Alvarez, Julia: 1950—: Author
Julia Alvarez: 1950—: Author
Dominican author Julia Alvarez has given voice to the themes of displacement, alienation, and search for identity in her poetry and fiction. Thrown into a foreign language and culture as a child, Alvarez found refuge in books and writing. She discovered through words she could build her own worlds that both revealed and transcended the meaning of her life. Alvarez became a nationally acclaimed author in 1991 at the age of 41 with the publication of her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. Her writings include four novels, two collections of poetry, a book of essays, and two children's stories.
From Latina to "Gringa"
Although Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950, soon after her birth her parents returned to their native home of the Dominican Republic, where her father, a doctor, ran a local hospital. The second of four sisters, she was reared close to her mother's family, amidst a slew of cousins, aunts, uncles, and maids. When Alvarez was ten years old, her father became actively involved in the underground coalition poised to overthrow dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. As a result, the police set up surveillance on their home and Alvarez's father was warned by an American agent that his arrest was imminent. To avoid this fate the family fled the country.
Their destination was New York, where Alvarez's father had secured a fellowship at a hospital. For Alvarez, the mystique of the United States loomed large in her ten-year-old mind. "All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children," Alvarez told American Scholar. "I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow.… All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last."
Once the plane landed in New York, Alvarez's story-book image of life in the United States was quickly shattered by the harsh realities of life as an immigrant. Uprooted from her culture, her native language, and extended family, Alvarez, once a vivacious child who made friends easily, became introverted. Her father took her to a library, and Alvarez discovered her love for the written word. "Back home, I had been a very poor student, a tomboy, and a troublemaker, so my father was eager to encourage this new trend in [me]," she told Library Journal. Books became her new home. She explained to Frontera Magazine, "Coming to this country I discovered books, I discovered that it was a way to enter into a portable homeland that you could carry around in your head. You didn't have to suffer what was going on around you. I found in books a place to go."
At a Glance . . .
Born on March 27, 1950, in New York, NY. Education: Connecticut College, 1968–69; Middlebury College, B.A., 1971; Syracuse University, M.A., 1975.
Career: KY Arts Commission, writer-in-residence, 1975–77; California State Coll. (Fresno) and Coll. of the Sequoias, Visalia, CA, English instructor, 1977; DE Arts Council, writer-in-residence, 1978; NEA, writer-in-residence, Fayetteville, NC, 1978; Phillips Andover Academy, Andover, MA, English instr., 1979–81; Univ. of VT, English Dept., visiting assistant prof., 1981–83; George Washington Univ., Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer, 1984–85; Univ. of IL, asst. prof., 1985–88; Middlebury Coll., asst. prof., 1988–96, professor, 1996–98, writer-in-residence, 1998–.
Membership: Academy of American Poets; the Associated Writing Programs; Poets & Writers; the Latin American Writers' Institute.
Awards: Benjamin T. Marshall Poetry Prize, Connecticut Coll., 1968, 1969; The Acad. of Amer. Poetry Prize, Syracuse Univ., 1974; La Reina Press, Creative Writing Award, poetry, 1982; Third Woman Press Award, first prize, 1986; General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers, 1986; PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize, 1987; Notable Book, New York Times Book Review, 1991; PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award; Notable Book, ALA, 1992, 1994; Book of the Month Club choice, 1994; National Book Critics' Award finalist in fiction, 1995; In The Time of Butterflies chosen as one of the Best Books for Young Adults, Young Adult Lib. Services Assn. and ALA, 1995; Reader's Choice Award, "Coco Stop," 1994; Amer. Poetry Review's Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Poetry Prize, 1995; Literature Leadership Award, Dominico-American Soc. of Queens, Inc., 1998; Semana Cultural y Festival Dominicano (Boston), Woman of the Year, 2000; Latina Magazine, Woman of the Year, 2000.
Addresses: Office— English Department, Munroe Hall 111, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753. (802) 443-5276. Agent— Susan Bergholtz Literary Services, 17 West 10th St., No. 5, New York, NY 10011-8769.
At the age of 13 Alvarez left home to attend boarding school. Already an avid reader, she realized her desire to write after an English teacher gave her class a writing assignment, asking them to write an essay about themselves. What began as homework turned into self-discovery. Years later Alvarez reflected that it was her feelings of alienation and displacement that pushed her toward a life as an author. She is fond of quoting exiled Polish poet Czeslow Milosz, who said, "Language is the only homeland." By the time she had reached high school, Alvarez knew with certainty that she wanted to become a writer.
Student, Itinerant Poet, and Teacher
In 1967 Alvarez enrolled at Connecticut College. "I grew up in that generation of women thinking I would keep house. Especially with my Latino background, I wasn't even expected to go to college," she told Publishers Weekly. "I had never been raised to have a public voice." Yet the appeal of writing outweighed her cultural and family heritage, and under the tutelage of encouraging teachers, Alvarez began to take her writing seriously. For her efforts she won the Benjamin T. Marshall Prize in poetry at Connecticut College in 1968 and again in 1969. After attending the Breadloaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, she transferred to the school. In 1971 she was awarded the Creative Writing Prize, and in the same year earned her B.A. from Middlebury, graduating with highest honors. With her confidence growing, Alvarez enrolled at Syracuse University to pursue graduate studies. In 1974 she won the American Academy of Poetry Prize; the following year she was awarded a M.A. in creative writing.
