Monday, June 27, 2011

Life: Through the Eyes of Las MariposasLatinas Abriendo Camino (Latinas Laying Way)

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Growing up a bicultural woman has put a spotlight on Julia Alvarez’s writing as it is a myriad of diverse issues and thoughts unique to her own personality that make her stand out. Feeling a lack of identity while living in the United States has forced Alvarez to immerse herself in reading and writing, a form of escape due to her being taunted by schoolgirls for her ethnicity and accent. She puts her own personal experiences in her books, making it that more personal and heartwarming to read and feeling a connection with the author formulates a more enjoyable reading adventure, which Alvarez easily does. Her despair, authenticity and effort to represent inner drama of her conversion to an American self has been a hard journey. Julia Alvarez’s Dominican heritage and oppressive childhood experiences in America have greatly influenced her writing and perspective on controversial issues such as rape, abuse, miscarriage, cancer, harassment, and divorce.


Julia Alvarez was born the 7th of March, 150, in New York City. Not long after, her family moved back to the Dominican Republic, where Alvarez lived until the age of ten. She grew up on the family compound surrounded by love and an abundance of maids, sisters, aunts, and other women of the family (Discovering Biography 1). “Although I was raised in the Dominican Republic by Dominican parents in an extended Dominican family, mine was an American childhood” (Discovering Biography 1). Eventually, Alvarez’s family was forced to flee their homeland because a plot involving her father to overthrow the dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, was discovered. On the plane ‘home’ to America she wrote,


. . . All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods,


and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow. . . All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last. (Discovering Biography )


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Alvarez’s high expectations and excitement in returning to her birthplace did not last long though.


While living in the Bronx, her mom encouraged her to consider herself an American, but homesickness, prejudice and alienation by others were some of the devastations she experienced because she did not look like an American. Some of the boys at school called her awful names, names at the time she did not understand, but she understood their angry hurtful faces (Contemporary Authors 4). The faces were normal, they were habitually made to feel inadequate and unworthy to even live amongst the whites.


. . .People of color were treated as if they were inferior, prone to violence, uneducated, untrustworthy, lazy--all the ‘bad’ adjectives we were learning in our new language. . .We were lucky, we were white Dominicans or we would have had a much harder time of it in this country. We would have encountered a lot more prejudice than we already did, for white as we were, we found that our Latino-ness, our accents, our habits and smells, added ‘color’ to our complexion. (O’Hearn 14-144)


Alvarez and her sister did endure much racism and bullying. Often they were yelled at to, “Go back where you came from!” At one point, when the schoolgirls started


throwing rocks at them, their mother decided they were not safe and began applying for boarding school, where Alvarez eventually went at the age of thirteen (O’Hearn 144). Then, “the most frightening thing happened, ‘she explains, ‘I began losing my Spanish before getting a foot-hold in English. I was without a language” (Women of Hope 1). This was a time of feeling a loss and insecurity within herself. All of these experiences contributed to the breaking point in her life on the road to be a writer.


Experience makes a writer and Julia Alvarez certainly attains that. Many of her works are about the emigration process, racism, political involvement, and women’s rights. By the time she went off to college such issues were the focus of everyday American life. This was the era of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and women’s movements. These experiences along with others from her Dominican Republic Island were high on her priority list to write about. “It is in writing, she says, that she has come to understand her life. ‘El papel lo aguanto todo,’ she says, quoting her mother ‘Paper holds everything.’ It is one of the commandments by which she writes-- and lives” (Prescott ). In her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez explores the political nature of the country, and the women’s role within it. She felt a certain responsibility to write about the three Mirabal sisters, who were savagely murdered in 160 by Trujillo’s men, because she did not want their story to be lost or forgotten (Women of Hope ).


. . . She wanted to reach both spheres of her two cultures - so that Dominicans living in the U.S. would remember these remarkable figures in their struggle against tyranny and readers would be familiar with these three women who stood up to oppression in a time of terrible violence. And she wanted to focus the world’s eyes on a part of Dominican history that was about solidarity and moral choices rather than the endless saga of dictators and gangster presidents, revolutions and regimes. (Women of Hope )


Coincidentally, Alvarez’s family fled the country that same year. The day of the murder, November 5, is now celebrated in most Latin American countries as the International Day Against Violence Towards Women.


In the historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez recounts the lives and deaths of the four Mirabal sisters in a format beginning with their childhood and gradually defining how they came to be involved in the liberation movement. “Their


stories ended just as ours [the Alvarez’s] began” (Sirias 6). Alvarez found out while in the Dominican Republic and gathering information, that her father and the Mirabal sisters belonged to the same political underground, where the sisters were known as las Mariposas (the Butterflies) and later became symbols of resistance to Trujillo’s rule. Alvarez has an emotional attachment to this story of the Mirabal’s lives for the sole reason that she is involved, for it was her father’s involvement in a plot to overthrow Trujillo that forced them to flee the country. She wanted to comprehend and grasp her fathers instigative attitude and reasons for being involved.


