Time is a tricky thing to play with, but in the right hands, it can become a vehicle through which a writer challenges traditional notions of past, present, future, and identity. Julia Alvarez tackles these ideas in her novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The novel is told in reverse chronological order, starting with thirty-nine year old Yolanda, the third oldest of the Garcia girls, and her trip back home to the Dominican Republic after living in the United States for most of her life. As the novel progresses, we “follow” the events of the Garcias’ lives, going back in time to when the four girls were little children and the Garcias still lived in their comfortable estate in the Dominican Republic. Because the narrative does not follow the conventional format of chronological order, the reader is forced to look at the individual events by themselves, trying to understand the Garcias’ past, our future in the novel, and how their lives connect to their futures. Along the way, we discover how the events surrounding the family mold and shape the Garcia girls’ lives in very different ways.
Because Alvarez begins at the end, the reader cannot make the usual connections between events and the outcome of a character’s life as we are wont to do. We are used to studying the past and its effect on the present and potentially the future. Alvarez does not give us that opportunity. Instead, we must look at the scenes on their own as Alvarez presents them to us. We cannot judge them by what we already know, because those events have not yet happened to the characters, and we cannot judge them by the past because we have not yet encountered it. This backwards narrative allows reader to focus on the characters in that moment. We do not know how their lives and experiences have shaped them into that person at that moment, so we must focus on the present, and only the present. In the opening chapter, Yolanda returns to her homeland, tired of her life in the United States, looking for familiarity and to satisfy her antojos, or cravings, for her past (Alvarez 9), before her family fled the Dominican Republic and Trujillo’s dictatorship for good. The reader also desires to satisfy the same craving. We want to know more about Yolanda’s past and what drives her desires. Unfortunately for the reader and for Yolanda, the past remains equally inaccessible. Yolanda can never revisit the past, and the past becomes the reader’s present, a moment that exists by itself, unable to be analyzed, poked, and dissected, using the past as scaffolding.
Every time the novel jumps back in time, we want to place the current story next to those we already know, and compare, contrast, do what it is that English majors do, but the story refuses to allow us to make those connections. Instead, we have to take a deep look at the moments themselves. We see the scene where Sandi stays at the mental hospital (Alvarez 50), the moment Papi allows Sofia’s husband into the family (Alvarez 27), Yolanda’s relationship struggles in college and her career (Alvarez 73), and Carla’s encounter with the pervert on her way to seventh grade (Alvarez 157). The future does not exist to them yet, and their past does not exist to us yet. We are in a state of limbo between their past and our “past.” What we know has not happened or affected them yet. We pass each other on our journeys, going the opposite ways through time, just as River Song and The Doctor in Doctor Who do in their tragically ill-timed yet romantic relationship. We get hints of what happened to the Garcias in their pasts, and we must decipher it on our own. Both the characters and readers are following their own different paths of discovery in opposite directions – the family progressing through time the normal way, exploring and taking chances and shaping their own identities, and the readers continuously backtracking, craving to know more about these characters, where they have come from, and what they have experienced.
Rather than seeing the events in the “present” in context with what has led up to them, we can look at how a lonely woman tries to find the love she deserves, or how a little girl wrestles with the fact that she saw a lady kiss her husband. Through these vignettes, we examine what it means to be human. How do we react through these experiences? Why do the four girls end up so different when they were raised the same? We do not need any more context than what Alvarez gives us in these moments. They give us plenty of clues as to who these characters are at these moments in time. We accept them as they are and join the Garcia family in their moments of happiness, pain, confusion, fear, hopelessness, and hopefulness.
Though the reader is forced to accept living in the present moment, the Garcia family still continues to long for another time. In the beginning of Alvarez’s text, Yolanda reminisces about the past and how she longs to stay in the Dominican Republic because it represents her childhood. At the end of the novel, however, as the Garcia family prepares their escape from the clutches of the Trujillo dictatorship that Papi worked to topple, the family eagerly awaits what they hope is a bright, successful, and safe future. The reader must use only the present scene to analyze a character, and, as such, identities seem more prominent in these scenes. These moments also depict more clearly how these identities change as the girls grow older/younger. We see Sandi’s breakdown in the hospital before we see her grow up. Because of this switch, we can appreciate Sandi’s character at this moment in her life as it is. There’s no pity because there’s no “well she was such a nice girl before. It’s a shame what happened to her” mentality. We cannot compare her to who she used to be. Who really wants to be compared to who they used to be, anyway? Who we were does not dictate who we are now. The thirty-nine year old Yolanda, who thinks and hopes that “she has learned, at last, to let the mighty wave of tradition roll on through her life and break on some other female shore. She plans to bob up again after the many don’ts to do what she wants” (Alvarez 9), is a different person than the one who yelled at her sister for calling a man a “beefcake” (Alvarez 60), or the Yolanda who wrote poetry (Alvarez 46). People change, but readers tend to conflate a character’s different identities over the span of many years because they have watched the change take place. Alvarez successfully manages to coerce the reader into breaking that habit, instead focusing on the “now.”
Each moment in the novel constitutes as the “present.” When we read them, we watch as the characters spring to life. There is no past in novels, not when we can revisit particular scenes and passages. Wherever we skip around, what we read becomes the present. Evidence of this is shown when literary writing always uses present tense when discussing stories. By reversing chronological order, Alvarez demonstrates that concept clearly to the reader who is forced to accept the reality of the present within How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.