How the García Girls Lost Their Accents: Yolanda’s Struggle
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Can a person have a harmonious multicultural identity? In her essay “A Gentle Madness,” Humera Afridi explores this question by reflecting on her childhood experience of leaving her homeland, Pakistan, at the age of twelve and how it affects her identity. She realizes that although she has moved to many places later in life, her early memories of Pakistan still follow her and shape who she is. Like Afridi, the García sisters in Julia Alvarez’s novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, also leave their homeland, the Dominican Republic, at a young age and struggle to find their true cultural identities. After immigrating to the U.S., the sisters undergo a series of transformations to assimilate into the new environment. Yolanda, especially, strives to be proficient in English and its cultural connotations so that she can fit into American society faster and establish a new “self.” However, her eagerness to consume American culture through English has trapped her between the two cultures. By examining the connection between language and identity, we can gain a bigger picture of the globalization of English and analyze its effects on non-English speakers. Learning English has helped Americanize Yolanda to some extent, but it fails to give her a sense of belonging in the U.S. because, like Afridi, she is unable to leave her roots behind.
Yolanda’s English-learning process has offered her new insights and has reshaped her old perceptions, giving her an American voice she desires. Before moving to the U.S., Yolanda lived in a patriarchal society where women were expected to submit to men. When trying to trade toys with her cousin, Mundín, Yolanda obeyed his inappropriate request that she physically show him that she’s a girl: “I lifted up my cowboy skirt, tucked it under my chin, and yanked my panties down” (Alvarez 235). Though Yolanda was hesitant, she did what he asked because Mundín was in a more powerful position both in the trade and in the Dominican society. She was used to being obedient to her father, as well as to other men in the household, at all times. However, Yolanda’s wish to detach from the Dominican standards for women starts to show when she writes a bold speech for school: “That night, at last, she started to write, recklessly, three, five pages, looking up once only to see her father passing by the hall on tiptoe. When Yoyo was done, she read over her words, and her eyes filled. She finally sounded like herself in English!” (Alvarez 143). Instead of accepting her father’s advice by praising the teachers, Yolanda composes a speech inspired by Whitman’s poem, endorsing the idea of celebrating oneself (Alvarez 142). The content of the poem, though quite against the traditional Dominican values, touches Yolanda deeply and opens her eyes to a new, liberal, and creative world. Through the writing of that speech, she discovers her real voice in English and her desired new identity. At this point of her life, Yolanda, a passionate “consumer” of English language and literature, finally feels like an English speaker, an American.
This “consumption” has guided Yolanda to her ideal “self” by changing her perspectives on gender equality and being a woman. In her essay “How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?” Lera Boroditsky proves that language can significantly influence one’s mind: “… linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions ” (Boroditsky 143). Reading and speaking English not only teaches Yolanda how to apply the language but also inadvertently imbues her with American values, including intellectual liberty, independence, and gender equality. Reshaping how Yolanda interprets the world, these values have led her closer to her ideal identity: an independent and courageous woman who owns the same rights and freedom that men own—far from a humble and obedient woman so commonly observed in her native Dominican culture. In short, Yolanda’s rejection of the Dominican stereotypes for women and her adoption of American liberty, as when she writes her speech, is due to her English-learning process.
Now, some readers may argue that Yolanda’s Americanization is a significant step toward assimilating into the U.S. and making it her second home. While it is true that Yolanda has incorporated Americanness into her identity, she fails to find a sense of belonging in the U.S. because her past in the Dominican Republic is deeply ingrained in her, just like how Afridi’s early years in Pakistan are ingrained in her. Yolanda is trapped between American and Dominican culture, between the present and the past. Her helplessness manifests itself in her failed relationship with Rudy: “I saw what a cold, lonely life awaited me in this country. I would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles” (Alvarez 99). When Rudy pressures Yolanda to have sex, she is both offended by his disrespectful locution and disappointed by his lack of understanding of her mixed background. This feeling of estrangement in the U.S. is attributed to Yolanda’s deep-rooted Catholic-Hispanic belief that her body is holy like a temple, which was formed when she was a child and only spoke Spanish, and which conflicts with her more liberal American views (Alvarez 234).