After her graduation, Alvarez became something of an itinerant poet, writer, teacher, and lecturer, claiming 15 different addresses over the next 13 years. From 1975 to 1977 she served with the Kentucky Arts Commission as one of three poets in the state's poetry-in-the-schools programs. In 1978 she was involved with pilot projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts: a bilingual program in Delaware and a senior citizen program in North Carolina. Alvarez enjoyed her years of travel. She told Publishers Weekly, "I felt like the [Walt] Whitman poem where he travels throughout the country and now will do nothing but listen. I was listening. I was seeing the inside of so many places and so many people, from the Mennonites of Southern Kentucky to the people of Appalachia.… I was a migrant poet. I would go anywhere."
In 1979 she began her career as a teacher of English and creative writing. After two years as an instructor at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Alvarez joined the faculty at the University of Vermont in1981. In 1984 she moved to George Washington University, where she served the year as the Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer. In 1985 she became an English professor at the University of Illinois. During the winter of 1988 she served as the resident writer in an artists' colony in the Dominican Republic. In the same year she returned to her alma mater, Middlebury College as an assistant professor of English. She was awarded tenure in 1991 and named full professor in 1996. Two years later, she remitted her professorship to become the college's writer-in-residence, which allows her to continue to teach creative writing on a part-time basis and advise Latino students and English majors.
Poet and Author
In 1984 Alvarez published her first collection of poetry, Homecoming, featuring a 33-sonnet sequence entitled "33." The poem, which fills nearly have the book, is exercise in self-examination carried out by Alvarez, who at the age of 33, found herself confronting middle age with no permanent home, no family of her own, and no specific career plan. The poems in Homecoming often focus on the search for love and the pain of failed relationships, with such verse offerings as "Are we all ill with acute loneliness,/chronic patients trying to recover/the will to love?" In the section entitled "Housekeeping," Alvarez delves into the meaning found in mundane daily tasks, such as folding clothes, sweeping, washing windows, and making bread. In 1996 Alvarez published an expanded edition, Home-coming: New and Collected Poems, this time featuring 46 sonnets to match her age at the time.
In 1991 she published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. In many ways a fictional account of Alvarez's own experiences, the book is a series of 15 interrelated stories about a family from the Dominican Republic who immigrates to the United States. Like Alvarez's family, the García family consists of four sisters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia. The story, which covers a 33-year span, examines the struggles of the girls-turned-women as they attempt to reestablish their identity after leaving their privileged social standing in the Dominican Republic to forge new lives as immigrants in the United States. Alvarez received high praise for How the García Girls Lost Their Accent; Ilan Stavans in Commonweal referred to it as a "delightful novel, a tour de force that holds a unique place in the context of the ethnic literature from which it emerges."
In 1994 Alvarez published her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, a 300-page fictional account of the lives of three sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Terese (Mate) Mirabal, who were assassinated in 1960 during the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship, just four months after Alvarez and her family had fled the country. Revered for their martyrdom, they are known in the Dominican Republic as las mariposas, meaning the butterflies, which served as their code name during the resistance. Upon its publication, Kay Pritchett noted in World Literature Today, "With In the Time of the Butterflies a superb, heartrending story, Julia Alvarez has again displayed her fine talent as a novelist. Especially noteworthy is her ability to maintain an equilibrium between the political and the human, the tragic and the lyrical. What we remember most is not the harshness of the times but the Butterflies themselves, along with a delicious flavor of their homeland." In 1999 Showtime produced the film version of In the Time of the Butterflies.
The Other Side/El Otro Lado, Alvarez's second collection of poems, was published in 1995. The poems, organized into five sections, lyrically follow Alvarez through her journeys as a Latina immigrant. She begins with the poem "Bilingual Sestina," an account of leaving the Dominican Republic to enter a new land of strange language and cultural. Alvarez ends the collection having come full circle back to her native land in the title poem "The Other Side/El Otro Lado," in which she writes, "There is nothing left to cry for,/nothing left but the story/of our family's grand adventure/from one language to another." This collection of poems introduced Alvarez's poetry to many readers who had only previously known her fiction.
Alvarez's third novel, ¡Yo!, published in 1997, is a continuation and an elaboration of the life of Yolanda from How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. Whereas the other sisters have made peace with their lives as Dominican-Americans, Yolanda still feels torn between two cultures. Her life in the United States has taught her independence and assertiveness, which made her a female oddity in her native land. Yet despite her failings, Alvarez leaves room in her tale for Yolanda to seek redemption and find wisdom.
