Julia Alvarez and the Immigrant Experience

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Julia Alvarez is a perfect example of an immigrant experience in the land of milk and honey, United States. Her life is a real illustration of the challenges of assimilation, racism and identity that all immigrants, anywhere in the world, could relate to.

“Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominica family, mine was an American childhood.” Alvarez quipped while she was interviews in American Scholar. Her fondness for Dominican Republic still shows though.

The stories she relate in her autobiography and in her various works of fiction offer glimpses of immigrant life which anyone who had to immigrate and immerse to a different culture with new sets of social demands and, on top of that, acquires a bicultural/biracial identity could easily identify with. These are but a few of the adjustments living in America for immigrants had to cope with.

Culture shock is one aspect of immigrants’ lives that need some closer inspection. The acclimatization to a new culture, new language and new way of life for some immigrants could be a nerve-wracking even traumatic experience for some. The emotional rollercoaster characterized by uncertainties, fears and insecurities that plague the immigrant during the initial phase of immigration could be an overwhelming experience.

The Alvarez family’s experience of fleeing Dominican Republic to seek political asylum in the United States is not an isolated case. There are a number of people who were forced to flee their country due to social and political unrest and settled in America indefinitely. Perhaps the stigma of being driven out of the country by force must have compounded the misery and the pain the Alvarez’s felt in settling in the new country they were in. Fortunately, the majority of those who immigrate to America were not due to political reasons but as part of their personal decision to attain a better and more prosperous life for themselves and their families.

Alvarez starts her life story by recalling that her father belonged to a wealthy family who supported the losing political party during the revolution in Dominican Republic. Due to that, they felt the brunt of the winning party’s anger. Since her mother’s parents supported the winning political group they transferred to mother’s family compound. Alvarez experienced growing up with extended families consisting of cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents and maids. Alvarez’s father is a doctor who became poor due to the revolution.

Their way of life in Dominican Republic was highly influenced by the American culture. They dressed in American clothing, ate American food and studied in American schools. All the families in the compound where Alvarez grew up were obsessed with America. To them, it was a picture of idealism and perfection.

Things took a dramatic turn in young Julia’s life when her father decided to join the resistance movement. Police began to spy on them. Just as the police was about to arrest him, an American agent passed the information to the doctor a few hours prior to the planned arrest. To evade arrest, the family immediately got on board an airplane out of the country and headed to America.

When the plane landed on American soil, Julia thought she was finally home at last. America had been the ideal country she wanted for the longest time. Now her dreams were about to become real. All her American training back in Dominican Republic would finally have its deserving ending – to call America home.

But not so. Life was not a bed of roses for young Julia as she found herself feeling homesick most of the time. She longed to be with her cousins and relatives in Dominican Republic. She also wanted to go back to her way of life, complete with the luxuries accorded to their family. Her experiences with the new country America were not exactly a nightmare but they were not as ideal as her dreams either. She also felt alienated and discriminated due to her race. She missed her home and relatives. They lived in a small apartment. She found solace in reading books. The books diverted her from the painful reality she felt then. She later pursued degrees in literature and writing and gained respectable degree of success.

Julia Alvarez’s book critically acclaimed book “How the Garcia Girls lost their Accents” was published in 1991. This fictional book as the author admits is derived from her immigration experiences.

The book is about four sisters who came to America and the hardships and conflicts they faced in the middle of two cultures – their country’s and America’s. Fifteen stories comprise the novel and depict various interesting characters as well as offer deep insights. Hispanic women specifically find the book a true depiction of their lives.

The book features four girls: Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia. Carla is the oldest of the four girls. She is responsible one and acts as the analysts of the family. She later became a child psychologist so that she can fathom her own loss of identity as a child. Carla is seen as the strongest and more independent among the four and she does not demand much attention just like her younger sisters. Sandra is the second oldest. She is the beauty of the family due to her lighter skin but has an eating disorder. She becomes obsessed with her weight in a society that equates thinness with beauty. The third daughter is Yolanda. Her story dominates the book. She’s a writer, school teacher and poet. Sofia is the youngest. She is seen as the wild one. She fell in love with Auto while studying abroad. They had a son. And Sofia had to quit schooling

The stories do not only delve on their different personalities but also show how young immigrants journey through life as they make necessary adjustments to adapt to the new surroundings and culture. The girls lived in the United States but are brought up under the strict almost overbearing rule their conservative of Dominican Republic parents. They were expected to abide by Old world rules reminiscent of their previous country and set by their parents. The girls rebelled in the process.

The book mostly revolves around the problems encountered by the four daughters when they first set foot in the United States. Later, these same problems beset them as they returned to Dominican Republic on summer vacations as visitors. The girls have an extremely difficult time adjusting particularly in making friends: “Here they were trying to fit in America among Americans; they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling the spics.” (p.138)

Julia Alvarez’s books and her very own life story reflect the triumphs and travails of immigrants in the United States. The conflict of the immigrants revolves primarily on their need and struggles to assimilate to the American culture at the same time retaining their inherent identity. Once the inner conflict is resolved, acceptance and acclimatization begin.

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