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Two Sides of an American Identity

Authors: Julia Alvarez's novels shed light on the immigrant experience.

March 23, 1997|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This is a country obsessed with identity," says author Julia Alvarez. "We don't all share the same religion, ethnicity, race. We don't have something that unites us as a country. So we are constantly trying to figure out who we are."

Her words tumble forth earnestly and melodically, peppered with quotes from Chekhov, Conrad, Frost.

An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, she was an unknown writer in 1991 when she published her first novel, "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" (Algonquin), a lively tale about young immigrant sisters weaving through two colliding cultural worlds. Since then, Alvarez has been cast as a reluctant expert on the immigrant experience and on being bicultural. She continues this role, and the story of her character Yolanda Garcia, in her third and latest novel, "Yo!" (Algonquin).

"I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of those who do not have the power to," she said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "It's a profoundly democratic mission. Studs Terkel did it with his book 'Working.' Whitman did it. At the same time it's problematic because I'm still the one writing it."

Modeled on her own experience, "Garcia Girls" told the story of Yolanda and her sisters as they navigate from childhood into adulthood trying to learn the confusing maze of a new language, institutions and social norms. It was the first novel to draw national attention to U.S. Dominicans, who now make up the largest immigrant group in New York.

Popular recognition came with Alvarez's second book, "In the Time of the Butterflies" (Algonquin, 1994). People magazine and Vanity Fair featured her that year, the latter billing her as one of "Las Girlfriends," along with Chicana writers Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo and Denise Chavez.

Alvarez came to the United States with her family in 1960, at age 10. They fled the Dominican Republic when her father's involvement with underground efforts to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo was discovered. Given only a scattered Dominican presence in the U.S., she grew up in Queens, N.Y., isolated from her native culture.

Alvarez's books add depth to the ongoing debate over the American identity, recently reignited by such hot issues as Propositions 187 and 209 and proposed English-only legislation in various parts of the country. The underlying ideological tug of war is between a single, monolithic America or a multicultural one that acknowledges diverse origins.

Alvarez knows both sides intimately.

"My parents brought me here when I was 10. [Back then] you came here and the price for getting into this American dream was that you cut the cord. There was a part of me I was cut off from. It became a secret, hidden part of me that only got affirmed when I went home to my parents or went back to the island."

Maturity and changing times led her to integrate her two worlds.

"As you get older you say, 'What the hell, this is who I am.' It is much richer for me when I can have all of who I am, the dignity of being a complicated human being."

*

Now living in Vermont and isolated from other Latinos, Alvarez does what her character Yo does: She returns to the Dominican Republic as often as she can.

"Now when I'm away from the island for a while, I start to feel that I'm disappearing in some ways. Maybe here in L.A. you can live your Latina self, but in Vermont!"

To strengthen the connection between her two lives, she and her husband are buying land in the Dominican Republic and working to help a peasant cooperative there distribute the coffee it grows through a Vermont company.

She believes that the backlash to multicultural studies and a more complicated concept of the American identity contradicts this nation's history.

"One of the rash things that people want to do is take it all away--'English is the official language! Melt down! Our country is going to the pits!'--instead of continuing this great American experiment, the idea that every person has certain inalienable rights.

"Let this complexity be part of what makes us rich and makes us strong."

Alvarez hopes her work will inspire her Latino readers to stay connected to their heritage, something she did not have while growing up.

The significance of that connection was demonstrated during her recent swing through Los Angeles. While a mixed audience of 30 showed up for her reading at Dutton's Books in Brentwood, the next night 200 largely Latino fans attended the reading at Cultura Latina Bookstore in Long Beach. One hundred sat inside in the long, narrow space and the other half stood outside watching Alvarez through the store window and listening through speakers hung from the front of the building.

"Oh, it was like a homecoming," she cooed.

*

In a world far short of Alvarez's ideal of multiple American identities, coupled with the marketing demands of commercial culture, she is wary that the ethnic descriptor assigned to her often overshadows the reference to her craft in the label "Latina writer."

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