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Essay: An Unbearable Reality –  How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, Julia Alvarez

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • An Unbearable Reality -  How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, Julia Alvarez
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Any accurate story of a personal journey is predicated on a comprehensive retelling of their past. Throughout the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, Julia Alvarez articulates an abundance of stories that range from her earliest memories into her adulthood. These stories help to illustrate how traumatic the refugee experience can be, especially for a child. In order to depict the novel, I chose to highlight Yolanda’s experience through the platform, ThingLink. Straying from the primary tale of a geographic transition, I chose to map where Yolanda was at mentally for each stage in her life. After reading this novel, I have come to an astounding conclusion: the plight of a refugee is quite similar to that of everyone else. Human experiences have much in common, and the idea of a shared experience can be best represented through looking at the relatively linear development of the human brain. The primary difference for refugees is that the ordinary problems, that many of us encounter on a daily basis, are exacerbated by the misunderstanding of language, culture, and a loss of home that a refugee undoubtedly faces.

Both the novel and my map describe the colossal difficulties that a refugee faces. Alvarez tells of a journey of four girls who struggled throughout their transition into a new home. As they encounter a variety of obstacles ranging from sexual misconduct to public humiliation, the girls feel lost in their own bodies. Through demonstrating the most likely areas of the brain responsible for Yolanda Garcia’s decisions and feelings, we might hopefully become enlightened as to why Yolanda acts the way she does, be it out of choice or necessity. As Yolanda progresses from an innocent child to a sophisticated adult, she makes many life-altering decisions that can be both applauded and criticized.
This novel demonstrates just how powerful the influence of resettlement can be as one adapts to a new frontier of situations. Through a story map, the viewer receives insight into potential rationale behind Yolanda’s actions, thus enhancing the narrative. Seeing a visual representation of exactly what Yolanda is going through allows the viewer to more easily place themselves in her position, thus enhancing the viewer’s experience. The trade-off is the clear loss of other character perspectives that are more prominently expounded upon in the novel.

The first major moment of Yolanda’s, also known as Yoyo’s, life is her decision to strip Schwarz, a young kitten, from his home before he was ready to leave his mother. This event symbolizes Yolanda being forced to flee to America in refuge before she had established roots in the Dominican Republic (Alvarez 286). The cerebral cortex (2), an area of the brain that, when developed, provides the capacity to understand ramifications for one’s actions has not been fully realized for Yolanda (Cherry). This lack of brain development leads Yolanda to remove Schwarz, despite being told just prior by a mysterious man that she should not take the kitten from his home so soon. Through recognizing the physiological reason behind Yolanda’s disobedience, we can better understand why she took the action she did.
As Yolanda’s brain continues to develop, the reader is more easily able relate to Yolanda’s seemingly outlandish decisions; however, trauma manifests its way into near every person’s life at least once. For Yolanda, the coming of black Volkswagens signals great fear. The limbic
system (3) is a part of the brain known for its ability to process emotions. Interestingly, many of these emotions are felt long before a child can ascribe words to those feelings, as is the case for Yolanda (Cherry). Initially, Yolanda believes her dad is “playing one of his games that nobody likes (Alvarez 197).” This ignorance quickly disappears when men with guns begin searching through the house. Yolanda is aware that only guardias, or government officials, are allowed to have guns. Because the limbic system is developing at such a rapid pace from early childhood through adolescence, the fear has set in, but the mechanisms for dealing with that fear do not yet exist, thus exacerbating the freight in this situation.

Unfortunately, the emotional struggle that Yolanda endures does not end in the privacy of her own home. Language is the quintessential component of Alvarez’s novel. Through shifting languages at such a young age, Yolanda fully comprehends neither English nor Spanish. While in American school, Yolanda deals with language difficulty at the expense of her public image. After learning how to identify and react to a nuclear attack, Yolanda believes that she is witnessing the fallout before her eyes, claiming, “I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn.” After belting out in agony, Yolanda is disheartened to find that what she had mistaken for a devastating bomb was actually the glistening snow (Alvarez 167). This mental lapse can be attributed to Wernicke’s area (4) of the brain, which is responsible for language and comprehension (Britannica). Yolanda’s Wernicke’s area was underdeveloped in the English language. Because she had never heard of the concept of snow, let alone known which word to attribute to it, she was forced to fall back on the limited knowledge she had in order to describe the world around her. Even in their native language, those without a robust vocabulary are often unable to accurately articulate their experiences. The trouble here is that Yolanda is not dealing with a lack of intelligence but rather an inherent disadvantage because of her late start on English.

