Study Guide

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    In halting Spanish, Yolanda reports on her sisters. When she reverts to English, she is scolded, "En español!" The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. (1.1.27)

    It's funny the way language works. If you don't use it, you lose it! Yolanda's experience makes us think that it must be tricky for a lot of people who are bilingual to switch between one language and another.

    That poet she met at Lucinda's party the night before argued that no matter how much of it one lost, in the midst of some profound emotion, one would revert to one's mother tongue. He put Yolanda through a series of situations. What language, he asked, looking pointedly into her eyes, did she love in? (1.1.62)

    Okay, creepy dude seems to have some sort of mystical idea about native language being primal. But the fact that he's obviously trying to get into Yolanda's pants kind of ruins his argument. What do you think?

    "Miz Poet is so goddamn sensitive to language." (1.3.145)

    Sandi is being sarcastic here, but you know what? Yolanda is really sensitive to language. She makes the case that words are super important in the next chapter, "Joe."

    Yolanda, nicknamed Yo in Spanish, misunderstood Joe in English, doubled and pronounced like the toy, Yoyo—or when forced to select from a rack of personalized key chains, Joey [...] (1.4.1)

    What's in a name? A person's name is pretty connected with their identity, wouldn't you say? So the fact that Yolanda has so many nicknames, in both Spanish and English, might suggest that she feels like she has a lot of different identities.

    "I love you," John said, rejoicing, tricked by the barks and the howls.
    But Yolanda was afraid. Once they got started on words, there was no telling what they could say. [...]
    "Do you love me, Joe? Do you?" he pleaded. He wanted words back; nothing else would do. (1.4.13-16)

    What's with Yolanda's hesitancy to say "I love you" to John? It's not because she doesn't think the words are important... in fact, it's quite the opposite. Words are super important. It's because they're so powerful that she feels like they should be careful about what they say.

    Yo's words fell into the dark, mute cavern of John's mouth. [...] And Yo was running, like the mad, into the safety of her first tongue, where the proudly monolingual John could not catch her, even if he tried. (1.4.45)

    John so does not understand Yolanda's word games. Come to think of it, there's a whole part of Yolanda that John doesn't get—the Spanish-speaking part. If John is "proudly monolingual," it means he's not really interested in getting to know that part of Yolanda. (Side note: the bit about Yolanda running "like the mad" seems like a hint about her coming breakdown and visit to the mental hospital.)

    "What you need is a goddamn shrink!" John's words threw themselves off the tip of his tongue like suicides.
    She said what if she did, he didn't have to call them shrinks.
    "Shrink," he said. "Shrink, shrink." (1.4.46-48)

    Once again, Yolanda is sensitive to the use of language (in this case the use of the word "shrink" to mean "psychologist"), and John doesn't get it. He keeps using the word, just to make her mad. (A tactic commonly known as the annoying-little-brother technique.)

    He is saying I love you, she thought! "Babble," she mimicked him. "Babble babble babble babble." Maybe that meant, I love you too, in whatever tongue he was speaking. (1.4.105)

    Whoa... what's going on here? Communication seems to have completely broken down here. But as you may have noticed, this crisis isn't completely out of the blue. John and Yolanda haven't understood each other for a long time. The babbling just makes it really obvious.

    She has developed a random allergy to certain words. She does not know which ones, until they are on the tip of her tongue and it is too late, her lips swell, her skin itches, her eyes water with allergic reaction tears. (1.4.141)

    This is how we know how important words are to Yolanda—they actually have the power to make her sick. Certain words give her an allergic reaction. Hm... maybe her entire mental breakdown has something to do with language.

    His vocabulary turned me off even as I was beginning to acknowledge my body's pleasure. If Rudy had said, Sweet lady, lay across my big, soft bed and let me touch your dear, exquisite body, I might have felt up to being felt up. But I didn't want to just be in the sack, screwed, balled, laid and fucked my first time around with a man. (1.5.26)

    For Yolanda, the words used to talk about sex are just as important as the physical act. Words and language aren't a separate, secondary reality; they're a part of reality.

