Julia Alvarez: Cultural Context
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Julia Alvarez is a Dominican American female writer born in the United States in 1950. While growing up, she experienced both the American and Dominican cultures in a way that greatly shaped her understanding of the concept of cultural identity. While being born in the United States to American Dominican parents, Julia had to go back to the Dominican Republic as an infant and spent her childhood there. A few years later, the family had to return to the United States and the young Julia had to learn the American culture without necessarily neglecting the Dominican culture. As a result of this change, as well as the expectation to blend in without getting lost in it, she embraced both cultures and let them influence her works. Cultural context can be defined as the way one thinks and feels and the beliefs that shape their opinions with regards to their experiences. In other words, cultural context is the ideology or philosophy that one develops after being exposed to certain circumstances. Julia Alvarez is an immigrant with experiences in two different cultures. Her initial upbringing in the Dominican Republic implies that she was initiated into the Dominican culture at an early age despite being born in the United States. This means that when her family had to return to the US, she had to learn the American culture all over again and let go of the Dominican culture. However, she had to spend every summer in the Dominican Republic thus she remained balancing both cultures well into her adulthood. This is her culture context as it influences her works. Considering both the poems and novels, Julia Alvarez centers her creative writing on themes like assimilation, cultural identity, and the cultural expectations of immigrant women among other things.
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This paper examines how these themes relate to her personal experiences, and how knowing these experiences helps the readers and critics to understand the author’s works. The themes under analysis include assimilation, cultural identity and the cultural expectations of immigrant women.
This has been defined as the process through which a person’s or a group’s language or culture becomes similar to that of another person or group. This is a process that usually occurs in small native cultural groupings or immigrant communities whose culture becomes dominated by a much larger and culturally different society. Each community has unique circumstances that define their assimilation process, making it either gradual or quick. Full assimilation can only be ascertained if the individual or group becomes indistinguishable from the larger dominant culture. With regards to the immigrant communities, assimilation often results in a total loss of one’s heritage and culture.
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Julia Alvarez had to learn the English language as a teenager upon her family’s return to America. Despite being American born, she had had to learn English as the second language, thus experiencing so many difficulties in shedding off the influences of her first language on her understanding and command of the English grammar (Gilbert and Gubar 87). And while she put in so much effort while in school, the fact that she had to keep going back to the Dominican Republic for summer made it more difficult for her. She got teased at school for being a Latina and this added on the pressure to assimilate and not stand out as an immigrant. Generally, this is her experience with cultural assimilation.
In her first book titled Why the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, the author chronicles the lives of four young Dominican women who immigrated to the United States as young children. This book presents in depth the challenges of cultural assimilation as experienced by the four young women. In this novel, it becomes clear that immigrants need to fit in without necessarily losing themselves and their cultures but this is difficult to achieve. From the title, the ‘accent’ can be understood as a symbolism that means cultural heritage. The novel thus seeks to illustrate why immigrants often lose their cultural heritage and adopt the American culture. In more ways than one, this book can be considered as a guide to understanding the technicalities of cultural assimilation.
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Another piece of work by the author that has hints of cultural assimilation is the poem Homecoming in which the author speaks of a Dominican wedding that sees the bride’s family going through a lot of trouble to please the groom and his American family. In this case, the bride’s family is not necessarily an immigrant family seeking to fit in to a new culture but rather a traditional Dominican family that considers the American culture as one that is superior to theirs and thus they seek to adopt their ways in order to be seen as modern and outstanding (Alvarez 72). This family goes out of their way to please the groom and his family and the author ridicules and criticizes them for this in a serious and yet ironic way. The author in this poem uses a grammatical arrangement that is similar to the Dominican language, thus implying that she is not for a total assimilation but rather a functional one. She uses English in a Dominican way, so to speak, thus silently advocating for a modernist approach to the cultural assimilation affair.
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The most dominant theme in Why the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is cultural identity as the girls find themselves in a new cultural dispensation at a time when they are coming of age. They deal with identity crises, each in their own way throughout most of the novel (Alvarez 46). In Homecoming, the bride’s family seeks to position themselves as Dominican American people despite their being purely Dominicans implying that they too had a problem with their cultural identity. They felt they would be better off as Dominican Americans and even set out to put the groom as the centerpiece despite the traditional Dominican wedding being historically a bridal affair.