Inventing Identities: Becoming a Mestiza in Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican

By Shauna Maragh

In the first chapter of Julia Alvarez’s novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yolanda Garcia struggles to resolve a dilemma she faces her entire life: “What language […] did she love in?” (Alvarez 13).  Alvarez raises an issue beyond whether or not Yolanda speaks English or Spanish; language represents one aspect of the cultural divide Yolanda experiences as a Dominican-American hybrid.  Throughout her life, Yolanda yearns for complete inclusion into one side of the dichotomy, as either Dominican or American, in hopes of understanding her identity; however, as a hybrid, she notices that she possesses characteristics of both sides, which prevents assimilation into either polarity.

Yolanda’s cultural insecurities bear similarities to Negi’s experiences in Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican.  Growing up in Puerto Rico, Negi suffers as a result of two dichotomies: the social binary between the Puerto Rican subcultures of city dwellers and country folk, known as jibaros, and the cultural binary of Puerto Rican nationalism and American imperialism.  Moreover, her experience in-between subcultures affect her reaction to American cultural influence in Puerto Rico.  Once she moves to New York, Negi becomes a Puerto Rican-American hybrid, and her divided loyalties between the two cultures leaves her feeling insecure about her identity.

Gloria Anzaldua’s theory of the mestiza consciousness resembles both the manner in which Negi and Yolanda address cultural dichotomies and the way in which they learn to embrace their bi-cultural heritages.  Anzaldua’s discussion of a hybrid’s ambivalence explains how unconscious motivations guide both protagonists toward certain cultural stances, and her inclusive model of hybridity, called the mestiza consciousness, mirrors the type of hybrid identity both protagonists form.  In what follows, I will, first, focus on how cultural binaries affect Negi’s construction of identity and how certain scenes suggest that adult Negi resolves her hybridity issues.  Second, I will examine how Yolanda’s ambivalence in-between the Dominican-American cultural binary affects her mental state and her relationship with her husband.  In addition, I will also argue that Anzaldua’s theory illuminates how Yolanda’s physical trek through a guava grove simultaneously describes the internal process of constructing a hybrid identity.

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldua discusses how a mestiza exists as a result of “racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinzation”; rather than viewing a hybrid as inferior, she argues from a figurative (as well as biologically sound) viewpoint that the “rich gene pool” a hybrid inherits from her ancestors makes her a stronger individual than a person who is not a hybrid (Anzaldua 2212).

A mestiza gains strength once she learns to tap into her gene pool, and then “an ‘alien’ consciousness is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness” (2212).  The use of the word “alien” suggests that this consciousness is not culturally inherited in the cross-pollinization process but, rather, is created by the hybrid.  Unlike Bakhtin[1], Anzaldua rejects a binary model of hybridity when she says that the mestiza consciousness cannot be described as a melding of “separated pieces” or the “balancing of opposing powers” (2214).

Instead, Anzaldua’s use of the word “alien” as well as her description of the mestiza consciousness as a “synthesis” bears similarities to Homi Bhabha’s description of the “‘Third Space’” as: “‘neither the one […] nor the other […] but something else besides which contests the terms and territories of both’” (qtd. in Young 23).  Bhabha’s theory calls for a model of hybridity not contained within a binary.  Indeed, Anzaldua’s description of the “synthesis,” which creates the mestiza consciousness, suggests that her model of hybridity also exists apart from the dichotomy: “the self has added a third element”—the third element sounding akin to Bhabha’s third space—“which is greater than the sum of the severed parts.  That third element is a new consciousness—a mestiza consciousness” (2214).  In constructing a mestiza consciousness, a hybrid transcends the binary because the new consciousness is greater than the sum of the two parent cultures.