Though Yolanda left home when she was young, her early perceptions cannot be neglected in the development of her identity. No matter how much American culture Yolanda consumes, her memories of the Dominican Republic will always define her and trap her in the past that wasn’t yet ready for the present. In “A Gentle Madness,” Afridi recalls a similar experience: “This singular memory is the core around which I’ve come to orient myself, circumambulating it still, despite the passage of time and regardless of place” (Afridi 52). Memory plays an essential role in both Yolanda’s and Afridi’s life because they were both uprooted from their homelands at an age when they had just begun to develop their identities and connections with their origins. Spanish, Yolanda’s first language, was critical to shaping her preliminary perceptions, which later become central to her identity and cannot be easily removed by the new American values. As a result, the past not only distances her from others in college but also haunts her as she grows older. The haunting is demonstrated in the final chapter where Yolanda reflects on defiantly stealing a newborn kitten from its mother: “At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art” (Alvarez 290). Continuously reappearing in Yolanda’s dreams, the image of the mother cat reminds her of the Dominican Republic as well as the “violation” of being removed against one’s will from one’s home. Just as the kitten was taken away before it could “make it on its own,” Yolanda too was separated from her motherland before she could survive without it (Alvarez 285). Both her guilt of taking the kitten and her psychological fear of having to adapt to a new country become an emotional burden she has to carry and a barrier between her and America.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents presents various problems that the García sisters face as immigrants in the U.S., mainly concerning language, culture, and identity. While the extent to which language and culture impact one’s identity remains a controversial issue up for debate, Yolanda’s experience with English demonstrates that the consumption of another language or culture reshapes but does not replace one’s original cultural identity. Boroditsky’s research supports that language does indeed have the power to reshape one’s identity by influencing one’s cognition while Afridi’s narrative illustrates that memories prevent one’s cultural identity from being replaced by another. Through speaking English and studying literature, Yolanda can be Americanized but cannot be “an American.” So, it’s time to consider this question again: can a person have a harmonious multicultural identity? According to Yolanda’s story, my answer is no. Given such a globalized world we are living in today, we can easily interact with other cultures and add a new cultural dimension to our identities by traveling abroad or learning new languages. Yet, the new culture we acquire may not necessarily be in agreement with our native culture. This means having an identity composed of multiple cultures can bring confusion and difficulties to defining ourselves and knowing where we truly belong. Despite having assimilated into the U.S., Yolanda continues to search for her identity in the Dominican Republic by confronting her past.
Alvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 1991. Print.
Aridi, Humera. “A Gentle Madness.” Globalization: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Maria Jerskey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 53–62. Print.
In her essay, Afridi shares a traumatic childhood memory to illustrate that her early memories of her homeland, Pakistan, are at the core of her identity no matter how many places she has lived since. Afridi’s narrative resembles Yolanda’s experiences with her homeland and will provide a comparison for my second point of analysis.
Boroditsky, Lera. “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” Globalization: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Maria Jerskey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 135–145. Print.
Boroditsky conducts several experiments on the effects of language and proves that language shapes our cognition, perception, and decision-making. The scientific facts and conclusions in her essay serve as evidence for my first point that learning English has Americanized Yolanda.
Analysis of “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”
“How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez is a funny and bitter sketch of the way the family of emigrants assimilated in New York City in the middle of 1950s.
Julia Alvarez, the author of the book is originally from the Dominican Republic, and this makes the theme of the narration very personal and close to her. Julia Alvarez admits that this novel is semi-autobiographical as it partially describes her own experience after her family has moved to another country.
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Julia immigrated to the United States when she was only 10 years old but she saved memoirs about her motherland during all her life and described them in her works. Julia Alvarez is the author of four novels and four books of poems. In addition she published several books for young readers.
“How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent” consists of fifteen interconnected short stories, which described the life of four sisters- Yolanda, Carla, Sandra and Sofia after their emigration to New Work city.
The novel does not follow a strict chronological order. It is written in the form of flashback. The story moves back in time as it starts with Yolanda’s story after she comes back to her motherland being a grown up woman. Then the narration describes events of the resent past and finally moves to the times, which preceded sisters’ emigration from the Dominican Republic. Such a structure of the book helps the readers to get a better understanding of the characters and different factors, which affected their lives. And finally, the structure of the book switches from one country to another. Such a composition helps the readers to compare two different countries and contrast them. This not only expands the knowledge of the readers about other countries, but also helps to get a better understanding of the inner drives of the main characters.
Yolanda is the main characters of the story. She has a lot of common features with the author. Same like Julia Alvarez, Yolanda turns to writing in order to come in terms with her own identity in the new country.
