For Yolanda the poet, words are really super-duper important. Language isn't just a way of describing reality—language is a part of reality. Words are so important to Yolanda that she sees them as an essential part of her identity. Having twenty-seven nicknames (more or less) in two different languages makes Yolanda feel fragmented, like she's being chopped up into little pieces. Sometimes being bilingual makes her feel this way, too. Having to remember two languages sometimes makes her forget words in both of them; instead of feeling fluent in both languages, she feels like she hasn't mastered either one.
And this theme reverberates throughout the entire novel—you didn't think you'd be reading a book called How The García Girls Lost Their Accents and have it not be about language, did you?
Yolanda's inability to communicate with her husband makes her completely lose faith in her own ability to use language. We know she's getting better when she can start writing again, with renewed faith that "there is no end to what can be said about the world" (1.4.173).
Being bilingual isn't just a superpower that the characters in this book can call upon whenever they want to. Being bilingual is hard. In fact, bilingualism is portrayed in this novel as being more trouble than it's worth.
Everything about How The García Girls Lost Their Accents just screams 'Family.' From the title, which unifies the four sisters under the family name García, to the cute family tree at the book's opening, to the way the names of family members provide a heading to each chapter—the idea of family is totally inescapable.
If this seems oppressive to you, you're picking up on something; the girls sometimes find their family to be suffocating. Mami, Papi and all their relatives in the Dominican Republic have very strict ideas about what girls can and cannot do. But when the girls ultimately win their fight for independence, they realize they don't really want to leave their family... 'cause they love them!
The open-mouth kiss that Fifi gives her father crosses a line. It takes the vaguely incestuous flirtation between the father and the four girls out of the realm of the suggestive, and makes it totally explicit. In this novel, everything's cool when the incestuous feelings are unconscious, but when these feelings are made explicit, it's a no-no.
Like the baby monkeys Carla reads about in her psychology class, the García girls have been "kept in a cage" for so long by their family's strict rules that they are afraid to come out, even after "the gate swings open, and we can fly the coop" (2.1.149).
The theme of 'Gender' is a heavy one in How The García Girls Lost Their Accents, because it reveals some unflattering things about characters that are otherwise pretty chill. Papi, for example? He's totally sexist. His daughters, in his opinion, need constant supervision and scolding, because otherwise they're sure to tarnish the family name.
The García sisters rebel against their father's (and family's) sexist rules and declare themselves feminists. But they have a hard time getting any of the aunts or cousins to join their movement. And as an adult, Yoyo thinks maybe it's better to keep quiet and do what she wants, rather than raise feminist consciousness. Did her quieter female relatives have the right idea all along?
As a teenager, Yolanda thinks it's important to speak out about how unfairly women are treated in Dominican society. But when she grows up, Yolanda thinks it might be a better tactic to keep quiet and do what she wants on the sly. Her change in attitude reveals that there's more than one way to be a feminist.
While sexist ideas come under more scrutiny in the United States than they do in the Dominican Republic, the García sisters still encounter plenty of sexist American men.
As the García girls grow up they pass through adolescence. They don't get much of a "birds-and-bees" talk from their parents, aside from a warning not to go "behind the palm trees" with boys. But they figure it out for themselves, and the adult García sisters go on to have plenty of sexual relationships—successful and not-so-successful—with men.
But in How The García Girls Lost Their Accents, sexual relationships don't just take place within the confines of marriage, no matter how much Mami and Papi insist on it. In fact, the chapter "The Kiss" illustrates how lots of relationships, even between a father and his own daughters, are full of sexual tension.
In "The Kiss," the erotic game played by Papi and his four daughters shows that their relationships with their father are just a teensy bit incestuous. Paging Doctor Freud!
For Yolanda, sex plays a big part in her understanding of her own identity. She's bothered by the fact that she seems to feel trapped between a "Catholic señorita" and a "woman's libber." Why can't she be more like her little sister Fifi? That girl really knows how to work it.
How The García Girls Lost Their Accents paints a picture of a very hierarchical Dominican society. The García family belongs to a privileged class of wealthy families who rely on the services and labor of a poor, working class. But we get quite a few hints that this might not be the most stable way to organize a society.
Apparently there are guerillas—revolutionaries—in the mountains. These political grumblings suggest that maybe, just maybe, the privileged few haven't exactly been fair to everybody else. There's not a lot of opportunity for social advancement, especially since the wealthy families just keep intermarrying with one another.
Yoyo is envious of her cousins' lives, but she can't ignore the fact that, in order to live the way they do, they have to treat people unfairly.
Yoyo's aunts and cousins seem to live in constant fear of a threat that they won't give a name to. Maybe they're reluctant to name the threat because doing so would force them to admit their responsibility for supporting social inequality.
How The García Girls Lost Their Accents explores what it's like for the García girls, who spend their childhoods in the Dominican Republic, to grow up as foreigners in the United States. Being an immigrant isn't easy—the children are made to feel like outsiders not only by the mean schoolyard bullies who call them "spics," but also by the language barrier that means they're always a beat or two behind their classmates when it comes to getting a joke.
Eventually, though, Papi is proud to be able to say that he "smooth(ed) the accent out of their English in expensive schools" (1.2.42). They finally fit in; so why is Yolanda so unhappy as an adult? She seems to feel like she is trapped between two cultures.
In the first chapter, "Antojos," Yolanda keeps insisting that she's never been at home in the United States, and that the Dominican Republic is her real home. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest that she's wrong about this—she doesn't really fit in in the D.R. either.
The novel makes the argument that the discrimination experienced by immigrants is a universal experience—it happens everywhere, and it has always happened.
A protagonist who's a writer is a big hint that "Literature and Writing" is going to be a theme in How The García Girls Lost Their Accents.
Yolanda is constantly trying to analyze her own life story in search of hidden meaning, the way she learned to do in poetry workshops in college. And the way she treats literature gives us a clue as to how we should approach this book. The meaning isn't always on the surface—literature is like a hidden code that we have to decipher. How cool is that?
Carla-the-psychologist's reading of Mami's story "The Red Sneakers" is supposed to come across as a little bit ridiculous. (So the sneakers were red? What's that supposed to mean?) Her character is meant to poke fun of psychological interpretations like psychoanalysis a little bit. Sometimes it can go too far.
Yoyo's lesson in deciphering double meanings in Rudy's pornographic poem gives us permission to read between the lines or other passages in the novel, like the part in "The Kiss" where Papi gets really excited about playing a kissing game with his daughters.
Politics are an issue in How The García Girls Lost Their Accents in a couple of ways. First of all, Carlos García participates in a failed attempt to overthrow Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Getting caught by Trujillo's secret police force, the SIM, would mean torture, imprisonment, and maybe even death.
Carlos and his family are lucky to escape with their lives to the United States, but he remains traumatized by the experience for the rest of his life. His daughters take up another political cause as American teenagers—feminism. Why shouldn't they have all the freedoms that their male cousins enjoy? They use the same language of "revolution" to describe their fight to win independence from their parents and their Dominican family.
As a young adult, Papi wants to wage a revolution against the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo; with his own family, however, Papi can be pretty dictatorial himself.
The García sisters learn to be feminists because of the freedoms they get to experience as American teenagers.