According to Anzaldua, the mestiza consciousness forms as a necessary coping mechanism for a hybrid’s existence between cultures.  When Anzaldua describes the mestiza consciousness as the “consciousness of the Borderlands,” she uses a mixed metaphor to describe literally the border of two countries as well as the figurative border between two cultures (2212). A hybrid’s borderland existence makes her think that she has to identify with only one culture, but Anzaldua describes how the act of choosing leads to confusion and psychological pain: “The ambivalence from the clash of voices results in mental and emotional states of perplexity. […] The mestiza’s dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness” (2212).  Thus, the difficulty of life on the borderlands is the internal struggle hybrids face as they vacillate between conflicting cultures.  As a result, a hybrid might choose one side of the cultural border and resist the other side with a “counterstance,” but Anzaldua rejects such a path when she writes, “it is not a way of life” (2213).  She explains that maintaining mental boundaries (in order to block influences of one culture) causes psychological stress on the hybrid.  To end this pain, a hybrid must form a hybridity that “includes rather than excludes” (Anzaldua 2213).  Although a hybrid may want to choose one culture over another, she cannot deny any part of her cultural heritage when forming a mestiza consciousness.

At some point, a catalyst, such as “an intense, and often painful emotional event,” shocks a mestiza out of “ambivalence” and starts the process of forming the mestiza consciousness (Anzaldua 2213).  The process occurs subconsciously as the hybrid starts “uniting all that is separate” and adds the third element of the mestiza consciousness (2213-2214).  Once a hybrid forms a mestiza consciousness, Anzaldua discusses how a hybrid abdicates the counterstance in favor of standing on both banks of the cultural divide: “we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores and, at once, see through the serpent and eagle eyes” (2213).  In this moment, a hybrid simultaneously incorporates both cultures and becomes the “something else” known as the mestiza.

In Santiago’s novel, Negi learns to define herself in relation to social dichotomies.  Early in her childhood, she learns of the binary between the Puerto Rican subcultures of city dwellers and country folk (known as jibaros), and once she attends school, she learns of the cultural dichotomy of Puerto Rican nationalism and American imperialism.  When she lives in Puerto Rico, she easily aligns herself with Puerto Rican values, but when she moves to New York, she feels insecure when she discovers that her hybrid identity includes aspects of both cultures.

Although popular Puerto Rican songs celebrate the values of jibaros as symbolic of Puerto Rican nationalism, Negi learns that she should identify with being born in the city rather than become associated with poor jibaros (Santiago 12).  Despite her mother’s insistence that they are not jibaros, Negi encounters difficulties when she enters urban Puerto Rican education systems.  Once she moves from rural Macun to the city of Santurce, Negi describes the plight of being labeled on the unfavorable side of the social dichotomy: “In Santurce I had become what I wasn’t in Macun.  In Santurce a jibara was something no one wanted to be” (39).  When Negi moves to El Mangle, the discrimination intensifies when the teacher targets Negi for torment: “She treated me like I had a disease” (150).  The torment she receives while attending urban schools causes her to feel shame about her family’s poverty: “I walked to and from school beside myself, watching the jibara girl with eyes cast down, the home-cut hair, the too large gestures and too loud voice, the feet unaccustomed to shoes” (39).  Her internalized shame over her poverty plays a crucial role in determining her counterstance when she vomits American food.

Once Negi learns of the dichotomy between American imperialism and Puerto Rican nationalism, she immediately assumes a counterstance against American culture, using food as resistance.  After her father explains how American imperialism tries to change Puerto Rican culture, Negi’s counterstance demonstrates a self-preservation technique that Anzaldua discusses: “subconsciously, we see an attack on ourselves and our beliefs as a threat and we attempt to block [it]” (2213).  Indeed, Negi’s conversation with her father about American imperialism influences how she conceptualizes resistance.  Marshall raises a valid observation that Negi’s food preferences symbolize her nationalistic loyalty to Puerto Rico (52).  Moreover, Santiago portrays a solid connection between food and Puerto Rican nationalism when Negi worries that eating American food will convert her, and her father’s reply reinforces the food/nationalism association: “‘Only if you like it better than our Puerto Rican food’” (74).  Although his reply seems innocent, she internalizes an equation of resistance with the dislike of American food.  As a result, a combination of internalized shame over her poverty and her counterstance motivates her to spin an embarrassing situation into an act of protest.