  • Family

    Even after they'd been married and had their own families and often couldn't make it for other occasions, the four daughters always came home for their father's birthday. [...] Surely their husbands could spare them for one overnight? (1.2.1)

    The García family is really tight. Even after the girls grow up and have families of their own, their childhood family—Papi, Mami, and the four girls—is still kind of like an exclusive club that no one else can join.

    Why not checks? the daughters would wonder later, gossiping together in the bedroom, counting their money to make sure the father wasn't playing favorites. (1.2.5)

    Ah, sibling rivalry. You never grow out of it.

    After all her hard work, she was not to be included in the daughter count. Damn him! She'd take her turn and make him know it was her! (1.2.61)

    So Sigmund Freud, the founder of a branch of psychology called psychoanalysis, had this idea that we call the "Electra Complex." It's the theory that all little girls are in sexual competition with their mother for their father's attention. Weird, right? Whether you buy it or not, this idea has been enormously influential. And it seems to explain what's going on here between Fifi and her dad.

    His face had darkened with shame at having his pleasure aroused in public by one of his daughters. [...]
    "That's enough of that," he commanded in a low, furious voice. (1.2.65-66)

    So this suggestion of incest has been present throughout this entire chapter. There's been lots of subtle father-daughter flirting, and Papi even seems jealous of his daughters' husbands. But when Fifi gives Papi a "wet, open-mouthed kiss in his ear," she goes too far.

    The mother dressed them all alike in diminishing-sized, different color versions of what she wore, so that the husband sometimes joked, calling them the five girls. (1.3.2)

    Aw, Papi calls his wife and daughters his "five girls." Cute, right? Or maybe not so cute if we consider the incestuous vibe of the previous chapter.

    The eldest, a child psychologist, admonished the mother in an autobiographical paper, "I Was There Too," by saying that the color system had weakened the four girls' identity differentiation abilities and made them forever unclear about personality boundaries. The eldest also intimated that the mother was a mild anal retentive personality. (1.3.5)

    So this is the eldest daughter Carla's take on their parents' child-rearing techniques. Kinda harsh, don't you think? But maybe it explains why the family is still so close after all these years.

    We look at each other, and then, drop our gaze to hide our confusion. We are free at last, but here, just at the moment the gate swings open, and we can fly the coop, Tía Carmen's love revives our old homesickness. (2.1.149)

    The girls are really ambivalent about their family—their family drives them absolutely crazy, but at the same time they love their family a lot.

    But Laura's inventing days were over just as Yoyo's were starting up with her school-wide success. [...] It was as if, after that, her mother had passed on to Yoyo her pencil and pad and said, "Okay, Cuquita, here's the buck. You give it a shot." (2.2.68)

    We like this quote because it shows us how Yoyo feels like she has a special connection with her mom. The desire to create, a gift for telling stories—are these family traits?

    The seemingly endless list of familiar names would coax her back to sleep with a feeling of safety, of a world still peopled by those who loved her. (2.3.81)

    Family becomes an important security blanket for Carla when she first moves to the United States. The experience of being a foreigner makes her feel really lost and vulnerable, so she relies on her family to make her feel safe and loved.

  • Gender

    She has sat back quietly, hoping she has learned, at last, to let the mighty wave of tradition roll on through her life and break on some other female shore. She plans to bob up again after the many don'ts to do what she wants. (1.1.44)

    It's interesting to think of the rules about gender that this family follows as a "tradition." It's powerful, like a wave, so you have to decide if you're going to roll with it, or let it smack you down.

    Yolanda makes out an undertow of men's voices. Quickly she gets in the car, locks the door, and pulls back onto the road, hugging her right side. (1.1.60)

    When out on her own on the Island, Yolanda seems pretty nervous anytime she encounters men. Makes us wonder why men are portrayed as being such a threat.

