntness almost to get the reality of things across to her writers, it is almost like a corrupt poetry … “dicks and dollars are what talk” (205) and although it seems graphic, it is very fitting.  in a country where there is corruption, you wouldn’t expect to see a refined dialogue in these tense situations – it’s not like politicians are sitting down and being polite in front of cameras, it is officials in their own space – stressed – dealing with situations they don’t want, or need.
i like the jumping from one point of view to the next.  from tio vic, to carla and sandi.  victor announcing “operacion zapatos tenis” (208) in all seriousness and “cracks his knuckles and grins” to carla and sandi defending themselves – in all seriousness – about why they are eating at tia carmen’s (because mami told them to SCRAM – 208)
i’m almost finished and looking forward to the end.
i really like this book.

The Blood of the Conquistadores

 The first chapter of Part III in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, entitled ‘The Blood of the Conquistadores’, is one I find most interesting in the novel.  In this chapter, some agents of Trujillo coming to the García’s family home in the Dominican Republic. After some interrogation and a significant tension, a CIA agent neighbor intimidates the agents into leaving. Carlos comes out of hiding and the family realizes they must leave immediately for the United States.

This is my favorite chapter in the novel, and I think the climax of the book. It is narrated by ‘Mami, Papi, the Four Girls’, and this group voice unites the family against their common enemy, the Trujillo dictatorship. For all of the rest of the book, there is infighting and conflict amongst the members of the family. Of course, this is entirely natural and an honest presentation of life, but I enjoyed reading a chapter that demonstrated why the Garcías were a special family. The individual narration of the other chapters provides insight into each of the characters, but this chapters shows the inner workings of the family unit. 
I asked a question in class on Friday that I had been wondering for quite some time: why did two of the four girls end up being so messed up? I think it was Beth who answered that it was because the family was forced to live in fear their whole live- fear of Trujillo, Americans, rape etc. Upon reflection, I really think Beth was right about that, and this chapter is an explanation for everything that happened before it in the book. It explains why Carlos is so fearful for his daughters: he loves them and has been scared for their safety, and also wants them to connect with their homeland. By taking the risks for revolution like Carlos and Laura did, it demonstrates their deep love for the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, although they kept their family physically safe, the past took an emotional and psychological toll.

my blog 2008-11-10 20:57:00

Reading the second part of the book I believe that Alvarez makes the reader connect more with the characters. I think the view of the parents especially the father changes a lot. The story that most accomplishes this is “floor Show”. Here I think there is a big change for the girls, especially for Sandi, they have just come to a new country and the girls have been under a lot of pressure to adapt to the new culture and under a lot of pressure from school and feeling like outsiders. But coming to a Spanish restaurant I think they are reminded of how their own culture is beautiful they were reminded of what they have Sandi mentions “Best of all were the rich, familiar smells of garlic and onion and the lilting cadence of Spanish spoken by the dark-eyed waiters, who reminded Sandi of her uncles”(181) she is even more inspired by the dancers when they dance she in some way is proud that a beautiful performance is in some way related to her. Then we have the contrast a representation of USA which is Dr. Fanning’s wife. She in some way ruins the beauty with her presence she says “Mrs. Fanning had broken the spell of the wild and beautiful dancers. Sandi could not bear to watch her” (182) A way to rebel to this is Sandi’s rebellious attitude by asking for the doll, this is visible especially in the end when she says thank you in Spanish “as if the Barbie doll had to be true to her Spanish costume”(187) so here we see especially Sandi learning that she needs to maintain her roots. I really like this story because in a way the main character Sandi is trying to find herself in the mist of American Culture and Spanish Culture which is how she finds herself.

North of the Rio Grande 2008-11-10 17:07:00

In the second half of the book, to me there is more emphasis on the true identity of the Garcia girls. In the last part of the book, they are not the hybrid, dual-cultured, Americanized women that we know; they are 100% pure Dominican children, living a Dominican life. We see that identity is dynamic, that it has changed over time. Although they will never be completely American, at one point in time they have been completely Dominican. And although they feel later on in time that they no longer belong in the Dominican Republic, in childhood it was their whole identity. This feeling of completeness is reflected in the childhood stories. They are happy, innocent stories. The underlying ominousness of the political danger is not scary for them, since they do not grasp its full meaning. When they were children, they never questioned who they were or where they belonged, and this made for a generally happy childhood, with gifts and adventures and a big family and lots of wealth and support.
The fact that the story is told more or less backwards by Alvarez makes the understanding of the story an incremental process. With each chapter we know more and more about the past, and therefore understand more clearly the events in the “present”. It is only at the end that we understand clearly the circumstances surrounding the Garcia de la Torre family’s escape from the Dominican, and this clarifies very much the events that happen later on (timewise) in the story.
This novel definitely emphasizes the importance of family, of blood ties the support network that they provide. Although there will always be conflict between family members – misunderstanding, anger, resentment, difference of opinion – in the end, the family is the most important thing, and the only thing you can depend upon. This is a very Latinamerican way of seeing life.