One way to interpret the scene where Negi vomits American food would be to say that she uses her body to speak by purging colonialism.  Anzaldua discusses how the body becomes a site for mestizas to resolve the internal conflicts brought about by opposing cultural messages: “la mestiza undergoes a struggle of the flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war” (2212).  Thus, internal struggles manifest in physical symptoms as Negi vomits to expresses her loyalty to Puerto Rico.  According to AnaLouise Keating, this emphasis on the “recognition of intense physical and psychological pain” makes Anzaldua’s theory of body-writing separate from Cixous’s, because addressing the body’s suffering acknowledges “the specific difficulties experienced by women of color” (125).  Therefore, women of color use physical suffering to voice psychological pain resulting divided cultural loyalties.

Thus, Negi uses her body to prove her stance in the cultural divide.  The peanut butter in the milk literally and metaphorically represents American cultural influence, and Negi gags when she swallows the peanut butter chunks.  Santiago’s description of the vomiting gives the impression that the biological act has psychological motivations when Negi expels “what little I swallowed” (Santiago 82).  Considering her internalization of her father’s advice, one can see how she would take pride in symbolically demonstrating Puerto Rican nationalism through the rejection of American food.  Indeed, her actions reflect Anzaldua’s comments about pride as a leading factor in a counterstance: “The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant” (2213).  In demonstrating that she does not like American food, Negi chooses one side of Anzaldua’s metaphorical riverbank.

While pride plays a factor in her stance, shame also motivates her defiance.  When a teacher scolds her for vomiting, Negi defends her actions by claiming the milk is sour.  Once the teacher criticizes Negi’s poverty, Negi’s anti-colonial defiance flares as a result of shame: “‘My Mami and Papi can feed us without your disgusting gringo imperialist food!’” (Santiago 82).  Indeed, Marshall makes a valid point in saying that Negi assumes a counterstance in order to combat her feelings of shame, but Marshall’s interpretation focuses only on colonialism’s influence.  In Marshall’s view, Negi vomits to expel “the shame of being Puerto Rican in a colonial context” because Boricua pride has roots in colonial shame (51).  The Boricua identity formed as a result of Puerto Ricans living in an environment in which they were “degraded” by colonialism, and while they draw pride from being Boricua, Marshall sees the historical manifestation of Boricua shame resurfacing in “Santiago’s negotiations of shame, pride, and identity” (48).  Thus, Marshall claims that Negi’s vomiting has solely colonial motivations because American imperialism makes her simultaneously aware of her poverty and Boricua shame.

Nevertheless, Negi’s reaction has more nuances than simply shame over colonialism; her shame from the discrimination in the city dweller/jibara dichotomy also affects her stance.  When the teacher first reprimands Negi, Negi blames the milk for an involuntary gag response; however, she only takes an anti-colonial stance after the teacher stereotypes her as an inferior jibara: “‘I suppose you’d find it less repugnant to go hungry every morning!’” (Santiago 82).  This comment arouses the suppressed shame Negi feels concerning the label of jibara, and thus she widens her stance to include a defense for her family’s poverty.  Negi reacts vehemently because she finds herself simultaneously caught in the perceived inferior side of two dichotomies.  She is both a hybrid of Puerto Rican subcultures as well as a hybrid of two cultures, and she reacts with counterstances because she has yet to become a mestiza.

