April 29, 2009
Finding Yourself through a Public Identity
Reflections of a Writer’s Identity
Julia Alvarez’ identity as a Dominican-American writer is defined through her culture, language of origin, and experiences of assimilation into American culture. The relevance of Alvarez’ work shaped by these aspects that led her to become a writer is important for contemporary readers, writers, and college students alike because self-discovery is key to forming a public identity. By reading her essays in Something to Declare, I have found that when Alvarez reflects back to her cultural ties, language, and how it defines her as a Dominican-American is the essence to her becoming a teacher, writer, and a bi-cultural identity. This has led me to realize that forming an identity that represents who you are is what shapes an individual’s character.
A person that represents a bi-cultural identity has integrated two dominant cultures; their native culture of origin and a different culture that was introduced or adopted, and has meshed them together to form a new cultural identity. Alvarez developed a bi-cultural identity from being raised in the Dominican Republic from that culture, and then she adopted a new language and identity when she moved to the United States. Faced with a challenging new life to become accepted, Alvarez wanted to be Americanized and relate to the customs of the United States, (37-39) but that didn’t come easily. Trying to understand differences and adjust to new ideas, foods, language, and customs is not an automatic ability to perform.
Alvarez and her two sisters were teased and taunted for the clothes they wore and their funny accents, be it that she spoke Spanish and was from a Dominican background (Alvarez My English,24). Growing up around cruel peers that didn’t look like her, Alvarez had a distorted view of herself and how she looked compared to other Americans. Alvarez states that, “I always felt let down. I knew I would never be one of those girls, ever. It wasn’t just the blond, blue-eyed looks or the beautiful, leggy figure. It was who she was- an American, and we were not. We were foreigners, dark-haired and dark-eyed with olive skin that could never, no matter the sun blocks or foundation makeup, be made into peaches and cream” (Alvarez Miss America 43). Alvarez’ idea of classic Miss America beauty was a false identity of what she actually represented on the inside and out. Comparing yourself to another ethnic background will give you a distorted view of yourself because it is not an ideal representation of who you are. It can lead to lack of self-esteem and feelings of stress, just as acculturation and assimilation can. As Alvarez started learning the English language, she began connecting more to the creative expression taught by her English-speaking teachers but barely spoke Spanish anymore. A bicultural identity can create a confused sense of self, like being caught between worlds of language and culture as Alvarez experienced being from a Dominican background growing up in the U.S. (Family Matters, Alvarez 120-1).
Alvarez’ parents and family members wanted her to retain the Spanish language and Dominican culture. During her many arranged trips back to the Dominican Republic under her parents advice, Alvarez would stay with relatives to reconnect with her native country (Alvarez Customs; La Gringuita 64). She was frequently told, “tienes que hablar en espanol” (64), and was warned by her tias that “too much education in English could spoil a girl’s chances in Spanish” (69). Many Latin-American families are proud of their heritage and want their children to retain the Spanish language. This keeps the native language and culture alive in such a diverse country we live in. It is important to retain and relate to your culture of origin and to the adopted culture in order to have a bicultural identity. Being from a strong, traditional Dominican family, Alvarez was expected to get married, raise a family, and represent her Spanish culture (First Muse, Alvarez 142).
Even though Alvarez doesn’t consider herself a Dominican writer but rather a Dominican-American writer (Declarations 172-173), Alvarez still wants to remain true to her native country which is always apparent throughout her work because of the pride she has as a Latina author, and this is an identity she will always relate to as will being an American (Declarations, 172-174). In regards to her writing, Alvarez considers la gringa (the American) and the Dominican identity as “ a duality that I hope in the writing transcends itself and becomes a new consciousness, a new place on the map, a synthesizing way of looking at the world” (Declarations,173), and says that “though I complain about the confusion and rootlessness of being this mixed breed, I also think it’s what confirmed me as a writer, particularly because I am a woman” (174). Struggling to belong and identify within a new culture and freeing herself from certain restrictions of traditional gender roles as a Dominican female was what gave Alvarez the edge she needed to “rediscover and embrace the Latina in my writing” (174); “as a mobile world, borders are melting, nationalities are on the move; a multicultural perspective as the way to understand the world” (Declarations, 173) bringing forth a bicultural identity.