Something to Declare, published in 1998, is a nonfiction accounting of Alvarez's personal experiences of both alienation and assimilation as a "hyphenated American," along with a rendering of her life as a writer and teacher. In a People Weekly review, Laurie Jamison wrote, "A likable storyteller, [Alvarez] also writes with candor and humor about her picky eating habits, her decision not to have children and her vagabond life as a writer and teacher." Alvarez titled her book Something to Declare after having decided that most questions posed to her by her readers can be summed up as "Do you have anything more to declare?' These 24 autobiographical stories are her response.
Alvarez returned to historical fiction in In the Name of Salomé, published in 2000. The novel, which covers more than 100 years, tells the story of Salomé Urena de Henriquez, the nineteenth-century poet laureate of the Dominican Republic, and her daughter, Camila Henriquez Urena. Salomé, who is considered a national hero because of her patriotic and revolutionary poems, died of tuberculosis when her daughter was three years old. Struggled with her mother's death, Camila was taught by her aunt to end her prayers with the irreverent yet comforting saying, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and my Mother, Salomé." Publishers Weekly referred to it as "one of the most moving political novels of the past half century."
After In the Name of Salomé, Alvarez's next two literary efforts were children's books. In 2000 she published The Secret Footprints, which was geared for children from ages four to seven and based on a traditional Dominican fable. In 2001 Alvarez published How Tia Lola Came to Stay. Written for children from ages 9 to 12, the book tells the story of nine-year-old Miguel, who struggles to adjust to his mother's divorce and subsequent move from New York to Vermont. Life is turned on end yet again when Miguel's colorful aunt, Tia Lola, comes from the Dominican Republic to stay with the family.
Much of Alvarez's writings come from her personal experiences of alienation, marginalization, and the need for self-discovery. "People think that we write because we know things," she explained to Jean Charbonneau of the Denver Post. "But we write because we want to find things out, in the way that stories only can help us understand, without giving any real answers, but with all their richness, in a way that facts and figures don't do it." Alvarez has struck a common chord, not only among Latinos, but also with a larger audience that find much to contemplate and learn from homelands that Alvarez creates with words.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991.
In the Time of the Butterflies, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994.
¡Yo!, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1996.
In the Name of Salomé, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.
Homecoming, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, Dutton, 1995.
The Other Side/El Otro Lado, Dutton, 1995.
Seven Trees, Kat Ran Press, 1999.
Something to Declare (essays), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998.
The Secret Footprints (children's picture book), illustrations by Fabian Negrin, Knopf, 2000.
How Tia Lola Come to Stay (young adult), Knopf, 2001.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Gale Research, 2001.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Gale Research, 1996.
Americas, January/February 2001.
Commonweal, April 10, 1992.
Denver Post, July 9, 2000.
Library Journal, August 1998; September 1999; May 2000; September 2000.
The Progressive, July 1995.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991; July 11, 1994; April 24, 1995; March 18, 1996; October 14, 1996; December 16, 1996; July 13, 1998; September 21, 1998; May 15, 2000; August 14, 2000; February 26, 2001.
World Literature Today, autumn 1995; autumn 1997; winter 2001.
Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
Frontera Magazine, www.fronteramag.com/issue5/Alvarez
Middlebury College, www.middlebury.edu/~english/faculty.html
Although she has been a writer of prose and poetry for most of her life, Julia Alvarez did not have a significant impact until 1991, when at the age of forty-one her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was released. With the publication of García Girls, Alvarez was viewed not only as an emerging Latina writer; critics also lauded her as an important new voice in American literature. In 2000, Alvarez broke into children's literature, where she enjoyed equal success. By the mid-2000s, younger audiences were embracing Alvarez, who in true-to-life, and often heart-wrenching stories, depicts the struggle of young people who are torn between cultures. All of Alvarez's children's books received critical praise. In 2004, her second young adult novel, Before We Were Free (2002), was honored with the Pura Belpré Award. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the award is given biennially (every two years) to a Latina writer "whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience."
Julia Alvarez was born on March 27, 1950, in New York City, the second daughter of parents who were natives of the Dominican Republic, an island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. When she was just three months old, the Alvarez family returned to their homeland, where they lived on her mother's family compound. The family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle since Alvarez's grandparents were rather wealthy and quite influential. Alvarez and her three sisters were raised along with numerous cousins by her mother, aunts, and many maids. Alvarez's father, a doctor, was in charge of running the local hospital.
Although they lived in the Dominican Republic, the Alvarezes maintained close ties to the United States. All of Alvarez's uncles went to school in the United States, and the whole family was greatly influenced by American trends and attitudes. The Alvarez children ate American food, wore American-made clothing, and attended American schools. According to Alvarez's biography on the Las Mujeres Web site, "the entire family was obsessed with America; to the children it was a fantasyland."
"I am more who I am when I'm down on paper than anywhere else."
Life in the Dominican Republic was not always pleasant, however. During the 1950s, the country was headed by Rafael Trujillo Molina (1891–1961), a ruthless dictator who ruled through force and violence. Because of their grandparents' social and government connections, the Alvarez family was generally safe from persecution. But Alvarez's father was secretly involved in an underground movement to remove Trujillo from power, which put his family at risk. When his participation was discovered, the family was forced to flee the country and resettle permanently in the United States.