After she moves to New York, Negi encounters a different set of metaphorical riverbanks, with newly arrived Puerto Ricans on one side and Brooklyn Puerto Ricans on the other.  Her vacillation between the two groups resembles Anzaldua’s description of the ambivalence stage.  As a child, Negi resists learning English and liking American food, but as a teenager in America, her changing preferences cause her to feel unsure of her identity.  Instead of being resistant to American culture like other transplanted Puerto Ricans, she “felt disloyal for wanting to learn English, for liking pizza” (230).  As she embraces American culture, she discovers she cannot classify herself in the new social dichotomy: “I didn’t feel comfortable with the newly arrived Puerto Ricans who stuck together in suspicious little groups […].  And I was not accepted by the Brooklyn Puerto Ricans, who held their secret of coolness” (230).  According to Anzaldua’s theories, she will remain at this ambivalent stage until a catalyst starts the process of creating a mestiza consciousness.

Unfortunately, Santiago does not relate any specific catalytic events, but the flight scene, prologue, and epilogue all suggest that Negi forms a mestiza consciousness by the time she reaches adulthood.  In the flight scene, Santiago’s placement of the comment, “For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created,” hints of a mestiza consciousness because physical traveling occurs in liminal spaces (209).  Thus, the geographical liminal space of air transit represents the figurative liminal space in-between cultures, and Santiago’s placement of the phrase is appropriate because the third space emerges in liminal spaces.  Since the plane is in the air between Puerto Rico and New York, Negi cannot identity with Puerto Rico anymore (because she has physically left the land), but she cannot identify with American culture (because she has yet to arrive).  As Negi transcends physical borders while in flight, she unconsciously starts the path toward healing the internal borderlands of her hybridity.

The ambiguity of the prologue and epilogue allows for varied interpretation concerning whether or not Negi’s hybridity empowers or destroys her.  In the prologue, Negi allows the memories of her childhood to flood her as she holds a guava, and her ability to recount her past without eschewing painful memories connected with either culture suggests she has formed a mestiza consciousness.  Although a first person narrator could be unreliable, Santiago does not suggest that Negi hides any memories because she discloses personal and traumatic information about her childhood.  Because Negi includes perspectives from different times when she stands on either side of the Puerto Rican-American binary, her ability to recall both demonstrates what Anzaldua describes as: “on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes” (2213).  As a mestiza, Negi examines her life through the perspectives of both cultures.  The narrative, at first, appears biased in favor of Puerto Rico and then biased in favor of American culture at the end, but this narrative progression follows the sequential changes of Negi’s viewpoints.  Adult Negi’s ability to recall the past without favoring one particular bias throughout the narration demonstrates her ability to embrace both cultures equally.  Only a mestiza can transition between the cultural perspectives in such a manner.

Indeed, Mayock would agree because she feels that Negi demonstrates the ability to transition between two cultures; she argues that Negi is “[at] ease between past and present, English and Spanish, desire and reality, and narration and action” (229).  Certainly, Negi’s ability to recall her childhood in terms of both cultures demonstrates a mestiza’s acceptance of her hybridity.  In order for a mestiza to be whole, she “operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” (Anzaldua 2213).  An example of this concept occurs in the prologue when Negi replaces the guava and turns toward American fruits.  Although this scene seems to suggest that she chooses American culture over Puerto Rican, she does not block out her Puerto Rican memories from resurfacing—even painful memories of hardship, humiliation, and poverty.  Despite the ugliness of those events, she tells the audience of her experiences.  In addition, the words describing the American fruits as “predictable and bittersweet” suggest that Negi’s has ambivalent feelings toward American culture as well (Santiago 4).  If she had sided solely with American culture, she would not use ambiguous terms such as bittersweet; this seems to suggest that she has endured hardships in America as well as positive experiences.

Nevertheless, naysayers would argue that Negi does not resolve her identity issues or that she chooses American culture over Puerto Rican.  Khader claim that Negi cannot feel at home in either the United States, because of racial issues and second-class citizenship, nor in Puerto Rico, because of her childhood trauma.  Because of her homelessness, she does not have the means to create a stable hybrid identity; as a solution, she would need to find solace in the shared experiences of a larger transnational community and form a transnational identity (Khader).  Seeking identity within a transnational community would be a viable alternate route for Negi, and thus it is important to note that many avenues besides the mestiza consciousness exist for addressing hybridity issues.