    All the grandfather's Caribbean fondness for a male heir and for fair Nordic looks had surfaced. There was now good blood in the family against a future bad choice by one of its women. (1.2.9)

    Even though he tries to cover up his disappointment at having four daughters by repeating, "Good bulls sire cows," it becomes pretty obvious at the birth of his first grandson that he thinks male children are superior.

    "I don't want loose women in my family," he had cautioned all his daughters. Warnings were delivered communally, for even though there was usually the offending daughter of the moment, every woman's character could use extra scolding. (1.2.13)

    It's almost like Papi expects his daughters to do things he thinks are bad. Papi thinks he needs to scold his daughters and watch their every move, just to keep them from behaving totally immorally. Because women don't have a moral code, obvs.

    Every year after that, the daughter came for her father's birthday, and in the way of women, soothed and stitched and patched over the hurt feelings. (1.2.32)

    So here's another generalization about women, this time from the narrator's perspective. It's a flattering statement—that women are naturally good at reconciling after a big fight—but we have to wonder: is it really fair to make broad generalizations about the "way of women"?

    Carlos, looking very much like a little girl in his long, white christening gown, bawled the whole time, and his poor mother had not a moment's peace between serving the dinner she'd prepared for the whole family and giving him his. (1.2.35)

    It's funny how big of a deal it is to Papi to finally have a male heir in the family. And yet, in his little baptisimal gown, little baby Carlos looks... just like a baby girl. So doesn't it seem rather silly to go around projecting all of these masculine traits onto him?

    No one really knew if he was secretly displeased in his heart of hearts that he had never had a son, for the father always bragged, "Good bulls sire cows," and the mother patted his arm, and the four girls tumbled and skipped and giggled and raced by in yellow and baby blue and pastel pink and white, and strangers counted them, "One, two, three, four girls! No sons?" "No," the mother said, apologetically. "Just the four girls." (1.3.2-3)

    "Good bulls sire cows" is the line Papi always uses to reassure everyone that he's not disappointed by not having a son. But that seems like a big, fat lie after we see how excited he gets about his first male grandchild.

    For the benefit of an invisible sisterhood, since our aunts and girl cousins consider it very unfeminine for a woman to go around demonstrating for her rights, Yoyo sighs and all of us roll our eyes. (2.1.84)

    Yoyo and her sisters are feminists, but they can't get any of their female relatives on the Island to join their cause. That's because their Dominican cousins think it's "unfeminine" to demonstrate for their rights... but does it mean they follow all the gender rules?

    When he's in the States, where he went to prep school and is now in college, he's one of us, our buddy. But back on the Island, he struts and turns macho, needling us with the unfair advantage being male here gives him. (2.1.121)

    To make matters even more complicated, we can't even rely on a character's attitudes about gender to stay the same. Mundín completely changes his tune depending on whether he's in the U.S. or in the D.R. Do any other characters do this?

    These Latin women, even when the bullets are flying and the bombs are falling, they want to make sure you have a full stomach, your shirt is ironed, your handkerchief is fresh. It's what makes the nice girls from polite society great hostesses, and the girls at Tatica's such obliging lovers. (3.1.51)

    Victor Hubbard's creepily sexist ideas about women being good for cooking, cleaning and love-making are combined with his creepy ideas of "Latin" women being exotic. He seems to prefer "Latin women" as sexual partners because they come closer to his ideas about ideal femininity. Gross.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    In the dark, Fifi gave off a fresh, wholesome smell of clean flesh. It gave solace to the third daughter, who was always so tentative and terrified and had such troubles with men. Her sister's breathing in the dark room was like having a powerful, tamed animal at the foot of her bed ready to protect her. (1.2.15)

    It's no accident that Yoyo compares Fifi to a powerful animal. Just like an animal, Fifi has a very natural relationship to her own body and sexuality. She doesn't overthink things. And that's what makes her so sexy.

    "Has he deflowered you? That's what I want to know. Have you gone behind the palm trees? Are you dragging my good name through the dirt, that is what I would like to know!" (1.2.21)

    Papi's euphemism about "going behind the palm trees" is one of the best ways to talk about having sex that we've ever heard. But on a more serious note, why is he so mad at the thought that his daughter might be having sex?