alvarez ramblings

This book had an interesting approach.  Starting from adulthood back to childhood was a compelling take on character development.  She gives the reader a taste of who these women seem to be, and the proceeds to deconstruct and give insight in their whole life.  Using this technique seemed fitting because it made the book feel like a jig-saw puzzle.  Alvarez would finish a chapter on one of the girls and then completely switch gears and focus on another girl, which to me, added to the puzzle.  Because each girl is completely different, I had to read each chapter a little differently to complete the picture that Alvarez was painting for each character.  Then she would switch back to the other girl she was previously describing. Subsequently, she would then switch eras forcing me to put together what I knew about these girls to try and build an overall picture of how they came to be.  Her style and fluidity is what impressed me in her delivery.  This technique shows that she is thoroughly involved with each character and every page has meaning and is there for a purpose I felt.  Having said this,I felt as if Alvarez focused mostly on describing Yolanda during most of the book.  To me Yolanda seemed to be the most engaging character.  To me Alvarez was more revealing into the complexity of Yolanda when she was describing her failed relationships.  Possibly because she emits herself through that character.  The book seemed to wimper out towards the end.  Alvarez started the book off with so much velocity that at some point it had to slow down.  But the last chapter "the drum" tied everything together while simultaneously leaving a lot of loose ends for the reader to figure out.   

more thoughts…

in the second half of the book, i found that chronologically things began to flow a lot more. i was able to now see the reasoning behind all the crazy behaviour that we witnessed in the first half. Once again the topic of assimilation and racism is brought up. Constantly we are witnessing the different reasons as to why perhaps the girls grew up some what crazy, each in her own way. The part about Clara being made fun of and seeing a pedifile and also when Yolanda had to make her speech are only a few of the scenes where we see them struggling to identify themselves in this new country where they are constantly discriminated against. This led to them losing more and more of the identities as Dominicanas and identifying more with the US way of life. Its not only the girls that are going through constant identity crises’. The father not knowing how to act towards the promiscuous Mrs. Fanning and then the mother with all her inventions being stolen from her are constantly under attack by these foreign things. Again i feel like, i could relate a lot to what the girls went through, why the mother was so crazy about their manners and being proper and putting up this perfect show. I bet that as much as they felt like charity cases (which is what a lot of immigrants feel like when they cannot provide for their families) they still tried to maintain their dignity. Carlos was even lucky being able to get a doctor related job because more doctors who come from foregin countries have to take defend their Phds by taking all these courses. its like being tested if your good enough (like if the standards in your country are good enough to be used in America) and this is only one of the dynamics immigrants face when coming to a new country. This is why you see immigrants with their masters and PHD’s working as housekeepers or caretakers. as much freedom as north america may appeal to have, immigrants as long as they will live in their new country, will always feel a sense of not belonging. (this is me venting about my personal experience….sorry…. 🙂

About drumsticks

This whole story about Yolanda and the black cat was an interesting ending. As I said in my last post I feel that a lot of this book was focussed on Yolanda and I think that I liked her the best. I really liked the story of the drum, and as I noticed others have blogged I that it was really interesting to meet the characters as grown women and then see them as children.

I also, however, thought it was interesting that Alvarez ended the story with a super-condensed sum up of Yolanda’s life…
“Then we moved to the United States. The cat disappeared altogether. I saw snow. I solved the riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was. I went away to school. I read books. You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what’s left in the hollow of my story?” (285)

This whole last chapter I pictured Yolanda as a young child, roaming around the yard with her drum and since we met Yolanda as a woman already it was almost as though she is a friend who is telling you about her childhood, so you picture a miniature version of the woman that you know presently…does that make any sense? Even though I don’t know her, it was just a different way of character development, somewhat tracing the four garcia girls’ personalities backwards.

When she refers to the “hollow” of her story, I was thinking that since Yolanda is the character who both begins and ends the book, both first and last chapter taking place on “the island”, perhaps all of the things that happen in between those two chapters…the good and the bad, life in the U.S. is just the filler, maybe what we are supposed to take away from her story are those parts that she shares with us about her time in the dominican republic? hmmm who knows.

