g (7580 bytes)
Women of Hope
Latinas Abriendo Camino
"I am more who I am when I’m down on paper than anywhere else."
"The sisters were special women because they were like you and me. All of us have the capacity to be good and to be evil too... Heroes are all around us." (Julia Alvarez on the Maribal sisters)
Although Julia Alvarez was only ten years old when she escaped with her family from the Dominican Republic, she has a vivid memory of the secret police at their door. Alvarez includes this experience in her autobiographical novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, which won the PEN Oakland/Jefferson Miles Award for excellence in 1991. The book is a funny, bittersweet portrayal of her family’s adjustment to their new life in the United States — the disorientation and sense of loss, the shock of prejudice, and the struggle to fit in without giving up too much.
Alvarez came from an extended family who all lived together. She recalls that period in her life as a "little paradise" of affection and sunshine. She also remembers the sense of isolation when she and her family first settled in New York City. She says she took refuge in a "portable homeland — the world of the imagination." Reading was also a form of escape from the children who taunted her at school and made fun of her accent. This period of introversion was crucial to her development as a writer.
Alvarez was determined to master English when she first found herself between two languages. "The most frightening thing happened," she explains, "I began losing my Spanish before getting a foot-hold in English. I was without a language."
Alvarez’s attention to language developed into a love of poetry. She published several collections of poems before turning to fiction. Alvarez, who credits a "wild and wonderful" women teacher in high school for encouraging her creativity is now an English teacher at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Julia Alvarez’s most recent book (1994) is In the Time of the Butterflies. The novel takes on the history of the brutal repression in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Truijillo, as seen through the eyes of three sisters who join forces to oppose the regime. The Mirabal sisters, whose code name was "Las Mariposas", the "Butterfilies", pay for their resistance with their lives when they are savagely murdered on a mountainside by the secret police. The date, November 25, is now commemorated all over Latin American as International Day Against Violence Towards Women. The year was 1960, the same year that Julia Alvarez and her family were forced to flee the island because her father’s involvement in the coup attempt to overthrow Trujillo had been discovered.
The story of the courageous lives of the Mirabal sisters who joined the underground and their tragic death is a legacy of Alvarez’s cultural heritage, and it is a story that has always haunted her. She wanted to tell that story so it would not be lost or forgotten. She wanted to reach both spheres of her two cultures — so that Dominicans living in the U.S. would remember these remarkable figures in their struggle against tyranny and readers would be familiar with these three women who stood up to oppression in a time of terrible violence. And she wanted to focus the world’s eyes on a part of Dominican history that was about solidarity and moral choices rather than the endless saga of dictators and gangster-presidents, revolutions and regimes.
Alvarez chose to write a novel rather than a biography because she was less interested in producing a historical document than finding "a way to travel through the human heart."
When Alvarez was growing up, there were very few role models of Latino writers and little sense of community. "Back in the 1960's," she notes, "it was hard going to keep a sense of your identity, both as a Dominican and as an American." She is excited at the prospect of a new generation of young people discovering the work of other Latin writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez and Ana Castillo.
Julia Alverez prefers to call herself a USA Latina. She maintains that this term describes her as a combination of two cultures" ...and you identify with others that are putting that combination together and come from other Latin American, Central American and Caribbean countries...it’s part of a bigger, group, and force, and struggle."