Expanding upon public embarrassment, public speaking frequently ranks among the highest of fears for the general population. That fear, coupled with the underdeveloped understanding of the English language, makes for an unbearable situation. While this fear can also be attributed to the limbic system, a more accurate fit, as noted on my ThingLink, is the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) (5). This is the location of the brain responsible for social interaction (Scientists). In this scene, a complex situation arises in that Yolanda not only deals with the trouble of speech, but also relations between her peers, teachers and parents. Initially, bantering from her peers is Yolanda’s largest problem. She was determined to master this speech as to both prove her classmates wrong about her and avoid the embarrassment. In times like these, when we feel deeply insecure, turning to family for comfort and support is a common response. After her father reprimands Yolanda for her writing, the family safety net disappears, allowing Yolanda to continue her fall to the ground. Luckily, Laura is there to catch Yolanda, just prior to her demise. Laura proves, in this moment, that she is a loving mother who genuinely cares about the mental state and success of her daughters.

Most of the problems presented in this novel, similar to a child/parent struggle, are ordinary human issues that are exacerbated because the girls are refugees. The next such issue is Yolanda’s relationship with Rudy Elmenhurst. Growing up as a refugee, in an unfamiliar area, Yolanda was inclined to be more reserved. Reservations about speaking publicly, expressing herself to others and most of all sexual encounters presented a myriad of challenges for Yolanda to overcome. The hypothalamus (6), responsible for sexual feelings of attraction, can have acute feelings of passion or relaxed modes of repulsion (Cherry). For Yolanda, the attraction was there, but she was seeking more intimacy than Rudy was ready to display. As an unsympathetic, sex- hungry boy, Rudy was ready to jump into a sexual relationship without any of the affection Yolanda was seeking. His use of explicit language like, “’Jesus Christ… I’m not going to fucking rape you!’” was enough to turn Yolanda off (Alvarez 95). While this problem can be attributed to being a refugee, these feelings of sexual discomfort are common among women at large as well. Sensual activity is meant to be a consensual agreement between two people. At this point in her life, Yolanda does face a struggle, but this time, it is one that plenty of other girls are plagued with too.

All of the above obstacles that Yolanda was forced to endure seem to culminate in her psychological breakdown. While far too complex to fully analyze in this essay, at a high-level, one prominent catalyst that incentivized this fall. The Stimulus Preceding Negativity (SPN) (7) is the best explanation for Yolanda’s breakdown; it is the measurement of brain activity that helps to explain how uncertainty can be literally present in our brains (Catena). When speaking with her doctor, John, Yolanda appears to have difficulty describing the problems in her life (Alvarez 75). There are two reasons for this inability to recognize a single origin: she has a plethora of problems, and the problems that she faces with are legitimated by self-concession. Should a physiologist have taken Yolanda’s SPN reading, they likely would have noted the high degree of uncertainty in her life.

Contributing to her lack of understanding, Yolanda was guided towards a certain path from childhood. In choosing to dress Yolanda in pink as a child, Alvarez symbolized that Laura, Yolanda’s mother, wanted Yolanda to be a sweet, nice and playful girl (Alvarez 46). Each human
brain is extremely unique, with complexities that we have yet to understand, and it is said that no one can take that away from you; however, people can hinder the degree to which someone else feels empowered to be their own person. In Laura’s ascription of a certain color for each daughter, what was intended to be a harmless logistical tactic ends up diminishing not only Yolanda’s, but all the girls’ individuality.
Finally, feeling comfortable when we return home is a luxury that many take for granted. Coming home becomes far less rewarding when home is a place of criticism and ridicule. Upon returning to the Dominican Republic, Yolanda is reminded of how much she has lost through resettlement in the United States. This was not just a loss of an accent as the title implies, but rather, a fundamental loss of Spanish, culture and a feeling of home. The way in which Yolanda combats this shortcoming is miraculous. In deciding to venture out on her own, despite warnings against such an action, Yolanda shows bravery and courage. The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) (9) is obdurate responsible for such acts of bravery (Rettner). This is a part of the brain that ordinarily develops later in life, which is in accordance with how Yolanda develops as a character.

Throughout this novel, the reader is given a story of a refugee who overcomes tremendous adversities. In understanding the implications of a refugee journey, it becomes clear that their problems are identical to our own, they are simply enhanced to extreme degrees. The best way to understand the commonality of any human experience is to examine the physiological similarities that we all possess. As the reader watches Yolanda mature through a reverse-chronology of her life, he/she can identify how and why Yolanda makes the choice that she does.

Works Cited

  • Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Penguin Group, 1992.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Wernicke Area.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Aug. 2017, Wernicke-area/media/639879/68285.
  • Catena, Andrés, et al. “The Brain Network of Expectancy and Uncertainty Processing.” Edited by Carles Soriano-Mas, PMC National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, 2012,
  • Cherry, Kendra, and Steven Gans. “Brain Anatomy Lobes, Structures, and Functions.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, brain-2794895.
  • Rettner, Rachael. “Brain’s Courage Center Located.” LiveScience, Purch, 23 June 2010,
  • “Scientists Identify PSTS Region in the Brain Responsible for Recognizing Human Facial Expressions.”, News Medical, 20 Apr. 2016, brain-responsible-for-recognizing-human-facial-expressions.aspx.

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