Study Guide

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents Part 1, Chapter 1

By Julia Alvarez

Part 1, Chapter 1

Hm... weird how the dates go backwards. We'd expect to see it written 1972-1989, not the other way around. Wonder what's up with that?

Antojos (Yolanda)

  • It's been five years since Yolanda has been on "the Island" (1.1.1). Here to greet her are a bunch of black-clad old aunties, who seem to never change.
  • In case you're worried that Yolanda's welcoming committee is a little, uh, somber, fear not! Mixed in with the elderly, black-clad old ladies are the young cousins, wearing bright, tight jersey dresses. They look like an American Apparel ad.
  • Oh, and there's tasty, tasty cake. The little kids get a little too excited about the cake, and their nursemaids have to shut it down.
  • A skinny woman with brown skin and a black maid's uniform tells the hostess, Yolanda's aunt, that they're out of matches. Tía Carmen yells at the maid, who bows her head and clasps her hands in a gesture of pleading. ("Tía" means "Aunt" in Spanish.)
  • We figure out that this charming family reunion is taking place in the Dominican Republic. It's a Spanish-speaking country on the island of Hispaniola, in the Caribbean.
  • Tía Flor, who the cousins call "the politician" because of her big, fake smile, complains about "the help." Can you believe what the chauffeur did the other day? He let the car run out of gas!
  • Tía Carmen's patio is the meeting place for the whole family, because she is the widow of the man who was head of the family. So she has the biggest house. The cousins' houses are all connected to the big house by little paths.
  • In Yolanda's family, all the women stay home and take charge of the housework. Lucky for them, they have maids to do most of it.
  • The men in the family expect to come home to a hot meal. After they visit their mistresses, that is.
  • The aunts ask for a report on the "four girls"—Yolanda and her sisters. They "get lost up there" in the United States (1.1.25).
  • Yolanda gets tongue-tied trying to tell the story in Spanish, even though it's her native language. She's out of practice. And when she goes back to the States, she'll have the same problem in reverse. She won't be able to remember her English.
  • But Yolanda has a secret. She's not sure she's going back to the U.S. of A.
  • The aunts insist that Yolanda tell them if she has "any little antojo" (1.1.29). What's that?
  • Tía Carmen says that an antojo is a craving for something you just have to eat right now. Mmm... like, for example, some chili cheese fries.
  • According to an older meaning that the tías force one of the maids to explain, an antojo happens when a person is taken over by a saint who wants something. It's kinda like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with saints who give you the munchies.
  • Well, if that's true then a very guava-hungry santo is living inside Yolanda right now. She wants to pick some guavas when she goes north.
  • The aunts freak out when they find out Yolanda is thinking about traveling to the north by herself. This isn't the U.S.! A woman can't just travel alone.
  • What's the big deal? Why is everyone so freaked out about security? And why do they have an armed guard patrolling outside their house?
  • Tía Flor smiles her eternal smile and says, "Things are looking ugly." There have been rumors of guerillas in the mountains (1.1.51).
  • No, not gorillas. Guerillas. Revolutionaries. With guns.
  • With a little historical context, we can start to figure out what Yolanda's aunts are so worried about.
  • So without further ado, we are pleased to bring you A Very Shmoopy Introduction to Dominican History.
  • In 1989, the President of the Dominican Republic was Joaquín Balaguer. Balaguer had already been President twice, from 1960-1962 and 1966-1978. How did he get elected so often? Was he super popular?
  • Well... sort of. During the long years of his presidency, the Dominican Republic experienced strong economic growth. Balaguer ordered the construction of lots of important infrastructure, like schools, hospitals, dams and roads. That's good, right?
  • But he wasn't very tolerant of opposition. If newspapers printed something he didn't like, he sometimes had them seized. Balaguer also had many political opponents jailed and even killed. Yikes.
  • Many of those who supported Balaguer were wealthy members of the upper-class. People like Yolanda's relatives. Many of his detractors, on the other hand, were poor people and the students and leftist activists who supported them.
  • Okay, thus ends the first installation of our Very Shmoopy Introduction to Dominican History. Stay tuned for more!
