Venturing Behind the Palm Tree: A Review of “How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”

Venturing Behind the Palm Tree: A Review of “How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”

Angie Niver, Writer

Warning: some graphic language


Not unlike many other coming of age novels, sexuality presents a prominent struggle in How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a struggle that left the boys in my class often squeamish and disgusted while the girls had a much more muted reaction. So I wonder why the objectively disturbing sexual imagery throughout this book seemed to disproportionately affect the boys. I found that the gendered reactions to Garcia Girls exemplifies the lack of exposure boys have to women’s culture, and it does so in a candid and unapologetic way.

Garcia Girls is told through a mosaic of stories pieced together through the memories of Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Fifi, four girls who have immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States. However, unlike many coming of age novels, Garcia Girls moves in a backwards timeline, and we as readers are introduced to the girls in the United States as grown adults. Meeting the four girls is a personal experience and we learn more about them as their stories unfold, the book concluding with the girls as children back in the Dominican Republic. This shift in point of view between the four girls offers readers cultural context they may not have been previously exposed to, whether that be Dominican Culture or women’s culture. Ultimately, this book tells the story of two worlds; one lived in the Dominican Republic, and one lived in the United States. In the Dominican Republic, the girls spend their days roaming around an expansive compound surrounded by guava groves and assisted by Haitian maids. The other world is the United States, which is urbanized, unfamiliar, and often unforgiving. The girls, who are accustomed to a privileged and pampered lifestyle often have to defend themselves from abuse by schoolmates or unwanted sexual attention from adults, as observed specifically when Carla is lured to a car by a man who sat masturbating in the front seat, his “blunt headed thing growing” at the sight of her. 

The effect of these two worlds cannot be better exemplified than by the expectations projected onto the girls about their sexuality. Coming from a world that expects women to be “pure” and protect their blessed virginity, these girls find a completely different world in America full of unfamiliar innuendos and coercive frat boys, like Rudy Elmhurst who reacts violently to Yolanda’s abstention, expecting that she, as a “hot blooded Spanish girl” would be eager to rebel against her “Catholic bullshit” and have sex with him. But Fifi, the youngest of the girls, seems to react in just that way, described as the “promiscuous” and “rambunctious” daughter. In one chapter, she even goes as far as to tongue kiss her own father’s ear. So while the cultural context isn’t something I can relate to personally, I can empathize with the struggle of being an adolescent girl, grappling with her sexuality in world full of sexualizations and expectations about women and sex. And yes, my experience is pretty far detached from that of the Garcia Girls who’s equivalent of a birds and bees talk was a warning not to “venture behind the palm tree.” But while reading Garcia Girls, I felt enormous amounts of empathy for these fictional girls with not-so-fictional experiences.

So I return to my question about the two worlds of reactions within my classroom after reading some of the more explicit content. One one hand, maybe it’s a good thing the boys in my class are so horrified by the graphicness of Garcia Girls; then they’re obviously not identifying with characters like Rudy Elmhurst and the man in the bright green car. But the general consensus from the boys seemed to be that Garcia Girls was unnecessarily gross in all its sexual descriptions. However, a lot of the content that made the boys scrunch their faces in disgust, was to me all too familiar. Because I can empathize with Fifi, who’s chosen to rebel against the projected expectation of purity by acting in an overtly promiscuous manner. And I can empathize with Yolanda, who’s disconnect from her own sexuality has been affected by experiences of coercion and power imbalance. And while it’s necessary to consider the added context of the language barrier, I can empathize with Carla’s fear and confusion during and in the aftermath of a traumatic event. 

But no matter what your experience, what your reaction, there is a place for it in this story. Because ultimately, this story is honest, which to me is what sets it apart from many other coming of age novels I’ve read. Not only does it honestly depict the struggle of feeling stuck in between cultures, but it honestly depicts how this translates into the universal struggle of grappling with sexuality as a girl growing up in a world full of judgment, projections, and expectations. It’s honest while telling the tale of Fifi’s sexual liberation that results in her being labeled as “the promiscuous one”, and it’s honest in Yolanda’s longing for true intimacy that is often manipulated by the men in her life. It’s honest in its description of Carla’s trauma and Sandi’s struggle with her body image as she tries tirelessly to fit the whitewashed definition of “pretty” she’s been conditioned to accept. And I understand how reading these stories made the boys feel alienated; they’re unfamiliar. So I embrace the reactions to the unfamiliarity, because through that there is exposure to women’s culture in all its explicitness and uncomfortability. And that exposure creates ground for understanding.