This is one of the texts we’ll be reading in the Latino Literature class I’m taking this fall. Since there’s a lot of reading and I’ll have my hands full from next week until Christmas, pretty much literally, I thought I’d get a head start. And this was a really enjoyable head start!
Alvarez tells the story of the Garcia family, or rather, of their four daughters (no sons). Their father, Carlos, is a physician, and so the family is well off compared to most living in the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s. The political situation is becoming more and more threatening for Carlos, who is involved in planning a plot against the government. The secret police pay almost regular visits to the Garcias’ house and to the houses of their relatives, both to intimidate and to steal. Emigration seems the only way to keep his family safe.
Here’s a map, just in case you, like me, weren’t quite sure where exactly the Dominican Republic is located: It’s south of Cuba, and it shares a landmass with Haiti.
How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents is the story of Carla, Sandi, Sofia (Fifi) and Yolanda (Yoyo) and their attempt to define themselves between the two cultures of America and the Dominican Republic. The novel is written in three sections, and each section is divided into parts, often spoken by different narrators.
While we get to see all of the girls grow up, be rebellious, and struggle with finding their place in the world, Yolanda, the second-youngest and a lapsed poet, is the first Garcia we meet. Her voice seems to dominate in the novel, though that could just be me and my memory misleading me.
That said, the other sisters are no less interesting, particularly Sandi, who is the prettiest, and at least as a girl has a talent for drawing. After she draws a local woman’s little boy, the mother comes to her, begging her to destroy the drawing: the boy is feverish, and even a bath in holy water does not cure him. Sandi does as she is asked, and the boy recovers immediately. This made me think of Gabriel’s Gift by Hanif Kureishi.
The Garcias are proud of Sandi for being so fair, and they explain that it is because of the girls’ Swedish great-great-grandmother. Color, and with it, race, is an issue touched on repeatedly in the margins, but nowhere so clearly and obviously as in Sandi’s whiteness. The people of the Dominican Republic are described as ‘cafe-con-leche’, a light brown color. At the very bottom of the social ladder are the black servants, like the family’s Haitian cook. Like the American agent who worked with Carlos and then helps him emigrate, the Haitian cook instills fear and distrust in the locals . In her case, it is because she practices Voodoo. The facts that she sleeps in her coffin and is emotionally unresponsive don’t help her case.
There is a lot going on in this book, in terms of colonialism, race issues, gender, language, family dynamics, etc, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. This book is written in pleasant, easy-to-read prose and so the 290 pages didn’t seem that long at all, in fact I read it in three days, and I’m not a fast reader lately.
Alvarez tells the story in a sort of backwards zig-zag. This may sound confusing, but don’t worry, it all falls into place. When I finished the book I asked myself, would it have worked better as a linear narrative, and I think it would have lost its immediacy, it would have been less interesting somehow. As it is, when we first meet the girls, they are grown women, have partners, children. They have grown and learned to navigate between their cultures, and now can look back and speak about their childhood with insight. A lovely book.