In 1960, the Alvarez family arrived in the United States with just four suitcases and moved into a tiny, cramped apartment in Brooklyn, New York. It was a far cry from the family's magnificent home in the Dominican Republic, and the fantasy of life in America was soon shattered. Alvarez missed her cousins, and for the first time in her life she faced prejudice because she was "different," a foreigner whose skin was a different color and who spoke a different language. As she told Las Mujeres, "The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted [shy, withdrawn] little girl."
A homesick Alvarez sought comfort in books. As she told Jonathan Bing of Publishers Weekly, "I fell in love with books, which I didn't have at all growing up. In the Dominican Republic, I was a nonreader ... and I hated books, school, anything that had to do with work." One reason for Alvarez's aversion to books in the Dominican Republic was that she was a self-described tomboy who preferred physical activity to reading. The other reason was that owning books was dangerous under the dictatorship of Trujillo. Words and correspondence were heavily censored and readers were considered to be intellectuals and potential troublemakers.
The move to the United States not only sparked Alvarez's interest in reading, it also ignited her interest in becoming a writer. Having to learn English caused the ten-year-old to fall in love with words. As Alvarez recounts on her author Web site, "Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word—great training to a writer." Alvarez also claims that her cultural heritage, with its emphasis on oral tradition (telling stories rather than writing them down), made her a natural storyteller. "My family was full of great storytellers," she explained in a 2004 AudioFile interview. "My father was always telling stories when I was growing up. It was how we all learned about the past and how we planned for the future."
Alvarez began putting her own stories down on paper when she was just fifteen years old. After graduating in 1967 from Abbott Academy, a private boarding school, she decided to immerse herself in the study of literature and writing so she enrolled in Connecticut College, located in New London. While there, she won the school's poetry prize. Alvarez transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont in 1969, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1971. Alvarez pursued her graduate studies at Syracuse University in New York and earned a master of fine arts degree in 1975. She also studied creative writing at the Bread Loaf School of Middlebury from 1979 to 1980. During this time Alvarez also became a much-published writer, with poems and essays appearing in a number of small literary reviews.
Following graduation from college, Alvarez took a number of teaching jobs in order to pay the bills. In a 2000 Library Journal article, she called herself a "migrant writer" since she traveled all over the United States in her little Volkswagen, taking jobs wherever there were openings. Over the next thirteen years, Alvarez had over fifteen addresses. She taught creative writing to children in Kentucky, to bilingual students in Delaware, and to senior citizens in New Hampshire. She has also been an instructor at the university level, teaching at the University of Vermont, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Illinois.
Despite her teaching demands, Alvarez never stopped writing. By the 1980s her essays were appearing in national magazines such as the New Yorker, she was winning countless poetry prizes, and in 1984 her first book of poetry, Homecoming, was published by Grove Press. Alvarez really had no intention of becoming a fiction writer, but after the release of Homecoming, she was approached by Susan Bergholz, one of the most influential agents of Latino fiction. Bergholz took one look at some of Alvarez's story ideas and immediately signed her as a client. She then began to send Alvarez's work around to various publishers. In 1991, Bergholz found a publishing house, Algonquin Books, willing to take a chance on her talented client. Later that same year, Alvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was published.
Strong Dominican women
García Girls is actually composed of fifteen interconnected stories that focus on the lives of four sisters, who like Alvarez, moved to New York from the Dominican Republic. According to a collection of literary criticism titled Voices from the Gap, the book recounts how the girls "struggle to find their place somewhere between the two distinct cultures to which they belong—that of the American mainstream and the old world from which they came." García Girls made Alvarez an acclaimed writer and remains her most recognized novel. The book also won critical acclaim, taking home the PEN-Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, given annually to promising new multicultural authors.
Alvarez followed García Girls with the novels In the Time of Butterflies (1994), ¡Yo! (1997), and In the Name of Salomé (2000). ¡Yo! is a contemporary collection of stories that revisits the characters introduced in García Girls; Butterflies and Salomé are works of historical fiction.
In the Time of Butterflies introduces readers to the legendary Mirabel sisters who devoted their lives to fighting the cruel dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Called "Las Mariposas" (The Butterflies), three of the four sisters were murdered for their political activism just three months before the Alvarez family fled the Dominican Republic. In 2001, the novel was made into a film starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek (1968–).
Alvarez delves even deeper into the history of the Dominican Republic in In the Name of Salomé, which takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on another female heroine. This time the central figure is Salomé Ureña (1850–1897), whose poetry written during the Dominican Republic revolution made her a literary and political legend. Both Butterflies and Salomé received high praise from critics and earned many awards, including the American Library Association's Notable Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
From footprints to miracles
Whether her books are based on fact or fiction, at the core of Alvarez's work is the story of the Dominican Republic. As she explained in a 2000 Bookreporter interview, "Because of who I am, where I come from, what my heritage is, the stories I have to tell come out of a certain history, background and a certain spot on this earth." According to Alvarez, however, although her characters tend to be from the Dominican Republic, any reader can relate to them because they share universal experiences. In the same interview, the author reinforced that what she writes about is the "human experience."
