Alvarez, Julia: Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic

By Johnson, Judy A. | The World and I, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Alvarez, Julia: Vermont Writer from the Dominican Republic


Johnson, Judy A., The World and I


Although born in New York, writer Julia Alvarez spent the first ten years of her life in her family's home in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's rule. Her father's involvement in underground attempts to remove the dictator from power led to the family's move to New York in 1960. Her father worked seven days a week as a physician with an office in a Spanish-speaking section of Brooklyn. During some high school summers and breaks, Julia worked in that office, becoming aware of the class differences between the office and their more prosperous neighborhood.

The Alvarezes were not strangers to the United States. Julia's grandfather had been the Dominican Republic's cultural attache to the United Nations. Her parents had briefly tried living in New York a decade before their 1960 emigration. Her mother, Julia T. Alvarez, attended a girls' private school in New England. She later served for 23 years as the alternate representative from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, donating her salary back to the country she represented. She worked on the Third Committee, which focuses on the most vulnerable people in developing nations. Mrs. Alvarez put forth efforts on behalf of the aged and was instrumental in the UN instituting the International Year of Older Persons in 1999, as well as setting aside October 1 as the International Day of Older Persons. Although her position was largely ceremonial, Mrs. Alvarez took it seriously and was later honored for her work at a 2007 UN session.

Arriving in New York in an era when members of ethnic groups did not celebrate their diversity but were expected to blend into the "melting pot," Alvarez and her three sisters were bullied at school as "spics" and teased about their heavily accented English. Finally her mother arranged for the girls to attend the same boarding school--Abbott in Connecticut--that she had attended. There, they were the only Latinas. There, too, Alvarez found examples of independent and literary women in the teachers with whom she studied.

Following Trujillo's assassination, the Alvarez parents sent their daughters back to the Dominican Republic during the summers to rejoin the rest of the family. While the Alvarezes wanted their daughters to be accepted in the United States, they also did not want them to lose their Hispanic culture.

After finishing college and graduate school, Alvarez earned a living by teaching, taking one-year appointments and adjunct faculty positions wherever she could find them. She has lived in every region of the United States as a result. During these wandering years, she also married and divorced twice before the age of thirty.

In 1991, Alvarez's first novel, "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent," was published to great acclaim. That same year, she received tenure at her alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont, although she later gave up the honor, which required her to teach full-time. She is now writer-in-residence at Middlebury.

A writing life

According to some scholars, Latino literature about the experience of being in the United States began when Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca published "The Shipwrecks" in 1542. However, despite this long heritage, not until the 1970s did Latinos enter mainstream literature in the U.S. Along with Sandra Cisneros, whose novel "The House on Mango Street" appeared in 1983, Alvarez was among the first Latina authors to be published.

Although she had grown up in an oral culture that valued storytelling, Alvarez was not initially interested in books. As a child, she received a copy of "The Arabian Nights" for a gift, and was struck by the character of Scheherazade, the woman who saved her life by telling stories.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Alvarez regarded English as the language of secrets and of worries. Her parents spoke in formal English when they wanted to discuss problems without their daughters' knowledge. …

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