In Julia Alvarez’s story, ‘‘Daughter of Invention’’ Laura Garcia, the mother in the Garcia family, is strong, creative, compassionate, intuitive and intelligent. When the reader meets Laura, she is straddling two worlds. In the Dominican Republic, women had strictly defined roles and many limitations; in Laura’s own words, in her homeland, she could be ‘‘only a wife and mother.’’ In the United States, Laura tests some of her newfound freedoms, questioning some of her traditional ideas and roles but still embracing them and accepting the limitations they impose upon her. In Laura, Alvarez has created a complex character—a powerful woman who uses intuition and compassion to determine when to assert herself and stand up for her beliefs and when to embrace the traditions that are so important in her native culture.
In New York City, Laura becomes a fledgling inventor, obsessed with the creative American gadgets which she sees as ‘‘the true treasures women were after.’’ She is drawn to the gadgets in the housewares department of department stores, an area that is traditionally a woman’s domain, but Laura is not the typical traditional housewife. Instead, confident that she is a smart and creative person who is worthy of recognition, she dreams of inventing new gadgets and of making a name for herself in the United States. She spends hours researching, asking ‘‘intelligent questions’’ of the salespeople and then drawing her ideas on paper and sharing them with her daughters. But Laura is also very much a traditional, dutiful mother and wife. She never works on her inventions until ‘‘she had settled her house down at night.’’ Even though her daughters resent the time Laura spends dreaming up inventions, they still believe she is ‘‘a good enough Mami, fussing and scolding and giving advice,’’ although she miserably fails as an American mom, being a ‘‘terrible girlfriend parent.’’
Laura seems to take her failures as a rebuke, using them as an excuse to revert to her mother-and-wife role. Although some of Laura’s inventions seem impractical, she draws a suitcase on wheels, an invention that proves that she has a keen and creative mind and is truly capable of inventing something worthwhile. Laura must recognize her own potential when this invention appears in the newspaper, albeit made by somebody else. But Laura stops inventing at that point, her dreams of success in tatters. She asks herself, ‘‘What use was it trying to compete with the Americans: they would always have the head start. It was their country, after all.’’ Instead, she reverts to traditional women’s work and begins doing her husband’s office-cleaning and bookkeeping.
Although she gives up her dreams for herself, Laura does not give up her dreams for her daughters. Yoyo, having written an impassioned speech that the reader can only guess heralds independence and freedom, delights her mother but makes her father deeply angry. Carlos tears up the speech, and Laura is furious. For a few moments she becomes a true American woman, standing up to her husband and speaking her mind. She stands to her full height, tiny though she is, and lunges at Papi, yelling at him, asking if he has gone crazy. Carlos himself recognizes Laura’s independence: ‘‘It was bad enough that his daughter was rebelling, but here was his own wife joining forces with her. Soon he would be surrounded by a houseful of independent American women.’’
When Carlos furiously responds, calling the speech ‘‘an insult to her teachers,’’ Laura’s compassion takes over. She is able to see the whole picture, even with her anger at Papi. Laura is not simply a woman who is angry at her husband and who is standing up for her daughter; she is also a woman who has deep compassion and understanding for the man she loves. And she recognizes that man as a hurt and traumatized human being. Alvarez conveys these reasons for Laura’s change of heart in one line, showing her skill as a writer and her mastery at creating complex characters: ‘‘Laura’s face had crumpled up like a piece of paper. On it was written a love note to her husband, an unhappy, haunted man.’’
Laura’s compassion for her husband shifts her back to her traditional subservient role. Intuitively, Laura knows that she must become a dutiful wife again to help her husband cope with the trauma in his past. She kindly tells him that he no longer lives in the Dominican Republic, ‘‘a savage country.’’ She tells him, ‘‘This is America, Papi, America!’’ After Carlos goes to sleep, she gets out of bed to help Yoyo write a speech that will both serve its purpose and not hurt her father. The speech the two create is not the same one inspired by Whitman; instead, it is ‘‘two brief pages of stale compliments and the polite commonplaces on teachers, a speech wrought by necessity and without much invention.’’ Laura, the dutiful wife, true to her tradition, will not take action against her husband’s word.
Laura demonstrates the same deference to Papi when he talks about moving back to the Dominican Republic. She never voices her opinion— that she does not want to give up her American freedoms to return to the Dominican Republic where she will be judged a failure as a wife and mother because she bore no sons. Laura the American woman is proud of having daughters and understands the cruelty and the unfairness in her country’s preference for male children. But Laura the Dominican woman cannot say this to her husband. This leaves the reader wondering what would happen if Papi began planning to move back. Laura, whose growth and independence is tempered by her strong traditional background, may not have the strength to openly oppose Papi to protect herself. Would she ultimately defer to him as she does with the speech? The reader cannot say for certain.
Using intuition and compassion to guide her, Laura seems to manage the impossible by straddling two conflicting cultures. She is alternately independent and subservient, choosing the posture that will best fit each situation. Laura, the American woman, can conceive of successful new inventions, read the New York Times , and stand up to her husband. Laura, the traditional Dominican woman, settles household before turning to her own inventions, cleans her husband’s office, and remains silent even when she disagrees and complies with Papi’s wishes.
Although some might view Laura’s concessions as failure, Alvarez leaves the reader with the feeling that instead, she has passed on something essential to her daughter. Yoyo, Alvarez says, does not think of the rolling suitcase as her mother’s last invention, but instead the speech full of platitudes that the two concoct in the night. However, ‘‘it was as if, after that, her mother had passed on to Yoyo her pencil and pad and said, ‘Okay, Cuquita, here’s the buck. You give it a shot.’’’ It seems certain that Laura has prepared Yoyo to fulfill her mother’s dream of independence in America.
Esther Mizrachi Moritz, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Julia Alvarez, Published by Gale Group, 2010