In addition to Khader, Szadziuk argues that Santiago’s ambivalent attitude toward Negi’s past suggests that Negi aligns more with American culture.  Szadziuk’s assertion that the novel is a “childhood paradise lost” suggests that Negi adopts an American Westernized viewpoint of the inferior other as exotic.  Szadziuk has a valid point when considering the epilogue of the novel; Santiago implies that after adult Negi achieves success, she forgets her childhood identity: “I had forgotten the skinny brown girl with the curled hair, wool jumper, and lively hands” (Santiago 269).  Although this scene demonstrates the ambiguity Santiago develops concerning Negi’s cultural loyalties as an adult, it does not mean that Negi had not created a mestiza consciousness.  Anzaldua’s theory describes a utopian mestiza, but perhaps an actual mestiza may gravitate to one riverbank or another, depending on certain factors in her life.  While this might not follow the exact model of the ideal mestiza, one must remember that the most important aspect of a mestiza is that she includes both cultures in her identity.  When adult Negi remembers her audition, she does not deny her childhood identity; instead, she acknowledges her past as an integral component to the person she is now.

In Alvarez’s novel, Yolanda also suffers from divided loyalties.  As a Dominican-American, she vacillates in-between cultures, but she addresses her hybridity issues differently than Negi.  Yolanda’s issues with language and her numerous nicknames symbolize the many divisions she feels as a bi-cultural hybrid, and rather than establish counterstances (like Negi does), Yolanda hopes that a lover’s acceptance of her identity will unite the fractured pieces into a whole.

When she dates Rudy, Yolanda becomes more aware of her position in-between a cultural binary.  She wants to emulate the behavior of her college peers, but she abstains because of her internalized Dominican values.  Due to her parents’ teachings and Catholic beliefs, she resists his advances for sex.  Her internal conflicts resemble the cultural confusion Anzaldua describes: “the mestiza faces the dilemma of the mixed breed: which collectivity does the daughter of a darkskinned mother listen to?” (2212).  When Yolanda discovers that her personal beliefs about sex differ from her American peers, she expresses anger toward her Dominican heritage; she blames her conservative upbringing for denying her the lifestyle she thinks American-born college students have: “For the hundredth time, I cursed my immigrant origins.  If only I had been born in Connecticut or Virginia, I too would understand the jokes everyone was making […] I too would be having sex and smoking dope” (Alvarez 94).  Yolanda craves assimilation into the American side of the metaphorical riverbank, and she worries that her hybridity will prevent her from romantically connecting with another man: “I would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles” (99).  Thus, in her future relationships, she searches for a lover who will understand her identity.

The name game Yolanda plays with her American husband, John, symbolizes her efforts to find external acceptance of her hybridity.  Alvarez portrays Yolanda’s cultural divisions as a list of Spanish and English nicknames given to her by her family and John.  Each name has a special meaning, which relates to many facets of her hybrid identity.  Newton argues that the plethora of names has a direct correlation to Yolanda’s hybridity issues: “Her different names demonstrate her straddled position between cultures that she has yet to learn to cross confidently” (59).  Rather than focus on self-acceptance of her hybridity, Yolanda hopes that her husband’s validation of her identity will heal the division.  She wants John to learn about her identity through a rhyming game, but John gives Yolanda more English nicknames instead of acknowledging her Spanish name; she feels that he cannot understand her, and she emotionally disengages from him: “And Yo was running, like the mad, into the safety of her first tongue, where the proudly monolingual John could not catch her, even if he tried” (Alvarez 72).  Although the cultural differences between them include many facets besides language, reducing the problem to a matter of language allows for a simplified portrayal of the cultural rift between Yolanda and John.

