The novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez presents the stories of four women from the Dominican Republic and their struggles with culture and identity. Both within their home country and while living in the U.S., the sisters encounter conflicts with family members, acquaintances, and strangers. Often the basis of these hardships is the lack of understanding between cultures, classes, gender, language, and tradition.
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Conflict centering on race is encountered frequently by the sisters. The most prevalent of these include the treatment that Carla, one of the sisters, is given by prejudiced boys once the family has moved to New York (Alvarez, 1991). She is also nearly molested by an exhibitionist, which may be a result of ongoing and harmful stereotyping of the sexuality of women from Caribbean regions.
The class also plays a pivotal role in the story and lives of the sisters and their parents. While the Garcias were wealthy in their home country of the Dominican Republic, upon moving to New York, they had become more middle class. The story depicts how this causes the family to suffer culturally and materially, with Laura, the mother, becoming especially discomforted by the change in social class. This illustrates how classism is distinct to the economic state of a nation and disproportionately affects immigrants in countries like the U.S.
Gender is also prevalent as a factor that influences the lives of the sisters. While in the Dominican Republic, they are subject to certain gender standards or expectations. Yolanda uses her body to acquire a doll even at a very young age. Sandra is thrown out of her art school for her irrepressible spirit, which is a characteristic often more stifled in women by society. In the U.S., Yolanda is continuously expected to engage in sex with her romantic partners, which she decides not to do.
The language barrier becomes a thematic element that describes the isolation the sisters feel from both their original and adopted culture. Yolanda starts to write poetry in English and faces a conflict with her father as he finds this to be insubordinate. Later as she returns to the Dominican Republic, once she is lost she is unable to communicate with locals in Spanish and resorts to pretending to be a foreigner. Additionally, she loses closeness with her husband when he fails to understand her cultural heritage and appreciate the Spanish language.
Even as Yolanda returns to her home country in the countryside, she is unable to fully return due to the cultural clashes she experienced prior. Her use of English in the ending scenes of the novel illustrates that while she feels an urge to return to her cultural roots, she is unable to let go of the comfort of her American identity. This cultural clash is also felt by her mother earlier, who attempts to stifle the adverse feelings by being invested in the interests and heritage of her daughters.
Tradition is frequently broken by the sisters, with a notable example being Sofia, who hosts her father a birthday party. It is tradition for the daughter to return home for this event, but Sofia chooses to invite him to her home to also show off her German husband and children. However, though it is not specified, it is suggested that this disregard for tradition causes her father to be less affectionate and close with her.
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Alvares, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Penguin Books, 1991.