Lately, I’ve been thinking about writing a novel on growing up half Cuban/Latina and half European/white, and what that means to me and how I identify. When I was younger, I never really thought about this. And I know I never really had to think about it because I was perceived as white and was never discriminated against because of my skin color/name/ethnicity. No one knew I was Cuban unless I told them. But then I would come home from school to my mom cooking picadillo on the stove and maybe one of her telenovelas playing in the background. Whenever my aunts visited (especially my Aunt Maggie), there was always loud voices and spanish words flying back and forth. I always felt connected to my heritage, but never explored my identity until recently. I still don’t know how to identify; I have a hard time saying I’m white even though I benefit from white skin privilege because I can’t deny my blood, and I have a hard time identifying as Latina BECAUSE I benefit from that white skin privilege. Being biracial or bicultural is a confusing thing.
Ever since I’ve been exploring my identity, and even before, I have been trying to read more Latina/Cuban writers. I feel connected to them; it’s like I’m reading my family history or reading prose by someone who understands me. And as a woman, their voices are relatable to my own feelings. Even if you’re not Latina, it’s still really important to read any published works you can by these women to understand their experiences – knowledge is power. And that is why I am going to share their life and works with you. Every few weeks, I hope to review another Latina writer. But for the first article on Latina writers, I chose to do my favorite author. Leave a comment if you’ve read her, or if this blog made you want to read her!
Born: March 27th, 1950
Julia was raised in the Dominican Republic, but was born in New York City. Her parents left NYC soon after she was born and returned to the D.R. They were still under the dictatorship of Trujillo, and her father became involved in the underground. When Alvarez was 10 years old, her family fled back to the United States after the underground’s failed attempt to overthrow the dictator. She knew little English, and was often made fun of by her classmates. Throughout grammar school and high school, Julia was extremely determined and knew she wanted to be a writer. On her website, she states:
“When I’m asked what made me into a writer, I point to the watershed experience of coming to this country. Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word — great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books. There, I sunk my new roots. Of course, autobiographies are written afterwards. Talk to my tías in the D.R. and they’ll tell you I was making up stuff way before I ever set foot in the United States of America. (And getting punished for it, too. Lying, they called it back then.) But they’re right. As a kid, I loved stories, hearing them, telling them. Since ours was an oral culture, stories were not written down. It took coming to this country for reading and writing to become allied in my mind with storytelling.”
In 1971, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Middlebury College with a Bachelor or Arts degree. In 1975, she received a Masters in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. Afterwards, she began teaching creative writing at high schools and then colleges.
In 1991, while she was teaching at Middlebury College, she published her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a story about four sisters coming to the U.S. from the D.R. with their family. It was a very big success, and she ultimately left her tenured teaching position to become a full-time writer. Future works included In The Time of the Butterflies, Something to Declare, !Yo!, In the Name of Salome, and Saving the World.
In addition to writing, Alvarez and her husband started an organic sustainable coffee farm and literacy center in the Dominican Republic. Proceeds from the coffee go to the school located on the farm which teaches literacy to adults and children as well as where foreign students come to learn about sustainability. You can learn more about this in her book A Cafecito Story.
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In The Time of the Butterflies
This was the first Julia Alvarez book that I read, and it is still my favorite. It may even be my favorite book of all time. I’ve given it as gifts, and everyone who reads it falls in love. This book (which was also made into a fairly decent movie) is about the Mirabal sisters – three women who were key members in trying to overthrow the vicious dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in the late 50s. This is historical fiction, and it is done very well. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and I still think about the book to this day.
Before We Were Free
This is the story of 12-year-old Anita de la Torre, a young girl living in the Dominican Republic. She lives a happy life with her family (aunts, uncles, cousins, parents) in an island compound. However, when black cars with men in uniform begin showing up at her home, things start to change. The reader gets to see what it is like, as a child, to live under a dictatorship and how frightening it is. This is something you should read after reading In The Time of the Butterflies – it almost feels like a continuation, even though it is not.