Authors: Julia Alvarez

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author of prose and poetry

March 27, 1950

New York, New York

Biography

Although she was born in the United States, Julia Altagracia Maria Teresa Alvarez (AL-vah-rehz) spent her most formative years in the Dominican Republic, having moved there with her parents when she was less than a month old. In her parents’ native land, during her first decade of life, Alvarez was immersed in a rich culture through her exposure to an enormous extended family. Her father, the twenty-fifth legitimate child of her grandfather, not only had many sisters and brothers but also countless half sisters and half brothers, the fruits of his father’s extensive liaisons. The family, many of its members living in close proximity to one another, was a warm if somewhat unwieldy group whom Alvarez describes as being “shabbily genteel.” They, along with their servants (who in most cases had been with the family for years and were regarded almost as family), were inveterate storytellers. One of their greatest pleasures was to gather for family meals or family vacations, in the course of which they amused one another by weaving yarns, both fictional and real, to the delight of all who heard them. Alvarez, growing up in such an atmosphere, developed an early affinity for writing.

Living on their properties two hours out of the capital, the Alvarez family came under increasing political pressure from the regime of Generalisimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the dictator who seized power in 1930 and became increasingly despotic as his reign continued. The Alvarezes had at first been tolerated by the Trujillo regime because the family appeared apolitical. (Julia’s grandfather had been the Dominican Republic’s delegate to the United Nations.) Her father, a physician, joined in a plot to overthrow Trujillo. After his involvement in this plot became known, he escaped the country with his family in August, 1960, shortly before a certain arrest and possible execution for his subversive activities.

The second of her parents’ four daughters, Julia was ten when she was abruptly uprooted, leaving a traditional Dominican culture in which the men went to work every day while the women, attended by servants, remained at home to raise their children. When the family arrived in New York, her father was not licensed to practice medicine in the United States (although after several years he was able to resume his profession), so they were suddenly reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence in a strange culture; a small, grubby apartment in Queens was their new home.

Alvarez relates much of their struggle in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, a story that deals with another matter close to the author’s heart. One of the teachers in a Catholic school she attended in New York recognized Alvarez’s ability to use language well and encouraged her to master English. Alvarez did so but in the process began speaking Spanish with an American accent, which made her feel alienated from her roots, especially when, after Trujillo’s assassination, she traveled back to the Dominican Republic. Having ceased to speak Spanish as native speakers of the language do, she rankled at this loss that made her feel separated from her Dominican roots.

Linguistic concerns are central to much of Alvarez’s thinking and writing. Her mother, educated at a boarding school in Boston during the 1940’s, spoke English well, although her father never used the language easily. Alvarez touches on language and its implications in several of her books, including ¡Yo! and Something to Declare. When discussing mature topics, she is most comfortable using English because when she was growing up, she was used to hearing English spoken when people talked about secretive matters or about adult topics.

Alvarez’s earliest formal education was in the Dominican Republic at the Carol Morgan School, an establishment run by an American missionary who was a friend of her family. When the family moved to the United States, Alvarez attended public and parochial schools before entering Abbot Academy, a New England boarding school. At seventeen, she entered Connecticut College in New London, remaining there for two years before transferring in 1969 to Middlebury College in Vermont, from which she received a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1971.

Alvarez expressed an early desire to be a poet, and her interest in writing never waned. She enrolled in the creative writing program at Syracuse University and, in 1975, received a master’s degree in creative writing from that institution. She then embarked on a two-year stint of running poetry workshops in nursing homes, schools, and prisons under the auspices of the Kentucky Arts Commission. Out of this experience grew the opportunity for Alvarez to run poetry workshops for the elderly in North Carolina. During the summers of 1979 and 1980, she attended the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont, which is sponsored by nearby Middlebury College. In 1979 she accepted a position teaching English at the Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, where she remained for two years.

A summer residency in fiction from Yaddo, the noted writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, enabled Alvarez to concentrate fully on her writing. This was followed by a two-year teaching position as a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Vermont in Burlington. For the 1984 academic year, Alvarez was Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The appearance of her first book of poems, Homecoming, in 1984 paved the way for her appointment to an assistant professorship in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985, a position she held until 1988, when she moved to Middlebury College to teach literature and creative writing. She held this position, rising to the rank of full professor, and became writer-in-residence there.

In 1989, Alvarez married Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist, with whom she settled on a farm close to Middlebury. The couple became owners of a coffee plantation in the Dominican Republic, and on its grounds Alvarez and Eichner built a school to provide an education for the workers’ children.

Alvarez entered the most productive period of her creative life following her marriage to Eichner. Her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was a critical success and was awarded the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles award for excellence in literature. This novel was followed in 1994 by an important work of historical fiction, In the Time of the Butterflies, the chilling story of how Generalisimo Trujillo, rebuffed when he makes sexual advances toward a young, virginal girl who is a member of the prominent Mirabel family, has his vengeance, which results in the deaths of three of the four daughters of that family. This novel was optioned by a prominent film company.