Coffee and Literacy
What is the connection between coffee and literacy? Well, for Julia Alvarez one has naturally led to helping the other. In the late 1990s, Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, purchased a 60-acre farm in the Dominican Republic. They named the farm Alta Gracia, which means "high grace"; the name also refers to La Altagracia, the patron saint of the country. The rich, volcanic soil of the farm proved perfect for growing organic Arabica coffee, which is produced and sold all over the world.
Alvarez and Eichner used proceeds from the sale of Café Alta Gracia to form the Foundation Alta Gracia. The foundation supports a school and a small library that serves the local farming community, which has a 90 percent illiteracy rate. Students from around the globe, including those from Middlebury in Vermont, have traveled to Altagracia where they spend part of the day working on the farm and part of the day attending workshops and teaching. According to the Café Alta Gracia Web site, Alvarez and Eichner sell "coffee with a conscience."
Alvarez continued to explore her Dominican roots when she branched out into the children's market and released a picture book in 2000 called The Secret Footprints. At the heart of the story are the ciguapas, a secret tribe found in Dominican legend, who live underwater "in cool blue caves hung with seashells and seaweed." Footprints was followed by the publication of How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay in 2001, a novel for readers of middle-school age (eight to twelve), which centers on a young Dominican boy who experiences culture shock when his family moves from New York City to Vermont.
In 2002, Alvarez published her first young adult novel, the acclaimed Before We Were Free. According to the author she considers the novel to be her best work. It also may be the most autobiographical. The story focuses on twelve-year-old Anita whose family lives under the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Told in a diary format, Anita's entries recount watching her cousins, the Garcia girls, escape to America and the subsequent terrors that she and her parents must endure. Although Alvarez's own family fled the country during the turbulent period of the 1960s, as she told AudioFile, "I wanted young people to know what life was like for the families who stayed."
Critics applauded Alvarez for her warmth and sensitivity in handling a difficult subject. Publishers Weekly called the novel "a stirring work of art" and declared that "Alvarez's pitch-perfect narration will immerse readers in Anita's world." In 2004, Before We Were Free was awarded the Pura Belpré Award. That same year Alvarez published her second young adult novel, Finding Miracles, the story of Milly Milagros Kaufman who, according to a 2004 Publishers Weekly review, is a girl with "two names and two identities."
Once again Alvarez tackles the subject of a young person torn between cultures who struggles to carve out her own identity. When she is less than a year old, Milly is adopted by two Peace Corps volunteers who are living in her unidentified Latin American country. She grows up in Vermont and although she loves her adopted family, she is curious about where she comes from. She reconnects with her birthplace when she meets Pablo, a young refugee from her homeland. Miracles, like Before We Were Free, was well received, especially in the Latino community. According to Resource Center of the Americas, "Finally, a book for adopted Latin teens about their journey growing up in Caucasian families!"
Not just a Latina writer
By the mid-2000s Alvarez was no longer a migrant writer. She was a full-time author who made her home on an eleven-acre farm in Vermont with her husband, Bill Eichner. Alvarez continued to teach at her alma mater, Middlebury College, serving as writer-in-residence, teaching the occasional creative writing course, and giving readings. She also continued to produce in a variety of genres: The Woman I Kept to Myself, Alvarez's first poetry collection in nine years was published in 2004, and a book for young readers, titled A Gift of Gracias, was released in 2005. Although she is considered to be a Latina writer, Alvarez balks at being labeled. As she explained to Voices From the Gap, "My main goal in writing is to make meaning through the telling of stories and to 'remind us'."
For More Information
Alvarez, Julia. Before We Were Free. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Alvarez, Julia. Finding Miracles. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Alvarez, Julia. How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Alvarez, Julia. "Noah's Ark Choices." Library Journal (September 1, 2000): p. 168.
Bing, Jonathan. "Julia Alvarez: Books that Cross Borders." Publishers Weekly (December 16, 1996): p. 38.
Review of Before We Were Free. Publishers Weekly (July 22, 2002): p. 180.
Review of Finding Miracles. Publishers Weekly (November 29, 2004): p. 41.
Rich, Charlotte. "Talking Back to El Jefe." MELUS (Winter 2002): p. 165.
Cafè Alta Gracia Web Site.http://www.cafealtagracia.com (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Biography." Las Mujeres.http://www.lasmujeres.com/juliaalvarez/profile.shtml (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Biography and Criticism." Voices from the Gap: Women Writers of Color.http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/alvarez_julia.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Interview." Bookreporter.com (September 22, 2000). http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-alvarez-julia.asp (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Julia Alvarez Official Author Web Site.http://www.juliaalvarez.com (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Legwold, Jane and Kate. "Review of Finding Miracles." Resource Center of the Americas.http://americas.org/item_17545 (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Talking with Julia Alvarez: Julia Alvarez Interview." AudioFile.http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/features/A1445.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
In her poetry and prose, Julia Alvarez (born 1950) has expressed her feelings about her immigration to the United States. She was born in New York City of Dominican parents, who returned to their native land with their newborn daughter. After her family's reimmigration to the United States when Alvarez was ten, she and her sisters struggled to find a place for themselves in their new world. Alvarez has used her dual experience as a starting point for the exploration of culture through writing.