    Sofía planted a large hand on his shoulder, and anyone could see how it must be between them in the darkness of their love-making. (1.2.29)

    The relationship between Sofía and her husband Otto seems so happy. So natural. So unlike any of her sisters' relationships with men.

    His face had darkened with shame at having his pleasure aroused in public by one of his daughters. (1.2.65)

    It's all fun and games until it becomes really obvious that Papi is enjoying his daughters' kisses a little too much. But this moment isn't just about the kiss—it also reveals the weirdly sexual aspect to all of Papi's interactions with his daughters. Like the way he gives them money, doesn't want their husbands around, and refers to them with their mother as his "five girls."

    The lover knew Yolanda would not have wanted him to know about this indelicacy of her body. She did not even like to pluck her eyebrows in his presence. An immediate bathrobe after her bath. Lights out when they made love. Other times, she carried on about the Great Mother and the holiness of the body and sexual energy being eternal delight. Sometimes, he complained he felt caught between the woman's libber and the Catholic señorita. (1.3.49)

    Yoyo can be really insecure about her own sexuality. Sounds like she's caught in between two extremes—good girl and sex goddess—and neither one is really working for her.

    Why I didn't just sleep with someone as persistent as Rudy Elmenhurst is a mystery I'm exploring here by picking it apart the way we learned to do to each other's poems and stories in the English class where I met Rudolf Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third. (1.5.3)

    Yoyo is constantly analyzing her past sexual relationships, the way she does to stories and poems. And it's not because she just wants to relive the (sometimes awkward) experiences. She wants to learn something from them so she can move on.

    I put the bottle between my legs and pulled so hard that not only did I jerk the crumbled cork out but I sprayed myself with expensive Bordeaux. [...] I held the bottle up to my mouth and drew a long messy swallow, as if I were some decadent wild woman who had just dismissed an unsatisfactory lover. (1.5.41)

    Remember the lesson Yoyo learned earlier about pornographic double meanings in literature? Good. Now keep in mind that Yoyo is holding a suggestively-shaped object between her legs, jerking the cork out, and spraying herself with wine. Goodbye Rudy Elmenhurst. Hello sexual independence!

    "Virgin sex? Who're you talking about?" his sister Lucinda challenges with a hand on her hip. "Yeah," we concur, hands on our hips, facing him, a line-up of feminists. (2.1.104)

    For the teenage García sisters (and one of their Dominican cousins, for once!) sex is actually a political statement. After all, when your entire society is trying to pretend like you're as pure and innocent as a doll, admitting that you like sex is like saying, "Hey! I'm just like men!"

  • Society and Class

    The maid stares down at the interlaced hands she holds before her, a gesture that Yolanda remembers seeing illustrated in a book for Renaissance actors. These clasped hands were on a page of classic gestures. The gesture of pleading, the caption had read. Held against the breast, next to the heart, the same interlaced hands were those of a lover who pleadeth for mercy from his beloved. (1.1.5)

    Some of the first images we get in the novel are of interactions between Yolanda's wealthy aunt and her domestic servants. This posture of "pleading" suggests that their relationship is not exactly one between equals.

    "I'm alarmed, you know, the way things are, a big car stalled in the middle of the university barrio." (1.1.13)

    Tía Flor keeps making these vague references to "the way things are," and we keep being like, huh? How are things, exactly? This is what we can figure out from this statement: it's not a good idea to go around showing off your "big car" in a neighborhood full of students. Why do you think that might be?

    "A bus!" The whole group bursts out laughing. [...] "Can't you see it!?" She laughs. "Yoyo climbing into an old camioneta with all the campesinos and their fighting cocks and their goats and their pigs!" (1.1.45)

    The contrast between the privilege of Yoyo's relatives and the poverty of the bus riders could not be more stark. The idea of Yoyo riding a bus is completely ridiculous to her family.

