Julia Alvarez

2011-05-25 03:47:13

Identification: Dominican American author
Born: March 27, 1950; New York, New York
Significance: Alvarez came to prominence as a novelist with the publication of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), the semiautobiographical story of four immigrant sisters who struggle to find their place in a new home and life in America. Much of her work examines her bicultural heritage.
Julia Alvarez was born in New York City, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic shortly after her birth. Her early years were spent in comfort surrounded by many loving relatives. She attended American schools, ate American food, and dreamed about America. Initially, her parents and grandparents experienced social and political acceptance in the Dominican Republic because of their wealth. Her father, a doctor, was in charge of the local hospital. When the political situation worsened and her father became involved in a plot to overthrow the dictator of the country, Rafael Trujillo, the family was forced to flee. They returned to New York, having lost most of their possessions and material comforts, and moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn. The shock of leaving her former lifestyle and adjusting to America deeply affected Alvarez.
Though Alvarez and her family were familiar with all things American, she herself was treated as a foreigner. Alvarez’s experience as an outsider led her to immerse herself in books and writing. Her cultural background emphasized storytelling, and she was encouraged in school to develop her talents. She attended Middlebury College in Vermont, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1971, and she earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975. Alvarez received tenure as an English professor at her alma mater in 1991, the year she published her best-known book, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, a coming-of-age novel based on her experience and that of her family in their transition from a life of privilege in the Dominican Republic to the challenges of growing up in a diverse neighborhood in a disadvantaged area of New York City. The sequel ¡Yo! (1997) focuses on the character of Yolanda García.
Although her first book was a volume of poetry, Homecoming: Poems (1984), Alvarez has been recognized primarily for her prose. Her novel about the García sisters was awarded the PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Literary Award in 1991. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), a fictionalized account of the lives and murders of the Mirabel sisters under Trujillo’s regime, was a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee and was later made into a feature film. Alvarez’s other works of fiction include In the Name of Salomé (2000), an ambitious historical novel that weaves together the lives of two women and their political causes, and Saving the World (2006), which tells parallel stories about humanitarian missions.
Alvarez’s historically rooted stories of assimilation provide a voice for immigrants and young Latinas in particular. She is one of the first Dominican American writers to achieve international acclaim.
Dolores A. D’Angelo
Further Reading
Heredia, Juanita, and Bridget A. Kevane, eds. Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Johnson, Kelli Lyon. Julia Alvarez: Writing a New Place on the Map. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
See also: Child immigrants; Dominican immigrants; Education; Families; Literature; Santiago, Esmeralda; West Indian immigrants.