Alvarez's most notable work, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, fictionally discusses her life in the Dominican Republic and the United States and the hardships her family faced as immigrants. Apparently the culmination of many years of effort, the 15 stories which make up the novel offer entertaining insights for a wide variety of potential readers that includes both Hispanics and non-Hispanics.
Background in the Dominican Republic
Reminiscing about her youth in an article in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominican family, mine was an American childhood." Her family lived close to her mother's family. Life was somewhat communal; Alvarez and her sisters were brought up along with their cousins and supervised by her mother, maids, and many aunts. Although her own family was not as well off as some of their relatives, Alvarez did not feel inferior. Her father, a doctor who ran the nearby hospital, had met her mother while she was attending school in the United States. While such extravagances as shopping trips to America were beyond their financial means, Alvarez's family was highly influenced by American attitudes and goods. Alvarez and her sisters attended the American school, and for a special treat, ate ice cream from the American ice cream parlor. The entire extended family was obsessed with America; to the children, it was a fantasy land.
As Alvarez acknowledges in her article in American Scholar, her family's association with the United States may have saved her father's life. The members of her mother's family were respected because of their ties with America. Alvarez's uncles had attended Ivy League colleges, and her grandfather was a cultural attaché to the United Nations. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, could not victimize a family with such strong American ties. However, when Alvarez's father secretly joined the forces attempting to oust Trujillo, the police set up surveillance of his home. It was rumored that, respected family or not, her father was soon to be apprehended. An American agent and the offer of a fellowship at a New York hospital helped the family escape the country. Describing the scene as their plane landed in the United States in American Scholar, Alvarez wrote, "All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow. … All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last."
Alvarez's homecoming was not what she had expected it to be. Although she was thrilled to be back in America, she would soon face homesickness, alienation, and prejudice. She missed her cousins, her family's large home, and the respect her family name demanded. Alvarez, her parents, and her sisters squeezed themselves and their possessions into a tiny apartment. As she related to Brújula Compass, the experience was like a crash: "The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted little girl." Alvarez became an avid reader, immersing herself in books and, eventually, writing.
Alvarez went on to college. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and writing and became an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Ingram Merrill Foundation in addition to a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature. She published several collections of poetry including Homecoming, which appeared in 1984, and by 1987 she was working on a collection of stories. When Alvarez published How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in 1991, the novel received considerable attention. The past decade had seen a surge of ethnic novels, and Garcia Girls came to be known as an exemplary example of the genre.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Rather than a straight narrative, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a reverse-chronological order series of 15 interwoven stories chronicling four sisters and their parents. A comparison with Alvarez's article in American Scholar suggests that these stories are based on her own experience; like her family, the Garcia family is Dominican and displaced in America. Like Alvarez and her sisters, the Garcia girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and assimilate themselves into the American culture.
The first group of stories is dated "1989-1972." Thus, the novel's first story seems to be its ending. Entitled, "Antojos," which is Spanish for "cravings," this story is a memory of one of the sisters, Yolanda, and her return to the Dominican Republic as an adult. Yolanda—whose story ends the novel and who acts as Alvarez's alter ego—has secretly decided to make her home there, having found life in the United States unfulfilling. When she ignores the warnings of her wealthy relatives and drives into the country for the guava fruit she has been craving, she faces disappointment. She is regarded as an American despite her native roots, and although she finds her guavas, her romantic journey is marred by her feelings as an outsider. Alvarez ends this story ambiguously—similar to the rest of the stories. The attempts of Yolanda and her sisters to lead successful lives in the United States are presented more as memory fragments than stories with definite beginnings and endings.
The next story focuses on Sofia, the youngest of the girls. At this point, however, the four girls are women, with husbands and careers. The details of Sofia's break with her father over her decision to take a lover before marriage are presented, and the events at a birthday party she prepared for her father are recounted. Sofia cannot be totally forgiven, nor can she ever return to the Dominican Republic; in the process of becoming an American girl of the 1960s, she has gone beyond the moral limits imposed by her father, who personifies life in the old world.
The third story relates some background information as it reveals a mother's perceptions of her four girls. During a family gathering, Mami tells her favorite story about each of the girls, and the reader learns that Sandi spent time in a mental institution after almost starving herself to death. The fourth story about Yolanda reveals that she too had a mental breakdown of her own after a failed relationship, and in the next story she becomes the narrator. In "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story," Yolanda's tale of her reluctance to sleep with the dashing young man she loved because of his casual approach to the matter explains her ensuing trouble with men as well as her problems assimilating into American youth culture: "Catholic or not, I still thought it a sin for a guy to just barge in five years later with a bottle of expensive wine and assume you'd drink out of his hand. A guy who had ditched me, who had haunted my sexual awakening with a nightmare of self-doubt. For a moment as I watched him get in his car and drive away, I felt a flash of that old self-doubt."