    Iluminada has now crept forward to the edge of the circle to offer the matches to her mistress. In the fading light of the patio, Yolanda cannot make out the expression on the dark face. (1.1.53)

    The hierarchy of class in the novel goes hand-in-hand with perceptions of race. Careful reading lets us know that Yoyo's family is light-skinned, while the servants have brown skin. And even among the servants, those with lighter brown skin consider themselves superior to those with darker skin.

    She and her sisters have led such turbulent lives—so many husbands, homes, jobs, wrong turns among them. But look at her cousins, women with households and authority in their voices. Let this turn out to be my home, Yolanda wishes. She pictures the maids in their quiet, mysterious cluster at the end of the patio [...] (1.1.55)

    Just when Yoyo is really getting into her fantasy about living the good life in the Dominican Republic, the troublesome picture of the maids sitting in the corner sneaks into her imagination. The thought that's nagging her is this: in order to live a life of luxury and privilege in this society, you have to exploit a whole bunch of other people.

    [...] Yolanda approaches a compound very like her family's in the capital. [...] They are probably relatives. The dozen rich families have intermarried so many times that families trees are tangles of roots. (1.1.64)

    This tidbit about Yoyo's family connections paints the picture of a Dominican society where wealth doesn't change hands very often. Rich families keep the money in the family by intermarrying with other rich families.

    "You must excuse him, doña," the woman apologizes. "He's not used to being among people." People with money who drive through Altamira to the beach resorts on the north coast, she means. (1.1.69)

    The term "people" doesn't apply to just anybody. Here, the woman uses it to mean "people with money." What does that make people without money?

    She reaches for each man's hand to shake. The shorter man holds his back at first, as if not wanting to dirty her hand, but finally, after wiping it on the side of his pants, he gives it to Yolanda. The skin feels rough and dry like the bark of trees. (1.1.107)

    Here's another picture of the inequality between two classes of people that Yoyo encounters in the Dominican Republic. Because she obviously has money and is from the upper class, this poor man is reluctant to even shake her hand.

    And above the picnic table on a near post, the Palmolive woman's skin gleams a rich white; her head is still thrown back, her mouth still opened as if she is calling someone over a great distance. (1.1.112)

    It's weird to see this poster of the Palmolive woman hanging in a poor roadside stand. After all, this image of a privileged blond woman (whose skin gleams a "rich white"—get it?) looks nothing like most of the people who actually shop there.

    The grand manner will usually disarm these poor lackeys from the countryside, who have joined the SIM, most of them, in order to put money in their pockets, food and rum in their stomachs, and guns at their hips. But deep down, they are still boys in rags bringing down coconuts for el patron when he visits his fincas with his family on Sundays. (3.1.29)

    Laura uses her knowledge of how class works in Dominican society to her advantage. She knows she can intimidate the threatening soldiers simply by reminding them of her class advantage.

    None of the maids liked Chucha because they all thought she was kind of below them, being so black and Haitian and all. (3.1.86)

    Okay, this complicates our understanding of class in this novel. We thought it was simple—wealthy Dominicans on top, and poor people like maids and servants on bottom. But even amongst the servants there is a hierarchy, and it involves how dark your skin is. People with darker skin tend to be from Haiti, so it involves nationality, too.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    This is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never. (1.1.59)

    Yolanda seems like she's having a really emotional moment, here. But does she really believe what she says here? That she's never felt at home in the States? Ever? And that this—this view of the island hills—is what she's been missing all her life and will make her feel complete? Um... we doubt it.

    The radio is all static—like the sound of the crunching metal of a car; the faint, blurry voice on the airwaves her own, trapped inside a wreck, calling for help. In English or Spanish? she wonders. (1.1.62)

    Something about not knowing what language she should speak goes along with the idea of feeling like she's "trapped inside a wreck." We're getting the idea that Yoyo isn't happy with the way her life has been going, and also that she feels caught between two cultures.

