*This review contains spoilers*
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez was, for me, an interesting read. Reading the book really pissed me off. For one thing, it depicts the very real colorism and anti-blackness ever present in Latin American culture. While the story centers around a Dominican family, as a Puerto Rican I can definitely relate.
I briefly skimmed some reviews of this book on Goodreads and didn’t come across any that discussed the machismo and racism that we see in the story (I did see a reviewer try to argue that she was right in describing the book as being set in Central America. The level of wrong there is not just an indictment of her education). As I read the book I couldn’t help but think about all of the horrible things present in my own culture. As a Puerto Rican, I am not white and even though a lot of Latinos claim whiteness I have never felt right in claiming it. I’ve never quite been able to decide what I am, racially. I am Puerto Rican, I am not black, but I am not white. I am a non-black person of color or NBPC as I’ve seen it abbreviated. Nevertheless, whiteness is valued in Latino culture, as I am sure it is also valued in other cultures. Growing up it was all about good hair and looking as pale as possible. The whiter you are the better you are. Indeed, some of us can trace our ancestry back to Spain and other parts of Europe and it’s evident in the blond hair and blue eyes of those lucky enough to look imported.
The story is about an affluent Dominican family who fled to the United States after Mr. Garcia is part of a plot to overthrow the government. The family is not poor. He is a medical doctor and very well connected. In the Dominican Republic they live in luxury. They have servants/maids and live well. Even after moving to the United States they did not suffer any financial ailments. That’s not to say the family did not struggle, because what family that moves into a new country with a new culture doesn’t.
The chronology of the story jumps around and the narrator does as well. I did not find that each sister had a voice distinct enough so that I could pick her out. I was often confused as to who was talking. This was something that Alvarez could have improved upon I suppose but overall it did not take me out of the story.
Back to the themes that run through this text. There is a lot of talk about women’s place as well as what is appropriate and inappropriate for women to do. When Sofia runs off with her boyfriend and marries him her father shuts her out. He does not speak to her. Interestingly, when she births a son, his heart thaws. “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.” (page 26, Kindle edition) As soon as I read this I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room. I remember growing up and hearing family members warn their kids about what would happen if they were to bring home a black girlfriend or boyfriend. To equate white with “good blood” implies that the “future bad choice by one of its women” would be daring to love and procreate with a black man. Disgusting. But also hypocritical because these same white Latinos who abhor blackness raped and enslaved it back in the day.
“His macho babytalk brought back Sofia’s old antagonism towards her father. How obnoxious for him to go on and on like that while beside him stood his little granddaughter, wide-eyed and sad at all the things her baby brother, no bigger than one of her dolls, was going to be able to do just because he was a boy.(page 26, Kindle edition) ” Teaching young girls that they are less than boys starts young indeed.
The book covers everything from slut-shaming to body policing as illustrated by this quote,“Get a load of Pilar’s miniskirt with those huge legs of her, you’d think some people would check their mirrors, geez.” I cannot tell you how often I heard and even spewed this very thing growing up. People had to know their station and dress accordingly. Now, it infuriates me when somebody is criticised for not conforming to the horrible beauty standards many of us are so happy to accept.
I highlighted so many examples of colorism in the text but this really illustrates it particularly well: “None of the maids liked Chucha because they all thought she was kind of below them, being so black and Hatian and all.” If you’ve never stopped to think about colorism in Latin America you need only look at the contestants for Miss Universe pageants. Even in countries with large black populations the offerings for these beauty pageants are suspiciously light-skinned.
Talking about this book has me all over the place and I feel I only really scratched the surface of everything I want to say. I just feel there is so much to cover. Even though much of the events took place decades ago some of the issues that are illustrated are relevant today. And not just in Latin Caribbean culture, but that is the focus of this book and my thoughts. Overall, this book was a very interesting read, for me it caused me to think and analyze my own childhood and culture. The story was well-written and my only criticism, as I mentioned above, was the change of narrator resulting in a bit of confusion (for me) at times.