Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The "Vocabulary of Human Behavior": Gesture in 'How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The "Vocabulary of Human Behavior": Gesture in 'How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.'

Article excerpt

This essay contributes to existing scholarship on Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by considering how gesture functions in the novel's exploration of Spanish-English bilingualism. Though gesture is construed as a more authentic register, the novel actually links it to nationally specific codes of class and gender performance.

Since its publication, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents has sold over 350,000 copies (Rivera 125) and has become a fixture in college and high school classrooms. As its title suggests, the novel provides a metaphor of cultural assimilation informed by the evolving relationships the eponymous Garcia girls have with their native Spanish and the English of their adopted homeland. This metaphor illuminates the girls' experience of leaving behind Rafael Trujillo's military dictatorship in the Dominican Republic for the United States following their father's involvement in a coup attempt. (1) I propose to augment this consensus interpretation of language in the novel by highlighting the nature of gesture as a third, embodied language. Gesture serves as a parallel register to Spanish and English, sometimes complementing spoken dialogue but also often contradicting it and, in so doing, challenging the notion of a single identity--a coherent speaking subject--located either in the country of origin or in the new homeland.

The processes that define spoken and written languages in terms of their national and historical contexts--and concomitantly determine aspects of subjectivity for their users--can also characterize gestures. At times gesture has been interpreted as a universal mode of expression, transcending borders and cultures. However, Adam Kendon counters that while "the idea that gesture is a universal form of expression that does not need to be learned to be understood has remained a very persistent one [...], it has also always been recognized that there are differences from one nation to the next, from one culture to the next or from one stratum of society to the next, in how gesture is used and differences in the specific gestures employed in different cultures has long been noted" (Gesture 326). Thus, cultural differences of the kind readily identified in spoken and written expression also influence gesture-not only in the specific gestures used, but in the role gesture plays in a larger economy of communication.

Consideration of gesture has a long history, stretching back at least to the first century with Quintilian's Institutio Oratio, when gestures were discussed alongside rhetoric as a way to emphasize and augment speech. (2) Despite this early history, in which gesture was a stylized mode with clear rhetorical intent, studies of it have periodically viewed gesture as pointing toward universal modes of human expression. Again, Kendon counters this notion: "Gesture has long attracted interest because it seems to be a 'universal' and 'natural' form of expression. Although it seems to be something that is spontaneous and created through the whim of the individual, at the same time it can be shown to be regulated and subject to social convention" (Gesture 3). Kendon thus contests the persistent notion that gestures are uncoded means of expression. Rather than seeing them as promising access to pre-cultural configurations of human nature, Kendon argues that gesture often performs like more conventionalized modes of expression that we understand as culturally specific structures that constrain communication even as they enable it.

This does not mean that gesture never behaves outside linguistic constraints. Gestures play a distinct role when paired with spoken language. David McNeill has described a continuum that classifies them according to their relationship with speech where, at one extreme, gestures are primarily non-linguistic. (3) On one end of this spectrum are gesticulations, which "embody a meaning relatable to the accompanying speech" ("Why" 5) but lack linguistic properties (7). …

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