Julia Álvarez's family fled the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960, when she was ten years old. They went to live in New York City, where Álvarez's grandfather had worked as the Dominican cultural attaché to the United Nations. By the time she attended Connecticut College, Álvarez was already receiving prizes for her poetry. She transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1971 and was awarded the college's creative writing prize. In 1975 she received a Master's degree in creative writing from Syracuse University. She has taught writing to students of all levels and all ages, from young children to senior citizens. In 1996 she received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from the City University of New York, John Jay College. She is currently a full professor in the English Department at Middlebury and a frequent scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
It was the emotional upheaval caused by leaving her homeland and her language behind which led Álvarez to become a writer. Of her childhood in the Dominican Republic she states: "The power of stories was all around me." Álvarez was a reluctant student, who seized every opportunity to play hooky from the Carol Morgan School that she attended with her three sisters, but who relished furtively reading The Thousand and One Nights under the bedskirts or hearing legends and stories told by her elders, from the aunts and uncles in her extensive family to the domestic servants who worked for them.
With the move to the U.S., Álvarez began to realize the power of language in giving one a sense of place and belonging. As an adolescent at the Abbott School, a boarding school north of Boston, Álvarez says she "landed in the English language." The process of assimilation took her away, however, from the Spanish of her youth. Writing novels and poetry that center on the immigrant experience is a way for Álvarez to reclaim her cultural identity.
Her first book-length work of fiction, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), was awarded the Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles award. This collection of interconnected short stories centers around the character of Yolanda García, the third child in a Dominican family that has fled their homeland and resettled in New York City. Yolanda and her three sisters, Carla, Sandra and Sofia, struggle to be accepted in their new country. As the title reveals, this story is one of assimilation and the loss that assimilation inevitably entails. Arranged in reverse chronology, the grown-up García girls at the beginning of the work have already lost their accents, but like many immigrants, they have also come to realize the importance of holding fast to the ties that bind them to Caribbean culture and to the country they were born in. As the stories work their way backward to the girls' childhood in the Dominican Republic, they become increasingly assured and powerful. Donna Rifkind, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, said that Álvarez has "beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream."
In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Álvarez's second novel, takes place in the Dominican Republic during Rafael Leónidas Trujillo's brutal 31-year regime. The novel weaves historical fact with fiction to tell the story of the coming of age of four sisters: Minerva, Patria Mercedes, Dedé and María Teresa ("Mate"). Known throughout Latin America by their code name, "Las Mariposas," the butterflies, Minerva, Patria, and María Teresa Mirabal, were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen in 1960 on the way home from visiting their husbands in jail. The novel traces the transformation of these ordinary girls into extraordinary young women, revolutionaries who lose their lives in their country's struggle for democracy.
As In the Time of the Butterflies opens, Dedé, the one sister who survives, is preparing to be interviewed by a Dominican-American novelist who is writing a book about the Mirabal sisters and the events leading up to their murders. Using first-person narratives, Álvarez gives each of the sisters a turn to tell her story. The youngest, Mate, confides her secrets—mostly the giggly, romantic variety—to a diary. The voice of Patria, the pious sister who as a young girl dreams of becoming a nun, is at times almost prayer-like, as if her words were meant for the Virgin Mary's ears or for a hushed confessional. Minerva speaks with authority and insight, like the lawyer she studies to become (only to be prevented from practicing by a direct order from Trujillo himself). Dedé's story, however, alternates between the first and third person. She is the one who survives to tell and retell her sisters' story, living out her years in their childhood home, which has been turned into a museum where the curious flock like pilgrims to see the relics of the Mirabal sisters, martyrs to the cause of democracy, brought to life again by Dedé's words and by Álvarez's own skillful writing.
In Álvarez's third novel, Yo! (1997), she continues the exploration of multiple narrators that is a hallmark of her fiction. Yo, Spanish for "I," is also short for Yolanda, but the Yolanda of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is now a thirty-five-year-old free spirit who has been waylaid from her early promise as a scholar by hippie boyfriends and bad decisions. Seen only in this novel from without, by family, friends, and others, she is still "caught between two cultures" but manages finally to find a place for herself as a happily married and successful writer.
Before turning to fiction, Álvarez focused on poetry. She received the American Academy of Poetry Prize in 1974 and a 1987-88 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Grant. She has published three collections of poetry: Housekeeping Book (hand printed in 1984), Homecoming (first published in 1984, with a revised, expanded edition appearing in 1996), and The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995). Álvarez's poetry and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Hispanic magazine, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post Magazine.
Álvarez has also written nonfiction. Something to Declare, a collection of her essays, deals with many of the themes she treats in her fiction and poetry: the immigrant experience, the politics of language, the importance of retaining cultural identity. Inasmuch as they treat becoming and living as a writer, however, the essays in Something to Declare also explore new territory. They are particularly revealing in that they illustrate just how much of Álvarez's creative work parallels her own life history: "There is no such thing as straight-up fiction," Álvarez declares. "In spite of our caution and precaution, bits of our lives will get into what we write."
American Book Review (Aug. 1992). CLC (1996). Hispanic Journal (Spring 1993). Nation (7 Nov. 1994). New England Review (Summer 1993). NYTBR (6 Oct. 1991). PW (16 Dec. 1996). WRB (May 1995).