Monday, January 18, 2016

How the Garcia Girls Found their Identities

How the Garcia Girls Found their Identities
            Throughout her novel How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, Julia Alvarez uses a reverse chronological timeline, coupled with a variety of narrative techniques to show how time and experience affected each of the Garcia girls to create individualized personalities. Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia are the different products of very similar lives that due to their interpretation of time resulted in four unique perspectives.

            When a reader picks up a book, it’s common to expect that the story will start at the beginning and at the end, all the mysteries will be revealed. In How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, that isn’t the case. As the audience, we are given the end point. The first experience we share in is Yolanda’s return to the Dominican Republic after a long time away. Slowly, we begin to realize that this isn’t a casual vacation. Yolanda feels disconnected from what we learn to be her roots and yet, she feels them calling to her: “when she returns to the States, she’ll find herself suddenly going blank over some word in English or, like her mother, mixing up some common phrase. This time, however, Yolanda is not so sure she’ll be going back,” (Alvarez 7). It would usually be safe to assume that the plot would move forward from this point with the occasional flash back or back story explanation and end with Yolanda’s decision on whether to stay or not. Instead, we’re thrown into a scene in the not so distant past and are left wondering what to make of the antojos that Yolanda worked so hard to find.
            Slowly, we piece together not only the life of Yolanda, but also the lives of her three sisters. As we work our way through their experiences in both the United States and the Dominican Republic, we wonder where it is that the novel will lead us. What is the singular catalyst that sent the Garcia Girls on their journeys to self-actualization, if we can call the moment of introduction that? Instead of building character development, Alvarez sends us on a journey to deconstruct one scenario after another to make sense of the girls’ identities. This reversal of the traditional timeline really forces us as readers to ask “what happened first?” instead of  “what happens next?” We shift our focus from the anticipation of the grand finale that we have been trained to yearn for so desperately to the curiosity of how a character and a world is built and what that means. We look closer at how we connect with these characters and how we share or disagree with opinions of time and how it affects us.

            Part of how we experience the Garcias’ lives has to do with the narrative style with which each chapter is given. Throughout the novel, we see the different scenarios through third person narrative (she, her, they) or through first person narrative (I, we, us) with a fluctuating omniscient (all-knowing) aspect. There are times where we seem to be watching the Garcias lives their lives like they’re a TV series and then there are those when we see ourselves in their shoes. Though the amount of time that passed in each chapter varied, time seemed to go slower for me as I read the chapters that were in the first person narrative. These seemed to hold more weight and therefore take up more time while the third person chapters seemed to pass by quickly.
            For me, this difference in relative time had to do with the connections that were being made. Third person narrative chapters skimmed over (seemingly) common issue that any reader may be able to relate to if they were to pick up the novel (Yo loosing touch with her roots in “Antojos” for example) while giving them an immigration twist through the girls’ individual thoughts and experiences that come from an all-knowing narrator. These situations give broad senses that can be empathized with and therefore don’t need the same amount of attention as ones that deal strictly with personal experiences that need more relative (but maybe not literal) time. It is the chapters that deal with extreme cultural clashes that suck us in with the first person narrative so that we can sit and think through what these girls are feeling and why.
You can believe we sisters wailed and paled, whining to go home. 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, clothes at Round Robin, a black and white TV afflicted with wavy lines. Cooped up in those little suburban houses, the rules were as strict as for Island girls, but there was no island to make up the difference. (Alvarez 107)
As the daughter of immigrants and a frequent visitor of my parents’ childhood homes, it is still difficult for me to fathom what the girls felt when they were thrust into a new world that had little in common with what they found familiar. I can imagine that as audiences become more and more detached from their immigrant roots, it gets harder to relate to this feeling and so we must pay closer attention. For this reason, Julia Alvarez uses a collective first person narrative in “A Regular Revolution” to thrust readers into the minds of all four girls at once. Because we are not as comfortable with these situations (well, many of us aren’t as comfortable with this situation) we slow down; we take in each sentence and attempt to create a more vivid image that we can relate to.

Each individual “girl” goes through similar experiences as her sisters, but each one finds a different path for life. They all come from a warring country and move to a foreign land at a young age. They all experiment with American culture and get sent away to boarding school together. They all experiment with, struggle with, and find their sexual identities. They all feel pulled to one another in order to relive and validate their life experiences. What they don’t do is come out as copies of one another. Even from a young age, the timeline of the sisters’ personalities were mangled. “It gave solace to the third daughter, who was always tentative and terrified and had such troubles with men. Her sister’s breathing in the dark room was like having a powerful, tame animal at the foot of her bed ready to protect her,’ (Alvarez 29). Though Sofia was the youngest and therefore had spent the least amount of time experiencing life, she held herself with an air that could not be achieved by the older girls. She commanded the attention of all those around her and tore away from her roots more easily than her sisters. This is one example as to why Sofia’s experiences happen at a different relative pace than her sisters’. She was the one most easily acclimated to their new life due to the limited amount of time she spent on the island.

Every chapter has a different view on the time that the girls spent together and apart. They create their own realities and we as the audience are given only glimpses to construct our own reality and timeline for the girls. We are left to puzzle over why the Garcias ended up who they were at the beginning of the novel with little to no explanation in the end. We reach a point very near the beginning of the Garcia girls as a unitary identity but we are not necessarily given a specific point of reference to say that their story stemmed from.
Yolanda herself declares to the audience “you understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what’s left in the hollow of my story?” (Alvarez 289) on the second to last page of the novel. Whether she is referencing the current jump through history or the novel as a whole, it is unclear to me. Is that not what we do for ourselves? Do we not collapse our own narratives into neat little chapters that define us? Alvarez forces us to become the Garcia girls through this interweaving of narrative styles and reverse chronological order. Through our experiences with them, we may just learn to better appreciate our own time, to recognize the importance of the past and the present, and to not worry so much about where we will end up because what are we if not a compilation of every moment we have experienced.

Alvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin of
            Chapel Hill, 1991. Print.


  1. I like your idea that "Alvarez forces us to become the Garcia girls"; I know that I had to pay close attention to every detail. To find the parts that tied together; it was difficult to become four girls without taking copious notes. But I agree with you that the combination of third person limited and first person narrations give us a chance to walk in the steps of each daughter. I have not read Yo! the sequel or parallel novel, but I understand that it includes Mami and Papi as narrators for some chapters, too. While I can relate to the general coming of age aspects of the story, I cannot relate to the immigrant experience that you can. A number of articles have been written about this novel an immigration or (im)migration literature especially because of the reverse chronology. (I will be sharing a couple of these in class Wednesday night.)

  2. I'm interested in how you mentioned that we "collapse our own narratives into neat little chapters that define us." I never thought about the passage like that, but it definitely makes sense. Even Facebook has that new option to record "moments" or whatever they're called and create these little pretty virtual chapters of our lives to share with others. I think this even extends to our language when we talk about things like "the good ole' days" or "the college years." I'm also interested in what you think about the idea of an immigrant narrative, as you mentioned having experience with it through family visits and your parents. I know some writers are often criticized for things like this because they package immigration and the unfamiliarity of a new country in ways that appeal to popular culture (like Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club"), but I felt like Alvarez wasn't approaching the subject the same way Tan was. Tan often relied on stereotypes or something like the sensual details of an Americanized Chinese meal to get the authenticity across, whereas I felt like Alvarez was giving us so much more into the psyches and personalities of the characters and their individual, yet collective familial, journeys.