The memories in the second section of the novel recall the years from 1960 to 1970. The girls are younger, and they are experiencing their first years as immigrants. Attempts they made to reconcile themselves to their new culture are challenged by their parents, who want their children to "mix with the 'right kind' of Americans," and the girls are threatened with having to spend time on the island, which they have come to dread. In this section, the girls save their sister from a macho cousin's imposition, a pervert exposes himself to Carla, and Yolanda sees snow for the first time and thinks it is fall-out from a nuclear bomb.
The final story in this section, "Floor Show," focuses on Sandi's perception of events as the family spends a scandalous evening with an American doctor and his drunkenly indiscreet wife in a Spanish restaurant. Sandi is shocked and upset when this woman kisses her father and later dances with the flamenco dancers that the young girl had so admired. Cautioned by her mother to behave at the important dinner, Sandi does as she is told and stays quiet until she is offered a flamenco doll by the American woman, who seems to understand her desire for it. "Sandi was not going to miss her chance. This woman had kissed her father. This woman had ruined the act of the beautiful dancers. The way Sandi saw it, this woman owed her something." The woman gave Sandi something more than the doll; her smile "intimated the things Sandi was just beginning to learn, things that the dancers knew all about, which was why they danced with such vehemence, such passion."
In third and final section, "1960-1956," America is still a dream—the family is still on the island. The first story is divided into two parts and recalls the family's traumatic encounter with the guardia, or secret police, and their subsequent flight from their home. From that moment on, the tales regress to the girls' early memories of life in the huge family compound. Yolanda tells of the presents her grandmother brought the children from America and an ensuing encounter with her cousin, Sandi recalls her art lessons and the fright she had at the instructor's home, Carla remembers the mechanical bank her father brought her from F.A.O. Schwartz in New York and the maid who desperately wanted it.
Finally, Yolanda concludes the novel with one of her earliest memories—she stole a kitten from its mother and then abandoned it, even though she had been warned by a strange hunter: "To take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live." The mother cat haunted the girl until she left the island, and, as Yolanda confides in her narration, "There are still times I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. 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."
The praise Alvarez received for her first novel outweighed the criticism that a new novelist often encounters. The New York Times Book Review found that Alvarez "beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream." Hispanic's critic wrote, "Well-crafted, although at times overly sentimental, these stories provide a glimpse into the making of another American family with a Hispanic surname." And the Library Journal reported, "Alvarez is a gifted, evocative storyteller of promise."
Alvarez's second novel, In the Time of Butterflies, was published in 1994. This work recounts the lives and tragic end of the Mirabel sisters—Patria, Minerva, and Maria Terese (Mate)—who were assassinated after visiting their imprisoned husbands during the last days of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Each sister in turn relates her own aspect of the narrative, beginning with their childhood and gradually defining how they came to be involved in the liberation movement. Their story is framed by that of the surviving sister, Dedé, who adds her own tale of suffering to the memory of her martyred sisters. In the Time of Butterflies received a favorable reaction from reviewers, some of whom admired Alvarez's ability to express the wide range of emotions brought on by the revolution. For example, the reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that "Alvarez captures the terrorized atmosphere of a police state, in which people live under the sword of terrible fear and atrocities cannot be acknowledged. As the sisters' energetic fervor turns to anguish, Alvarez conveys their courage and their desperation, and the full import of the tragedy." The novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in 1994.
A collection of poems entitled The Other Side/El Otro Lado, was published in 1995. It deals with similar themes of biculturalism and the power of language. In the book's title poem a spirit conjuror commands Alvarez to serve her own people in the Dominican Republic. But in the end she returns "to the shore I've made up on the other side, to a life of choice, a life of words." Her next work, Yo!, published in 1997, is based on Yolanda, one of her characters from her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Each section of the novel is told from different characters' perspectives, all of whom depict Yolanda as they see her in order to provide a complex portrait.
American Scholar, Winter 1987, pp. 71-85.
Atlanta Journal, August 11, 1991, p. A13.
Boston Globe, May 26, 1991, p. A13.
Brújula Compass (Spanish-language; translation by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), January-February 1992, p. 16.
Hispanic, June 1991, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1991, p. E4.
Library Journal, May 1, 1991, p. 102; August 1994, 123.
Más, (Spanish-language; translation by Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson), November-December 1991, p. 100.
New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14; July 16, 1995, p. 20.
Nuestro, November 1984, pp. 34+; March 1985, pp. 52+;January-February 1986, pp. 32+.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991, p. 133; July 11, 1994, p. 62.
School Library Journal, September 1991, p. 292.
Washington Post, June 20, 1991, p. D11. □
Julia Alvarez is a writer whose most notable work is How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a discussion of her life in the Dominican Republic and in the United States and the hardships members of her family faced as immigrants. Many of her works examine the conflicts and benefits that go along with living as both a Dominican and an American.
