Published in 1991, the book tells in reverse chronological order the lives of the four García sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía – who arrive to the United States after having to flee the Dominican Republic over their father’s role in attempting to overthrow a dictator.
Though Alvarez had been writing for many years prior, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents wasn’t published until she was 41 years old.
“I look at it with tenderness and I know how difficult it was to write that book,” Alvarez says. “This was before the big multicultural Latino writer boom . . . the caminos weren’t open yet.”
Not everyone in her family was happy with the book because they thought it was about them, some even boycotting her publication party.
“It was kind of difficult for me because in my community growing up, I never just thought of me . . . I thought of me as 'we.' Mi familia, mi comunidad,” she says. “In a way, I was writing for all of us and to tell our stories and to say, ‘We, too, sing America.’”
After settling into the U.S., it took the García sisters years to adjust to their new life. At school, they were called “spic” and “greaseballs." On the playground every day, a gang of boys chased Carla around and pelted her feet with stones. “Go back to where you came from, you dirty spic!” they yelled.
The sisters’ parents then transferred them to a prep school in Boston. In the book, the García girls learn to forge Mami’s signature and are able to go “just about everywhere.”
“We could kiss and not get pregnant. We could smoke and no great aunt would smell us and croak. We began to develop a taste for the American teenage good life, and soon, Island was old hat, man,” Alvarez writes. “Island was the hair-and-nails crowd, chaperones, and icky boys with all their macho strutting and unbuttoned shirts and hairy chests with gold chains and teensy gold crucifixes. By the end of a couple of years away from home, we had more than adjusted.”
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is about how these four sisters came to simultaneously feel both at home and not at home in America. For Alvarez, home is in Vermont, where she has resided for over 30 years, and in the Dominican Republic. However, more and more she feels like a “citizen of the world.”
Alvarez encourages young Latinas to reinvent their culture.
“They have to live in a new world,” she says, adding that Latinas should celebrate their families’ same rituals, traditions, and history but find a way to bring them into the 21st century.
At Middlebury College, Alvarez works with a group of Latino students who voice the same struggles detailed in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
“They talk about being pulled between cultures and having these different codes of behavior and it’s sometimes so difficult to navigate and really allow themselves to be the full complexity of who they are. Sometimes people don’t get how something can feel insulting or a put down, they’re here to get an education and they’re having to educate their peers . . . I see the issues still there.”
Alvarez brought up immigration reform, the struggle of DREAMers, and even police brutality at a time when some claim life in a post-racial America.
“Your generation is going to be really at the forefront of this. You’re going to be like the civil rights movement that has to be continually pushed forward and it’s going to require understanding of what happened in the past.”
Novels like How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and The House on Mango Street, Alvarez says, give Latinas the perspective of those who came before them.
“As for the García girls, you are like the García girls,” she says. “American girls, but also with the Latino roots system, and that sometimes can be draining.”