In her third children’s book, Before We Were Free, Alvarez touches on the despotism of the Trujillo regime, this time seeking to inform a youthful audience of some of the excesses of the period from 1930 to Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. Alvarez’s first children’s book, The Secret Footprints, was followed by How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay.

Author Works Long Fiction: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, 1991 In the Time of the Butterflies, 1994 ¡Yo!, 1997 In the Name of Salomé, 2000 The Cafecito Story, 2001 Saving the World, 2006 Poetry: Homecoming, 1984 The Other Side / El Otro Lado, 1995 Homecoming: New and Collected Poems, 1996 Seven Trees, 1998 The Woman I Kept to Myself, 2004 Nonfiction: Something to Declare, 1998 Once upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, 2007 A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of Friendship, 2012 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Secret Footprints, 2000 (illustrated by Fabian Negrin) How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, 2001 Before We Were Free, 2002 Finding Miracles, 2004 A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia, 2005 (illustrated by Beatriz Vidal) Return to Sender, 2009 How Tía Lola Learned to Teach, 2010 How Tía Lola Ended Up Starting Over, 2011 How Tía Lola Saved the Summer, 2011 Where Do They Go?, 2016 (illustrated by Sabra Field) Bibliography Alvarez, Julia. “A Citizen of the World: An Interview with Julia Alvarez.” In Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Bridget Kevane and Juanita Heredia. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. Offers insight into background, politics, and various aspects of Alvarez’s work as a poet and fiction writer. Alvarez, Julia. “An Unlikely Beginning for a Writer.” In Máscaras, edited by Lucha Corpi. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1997. Provides information on the life experiences that have influenced the themes and forms of Alvarez’s work. Alvarez, Julia. “On Finding a Latino Voice.” In The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and How They Work, edited by Maria Arana. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2003. Bing, Jonathan. “Julia Alvarez: Books that Cross Borders.” Publishers Weekly 243 (December 16, 1996). A concise view of Alvarez’s writing, dealing mostly with In the Time of the Butterflies and Homecoming. Echevarria, Roberto Gonzalez. “Sisters in Death.” The New York Times Book Review (December 18, 1994): 28. Garcia-Johnson, Ronie-Richele. “Julía Alvarez.” In Notable Hispanic American Women, edited by Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993. Johnson, Kelly Lyon. Julia Alvarez: Writing a New Place on the Map. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. The first book-length examination of Alvarez’s writings. Johnson explores shared themes, ideals, and issues of understanding cultural identity in a global society. Notes that Alvarez embraces the notion of mestizaje, the mixing of races. Luis, William. “A Search for Identity in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” Callaloo 23, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 839–849. A study of Alvarez’s tale of the search for identity in the “space” between two homelands. Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver. “A Clean Windshield: An Interview with Julia Alvarez.” In Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Alvarez deals with the effect that Dominican politics had upon her writing. She discusses her Dominican upbringing. Oliver, Kelly. “Everyday Revolutions, Shifting Power, and Feminine Genius in Julia Alvarez’s Fiction.” In Unmaking Race, Remaking Soul: Transformative Aesthetics and the Practice of Freedom, edited by Christa Davis Acampora and Angela L. Cotten. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. In this collection of essays on the power of creativity to transform the lives of women of color, Oliver explores how Alvarez’s female characters use their everyday genius to counter, for example, sexism and misogyny. Oliver places this “feminine genius” on similar footing with the genius of larger-scale revolutionary acts. Ortiz-Marquez, Maribel. “From Third World Politics to First World Practices: Contemporary Latina Writers in the United States.” In Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film, edited by Ghosh Bishmupriya and Bose Brinda. New York: Garland, 1997. Places In the Time of the Butterflies in a political context. Rifkind, Donna. “Speaking American.” The New York Times Book Review (October 6, 1991): 14. Rosario-Sievert, Heather. “Conversation with Julia Alvarez.” Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 54 (Spring, 1997): 31–37. An interview that touches on Alvarez’s major thematic interests in writing; reveals a great deal about her background. Rosenberg, Robert, ed. and director. Women of Hope/Latinas Abriendo Camino: Twelve Ground Breaking Latina Women. Bread and Roses Cultural Project. Princeton, N.J.: Films for Humanities, 1996. Interviews a dozen Latina women, including writers Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros. Sirias, Silvis. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A basic guide to Alvarez’s works, with chapters on four of her novels. Includes chapters examining Alvarez’s life as well as the Latino/Latina novel. Socolovsky, Maya. “Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Fiction of History in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé.” Latin American Literary Review 34, no. 68 (July-December, 2006): 5–24. Socolovsky is concerned with Alvarez’s ability in these novels to walk the line between remembering historical events and the risk of hagiography, or forgetting the events by overmemorializing them. Stavans, Ilan. “Daughters of Invention.” The Commonweal (April 10, 1992): 23–26. Stavans, Ilan. “Las Mariposa.” The Nation 259, no. 15 (November 7, 1994): 552, 554–556.

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