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Two (or More) Sides to Being an American

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.

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Popular recognition came with Alvarez’s second book, “In the Time of the Butterflies” (Algonquin, 1994).

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!”

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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.

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 label assigned to her often overshadows the reference to her craft in the label “Latina writer.”

“I am a Latina who writes, but not one who writes only for Latinos,” she says. “That is part of what we have to give the world.”

Her fans, as well as strong sales, confirm her assertion.

“The bad part of being a ‘Latina writer’ is that people want to make me into a spokesperson. There is no spokesperson!” Alvarez exclaims. “There are many realities, different shades and classes.”

On the other side of the spokesperson coin, Alvarez faces a certain degree of objectification from outside the Latino community. “What I find is that I am exoticized; ‘Oh, those people are so interesting’ is the kind of attitude I get sometimes.”

The notion that exoticization may be the key element fueling the interest in Latino writers worries some observers. Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian of UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies libraries and editor of the anthology “Latina” (Simon & Schuster, 1995), wonders if it’s not just a passing publishing trend.

“I think the attention gets turned into the equivalent of a sound bite,” Castillo-Speed says. “I just don’t know if it’s going to stick.”

Alvarez’s response to the subject is quick:

“I think that’s the danger. America is a consumer culture and it will consume its latest ethnicity: literature and music and food. Then make a chain store out of it. And soon it’ll go on to the next one. You know, disposable culture.”

She predicts that the current trend in Latino publishing will not persist.

“The doors will close on people who are the wrong color, come from the wrong place. Those battles will still have to be fought.”

Yet she sees a long-term role for herself and a place for Latino literature.

“I feel a responsibility to keep the door open. And I have to believe that the best stuff will stay and will add to what it is to be an American and to be a human being.”


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