Study Guide

Yolanda in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

By Julia Alvarez

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Who Am I?

Yolanda has a mental breakdown that seems to be related to her inability to write. For a poet, writer's block is definitely a crisis. Yoyo feels like she has a fragmented career, divided between teaching and writing. And then the writer inside her just sort of shrivels up and dies:

For years after graduate school, she wrote down poet under profession in questionnaires and income tax forms, and later amended it to writer-slash-teacher. Finally, acknowledging that she had not written much of anything in years, she announced to her family that she was not a poet anymore. (1.3.36)

The end of Yoyo's marriage is a major reason why she feels she can't write anymore. Her "proudly monolingual" (1.4.45) husband doesn't appreciate her bilingual word games. They "just don't speak the same language" (1.4.136), and by the end of their marriage, they're basically just babbling at one another:

He pointed to his ears and nodded. Volume wasn't the problem. He could hear her. "Babble babble." His lips were slow motion on each syllable. He is saying I love you, she thought! "Babble," she mimicked him. "Babble babble babble babble." (1.4.104-105)

Yoyo, who has always believed in the power of words, starts doubting her ability to communicate. Every time Yoyo tries to write a sentence, it comes out full of all these tiny, divided pieces of herself. She doesn't feel like a whole person anymore. She's more fragmented than a mirror dropped from the top of a three-story building.

Even Yolanda's name is chopped up into shorter versions of itself:

"Ay, Yolanda." Her mother pronounced her name in Spanish, her pure, mouth-filling, full-blooded name, Yolanda. But then, it was inevitable, like gravity, like night and day, little apple-bites when God's back is turned, her name fell, bastardized, breaking into a half dozen nicknames—"pobrecita Yosita"—another nickname. (1.4.137)

Yolanda hates the nicknames. She demands that her family call her by her full name… but that doesn't last too long at all.

"Who Am I... In Bed?"

This question isn't just our fortune-cookie-game response to Yolanda's first question. Yolanda really wants to know. Look, she's had a terrible track record with men. Her boyfriends have included a rich bad boy who kept trying to pressure her to have sex, her chauvinistic ex-husband, and a married guy named Clive who keeps dumping her to go back to his wife. Sounds like a series of winners, huh?

Yolanda feels like her sexual identity is every bit as divided as her creative and professional one. She is "always so tentative and terrified and had such troubles with men" (1.2.15). Her lovers say they feel "caught between the woman's libber and the Catholic señorita"—the two sides to Yolanda's sexual personality.

Yup. Nun-slash-sex goddess. That's Yolanda in a nutshell. Dang, that's got to be a complicated way to live.

"Okay, Guys, At Least Tell Me Where I Live."

Yolanda is the third of the four García sisters, and while she's tight with her immediate family, she feels a teensy bit mixed up about her heritage. Being caught between two cultures is like being "trapped inside a wreck," and not even knowing what language to call for help in. "English or Spanish?" (1.1.62).

Yolanda's divided family loyalties aren't just about language; they're also about culture. As teenagers, she and her sisters rebel against the "Old World" values of their parents. Mami and Papi "don't believe in all this freedom" for their daughters; the sisters, however, are determined to earn their independence. As immigrants to the United States, they embrace their American culture: they "develop a taste for the American teenage good life" (2.1.6), pursue higher education (denied to their female Island cousins), and eventually become "professional women [...] with degrees on the wall" (1.2.14).

But even as these independent women are rejecting the "hair-and-nails crowd, chaperones, and icky boys with all their macho strutting and unbuttoned shirts and hairy chests with gold chains and teensy gold crucifixes," there's something that keeps the García sisters tied to their family and the Island (2.1.6). Yoyo and her sisters feel like the baby monkeys in a psychology experiment, "kept in a cage so long, they wouldn't come out when the doors were finally left open" (2.1.149).

At the beginning of the novel, Yolanda is an adult who returns to the Dominican Republic, praying, "Let this turn out to be my home" (1.1.55). But we know that there is no easy solution to Yolanda's feeling of homelessness. Though she obviously feels like a foreigner in American culture, she doesn't fit in in the Dominican Republic anymore, either.

She's a little too sensitive to the injustices and inequalities that she sees on the Island, like the poverty that makes it dangerous to drive "a big car [...] in the middle of the university barrio," and the condescending way wealthy women treat their servants.

She can't really bond with poorer members of Dominican society, either. Little José Duarte, for example, is too shy to talk to her, because "'he's not used to being among people.' People with money [...] she means" (1.1.69).

It's clear that most ordinary Dominicans see Yolanda as a wealthy outsider. She's also set apart by her light skin color. So much for fitting in. After these interactions, Yoyo feels as far from home as ever. Come to think of it, Yolanda is a lot like the woman in that Palmolive ad hanging in the store:

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)

The Power of Knitting

The confusing backwards structure of the novel becomes more understandable once we read this sentence:

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)

It really does seem like Yolanda is "unraveling" her history over the course of this novel, stopping to tell stories that happened earlier and earlier in her lifetime, in order to find the "mistake she made way back."

Finally, at the very end of the novel, she gets to the traumatic event that most profoundly shaped her life: when she threw a newborn kitten out of a window. (Pssst: We explore this traumatic moment in greater detail in "What's Up With the Ending?")

The revelation of this deep, dark secret catapults (get it? cat-apults?) Yolanda back into the present, where she finally seems secure in recognizing that her art is based on a "violation." That's okay. It's what makes her "a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia" (3.5.60).

Finally, Yoyo can say that this is who she is—a storyteller. This is part of her identity that can't be divided.

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