    Supposedly, the parents were heavy-duty Old World, but the four daughters sounded pretty wild for all that. (1.3.41)

    The García girls—and here Clive—refer to their parents several times as being "Old World." (Is that kind of like old school?) This term seems to express their foreignness and their old-fashioned-ness, all rolled into one.

    For the hundredth time, I cursed my immigrant origins. If only I too had been born in Connecticut or Virginia, I too would understand the jokes everyone was making on the last two digits of the year, 1969; I too would be having sex and smoking dope; I too would have suntanned parents who took me skiing in Colorado over Christmas break, and I would say things like "no shit," without feeling like I was imitating someone else. (1.5.21)

    Being an immigrant makes Yoyo feel really out of the loop. She feels different—set apart—from all her classmates. It's almost as though culture, not just English, were a foreign language.

    He had told them he was seeing "a Spanish girl," and he reported they said that should be interesting for him to find out about people from other cultures. It bothered me that they should treat me like a geography lesson for their son. But I didn't have the vocabulary back then to explain even to myself what annoyed me about their remark. (1.5.32)

    We like that Yolanda is able to express in hindsight what it was that bothered her about her boyfriend's parents' insensitive remarks. Clearly she has learned a few things since her naive college days.

    His parents did most of the chatting, talking too slowly to me as if I wouldn't understand native speakers; they complimented me on my "accentless" English and observed that my parents must be so proud of me. (1.5.35)

    Does anyone else think Yoyo says this with a bit of irony in her tone? After all, should she really be congratulated for speaking without an "accent"? What's so great about completely erasing all traces of her culture and background from her speech?

    García de la Torre didn't mean a thing to them, but those brand-named beauties simply assumed that, like all third world foreign students in boarding schools, we were filthy rich and related to some dictator or other. (2.1.5)

    So here's an example of one U.S. stereotype about foreigners—at least the ones with enough means to be able to go to boarding schools.

    Here they were trying to fit in America among Americans; they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling them spics. (2.2.21)

    So this is the dark side of America's great tradition of immigration and cultural diversity—America's not-so-great tradition of discrimination and racial slurs. Immigration to the U.S. has changed over its history (with more immigrants now coming from Latin America than from Europe), but the pattern of discriminating against the newcomers has stayed the same.

    They could have eaten anywhere, Sandi thought, and yet they had come to a Spanish place for dinner. La Bruja was wrong. Spanish was something other people paid to be around.

    We love this moment where little Sandi realizes that her culture's foreignness can sometimes be valued and appreciated, and not always scorned and despised.

    She was real Haitian too and that's why she couldn't say certain words like the word for parsley or anyone's name that had a j in it, which meant the family was like camp, everyone with nicknames Chucha could pronounce. (3.1.85)

    The pronunciation of the Spanish letter j was especially hard for Haitian immigrants, who spoke French. Pronouncing the word for parsley, 'perejil,' wasn't just an innocent exercise for Haitian immigrants living under Trujillo. In the "Parsley Massacre" of 1937, Dominican soldiers used the word to test anyone they suspected of being Haitian. If you couldn't say perejil, you died. Yikes.

  • Literature and Writing

    For although the mother confused their names or called them all by the generic pet name, "Cuquita," and switched their birthdates and their careers, and sometimes forgot which husband or boyfriend went with which daughter, she had a favorite story she liked to tell about each one as a way of celebrating that daughter on special occasions. (1.3.7)

    Mami is an epic storyteller, and yet she never writes anything down! Hm... maybe you don't have to be a writer to participate in literature. She's a reminder that the oral tradition is really important—maybe more important for this family than writing.

    Yolanda often read poems addressed to lovers, sonnets set in bedrooms, and she knew her mother did not believe in sex for girls. But the mother seemed not to notice the subject of the poems, or if she did, to ascribe the love scenes to her Yoyo's great imagination. (1.3.38)

    Okay, literature isn't necessarily based on facts. But come on! It's pretty hard to write about sex if you've never experienced it before. Mami is being really naive here.

    "If she read all the great books, maybe she'd remember something important from having been human."

