how the garcia girls lost their accent by julia alvarez

How the Garcia girls lost their accent by julia alvarez.

According to me, the most important issue discussed in ‘How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent’ by Julia Alvarez is that of linguistic and cultural differences that the Spanish girls faced during their stay in United States. Language held great importance culturally and literally to each member of the Garcia family in different ways. The very title of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents reveals that the whole plot is moving around the language in this novel as it chronicles the difficult paths that four young sisters from the Dominican Republic take while growing up in the United States. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, in “Discourse in the Novel”, language is more than words, more than just the syntax and grammar. Language is a mind-set of the speaker, a cultural and historical expose, “a living, socio-ideological, concrete thing, and a heteroglot opinion”. When individuals communicate they reach the world through words across the barriers of difference their environments have created. In successful communication, participants “find newer ways to mean”, words merge, and new worlds are created. Language actually lies on the borderline between one’s self and others.

Yolanda, the true central role of The García Girls, is constantly underscoring the complex relationship of the languages, Yolanda, in being called “vivacious”, has to confer with the dictionary and upon learning the word’s meaning in Spanish “[I] was relieved to find out it didn’t mean I had problems. English was then still a party favour for me—crack open the dictionary, find out if I’d just been insulted, praised, admonished, criticized” (Álvarez 87). The excerpt shows that Yolanda being a poet had many difficulties not only in conveying her ideas and thoughts from Spanish to English language, but also couldn’t understand whether she was being praised or criticize or insulted for her poetry work. Yolanda was never careless about the language, since she considered herself a poet with a highly discerning literary perspective. Her husband John’s monolingual limitations frustrated her and led to the end of their relationship, when they lose the ability to communicate effectively. The corrosion of her ability to make sense of language led to her impending mental breakdwn.

Yolanda was one of the four victims of Dominican-American cross cultural differences. Her sister Laura uses adopted idioms carelessly, yet always effectively communicates her meaning even if she mixes up the particular images. Sandra’s collapse is also preceded by her fear that she’ll lose the ability to read and reason with language, demonstrating that humanity for her is symbolized by language itself. Carla’s difficulties fitting into American society and communicating with the authorities, such as teachers and the police, stem from her inadequate English ability. For her, language is powerful enough to eliminate and segregate, in addition to the power to unite and assist communications.

In another excerpt, in chapter 1, ‘She has been too frightened to carry out any strategy, but now a road is opening up before her…. Then, as if the admission itself loosens her tongue, she begins to speak, English, a few words, of apology at first, then a great flood of explanation. . .’ The situation depicted in the above excerpt happened when Yolanda got lost while gathering fresh guavas in the countryside, and got a flat tire. She was terrified when she had to reveal her American identity to the two strange men who tried to help her. It was ironic as her trip to Dominican Republic was to affirm her Dominican identity and bond to her cultural and family roots. During this moment of fright, she felt most comfortable pretending not to understand a word of Spanish and could only explain herself by remaining tightly enclosed within her American identity and adhering to the English language.

Another instance which shows the amount of attention the Garcia girls were putting in learning the English language to create a niche for themselves in the American society is in chapter 3 ‘The four girls’ in the following extract: ‘The words tumble out, making a sound like the rumble of distant thunder, taking shape, depth, and substance. Yolanda continues: “Doc, rock, smock, luck,” so many words. There is no end to what can be said about the world.’ After Yolanda’s stay in the mental hospital, she began to retrieve language and its meanings. Following the period when she could only quote or misquote the phrases that she came across, she was now able to label objects and play word games. By rhyming and naming, Yolanda regains the ability to use language and transmit meaning. The moment when she realized that there are unlimited words in which world can be described and expressed, her artistic ass well as emotional healing took place. She prepared herself to write to a broader audience, as well as communicate with the people she loved and cared about.

It wasn’t just the linguistic trauma the sisters went through, but also a cultural one when they had to switch form Dominican culture to that of the American society. The quote which shows how they felt while leaving their homeland for United States is: ‘So, Laura thinks. So the papers have cleared and we are leaving. Now everything she sees sharpens as if through the lens of loss. She will miss this glorious light warming the inside of her skin and jewelling the trees, the grass, and the lily pond beyond the hedge.’ It shows that the moment when Laura realized that she and her family would be leaving the Dominican Republic for an indefinite period of time, aroused a striking and traumatic transition. The immediacy of this turning point indulged her in her surroundings in suddenly different ways. The details of her home that previously was overshadowed by her perceptions come forward to occupy her concentration. The light and plants, which would be different in the United States, came to have a worth that firmly grasped her consciousness.

The novel has expressed the issues faced by Dominican immigrants in a very sensitive way showing how something seemingly very trivial can affect another person so deeply. The issue of linguistic and cultural backgrounds has been dealt with minute details showing its negative as well as positive influence on the characters in the novel. In short, Julia Alvarez has touched upon some sensitive topics which keeps the reader thinking even after he finishes reading it.


Alvarez, Julia, ‘How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent’.  Published by Penguin Books in year 1991.


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