After John fails to give her the completeness she craves, the mental suffering she endures mirrors the hardship Anzaldua describes when conflicting cultural messages inflicts “a swamping of her [a hybrid’s] psychological borders” (Anzaldua 2213).  Eventually the internal struggle Yolanda wages causes her to have a mental breakdown.  Although Alvarez does not describe the events leading up to a pivotal fight, John eventually reaches a point where he screams that she needs a “‘goddam shrink’” (Alvarez 73).  Yolanda’s breakdown demonstrates that she needs to find internal acceptance of her hybridity rather than external validation.

During her breakdown, Yolanda cannot comprehend John’s words.  Although Yolanda understands fluent English and Spanish (the two sides of the dichotomy), her insecurities leave her stranded in a liminal space where everything she hears resembles “babble” (Alvarez 78).  Nothing she says or hears makes sense.  This liminal space has the potential for healing with the creation of the mestiza consciousness, and indeed, Alvarez hints of a potential for recovery when she writes, “Maybe now they could start over, in silence” (78).  However, Yolanda avoids confronting her issues and leaves her husband.  Her letter to John demonstrates how the opposing riverbanks of her hybridity has divided her: “I’m needing some space, some time, until my head-slash-heart-slash-soul—No, no, no, she didn’t want to divide herself anymore” (78).  Her desire to solve her cultural divisions demonstrates that she needs to construct an inclusive model of identity, like the mestiza consciousness.

In rehab, Yolanda realizes the role language plays in defining her identity.  Indeed, Hoffman discusses how the time she spends in “forced self-examination” pushes her to understand “the power of language in her life” (Hoffman).  As a poet, Yolanda expresses herself through words, but until her fight with John, she never decides whether English or Spanish best articulates her identity.  Caught in-between the binary, she suffers psychologically as she tries to say the word love in both languages.  Ironically, another poet articulates the question for which she unconsciously searches her entire life: “What language […] did she love in?” (Alvarez 13).  Although this question occurs chronologically after the breakdown, Alvarez poses it in the first chapter because the poet’s query defines Yolanda’s quest to understand her identity.

In her endeavor to redefine herself, Yolanda returns to the Dominican Republic, and she tries a new counterstance in the hope of discovering her identity.  As a child, she had taken a stance against Dominican culture, but in a desperate desire to avoid facing her hybridity insecurities, Yolanda realigns herself with Dominican culture: “She and her sisters have led such turbulent lives—so many husbands, homes, jobs, wrong turns among them.  But look at her cousins, women with households and authority […].  Let this turn out to be my home” (Alvarez 11).  In wanting the life that she would have had if not for political exile, Yolanda hopes that she will gain the identity—and thus stability—to which her Dominican heritage entitles.  As she immerses in Dominican culture, Yolanda listens to the advice of her aunts: “She has sat back quietly, hoping she has learned, at last, to let the mighty wave of tradition roll on through her life and break on some other female shore” (9).  Alvarez’s shore bears similarities to Anzaldua’s description of riverbank shores.  Yolanda reestablishes her position on the shore of her childhood with the hope of ameliorating her internal divisions.

Yolanda’s craving for guavas symbolize her identity quest, and the physical trek through the guava grove symbolizes the internal processes in becoming a mestiza.  When the aunts’ maid describes an antojo as an intense craving when a person is “‘ taken over by un santo who wants something,’” Yolanda realizes that she desires a guava (Alvarez 8).  Yolanda hopes tasting a guava will help her reconnect with her childhood.  After exile traumatically rips her from the life she knew in the Dominican Republic, she spends her adult life as a hybrid living in another culture.  Thus, the antojo symbolizes Yolanda’s desire to understand her past, and William asserts that her expedition “symbolizes a spiritual journey in search of a communion […] with a mythical past associated with her childhood” (843).  William’s use of the word mythical suggests that Yolanda does not want to truly connect with current Dominican culture, but rather piece together a lifestyle she can barely recall but had once defined her.  In hopes of finding such an idealistic life—free from the binary—she assumes a counterstance against her American life: “Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never” (12).  From the evidence in the novel, one finds this statement to be untrue.  For most of Yolanda’s life, she identifies with American culture and denounces the Dominican lifestyle: “We began to develop a taste for the American teenage good life, and soon, Island was old hat, man” (Alvarez 108).  Her counterstance against Dominican culture lasted from her teenage years into adulthood.  Thus, her statement about not feeling at home in the United States demonstrates how ambivalence leaves a mestiza unsure of her loyalties.