    "Freud," the doctor said, listing names on his pad. "Darwin, Nietzsche, Erikson."

    "Dante," the father mused. "Homer, Cervantes, Calderón de la Barca." (1.3.100-102)

    When the doctor thinks of "great books," he thinks of scientific works written by German and English philosophers. When the father thinks of "great books," he thinks of works of literature written in Greek, Italian and Spanish. No matter how many of these books Sandra manages to read, though, she never seems to have all the answers. In fact, all this reading seems to be ruining her life. It's literally driving her crazy.

    "Otto says we probably met in a New Jersey Greyhound Station, but we've heard all these exciting stories about how we met in Brazil or Colombia or Perú that we got to believing them." (1.3.173)

    Have you noticed that there are multiple versions of the same stories floating around in this book? The stories get told over and over again, and some of the details get changed along the way.

    Since Clive left, Yolanda is addicted to love stories with happy endings, as if there were a stitch she missed, a mistake she made way back when she fell in love with her first man, and if only she could find it, maybe she could undo it, unravel John, Brad, Steven, Rudy, and start over. (1.3.178)

    Life is like a knitted baby blanket. And also like a love story. Whoa... these mixed metaphors are getting confusing. Yoyo turns to this analogy of unraveling the knitted tapestry of her life as a form of therapy—if she can just find her first mistake and fix it, all the other stitches will line up properly.

    "Tears, tears," Joe said, reciting again, "tears from the depths of some profound despair." 

    "Don't worry," the doctor said, coaching the alarmed parents. "It's just a poem." (1.4.121-122)

    Ha! The doctor says that like poems ain't no big thing. If there's one thing Yolanda tries to explain to her (ex) husband John in this chapter, it's that words are a big deal. They're powerful.

    She gains faith as she says each word, and dares further: "World... squirrel... rough... tough... love... enough..." [...] Yo continues: "Doc, rock, smock, luck," so many words. There is no end to what can be said about the world. (1.4.172-173)

    How do we know Yolanda is getting better? She's able to start writing again. (Hooray!) Words have meaning again, and Yolanda feels confident about using them to describe the world around her.

    It was the first pornographic poem I'd ever co-written; of course I didn't know it was pornographic until Rudy explained to me all the word plays and double meanings. [...] That anyone should put all of this into a poem, a place I'd reserved for deep feelings and lofty sentiments! (1.5.17)

    Whoa. You mean poetry can be about sex? We're going to have to look into this. But seriously, Yoyo's experience with Rudy teaches us that sometimes, literature can have two meanings at the same time. And in order to understand all of its meanings, it requires interpretation, which is kind of like code-breaking. We read this paragraph as a license to go around interpreting our socks off.

    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! (2.2.40)

    Ah, yes, the elusive breakthrough. Writer's block is the worst. We think it's a key moment when Yoyo says she "sounded like herself" in English. Earlier, we saw how an adult Yolanda didn't feel like she sounded like herself in Spanish anymore. Bilingualism seems really fluid in this novel—sometimes Yolanda feels more fluent as an English-speaker, and other times more fluent as a Spanish-speaker.

    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. (3.5.60)

    Wow. Alvarez really knows how to end a novel! Yolanda is making a huge claim here—that the reason she writes now is because of a trauma that happened way back when she was a little kid. Check out our more in-depth discussion of this in the section "What's Up with the Ending?".

  • Politics

    Once, the story goes, during who-knows-which revolution, a radical young uncle and his wife showed up at Tía Flor's in the middle of the night wanting asylum. Tía Flor greeted them at the door with the smile and "How delightful of you to stop by!" (1.1.12)

    When the García Girls call their Aunt Flor a "politician," it's not a compliment. They're basically saying she's fake; she always pretends like everything is hunky-dory, even when it's so obviously not. Ironically, Tía Flor the "Politician" isn't fired up by political causes.

