Study Guide

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents Themes

  • Language and Communication

    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?

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How many nicknames does Yolanda have? How do all these different names make her feel?
    2. In the chapter "Joe," why do Yolanda's parents check her into a mental hospital? What signs does Yolanda give them that she is sick? What signs show that she is getting better?
    3. Which words does Yolanda develop an allergy to? What's so special about those words?
    4. Does Yolanda see her bilingualism as a strength or a weakness? Does her opinion on this always stay the same?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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!

    Questions About Family

    1. What sorts of rules do Mami and Papi set for their four girls? Do you think these rules would be different if the four girls were four boys?
    2. What kind of relationship do the four girls have with their father? Why do you think they interact this way? Does it have anything to do with the family's ideas about the role of women?
    3. How do the García girls rebel against their parents and their extended family?
    4. How does the experience of living in exile in the United States affect the García family? Does it change their relationships with other family members?

    Chew on This

    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).

  • Gender

    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?

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does Papi feel about women? What does he think makes a woman "good," and what makes her "bad"? What does he think the difference is between men and women?
    2. Is it ironic that Yoyo and her three sisters become such enthusiastic feminists even though they were raised in such a sexist environment? Or do you think feminism is a natural reaction to their family's sexism?
    3. Is it fair to say that the four García sisters are feminists, while the rest of their female relatives are not? Do Mami or any of the aunts or female cousins do anything to break or bend the rules governing female behavior in their family?
    4. In the novel, are ideas about gender different in the United States than they are in the Dominican Republic? Are Dominican men necessarily more sexist than American men? Do some characters change their attitudes about gender or their gendered behavior based on where they are?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    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.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. How do the García sisters' ideas about sex differ from those of their parents? Whose point of view do you think is more realistic?
    2. In the novel, how is sexual morality different in the United States and the Dominican Republic? What is supposed to be okay, and what's against the rules, according to American and Dominican society? Which rules are followed, and which are ignored, in both places?
    3. What textual clues can you find in the chapter "The Kiss" that the relationship between Papi and his daughters, especially Fifi, is a little bit erotic?
    4. When does sexual awareness begin for each of the García sisters? Do their early sexual experiences affect who they are as adults? How?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is Yoyo's Tía Flor so nervous about having her car break down in a university neighborhood? What other things make Tía Flor nervous?
    2. How do Yoyo's aunts talk to their servants?
    3. What do you think is significant about the Palmolive advertisement featuring a blond woman with "rich white" skin? Can you relate this image to the theme of class in the novel?
    4. How do you think Yoyo feels about the way Dominican society is organized into classes? Do you see any evidence in the chapter "Antojos" that she is critical of the way society is structured? Does Yoyo's critical perspective have anything to do with her being an outsider?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    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.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. Which parts of Yolanda feel more American, and which parts feel more Dominican? Why doesn't she feel like she completely fits in in either culture?
    2. What characters make the García sisters feel like foreigners in the United States? Are all of them trying to be mean?
    3. Who are the foreigners in the Dominican Republic? What are some signs of their "otherness"? How are they treated by Dominicans?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Literature and Writing

    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?

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Who writes in the García family, and what kind of writing do they do?
    2. How important is the tradition of oral storytelling in this novel? Which characters tell stories orally? Are their stories any more or less true than the ones that are written down?
    3. Why does Yoyo seem so obsessed with her past? Why does she say she wants to pick apart the story of her first boyfriend, Rudy? And why is she "addicted to love stories with happy endings" after Clive leaves? (1.3.178).
    4. What does Rudy teach Yoyo about poetry? What are the two meanings of "The coming of the spring upon the boughs"? (1.5.17). How does this new understanding about literature change the way we read the last paragraph of "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story"? (Hint: sometimes a bottle of wine is more than just a bottle of wine.)

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Do you think the García sisters are feminists? What does feminism mean in the context of this novel?
    2. The narrator of "A Regular Revolution" hints that "Mami had her own little revolution brewing," because she's been taking business classes. What's so revolutionary about Mami taking business classes?
    3. How much information does the novel give us about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo? What was life like for Dominicans under his rule?
    4. What does the novel suggest about the history of U.S. involvement in the government of the Dominican Republic?
    5. Why don't the four García sisters try to teach their Dominican aunts and cousins about feminism?

    Chew on This

    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.