According to Alvarez, what led her become a writer stemmed from “the watershed experience of coming to this country, the welcoming world of the imagination, and her love for reading, telling, and listening to stories” (Alvarez: About Me). Alvarez’ sense of self began in the D.R., but her identity as a writer fully blossomed when she was taught English and introduced to the world of language in the United States. Alvarez’ quest for an Americanized identity played a major role also in her aspirations as a writer (Declarations, 134-135). Reading the works of Asian-American author Maxine Hong Kingston was how Alvarez discovered a way into her bicultural, bilingual experience (Declarations, 168). Other Latino/American and American writers inspired Alvarez to reach beyond her own potential and strive to become an author herself (168-170). Family and the significant others in Alvarez’ life also tied to her drive as an individual. Her father and grandfather both had a passion for literature and poetry, and one of her tias loved reading books. Alvarez stated that her family members wondered where she got her writing talents from, claiming it came from either side of the family (Customs, 113-15). Alvarez acknowledges that “our history, families, neighborhoods and countries of origin; all of the forces that have shaped us and continue to shape us as persons and, therefore, as writers” (116).
Fleeing to New York with her parents and two sisters was a journey that exposed Alvarez to possibilities she may not have had if she never left the Dominican Republic, an idea she has often thought about before and has responded by saying, “I couldn’t even imagine myself as someone other than the person I had become in English” (Customs, pg. 72). According to Alvarez, “In this new culture, my sisters and I had to find new ways to be, new ways to see, and with the change in language, new ways to speak. It was this opportunity to create ourselves from scratch that led me to become a writer” (Declarations, 156).
Alvarez’ new discovery for writing would remain a permanent force in shaping her evolving identity, but there was a period in her adulthood in which Alvarez was torn between teaching and writing. The love for teaching writing classes as a college professor was what helped pay the bills, but it was a conflicting profession that required most of her time andattention. When Alvarez decided to give up a tenure teaching position to devote her time to writing, a friend who agreed with her choice told her, “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches” and added, “Those who can’t write, teach creative writing.” (Goodbye, Ms. Chips 212). On the contrary, Alvarez disagreed and mentions some great writers who have been great teachers such as author Sandra Cisneros, whose work I have read. I agree with Alvarez because my passion for teaching it is not limited to what I can or cannot do. I don’t want to just teach a lesson, I want to instill learning into youth and ignite creativity just as Alvarez’ teachers did to her, but I also want to create my own educational school and be an active part in the teaching world. Alvarez managed to compromise between her teaching job and writing on the side until she was finally able to dedicate herself as a full-time writer. If I had the time, energy, and resources I would strive to be a writer as well as a teacher because I also share those two passions, along with other creative interests and ideas I have.
Reading Something to Declare and learning more about Alvarez and her work has tied into my own quest for a public identity on so many levels, be it that I once wanted to be a journalist/writer, am currently pursuing an Education degree to become a teacher, and that I identify with a multi-cultural society. There are several types of identities that we as humans portray depending on the environment and who we’re around at the time. Each person has their own public, private, and perceived self that exposes the identity we are trying to show, or hide. Being the strong, sensitive, and concerned individual that I am, I try to show that in my public identity. Like Alvarez, I come from a Spanish background but I also have a more dominant African-American background that is apparent in my appearance. Regardless of how others may perceive me as, I am aware of my mixed heritage and am proud of all that I am and will be.
Unlike Alvarez, my first tongue is English but be it that I was taught Spanish, it was only a matter of time before I would become conflicted on which language I wanted to speak. Maintaining a Spanish identity proved difficult for me because I spoke limited Spanish and the way I looked was not the typical long or curly haired, sun-kissed complexion of a Latina. That didn’t stop me from being involved with Spanish people, but somewhere deep inside I felt like I could never really identify with an all-Spanish culture. As Alvarez mentions in La Gringuita, just because she could dance Merengue didn’t make her more Dominican, and just because I could cook, dance, and listen to Latin music didn’t make me become an all-Spanish girl. Like Alvarez, I needed to find a middle ground.
Trying to have a public identity that best fit me would have to adequately represent who I am as my private self when no one is around. An African-American identity is complex to explain if you understand that your ancestry and history does not start and end only in Africa, a country that I was not born in. I am proud to be an American (sometimes!) and I am proud of my African heritage and fascinating culture, but I also share an Irish and Spanish background. I don’t want to limit my identity, I want to expand and express my identity as a mixed woman, because most of us share several ancestries. The Latin culture itself is a grand combination of African, Indian, and European descent. It is what makes Hispanic culture unique and diverse, and the same can be said for African-American culture because the hyphen in between represents a fine line of lost history hidden between two cultures.
My identity has evolved from an unsure girl to a mature, but still evolving young woman. Like Alvarez, I have retained both my English and Spanish tongue. Although I am better at explaining myself in English, I am capable of relating to and expressing myself in Spanish. With each day that passes, I am learning more creative expression in English and Spanish words, so I am a part of two languages. As far as culture goes, I represent an Afro-Latino identity, or an African-Americanized-Latino identity. My identity as a Teacher and aspiring writer will only evolve in time as I journey towards my path in life.
Julia Alvarez had her first book published at the age of 41 (Alvarez About Me), yet she never gave up on her identity as a writer while she endeavored as a Teacher. In a sense, she has incorporated both talents into her present life as an author/poet by retelling readers what she has accomplished.