    The father told them there was plenty more where that had come from. The revolution in the old country had failed. Most of his comrades had been killed or bought off. He had escaped to this country. And now it was every man for himself, so what he made was for his girls. (1.2.7)

    Wait a second, Papi was a revolutionary? That's pretty cool. But, uh... it sounds like the revolution didn't exactly go according to plan. It also sounds like Papi is a little bit bitter about how things turned out. Have his experiences in fighting for a revolution changed him for the worse?

    Then Papi went down for a trial visit, and a revolution broke out, a minor one, but still.

    He came back to New York reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and saying, "I am given up, Mami! It is no hope for the Island. I will become un dominican-york." (2.1.1-2)

    Even after Trujillo is assassinated, it's not all smooth sailing for the Dominican Republic. Political instability on the Island convinces Papi that it's time to settle in the U.S. for good.

    [...] we had devised as sophisticated and complicated a code and underground system as Papi had when he and his group plotted against the dictator. [...] The third, on-duty daughter would get the third call, in which the first question would be, "Where are your sisters?" At the library studying or in so-and-so's room getting tutored on her calculus. (2.1.10)

    So if the García Girls are the revolutionaries in this scenario, does that make Papi a dictator? Does anyone else think this is a little ironic?

    It's possible that Mami had her own little revolution brewing, and she didn't want to blow the whistle on her girls and thus call attention to herself. [...]

    Recently, she had begun spreading her wings, taking adult courses in real estate and international economics and business management, dreaming of a bigger-than-family-size life for herself. She still did lip service to the old ways, while herself nibbling away at forbidden fruit. (2.1.43-44)

    When is taking a business class a revolutionary act? When your family expects your only job to be staying home and taking care of the kids. But do you think Mami considers herself to be a feminist?

    But tonight, as we've agreed, we're staging a coup on the same Avenida where a decade ago the dictator was cornered and wounded on his way to a tryst with his mistress. It was a plot our father helped devise but did not carry through, since by then we had fled to the States. (2.1.122)

    Oh, BTW, Trujillo was shot. Yeah, things didn't work out so well for him. We wonder if Carlos García feels redeemed that he helped to come up with the plan that eventually worked to kill Trujillo. He never mentions it in the novel, or seems to take much pride in it. Why not? Is it because, even with Trujillo dead, the Dominican Republic still had a few years of dictatorship ahead of it?

    But in dreams, he went back to those awful days and long nights, and his wife's screams confirmed his secret fear: they had not gotten away after all; the SIM had come for them at last. (2.2.29)

    Papi seems to be traumatized by what he experienced living under Trujillo's dictatorship. It sounds like it was really awful. The SIM, by the way, were Trujillo's secret police. You did not want them knocking on your door in the middle of the night.

    Now she knows guns are illegal. Only guardias in uniform can carry them, so either these men are criminals or some kind of secret police in plain clothes Mami has told her about who could be anywhere at anytime like guardian angels, except they don't keep you from doing bad but wait to catch you doing it. (3.1.11)

    For a little kid, Yoyo is pretty perceptive. Guns are illegal; therefore, anyone carrying a gun must be a bad guy.

    At the first sign of trouble, Victor said, get in touch, code phrase is tennis shoes. [...] It wasn't his fault the State Department chickened out of the plot they had him organize. And he has promised to get the men out safely. All but Fernando, of course. Pobrecito ending up the way he did, hanging himself by his belt in his cell to keep from giving out the others' names under the tortures Trujillo's henchmen were administering. (3.1.31)

    Wow, there is a lot of information hidden in this little paragraph. First of all, we learn that Victor works for the U.S. State Department, and that he had been organizing a plot to overthrow Trujillo, but had to abort when the State Department backed out. Secondly, we get a glimpse of how bad Trujillo and his secret police really are; so bad that this guy Fernando would rather hang himself than let them interrogate him.

    Old buddy introduced him around till he knew every firebrand among the upper-class fellas the State Department wanted him to groom for revolution. (3.1.46)

    In case you thought the people who were upset with Trujillo were just the poor people and the Haitians he had massacred, think again. The people organizing against him were from the upper class. We think that's pretty interesting.