. . . It was also a desire to understand my parents’ generation, who fell victim to the dictatorship-- la generacion perdida ( the lost generation), as they are known in the Dominican Republic- so much talent, so much energy and faith, so many lives gone to waste. I needed to understand and to redeem the time for myself. ( McClellan 1)


Also, while in the Dominican Republic researching, she met Noris, Patria’s daughter (oldest of the sisters) and Minou, Minerva’s daughter (second youngest), and eventually Dede the only surviving sister, (Sirias 54) who decided on that fateful day not to go with her sisters to visit their husbands in jail. It was after meeting Dede that Julia Alvarez, “was inspired to undertake the task of portraying the lives of the Mirabal sisters in the form of a novel” (Sirias 54).


Dede, the oldest, is in a way the narrator of the story. She is the one that shares the insights and stories that the butterflies could not. The novel is written in a different fashion, with the reader already knowing three of the sisters die, in the beginning pages, but how, why, and what for are the questions that leave the reader wanting to peruse and understand more. The book begins with a gringa dominicana


interviewing Dede about her sisters, for the anniversary of their deaths are approaching. Then, a flashback comes and Dede recalls one night where Patria, Minerva, Maria Teresa, herself and their parents are sitting in rockers outside under the anacahuita tree. As their Papa is telling their futures, he refers to Dede when he mentions, “She’ll bury us all,’ her father adds, laughing, ‘in silk and pearls” (Alvarez 8). Evidently, this is a form of foreshadowing that Dede herself did not want to believe. “ A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn’t want to be the only one left to tell their story” (Alvarez 10). Fiction eventually becomes reality.


The book’s political nature takes over as the main focus of the Mirabal family’s lives. Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic feeling the strong aftermaths of her political society and Trujillo’s strong rule. When beginning her writing career in America, Alvarez also experienced the many riots and protests for women’s rights, segregation, and the Vietnam War, thus greatly influencing her life in both worlds. As the Mirabal sisters mature, they become increasingly involved in the underground revolution. “At the onset, in the sisters’ minds, the idea of a revolution seems glamorous, exciting, and even sexy” (Sirias 55). Las Mariposas recognized a need for change, because Trujillo had the second longest rule in history, over 0 years, and was killing his own people, confiscating property, putting innocent people in jail, and other scandalous atrocities.


The mariposas showed power, courage, resistance and gradually become a symbol for all the other Dominicans. Their high rank among the people, puts a focus on them, eventually leading Trujillo to do something drastic. One night, their Tio (uncle) Pepe is at the house after the sisters have been released from prison and relates a disturbing story to them. While at a reception honoring El Jefe, (informally referring to Trujillo), Tio Pepe overheard El Jefe, who is surrounded by his ‘flies,’ say,


. . . Well, boys, I’ve really only got two problems left. If I could only find the man to resolve them. . .Sure enough the biggest shit lover of all, Pena, says, ‘Jefe, I am at your service. Just tell me your problems and I’ll give my life if needs be-- blah blah blah.’ So El Jefe says, brace yourselves now. He says, looking straight at me, he says, ‘My only two problems are the damn church and the Mirabal sisters.’ (Alvarez 81)


Ultimately, El Jefe’s problems are solved when he hires five of his henchmen to kill the sisters. The morning the three sisters leave Dede shouts, “I don’t want to have to live without you” (Alvarez 66). By now, she had a strong feeling of their fate, she was always nervous each time they drove the treacherous mountain road. Upon driving home from visiting their husbands in jail, a terrible incident occurred. Three of the henchmen each killed a sister, another man killed their driver, while the fifth stood guard on the road. Alvarez’s writing emphasizes the importance of the sisters’ involvement in the political regime. Because of the dangerous lives they led, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were all murdered, while Alvarez’s own family escaped the sisters’ fate. Six months after Trujillo had the sisters killed, he also met the same fate.


Through the Mirabal sisters lives, Alvarez explores themes that apply to her as well freedom, tyranny, and survival (Discovering Authors ). Although the book was well received with the public and her father, whom she thought would give her the hardest time (Authors and Artists for Young Adults ). Her mother did not like it, as she felt the book was “so similar to the Alvarez’s family story” (Authors and Artists for Young Adults ). The inside covers of her book are filled with the names of men and women who were murdered by Trujillo, in a way resembling the wall at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with both a tribute to patriotic anonymity.