Many critics of Alvarez’ work has said she is an inspirational author that has put Latino writers in the front line, and puts deep emotions into her poetry and books. Alvarez is also praised for her “candor and gentle touches of humor as she describes her struggles with cultural hybridism, historical and personal memory, the English language, and its effect on her literary career” (The New York Times Book Review), “made her second language her own” (Entertainment Weekly), “a must read for those who loves and struggles with writing” (The Tampa Tribune), and how Alvarez “artfully reveals how and why she writes” (The Hartford Courant). In the poem Bilingual Sestina, Alvarez’ Spanish voice echoes throughout each stanza as she relishes about the use of Spanish language and how its words seem so open, intimate, and vivid compared to the closed-sounding English language (lines 7-14). In this poem, Alvarez also explains that what she expresses in English is “so close to what I mean that I almost hear my Spanish heart beating, beating inside what I say en ingles” (Bilingual Sestina, lines 37-39), meaning that her English tongue speaks out loud although her heart and soul is engulfed by the inner connection to her Spanish tongue.
Alvarez’ first publisher was Homecoming, a book of various poetry that represent abstract stories of life experiences and her personal thoughts. In other books Alvarez has written generally focus around the lives of women, family, culture, language, strength and courage, and the personal struggles to fulfill your own destiny. These areas are the most riveting ideologies that can be expressed in a form of writing because of the impact it can have on others. Alvarez’ How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are about the lives of four different sisters trying to find themselves in a new world after leaving their native country, the Dominican Republic and Yo!; considered to be the sequel. In the Name of Salome is about a multi-ethnic young woman who fights for what she represents as a woman. I can see the link between the stories Alvarez writes and her own experiences growing up, which is an important relation to identify as a writer. Julia Alvarez is a complex example of how her own identity began in one country, but evolved into a greater understanding and appreciation of when the other writer is the self.
- Alvarez, Julia. “Customs: My English. 24. I Want to Be Miss America.” 37-39, 43. Something to Declare. New York: The Plume Penguin Group, 1999.
- Alvarez, Julia. “Customs: La Gringuita.” Something to Declare. New York: The Plume Penguin Group, 1999. 63-64, 66, 69, 72.
- Alvarez, Julia. “Customs: Family Matters.” Something to Declare. New York: The Plume Penguin Group, 1999. 113-116, 120-1.
- Alvarez, Julia. “Declarations: First Muse.” 134-5, 142. Of Maids and other Muses.” 156. Something to Declare. New York: The Plume Penguin Group, 1999.
- Alvarez, Julia. “Declarations: So Much Depends. 168-170. Dona Aida, With Your Permission. 172-174. Goodbye, Ms. Chips.” 212. Something to Declare. New York: The Plume Penguin Group, 1999.
- Alvarez, Julia. Poem: Bilingual Sestina. Lines 7-14, 37-39.
- Alvarez, Julia. “About Me.” 2009. 15 May, 2009 www.alvarezjulia>.
- Academic Data Base: Homecoming, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yo!, In The Name of Salome. www.bcc.cuny.edu...>.
Julia Alvarez is a Dominican-American writer. She was born on March 27, 1950. Now, she writes about how she learned English. She emphasizes her struggles with English. Julia was born in New York but her parents returned to the Dominican Republic when Alvarez was three months old. When Alvarez was ten, her parents came back to America. Julia became fluent in two languages. Her first language is Spanish and she felt a responsibility to keep it. This became her struggle. She had to learn English at her American school.
She thought of English as a harder version of Spanish. When Julia and her sisters were kids, her parents would use English to talk about things they did not want the children to know. Julia would study her mother's face, trying to figure out what her mother was saying. At the same time, Julia would study her teachers' faces, trying to figure out English.
Julia's mother was the first to break the family tradition and send her girls to higher education. Julia was well Americanized at Abbot Academy. Julia's mother emphasized the importance of learning English. She insisted that they learn English. As hard as Julia tried, a Spanish word slide into her English.
Sister Maria Generosa had a significant impact on Julia when Julia was in the sixth grade. Sister Maria Generosa did not make her memorize verbal rules. She allowed her to use her imagination when she picked up an item for them to translate into English.
No doubt, Julia became fluent in English. She still thought of her English as a harder version of Spanish. But she could speak English as fluently as a Native English speaker. Now she writes in English:
Many of Alvarez's works are influenced by her experiences as a Dominican in the United States, and focus heavily on issues of assimilation and identity. Her cultural upbringing as both a Dominican and an American is evident in the combination of personal and political tone in her writing. She is known for works that examine cultural expectations of women both in the Dominican Republic and the United States, and for rigorous investigations of cultural stereotypes.