Any coming of age novel is destined to be ripe with stories involving characters’ intersections of class, race, and sex. Further, the geography in which a character grows up creates an environment that provides immense context for an analytical approach to the literature. There is no definitive analysis approach in literature, particularly in fiction; however, it is important to look broadly at the aforementioned concepts as a means of trying to understand the greater themes the author seeks to propose to the reader. Understanding intersectionality, in particular, is critical to a proper analysis of the characters in this literature analysis and therefore the issues of class, race, and sex/gender will be used as starting points. This paper, in particular, seeks to explore the duality in the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez between feeling both lost and empowered in such a dichotomous environment as the diaspora between America and the Dominican Republic.
One of the major themes that anyone living within a diaspora encounter is assimilation. Assimilation is a process between two different cultural groups when one “minority” group becomes enmeshed in the larger “majority” cultural group, often feeling forced to suppress their traditions. Assimilation is a unique process, however, and is never as simple as one culture simply being exposed to another and adhering to a new set of rules and cultural standards. There can be an identity crisis in particular if one has to assimilate back and forth between different geographical regions, remaining in a constant flux of assimilation depending on where they are at in the diaspora.
One of the ways the Garcia girls felt their experience living in the diaspora created a struggle is seen when examining their very different class experiences in the Dominican Republic and in the United States. While in the Dominican Republic, the Garcia Girls are afforded one of the most wealthy and privileged lifestyles one can see in their country; however, as it is all they have known this kind of lifestyle seems normal to them before their exposure to the class system in America. During their childhood the girls were accustomed to living on huge compounds with lavish houses and extended family next door; these compounds even had servants to wait on the girls for anything they needed. Even their cousins in some regard served them in some capacity, as whenever they sought a playmate, they had their family next door and could summon a cousin at will.
It is clear that the Garcia girls were privileged in the Dominican Republic while experiencing their adolescence on the island. Further, it is evident that this class system indicated a sense of hierarchy in the country, which is seen as Yolonda’s Aunt interacts with a domestic servant:
The maid stares down at the interlaced hands she holds before her, a gesture that Yolanda remembers seeing illustrated in a book for Renaissance actors. These clasped hands were on a page of classic gestures. The gesture of pleading, the caption had read. Held against the breast, next to the heart, the same interlaced hands were those of a lover who pleadeth for mercy from his beloved. (Alvarez 4)
The wealthy lifestyle seen in the novel is further presented as elite in that only a handful of families achieve such status, and therefore the Garcia girls have grown up being told they are as close to royalty so they could possibly be.
As they emigrate with their family to America, they begin to see a stark contrast to their wealthy lifestyle and the lifestyle of immigrants in New York. Indeed, the girls certainly did not assimilate quickly or easily to the new lifestyle they were presented with: "We didn't feel we had the best the United States had to offer. We had only second-hand stuff, rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another" (Alvarez 107). It is clear that upon arrival to America, it was not even a possibility to the girls that their lifestyle might be different in terms of luxuries they received as they were part of such a prestigious and wealthy family in the Dominican Republic.
This certainly caused an initial struggle as the adjustment period came in which the girls had to forgo their new dresses and grand compounds surrounded by families and personal servants to fetch them whatever they needed. The suburbs were simply not what the girls were used to, feeling cooped up there unlike at the island where they could roam the compound (Alvarez 107). Their inability to enjoy the best technology only exacerbated their disappointment in assimilating into American immigrant culture (Alvarez 107). This early period of transition within the diaspora was certainly not perceived as an empowering experience to the girls.
It is important to also remember the intersection of the race that must join in this analysis when determining how the Garcia girls’ early experiencing assimilating to America brought many struggles to their lives. Their perception of living amongst rednecks certainly reflects the fact that they were no longer living among a similar group of people that celebrated the same Hispanic culture as the Garcias. There were no other families speaking Spanish in their neighborhood and racism was an overt issue that created an ugly new truth in the girls’ lives.
In particular, Carla experiences a horrific incident of violent hate speech when a group of schoolboys scream: "Go back to where you came from, you dirty spic!" (Alvarez 153). It is particularly prudent to emphasize how racism plays a major factor in this cultural dialogue that is speaking of an already marginalized population, that of women. It is imperative to underscore the discrimination that White women have historically been privileged within America and how the gift of expressing their voice often came at the exploitation or dismissal of women of color. In this sense, the Garcia girls were taught early on in America that being a woman of color meant that they were treated differently than other women in America. This certainly indicates a struggle for the women to construct solid identities that are healthy and reflect self-love when in an environment that is, at least in the beginning, indicating that they are second-class citizens.