Alvarez grew up in hard times in both countries. “Back in the 160’s it was hard going to keep a sense of identity, both as a Dominican and as an American” (Women of Hope ). They were very few role models of Latino writers and little sense of community, when Alvarez grew up (Women of Hope ). In some ways Alvarez has set the precedent for more Latino writers, who are now more recognized. Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian writer, read the Spanish language version of, En el Tiempo de Las Mariposas, (In the Time of the Butterflies), and was inspired to write his most recent novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, which focuses on Trujillo’s dictatorship as well. Seen here is that other American Latino writers as well as Alvarez, are the subjects of literary cross-pollination. Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, and Ana Castilo are some of the new writers whose work she is excited about that is recently being discovered by the younger audience (Women of Hope ). It only takes one person to set the unveiling, to what is now referred to as the Latino music invasion. Years ago, Gloria Estefan was singing herein America, but was not yet well recognized. Ricky Martin came over and shook his butt, and the next thing America is seeing are the faces of Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, and Shakira. Christina Maria Aguilera suddenly wasn’t afraid to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina and I speak Spanish.” The same case is being seen now in the literature world, as many more Latin writers are emerging. . . . How many times did I hear,’ los hombres son de calle, las mujeres de su casa.’ Men belong to the streets (the world), women belong at home. Latinas of my generation were not encouraged to have public voices or to seek any fulfillment outside the parameters of la familia and the church. (McClellan 1)


Unjustly, the women were treated inferior to the men. Latino men are suppose to embody bravery, strength, power, and importance. The man rules over woman, thus men fell entitled to control the behavior of women. Consequently, women are deprived of many professions, privileges, and freedoms because of this control (Sirias 7). Alvarez implies that courage is what kept the Mirabal sisters going, and it gave her her own strength to be a writer. She felt at odds when she became a writer, for in her culture that was not customary. The women stayed at home and raised the children. So, to go outside her own culture and tell stories from the American point of view was sacrificing her own upbringing and all she had known. There was an instance once, when a son wanted to become a doctor. His father, who had immigrated to the United States, realized their place in American society. He told his son that those weren’t jobs they did and would not allow him to pursue that career. It was in a way a disgrace to his family to even think of going outside that line that divided them, Mexican-Americans from the Americans, he should have been proud of what he already was, his heritage and the qualities that came with that.


Julia Alvarez also focuses on the double-standards between men and women. A few decades ago when being a woman had no privileges and rights, they now have equal opportunities. Examples are men having affairs and experimenting with their sexuality. Don Enrique, the father of the Mirabal sisters, was discovered to have a whole other family, a mistress and four daughters (Sirias 80). Nelson, Patria’s son was having sex with a young widow. Patria, being shocked since he was only seventeen, asked her husband Pedrito to talk to him, instead of being alarmed as was Patria he was prideful at the fact he was entering the sexual world early (Sirias 80). Later, Patria also expresses her approval. “But I didn’t resent her, no. She delivered my son gently into manhood from his boyhood, something a mother cannot possibly do” (Alvarez 15). Were the main focus here a women, she would have been horribly scrutinized against, especially in this day, being called a whore, slut and other degrading names.


From being a woman, to an ethnic writer, is distinguishing of Julia Alvarez. Her ethnicity differentiates her from any other mainstream author. Alvarez states, “because I am a Latina, there are certain themes, concerns, ways of focusing subjects to which I gravitate” (Sirias 14). In fact because of their shared heritage, many themes are common among these writers “the importance of family, the importance of religion, acculturation, cultural displacement, assimilation, politics, racism, machismo, superstition, generational differences and so on” (Sirias 14). “I am a Dominican, hyphen, American,’ she comments. ‘As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of the hyphen--the place where two worlds collide or blend together” (Walker 1). Alvarez’s point of view is delightfully positive, joining two different cultures together, especially when in America where segregation shaped many people’s opinions for the worse, normally leaving a permanent position in people’s minds of not to mix the races.


Julia Alvarez’s lasting influence because of her writing on culture is being seen everyday. At a book signing in Tempe, Arizona for Julia Alvarez, many people were sharing their own personal stories dealing with their culture, as a Dominican. One young woman was especially touched, as she related to Mrs. Alvarez that her parents, who used to live in the Dominican Republic, acted as if it was a topic that was not discussed, it was “hush-hush,” and by reading her books, it helped understand her own culture and what her parents went through. Another young woman, also a Dominicana, started to cry and expressed to everyone that through her books, Alvarez was telling her own mother’s story and how she escaped the Dominican Republic and Trujillo’s harsh rule. Tears came to everyone’s eyes as it was extremely heartwarming, the effect this one woman, a talented writer, can have on people.


As one can see Julia Alvarez’s bicultural life and distressing childhood


experiences in America greatly influence her writing and therein her controversial themes and lasting mark in not only our culture, but others as well. She still experiences racism and prejudice today. “As Julia Alvarez stepped up to give a talk about her first novel... a Dominican girl in the audience turned to her friend and said, ‘What she got to say to us? She’s a white girl’” (Authors and Artists for Young Adults 1). Now, though, she has a way to deal with that, writing, a talent she acquired from people like these two girls, they gave her a reason to write. Such issues as immigration, alienation, heritage, identity, sacrifice, fear, abuse, violence, and rebellion are what gravitate readers to Alvarez’s writing (Sirias 8). For these themes are real in life, not just something written about in a book. Her unique experiences combined with natural history make her writing diverse from that of any American or Hispanic writer.





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