How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents takes place in the early 1960s, just after the Garcia family has fled to New York from the Dominican Republic. The family is trying to adjust to their new culture. In the story, there are hints that the family escaped the Dominican Republic because their father had been involved in some sort of protest of the regime of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Alvarez relates that Papi had lost his brothers and friends to Trujillo and that there had been ‘‘late night disappearances’’—a fate Papi feared as well. However, the exact circumstances of the family’s escape are never specified. From the safety of their new home in New York, the family watches as Trujillo is assassinated and a new interim government finally plans a democratic election.
Now that Trujillo is gone, Papi thinks about going back to his country and, though Laura is opposed, she never tells Papi this. Laura is relieved to be away from the oppression in the Dominican Republic where she is looked down upon because she never gave birth to a boy. Nonetheless, she defers to Papi’s authority in the traditional way of the Dominican Republic.
The story centers around, Laura, Papi, and Yoyo, one of their four daughters. In the evenings, each of them spends their time differently. Laura, who can no longer rely upon her prominent Dominican family for prestige, uses her evening to invent gadgets. Papi reads the Dominican newspaper, watches news of the Vietnam War on television, and dreams about going back to his country. Yoyo, a budding writer and poet, spends her evenings writing in her room.
The first half of the story centers around Laura’s fascination with American gadgets. She takes frequent excursions with her daughters to the housewares departments in department stores, using those trips as inspiration for her creative and sometimes absurd inventions. Her daughters both humor her and make fun of her. They also lament that Laura’s time and attention is taken up with drawing new inventions, rather than helping them in their struggles adjusting to life in New York. The daughters seek permission to go out by themselves. They also complain that they do not feel accepted or welcomed by other kids, who throw stones at them and call them names. Laura shoos them away to focus on her inventions.
One night Laura sees one of her inventions— a suitcase on wheels—advertised in the York Times , which she reads each night before sleeping. Laura herself had conceived of a suitcase on wheels, and, like all of her inventions, it remained just a drawing on a pad. Realizing that somebody else beat her to creating and selling this invention—and made millions in the process—Laura screams, terrifying Papi because it reminds him of the past. Hearing the screaming, the daughters file into their parent’s room and Laura announces that she is through with inventing because she cannot compete with the Americans.
However, Alvarez informs the reader that Laura does invent one last thing to help Yoyo when she is in the ninth grade. Yoyo has been assigned to give a speech at school honoring her teachers for a school holiday called ‘‘Teacher’s Day.’’ The speech assignment is daunting to Yoyo, who is embarrassed by her accent and worried that a speech full of praise will not endear her to her peers.
Night after night, Yoyo struggles to write the speech but fails. The weekend before the assembly she panics. Laura, who is famous in the family for her misquoted American idioms says, ‘‘You’ll see, like the Americans say, Necessity is the daughter of invention On Sunday evening, Yoyo reads some Walt Whitman poetry for inspiration and comes upon words that shock and thrill her: ‘‘I celebrate myself and sing myself. . . . He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.’’ Using Whitman’s words as inspiration, Yoyo writes a speech that she is proud of. She feels she has finally expressed herself in English. She reads the speech to Laura who tells her how beautiful it is and urges her to read it for Papi before he falls asleep. The reader never learns what exactly Yoyo says in her speech, only that she quotes Whitman.
They find Papi in bed, reading the Dominican newspaper with the television on. Yoyo reads her speech; Papi is horrified and furious. He forbids Yoyo from giving the speech, saying that it is boastful, disrespectful, and that it shows no gratitude. Laura is shocked. She thinks, ‘‘In the old country, any whisper of a challenge to authority could bring the secret police in their black V.W.’s. But this was America. People could say what they thought.’’ Laura immediately stands up for Yoyo. Papi gets angrier, thinking that his home is turning into a ‘‘houseful of independent American women.’’
Papi grabs the speech from Yoyo and tears it into shreds. As Laura scolds Papi for what he has done, a distraught Yoyo tries to pick it up and put it back together but it is impossible. Laura suddenly understands that Papi is afraid because of his experience in the Dominican Republic, and her anger disappears. Alvarez writes, ‘‘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.’’
Yoyo is distraught and angry and lashes out at her father, calling him ‘‘Chapita,’’ the nickname for the Dominican dictator. A furious Papi chases Yoyo down the hall but she gets to her room and locks the door just in time. The locks, just installed because of Laura’s fascination with gadgets, save Yoyo from her father’s rage. Her parents retreat to their room and Yoyo hears them discussing what happened and then, finally, she hears the sound of the television again.
Later, Laura knocks at the door and together Laura and Yoyo draft a speech of ‘‘stale compliments.. . . wrought by necessity and without much invention.’’ Nonetheless, Yoyo’s speech turns out to be a great success at school.
That night, Papi arrives home with a big heavy cardboard box and calls Yoyo’s name. At first, still angry, she does not answer him, but her mother begs her, telling her how much Papi loves her. Finally, Yoyo comes downstairs to find Papi setting up a brand-new electric typewriter. The typewriter has many special features and is even better than Laura’s, which she had coveted. Yoyo comes to think of her speech as Laura’s last invention and feels like Laura passed her pen and pad to Yoyo to allow her to start inventing.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Julia Alvarez, Published by Gale Group, 2010