Yolanda’s physical journey through the guava grove symbolizes the internal processes of forming a mestiza consciousness.  As Yolanda drives through the grove, she faces her fears as she tries to find an answer to the poet’s question.  The path through the guava grove resembles another liminal space because the road divides the grove into metaphorical riverbanks: “on either side of the road are groves of guava trees” (Alvarez 17).  The two sides of the riverbank represents the cultural divide her of hybridity, and her position in the road symbolizes a liminal space in-between cultures.  She experiences the same insecurity as when John’s words sounded like babble, but although “she wants to turn back” out of the grove, she must continue traveling to the third space because “there is no room” to change direction and retreat (17).  The physical limitations of the grove force her to confront her hybridity issues in the third space.

When two men arrive and ask in Spanish if they can assist her, Yolanda wants to reply in Spanish, “but her tongue feels as if it has been in her mouth like a rag to keep her quiet” (Alvarez 19-20).  Her inability to express herself in Spanish symbolizes that her identity will never be completely Dominican.  After the men ask if she is American, she sees an opportunity for a new identity: “She had been too frightened to carry out any strategy, but now a road is opening before her” (20).  This phrase simultaneously relates external and internal events, and the figurative new road is the mestiza consciousness.  In the liminal space of the guava grove, she sees a new pathway that she had previously avoided: the third space.  In this space she discovers what Anzaldua says a mestiza learns: “nothing is thrust out” (2213).  At her aunt’s house, her aunts force her to abandon English in favor of Spanish, but once she discovers that she needs all aspects of her bi-cultural heritage, including English, she regains her voice: “she begins to speak, English, a few words, of apology at first, then a great flood of explanation” (Alvarez 20).  The confidence she gains from self-validating her hybridity grants her the ability to express herself; because the mestiza consciousness is a hybridity model based on wholeness from divided parts, she finds the completeness she needs.

The answer to the poet’s question is both—both languages are her native languages—because choosing only one destroys her voice.  Language only fails her in the scenes when she disowns one of her languages.  Although Yolanda thinks she accidentally discovers her answer, in actuality, Anzaldua has an explanation for how a mestiza arrives at such a revelation: “The work takes place underground—subconsciously” (2213).  Yolanda’s instinct to speak in English comes from her unconscious.  Once Yolanda learns that she needs both languages, she becomes an expressive mestiza.  Indeed, Mayock sees the inclusion of two languages in the narrative as symbolic of a strong, expressive hybrid identity: “These young women […] never stop […] speaking, and writing from the border […] this linguistic blend gives rise not to silence, but instead to a rush of words whose flow will not be stemmed” (227).  The flow of words springs from a mestiza’s ability to use both languages for expression.

Similar to the ambiguity in Santiago’s prologue and epilogue, Alvarez’s obscure first and last chapters cause some critics to think that Yolanda never resolves her issues.  For example, Cowart argues that no “simple road [exists] that will lead to their [Yolanda’s identity problems’] resolution,” and he interprets the Palmolive poster to suggest that “Yolanda will never fit again” (46).  Cowart’s assertion about a non-existent simple solution has merit; the mestiza consciousness is a path, but it is not simple.  However, the grove scene demonstrates that Yolanda resolves her identity issues because one she finds her voice, she frees herself of the metaphorical restraints that prevent her from literally moving toward the car (and figuratively moving forward in her life): “And as if after dragging up roots, she has finally managed to yank them free of the soil they have clung to, and she finds she can move her own feet toward the car” (Alvarez 21).  Without a theory such as Anzaldua’s to illustrate how this scene demonstrates internal resolution as well as external events, then it is plausible that critics such as Cowart do not see the progress Yolanda makes.