Cultural conflict, adapting to the new culture and inner transformation of the main characters are the main themes of the novel. In the novel the readers can see how the Latin culture, which is native to the main characters, clashes with the culture of their new motherland. This external conflict is not the only conflict of the novel. Internal conflict, which arises in the minds of the main characters is also in the focus of the author’s attention. This conflict appears from the desire to save native customs and traditions and to adapt to the new culture at the same time. This thing happens to all immigrants and Julia Alvarez perfectly illustrates this conflict. Right after the immigration all the members of the family feel very strong connection with the motherland they left. Gradually, they try to become “native” in the United States. They try to distance themselves from everything, which connects them with their past. Girls even try to change their appearance by ironing their hair and way of speaking by getting rid of Spanish accent in order to fit into the new life. All these attempts do not bring a desired result as they still are not able to distance away from their past and motherland. The readers can see all positive and negative sides of their position. From the one side they are trapped between two different worlds and can not find their place in each of them. From the other side they can benefit from both cultures and take the best things from them.
Carla, Sandra Yolanda and Sofia enjoyed a nice and peaceful leaving in the Dominican Republic till their father Carlos got in trouble because of his agitation against dictatorship. After this accident the family has to live the country and move to New York City. In the new place they have to experience much trouble while getting used to new way of life and new surrounding. Carlos soon gets medical fellowship and starts his own business. Carla experiences much trouble while adapting on the new place. She suffers because of prejudices of the schoolmates. On the example of small Carla the author shows how difficult it sometimes becomes for emigrants to join the American society and became an integral part of it. People, who arrive to America, hope to join multinational community and enjoy rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution but meet and invisible wall, which separate them from Anglos. They have to prove their right to live in this country and be treated like all the rest of the population. Finally emigrants come to the realization that despite they possess same rights as other citizens of the country; they still remain aliens, despite their legal status. Yolanda, another sister, becomes luckier and finds the way to carry on in the new place. She turns to writing and poetry. Finally, poetry helps her to express her inner thoughts and feelings and get a better understanding of herself and the world around her. Despite the protests of her father, she does not give up and finds her own way and expresses herself. Laura, her aunt, helpa her a lot and defends her from controlling father. Sofia soon gets in trouble because of the use of marijuana and is sent back to the Dominican Republic. This does not help, though and she gets into bigger trouble with her cousin Manuel.
Yolanda has problems with the opposite sex because of her origin. She can not get used to the attitude of American men to sex and relations. Her first love Rudy does not show deep understanding of her feelings and Yolanda is greatly hurt by his attitude. Later she gets married with the American man John but finally does controversies do not let them to be happy together. John can not understand Yolanda. He does not appreciate her culture and origin, does not respect her heritage and language. These relationships end with Yolanda’s breakdown and she spends some time in mental hospital before she finally recovers. What is notable, just before the breakdown she stops understanding American language and it starts sounding for her just like a combination of the sounds. Misunderstanding and strange surrounding finally blocks external culture like something hostile and dangerous. This shows one more time that all attempts of the girls to forget their motherland and their origin did not end up with a success. Sandra, another sister also had a mental breakdown. She is afraid she is loosing her human appearance. Sofia, the last sister marries a German man and has two nice children. She tries to show her new house and husband to all her relatives but finally comes to argument with her father during his birthday party organized in her house. Sandra is disappointed because of lack of affection her father has showed to her new way of life.
At the age of thirty nine Yolanda comes back to her motherland to join her relative and enjoy living in the motherland. Her family did not understand her decision to leave alone for the country side but this trip is necessary for Yolanda in order to come in terms with her inner thoughts and feelings.
The title of the novel is very symbolic. It has both, direct and metaphorical meaning. All four sisters try to loose their accent and speak good English in order to become undistinguishable from the native population of the United States. From the other side they try to change not only their language, but also their way of life and way of thinking. In the beginning their attempts seem to be successful but finally the readers see that living in between two cultures in not that simple. By the end of the book the readers see that despite the girls have lost their accent and speak perfect English, they did not manage to get rid of memories about their motherland and could not distance from their cultural heritage.
The author shows the feeling of people, who lost their motherland but were not accepted by the new country they arrive. Julia Alvarez knows very well what she is writing about she is descendant of Dominican family, who immigrated to America in the middle of the twentieth century. That is why she knows very well about the state of “border people”, who live in-between two cultures and two societies but belong to non of them. The novel illustrates the state of people, who are both – Americans and non-Americans at the same time. Deprived of their roots, they have to wander between two worlds, none of which feels like home. Alvarez gives us insight into the difficulties people meet when adapting to new culture and coming in terms with their cultural identities in the new place. Unfortunately, people very quickly reject those, who have left their native places. At the same time Americans are not very friendly to the newcomers, especially those, who differ from them. Here immigrants meet a kind of dilemma as they have to assimilate with the new way of life and save their identity at the same time.
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