  • Back to the story. Yolanda's cousin's wife Gabriela pooh-poohs the old ladies' worries. Guerillas? Schmuerillas! Everything's gonna be fine! Let's light the candles on the cake!
  • Yolanda thinks about how confusing and difficult her life has been in the twenty-nine years since she left the Island (remember: the Island is the Dominican Republic). She closes her eyes and makes a wish before she blows out the candles: "Let this turn out to be my home."
  • Flash forward to Yolanda's drive north. She borrowed a car, and is zipping along over the hills, enjoying the peace and quiet. Ahhh, now this is what home feels like.
  • A bus full of men drives by, making Yolanda feel uncomfortable.
  • On the radio, all she hears is static. The faint, blurry voice she can hear beneath the static sounds like what she would sound like, if she were trapped in a car wreck. That's a morbid thought.
  • Yolanda drives by a big, expensive-looking house, probably owned by some distant relatives. All the wealthy families on the Island are related.
  • Yolanda comes to the village of Altamira. Looks like a great place for a pit stop.
  • She pulls up to a little cantina, where an old poster for Palmolive soap depicts a blonde, light-skinned woman taking a shower. It's kind of out of place here in this rural Dominican village.
  • And old woman and a shy little boy greet her. The boy is shy, the woman explains, because he's not used to being around "people" (1.1.69). And by people, she means rich people.
  • The little boy's name is José Duarte, Sánchez y Mella.
  • Fun fact: Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, and Matías Ramón Mella were the three most important leaders of the Dominican War of Independence, which gave the Dominican Republic independence from Haiti in 1844.
  • Yolanda asks the old woman if there are any guavas around. The little boy José Duarte excitedly tells her he knows where there's a whole grove of ripe ones.
  • For José and his friends, a car ride is a big deal, and will give them major bragging rights. So when Yoyo offers them a ride in her Datsun if they'll take her to the guava grove, they're super-stoked. José Duarte is co-pilot, obviously.
  • The little dirt road is ridiculously bumpy. But Yolanda has her eye on the prize, and in the end, it's worth it. Guavas for the win.
  • Yolanda and José get separated from all the other boys. And it's getting dark...
  • Yolanda remembers all those dire warning of her aging aunts: "you will get lost, you will get kidnapped, you will get raped, you will get killed"(1.1.83). Eek.
  • They find their way back to the car and try to hit the road. But they get a flat tire. Dum dum dum.
  • José Duarte offers to run to the big house to get help. It's owned by the Miranda family.
  • Oh, Yolanda thinks, he means good ol' Auntie Marina and Uncle Alejandro! Guess she's going to milk those family connections after all.
  • You know when you were little and you used to manipulate your younger siblings into doing stuff for you by promising them a nice, shiny penny? (No? Er... us neither.) Well, anyway, Yolanda is about to try the old bribe-the-kid-with-an-absurdly-small-amount-of-money trick.
  • She promises to give José Duarte one whole dollar if he can make it to the Miranda place and back by a certain time. The kid's jaw hits the floor, and he take off running toward the big house. Worked like a charm.
  • Suddenly, Yolanda hears footsteps. Two men emerge from the woods. They're carrying machetes. Uh-oh...
  • The men look big and strong, and Yolanda is terrified. Too terrified to notice they're actually pretty nice, and that they're trying to help her.
  • The two men very kindly put down their machetes, change the tire, and pick up after themselves. They are total gentlemen.
  • Yolanda tries to offer the men some money, but they both refuse.
  • One of the men looks down in a gesture of humility (just like Tía Carmen's maid did, earlier). Yolanda stuffs a roll of bills into his pocket.
  • Yolanda sees a small boy by the side of the road. It's José Duarte, and he's on the verge of tears because the guard at the Miranda place hit him for telling stories about a rich Dominican lady picking guavas after dark. Preposterous!
  • Yolanda gives José way more than the single dollar she promised him. But he's too ashamed to feel happy about it.
  • On her way out of town, Yolanda looks back and see the Palmolive poster. The poster-woman's "skin gleams a rich white" in Yolanda's headlights, and it looks like she's "calling someone over a great distance" (1.1.112).

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