Other critics argue that the mother cat’s haunting suggests that Yolanda’s identity remains fractured.  According to William, the mother cat represents the hardship Yolanda endures as a result of motherland exile: “The nightmares recall […] Yolanda’s own trauma of being taken from her natural environment” (847).  Thus, William concludes that Yolanda’s story matches a common theme among Caribbean Hispanics who travel continuously between North America and their native countries in “an eternal quest for identity” (848).  Although Yolanda’s story seems to resemble such a trend, one could also argue that William’s assessment fails to realize how Yolanda’s treatment of the cat suggests she had addressed her issues.  While some critics could negatively interpret the cat’s presence, arguably, Yolanda needs the cat because it is a defining element of her hybridity.  As a mestiza, she retains aspects of her identity that Anzaldua would label as “the ugly,” such as the trauma of her exile; however, instead of letting the trauma consume her, she uses her past to inspire her (2213).  The cat resides “at the center of my art,” because it is a vital component of her mestiza consciousness; indeed, the mestiza consciousness is where Yolanda finds the creativity for expression.  If she discards the memories of her trauma, she would no longer have the essential focal point Anzaldua describes.  She needs the cat for wholeness and expression, and Yolanda’s acknowledgement of the cat’s presence suggests that she has become a mestiza.

Although their hybrid heritages cause both protagonists to feel insecure, moments of intense emotional conflicts have the potential for healing because the mestiza consciousness emerges in liminal spaces.  While Santiago does not present the precise moment in which Negi forms a mestiza consciousness, the flight scene and adult Negi’s ability to recount the past through the perspectives of both cultures suggest that she embraces her hybridity.  Similarly, Alvarez’s grove scene and the cat’s presence demonstrate that Yolanda has become an expressive mestiza.

As mestizas, both protagonists discover that their hybrid heritages give them resilience.  According to Anzaldua, “the mestiza is designed for preservation under a variety of conditions […] she will survive the crossroads” (2215).  Indeed, the mestiza consciousness is an important survival tool for a hybrid.  Although they may encounter new challenges in the future, both Negi and Yolanda have necessary cultural resources from which they can draw for strength, expression, and perseverance.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. New York: Plume, 1991. Print.

Anzaldua, Gloria. from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The Norton Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitech. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001. 2211-2223. Print.

Cowart, David. Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Print.

Hoffman, Joan M. “‘She wants to be called Yolanda now’: Identity, Language, and the Third Sister in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” Bilingual Review 23.1 (Jan.-Apr. 1998): 21-28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 February 2009.

Keating, AnaLouise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Print.

Khader, Jamil. “Subaltern Cosmopolitanism: Community and Transnational Mobility in Caribbean Postcolonial Feminist Writings.” Feminist Studies 29.1 (Spring 2003): 63-82. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 February 2009.

Marshall, Joanna Barszewska. “‘Boast now, chicken, tomorrow you’ll be stew’: Pride, Shame, Food, and Hunger in the Memoirs of Esmeralda Santiago.” MELUS 32.4 (Winter 2007): 47-68. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 January 2009.

Mayock, Ellen C. “Bicultural Construction of Self in Cisneros, Alvarez, and Santiago.” Bilingual Review 23.3 (Sept.-Dec. 1998): 223-229. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 January 2009.

Newton, Pauline T. Transcultural Women of the Late-Twentieth Century U.S. American Literature. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2005. Print.

Santiago, Esmeralda. When I was Puerto Rican. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.

Szadziuk, Maria. “Culture as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-Ethnic Space.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 32.3 (Sept. 1999): 109-129. Research Library Core. ProQuest. Web. 15 February 2009.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

William, Luis. “A Search for Identity in Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” Callaloo 23.3 (Summer 2000): 839-849. JSTOR. Web. 15 February 2009.


[1]Bakhtin’s definition of hybridity can be interpreted as a combination of binary opposites because it is a “doubleness that both brings together, fuses, but also maintains separation” (Young 22).

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