This teaches the Garcia girls a form of systematic patriarchal oppression that seeks to minimize any dissenting voices in order to keep women in less privileged positions and maintain a hierarchy that they did not notice growing up in the Dominican. It appeared America wanted to reduce their contributions and deny women of color their full identities. However, it became clear to the siblings that if they were to stay in America, they would have to find some way to assimilate, or at least understand this duality between the diaspora their world was being constructed in.
This meant they needed their parents to guide them through some sort of Americanization process as a means of survival over anything else, at least at first. If they were not able to do so, they likely would have continued to live in a confused state and endured further bullying and loss of a sense of identity both on their American and Dominican sides. This becomes a contentious situation when the parents seem uneager to facilitate this process for the girls need to “fit in America among Americans; they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling them spics" (Alvarez 135). This eventually also leads the girls’ anger to reject their roots, perhaps as a means of taking back power from their initial humiliating experiences that caused them such suffering in America and their parents’ refusal to help.
This is best explained when Alvarez describes just how the girls start to mold their preferences to become Americanized:
We began to develop a taste for the American teenage good life, and soon, Island was old hat, man. Island was the hair-and nails crown, chaperones, and icky bones with all their macho strutting and unbuttoned shirts and hairy chests with gold chains and teensy gold crucifixes. By the end of a couple of years away from home, we had more than adjusted. (108-109).
It appears only at the detriment of their relationship and ties to Dominican culture could they empower themselves to succeed on American soil. It is interesting that they essentially had to admonish their old homeland in order to find comfort in their new home and could never quite find a balance between the two. This certainly leads to an ultimate identity crisis for the girls. It is further interesting that they appear to find strength in their gender in America and see the Dominican as a place for much machismo and sexism.
Of course, the Garcia girls eventually grow up, and their identities reflect their stratified identities between their Dominican roots and later American upbringing. The girls make trips back to the island as adults and encounter unique experiences as they find they no longer perceive the island in the way they did as young girls growing up in the life of luxury. For example, Yolanda feels on one of her return trips that “she has never felt at home in the States, never” (Alvarez 12). She has spent most of her young adult life diminishing her Dominican roots and yet as she gets older and returns to the island, she appears to idolize it.
However, Yolanda also tries to bring parts of America back to her homeland even while mythologizing the Dominican. She wants to see democracy processes introduced and create a sense of more general freedom as well as freedom for women. This is another clear indicator of the way the girls developed a fragmented identity through their struggles living in the diaspora between American and the Dominican Republic. While Yolanda believes in her mind upon her late life that the island is her true home, she staunchly clings to so many of the American customs she was exposed to.
While each daughter’s story is unique, they all end up partly assimilating to American culture but individually retaining the part of their Dominican roots they cherish the most. While this has come at the experience of great struggle, it ultimately ends up empowering them as they have a unique insight into the lives that many people never get to experience due ascribed status often being unchangeable. The ability to be both rich and middle-class, privileged and discriminated, and to see how different characteristics can change the way a society treats an individual in a diaspora based off geography ends up being a valuable tool.
America taught them that some women refused to accept their socially ascribed roles while also teaching them to understand the consequences they faced by publicly denying the system of racism put in place. Changing their treatment of their staff and servants when returning to the island indicates a unique change on exploring class relations and how demeaning the class systems had been in the Dominican growing up. It is only through their struggle that they were empowered within the diaspora.
This is why it is impossible to separate the two ideas; rather they must be understood as two sides of the same coin. The girls would not have learned the lessons or grown the way they did spiritually had they not traveled through the diaspora and explored the Dominican and America during different periods. It is likely the Garcia girls would have struggles regardless of whether they had stayed in the Dominican and never traveled to America; however, they only sure indicator that their lives were a success in part due to their experience in the diaspora is their ability to reflect and indicate changed, positive behavior based on their experience. While perhaps their fragmented identities cannot be made whole, there is no indication that this is the litmus test for a complete and healthy life. Overall, their experiences were rich and gave them many unique opportunities to explore the world.
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books, 2013.