How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Their Language and Their Identities in an Unraveling Narrative
I frequently teach the chapters “Snow” and “Daughter of Invention” in high school English classes because those chapters are anthologized in our textbooks—“Snow” in the freshmen text’ “Daughter of Invention” in the junior text. I enjoy those chapters, so I choose years ago to read the novel. I remember enjoying the novel, as well. I keep a copy in my classroom library and frequently suggest it to students, usually juniors and seniors, who are ready for a novel that transitions well from young adult to adult literature. I don’t remember any student returning it with as enthusiastic reviews as I used when suggesting it. But I had not remembered the reverse order chronology. Nor the flashbacks within the chapters. Nor the changing third-person to first-person to four-girls-as-first-person-collective points of view. Nor the unresolved ending—beginning?—does Yolanda stay on the Island? Keeping track of the girls and the clues to the development of their 1989’s personas revealed in reverse order required two different sets of notes, which my high school students would not voluntarily take on as part of an independent reading book.
Although the title emphasizes the Garcia girls’ accents, the narrative focuses more on the multifacets of language with accents as an aural cue to others that the girls will struggle with the language and, as a result, struggle to create a sense of identity. For example the opening chapter is set in the present—1989—and details third daughter Yolanda’s return trip to the Island. The third-person limited narrator explains that Yolanda’s language is in limbo: “In halting Spanish, Yolanda reports on her sisters. When she reverts to English, she is scolded, ‘¡En español!’The more she practices, the sooner she’ll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. Yes, and when she returns to the States, she’ll find herself suddenly going blank over some word in English” (7). To become American, it appears that Yolanda had to not lose only her accent but her native language, as well. And this creates a dichotomy—be fluent in Spanish or be fluent in English, but not both equally. This language limbo reveals a greater issue: is Yolanda Dominican or American? Although Yolanda and her sisters “used to shock their Island cousins with stories of their escapades in the States” (7), Yolanda now equates being American with “turbulent lives—so many husbands, homes, jobs, wrong turns among them” (11). This first chapter with its early revelations leaves the reader wanting to know more: what escapades? turbulent lives? wrong turns? How has Yolanda reached this point of romanticizing Island life: “But look at her cousins, women with households and authority in their voices. Let this turn out to be my home, Yolanda wishes” (11). Do the other girls feel the same way? To understand the 1989 identities, the reader needs to piece together the events and clues that appear during the unraveling that occurs in the reverse chronology; however, this creation of identity appears more obviously when the reader reorders the timelines to start in the girls’ childhoods to move forward in a traditional linear narrative.
As children Mami dresses the girls “all alike in diminishing-sized, different color versions of what she wore” (40) so that each girl “had the same party dress, school clothes, underwear, toothbrush, bedspread, nightgown, plastic cup, towel, brush and comb set as the other three, but” Carla wore yellow, Sandra wore blue, Yolanda wore pink, and Sofia wore white. Mami also called them all by the same pet name, Cuquita (42) although it may have indicated “whoever was in her favor” (136). Years later Sofia, the youngest daughter, “claimed that the whole color system smacked of an assembly-line mentality,” while Carla, the eldest daughter who became a child psychologist, wrote “that the color system had weakened the four girls’ identity differentiation abilities and made them forever unclear about their personality boundaries” (41). The Garcia girls are viewed as a single entity that is reflected in the language used by others and themselves. In addition to the title, the group is referred to by family as “the cousins”; Mami “still calls them the four girls even though the youngest in twenty-six” (40); the Fannings, Papi’s benefactors in the States, linger over each girl “trying to get them straight” but resort to simply calling them “little beauties” (177; and numerous times they are referred to in the negative, “Four girls, no boys?” (57; 199). This lack of separate identity is most obvious in chapter six “A Regular Revolution” that is told in the first-person point of view of one of the sisters, but all four girls are referred to in the third-person; even the sisters, at times, see themselves as a collective noun. The language of others has created a sense of singular identity for the girls that is sometimes beneficial and sometimes stifling in its unity.
Language is also power in the novel. When the dictator Trujillo comes to power, he is “jealous of anyone with education and money” (226) so to avoid being punished for having better language or for using language to speak out against Trujillo, Papita (Mami’s father; the girls’ maternal grandfather) takes a post at the United Nations in New York City (226-227). When the Garcias flee to New York City the parental identities flip as Mami “was the leader [because] [s]he had gone to school in the States. She spoke English without a heavy accent” (176) while Papi embarrassed by his lack of English, acted “like a servant” (180). Years later after Sofia gives birth to a son and the first male in two generations, Papi uses language to empower the infant: “You can be president, you were born here [. . .]. You can go to the moon, maybe even to Mars” without realizing that he disempowering his granddaughter who listens to him speaking to her brother (27).