Garcia Girls Final Thoughts

As we go back in time farther with the second half of this compilation of stories, I feel like one thing sticks out at me. How different do we approach and criticize these stories having gotten to know these main characters starting as adults, and going back into their childhoods. I feel like having gotten to know these girls first as adults, and later as children made a huge difference in the impact the story had on me. I almost feel like we have more compassion for them because in reality, their lives simply got more and more complicated and problem-ridden as they grew older. Their lives as children in the Dominican Republic were quite peaceful and problem-free compared to the second half of their lives, as adults. I really think Julia Alvarez purposely structured the book this way to show the impact of their immigration and the outcome of their assimilation. Like we discussed in class, was the assimilation being portrayed as a positive or a negative theme?

Anyway, my favourite story in second half would have to be “Snow”. I know I know, easy for me to say because it was so short and such a crowd pleaser. I really feel like it shows an interesting side to Yolanda’s character. I found myself saying “classic Yolanda” when I read it, which proves that she plays an important role as a main character throughout the novel and that Julia Alvarez did a fairly good job of helping us connect with her on a personal level. I feel like she put this story in the novel not only to highlight the inoccence of the young immigrant girl, but also because it shows an important aspect of Yolanda’s personality. Later in the novel, it’s brought up again when Yolanda at a young age dreams of seeing New York, which her grandmother calls some sort of indoor/outdoor concrete paradise. I think the story is there to show the vast depths of Yolanda’s imagination and also the fact that her mind is always racing and her thoughts always full of curiosity and the future.

Overall, I liked the first half of the book better than the second half, although overall I thought the entire book was pretty good. I wouldn’t say I thought it was amazing, but I might read it again just because I think I would see things differently, and notice things I didn’t notice the first time around. I’m also curious about it’s sequal “Yo”, I hear it got pretty good reviews.

Julia Alvarez pt. 2

I think I must not be alone in feeling a sense of confusion and curiosity at Alvarez’s choice of ending. It seemed there might have been a mistake and that the last chapter of the book was accidentally missed out. Told in a reverse chronology, the book begins with a grownup Yolanda in “Antojos” and ends with Yoyo the child in the “The Drum”. 

The last chapter and the last couple of paragraphs especially seem rushed. Alvarez writes: “You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what’s left in the hollow of my story?…I grew up a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and insomnia” (285-6). The narrator is the same at the beginning as the end yet the story does not come full circle. Is this abrupt end on purpose, to prove a point maybe? Authors often leave stories open for their readers to make their own conclusions but this ending left me wondering.
The “hollow story” that Yoyo speaks of contrasts with the colourful yet complicated story we have just finished. The detail in the story leads us to believe that it is being told from the child’s point of view yet the adult perspective (“I grew up…”) says the opposite. This discrepancy asks us to question the narrator. This final quote introduces themes that weren’t introduced before. Yolanda has never mentioned insomnia, frequent bad dreams or haunting ghosts (besides her short stint in the mental institute). The end of the book makes me rethink the beginning of the book just as I refer back to the family tree sketch, to try and connect these two seemingly different narrations. 
Other aspects in these ending chapters make me question the congruencies and connectedness of the stories. Our narrators are young and are often unsure how to interpret the actions happening around them. Imagination plays a large part in their young minds and their inventions often incorporate themselves into the storytelling. An example of this is the boy/creature Carla finds in the garage behind Doña Charito’s house. Carla was on the hunt, alone, looking for something that would incriminate the Doña. She did find what she was looking for but what was it exactly that she found? A small man locked up with a metal collar in the garage carving statues for the local church? Do the maids keep their masters secret? Do the families that come to stare at the odd architecture hear the screams of the prisoner? Does it really exist?
When one hunts for trouble, it is usually not far off, especially if your imagination is young and frightful. 
I don’t think that Alvarez was trying to make us question the validity of her story but instead points us in a certain direction. Children exaggerate stories in their own favour, the imagination of the young is wild and at times they’ll have difficulty distinguishing reality from imagined, children lie to win or obtain something they want for themselves; all are normal occurrences for children. If they are unable to distinguish reality from imagined then the imagined is what they remember and that becomes the story of their life. Because our narrators are for the most part children, these are details that should be acknowledged. 
The story in its entirety is a mix of imagined, multi-perspective, and reality but who is to say which is which?