Background in the Dominican Republic
Julia Alvarez was born on March 27, 1950, in New York, New York, but she spent her early years in the Dominican Republic. She and her sisters were brought up along with their cousins, and were supervised by her mother, maids, and many aunts. Her father, a doctor who ran a nearby hospital, had met her mother while she was attending school in the United States. Alvarez's family was highly influenced by American attitudes and goods. Alvarez and her sisters attended an American school, and, for a special treat, they ate ice cream from an American ice cream parlor. The entire extended family had respect and admiration for America; to the children, it was a fantasy land.
When Alvarez was ten years old, her father became involved with a plot to overthrow the dictator (military ruler) of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. His plans were discovered, however. With the help of an American agent, he was able to get his family out of the country before being arrested or killed. The Alvarez family returned to New York. Describing the scene in American Scholar as their plane landed in the United States, Alvarez wrote, "All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow.… All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last."
Alvarez's homecoming was not what she had expected it to be. Although she was thrilled to be back in America, she would soon face homesickness and the feeling of not fitting in. She missed her cousins, her family's large home, and the respect her family had in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez, her parents, and her sisters squeezed themselves and their possessions into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Alvarez became a devoted reader, spending all of her free time with books and, eventually, writing.
Alvarez went on to college. In 1971 she earned her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, and in 1975 she went on to receive her master's degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. She became an English professor at Middlebury College and published several collections of poetry, including Homecoming, which appeared in 1984. By 1987 she was working on a collection of stories.
When Alvarez published How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in 1991, the novel received considerable attention. Rather than a straight narrative, the book is a series of fifteen connected stories told in reverse order detailing the lives of four sisters and their parents. A comparison with Alvarez's article in American Scholar suggests that these stories are based on her own experience. Like her family, the Garcia family is Dominican and displaced in America. Like Alvarez and her sisters, the Garcia girls struggle to adapt to their new environment and the American culture. The praise Alvarez received for her first novel outweighed the criticism that a new novelist often encounters. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Ingram Merrill Foundation, in addition to receiving a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for excellence in multicultural literature.
Alvarez's second novel, In the Time of Butterflies, was published in 1994. This work recounts the lives of the Mirabel sisters—Patria, Minerva, and Maria Terese (Mate)—who were assassinated after visiting their imprisoned husbands during the last days under the Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic. Each sister in turn relates her own part of the narrative, beginning with her childhood and gradually revealing how she came to be involved in the movement against the government. Their story is completed by that of the surviving sister, Dedé, who adds her own tale of suffering to the memory of her sisters. In the Time of Butterflies received a favorable reaction from reviewers, some of whom admired Alvarez's ability to express the wide range of feelings brought on by the revolution. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in 1994.
A collection of poems entitled The Other Side/El Otro Lado was published in 1995. It deals with the similar themes of power of language and having ties to two cultures. In the book's title poem Alvarez is commanded by a spirit conjurer (a kind of magician or psychic) to serve her own people in the Dominican Republic. But in the end she returns "to the shore I've made up on the other side, to a life of choice, a life of words." Her next work, Yo!, published in 1997, is based on Yolanda, one of her characters from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Each section of the novel is told from the point of view of a different character, all of whom describe Yolanda as they see her. Something to Declare, published in 1998, collects a series of Alvarez's essays about her experiences growing up and finding her voice as a Latin American writer.
Alvarez gave up her teaching position at Middlebury in 1997 in order to devote all of her time to writing. She continues to stay in touch with her roots by visiting the Dominican Republic four or five times a year, partly to check on the coffee bean farm she and her husband own. Profits from the farm will be used to create a learning center for Dominican children. In the Name of Salome, which tells the story of Dominican poet Salome Urea and her daughter, Camila, was published in 2000.
For More Information
Alvarez, Julia. Something to Declare. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998.
Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
ALVAREZ, Julia. American, b. 1950. Genres: Novels, Young adult fiction, Poetry. Career: Poet-in-the-Schools in Kentucky, Delaware, and North Carolina, 1975-78; Phillips Andover Academy, Andover, MA, instructor in English, 1979-81; University of Vermont, Burlington, visiting assistant professor of creative writing, 1981-83; George Washington University, Washington, DC, Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer, 1984-85; University of Illinois, Urbana, assistant professor of English, 1985-88; Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, associate professor of English, 1988-97, writer-inresidence, 1997-; writer. Publications: NOVELS: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, 1991; In the Time of Butterflies, 1994; "Yo!," 1997; In the Name of Salome, 2000. POETRY: (ed.) Old Age Ain't for Sissies, 1979; The Housekeeping Book, 1982; Homecoming, 1984, rev. ed., 1995; The Other Side/El Otro Lado, 1995; Seven Trees, 1999. OTHER: Something to Declare (nonfiction), 1999; The Secret Footprints (children's), 2000; How Tia Lola came to Stay (young adult), 2001; A Cafecito Story, 2001; Before We Were Free (young adult), 2002. Work represented in anthologies. Contributor to periodicals. Address: Susan Bergholz Literary Services, 17 W 10th St No 5, New York, NY 10011-8769, U.S.A.