Language also disempowers. When Carla attends school in the next parish, she is harassed by a gang of boys who call her “spic,” “monkey legs,” and mimic her “Plees eh-stop” (153). Carla is ashamed of her changing body and feels that the “girl she had been back home in Spanish was being shed” (153). While walking home, Carla is approached by a man in a car; she is worried that she does not want to admit, “I don’t speak very much English” since she only knows “classroom English, a foreign language. She knew the neutral bland things to say” (156). But when she discovers that the man is a pervert, naked from the waist down, all language fails Carla: “Not one word, English or Spanish, occurred to her” (157). Carla’s lack of English leaves her powerless and a victim despite her previous identity as the eldest and most responsible. Yolanda is disempowered in college and again during her marriage by her lack of language to understand, explore, and explain her emotions and her intimate needs. During her college relationship with Rudy, Yolanda explains that “[h]is vocabulary turned me off even as I was beginning to acknowledge my body’s pleasures. [. . .] But I didn’t want to just be in the sack, screwed, balled, laid and fucked my first time around with a man” (96-97). Ironically as an English major, Yolanda realizes that Rudy “had no sense of connotation in bed” (96). Although Yolanda is becoming aware of and welcoming toward her sexuality, her lack of language does not allow her to realize that Rudy wants an events not a relationship. Years later while dating, John wanted Yolanda to say that she loved him; Yolanda realizes the power of language because “[o]nce they got started on words, there was no telling what they could say” (70). Unfortunately, John’s language hurts Yolanda when he changes her identity to “Joe” (71), “squirrel” (72), and “Violet after shrinking violet when she had started seeing [a therapist] Dr. Payne” (74). Yolanda recognizes “that just because they were different, that was no reason to make her feel crazy for being her own person” (73); unfortunately, Yolanda does not have the language to express that so she loses that ability to understand John (77-78) and then only communicates by reciting poetry (79). As she begins her recovery in a “small, private facility” (79), Yolanda discovers that she “has developed a random allergy to certain words” including alive and love (82), which eventually causes her to seek her identity on the Island.
Sandi’s disempowerment due to lack of language comes from her inability to express herself artistically. The family attempts to encourage eight-year-old Sandi’s expression through drawing and painting through art lessons when they lived on the Island. However, the art teacher is an imposing woman “barking instructions in guttural Spanish which made you feel that you were mispronouncing your native tongue because you did not speak in her heavy German accent” (239). After being punished for not following directions, Sandi sneaks into the backyard eventually falling off a log and breaking her arm in three places (253). After a lengthy healing process, Sandi’s “cast was off. But I was a changed child. Months of pampering and the ridicule of my cousins had turned m inward. But now when the world filled me, I could no longer draw it out. I was sullen and dependent on my mother’s sole attention” (254). Sandi’s artistic language is reawakened a few years later at the floor show in New York City that the family attended with the Fannings: “Sandi’s heart soared. This wild and beautiful dance came from people like her, Spanish people, who dance the strange, disquieting joy that sometimes made Sandi squeeze Fif’s hand hard until she cried or bullfight Yoyo with a towel until both girls fell in a giggling, exhausted heap on the floor” (185). But, again, this language of artistic expression is ruined for Sandi. In this case by the drunk Mrs. Fanning scrambling onto the platform and dancing comically after Sandi had witnessed Mrs. Fanning earlier kiss Papi: “Mrs. Fanning had broken the spell of the wild and beautiful dancers” (186). This inability to express herself, and therefore find her identity, causes Sandi to take “a lot of drugs to keep her weight down” (47) followed by “a small breakdown” (51) in which Sandi believed that “[s]he was becoming a monkey” (54) because “[e]volution had reached its peak and was going backwards” (55). The stifling of Sandi’s language left her without an identity.
Alvarez’s use of a reverse chronology causes the reader to ask questions first and look for the answers while reading the unraveling novel. While it would be easy to say that the simplest way to read the novel would be from end to beginning, the narrative is not linear in either direction. The flashbacks sprinkled throughout the vignettes add to the complexity of the nonlinear timeline. Regardless of the need to reread the novel to answer one’s questions, the novel, as focused by the title, examines how identity is created by language and expression, by lack of language and expression, and by the accumulating impact of language and expression.
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. New York: A Plume Book, 1992. Print.