Julia Alvarez Biography
March 27, 1950 • New York, New York
Although she has been a writer of prose and poetry for most of her life, Julia Alvarez did not have a significant impact until 1991, when at the age of forty-one her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was released. With the publication of García Girls, Alvarez was viewed not only as an emerging Latina writer; critics also lauded her as an important new voice in American literature. In 2000, Alvarez broke into children's literature, where she enjoyed equal success. By the mid-2000s, younger audiences were embracing Alvarez, who in true-to-life, and often heart-wrenching stories, depicts the struggle of young people who are torn between cultures. All of Alvarez's children's books received critical praise. In 2004, her second young adult novel, Before We Were Free (2002), was honored with the Pura Belpré Award. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the award is given biennially (every two years) to a Latina writer "whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience."
Julia Alvarez was born on March 27, 1950, in New York City, the second daughter of parents who were natives of the Dominican Republic, an island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. When she was just three months old, the Alvarez family returned to their homeland, where they lived on her mother's family compound. The family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle since Alvarez's grandparents were rather wealthy and quite influential. Alvarez and her three sisters were raised along with numerous cousins by her mother, aunts, and many maids. Alvarez's father, a doctor, was in charge of running the local hospital.
Although they lived in the Dominican Republic, the Alvarezes maintained close ties to the United States. All of Alvarez's uncles went to school in the United States, and the whole family was greatly influenced by American trends and attitudes. The Alvarez children ate American food, wore American-made clothing, and attended American schools. According to Alvarez's biography on the Las Mujeres Web site, "the entire family was obsessed with America; to the children it was a fantasyland."
Life in the Dominican Republic was not always pleasant, however. During the 1950s, the country was headed by Rafael Trujillo Molina (1891–1961), a ruthless dictator who ruled through force and violence. Because of their grandparents' social and government connections, the Alvarez family was generally safe from persecution. But Alvarez's father was secretly involved
"I am more who I am when I'm down on paper than anywhere else."
in an underground movement to remove Trujillo from power, which put his family at risk. When his participation was discovered, the family was forced to flee the country and resettle permanently in the United States.
In 1960, the Alvarez family arrived in the United States with just four suitcases and moved into a tiny, cramped apartment in Brooklyn, New York. It was a far cry from the family's magnificent home in the Dominican Republic, and the fantasy of life in America was soon shattered. Alvarez missed her cousins, and for the first time in her life she faced prejudice because she was "different," a foreigner whose skin was a different color and who spoke a different language. As she told Las Mujeres, "The feeling of loss caused a radical change in me. It made me an introverted [shy, withdrawn] little girl."
A homesick Alvarez sought comfort in books. As she told Jonathan Bing of Publishers Weekly, "I fell in love with books, which I didn't have at all growing up. In the Dominican Republic, I was a nonreader ... and I hated books, school, anything that had to do with work." One reason for Alvarez's aversion to books in the Dominican Republic was that she was a self-described tomboy who preferred physical activity to reading. The other reason was that owning books was dangerous under the dictatorship of Trujillo. Words and correspondence were heavily censored and readers were considered to be intellectuals and potential troublemakers.
The move to the United States not only sparked Alvarez's interest in reading, it also ignited her interest in becoming a writer. Having to learn English caused the ten-year-old to fall in love with words. As Alvarez recounts on her author Web site, "Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word—great training to a writer." Alvarez also claims that her cultural heritage, with its emphasis on oral tradition (telling stories rather than writing them down), made her a natural storyteller. "My family was full of great storytellers," she explained in a 2004 AudioFile interview. "My father was always telling stories when I was growing up. It was how we all learned about the past and how we planned for the future."
Alvarez began putting her own stories down on paper when she was just fifteen years old. After graduating in 1967 from Abbott Academy, a private boarding school, she decided to immerse herself in the study of literature and writing so she enrolled in Connecticut College, located in New London. While there, she won the school's poetry prize. Alvarez transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont in 1969, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1971. Alvarez pursued her graduate studies at Syracuse University in New York and earned a master of fine arts degree in 1975. She also studied creative writing at the Bread Loaf School of Middlebury from 1979 to 1980. During this time Alvarez also became a much-published writer, with poems and essays appearing in a number of small literary reviews.
Following graduation from college, Alvarez took a number of teaching jobs in order to pay the bills. In a 2000 Library Journal article, she called herself a "migrant writer" since she traveled all over the United States in her little Volkswagen, taking jobs wherever there were openings. Over the next thirteen years, Alvarez had over fifteen addresses. She taught creative writing to children in Kentucky, to bilingual students in Delaware, and to senior citizens in New Hampshire. She has also been an instructor at the university level, teaching at the University of Vermont, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Illinois.
Despite her teaching demands, Alvarez never stopped writing. By the 1980s her essays were appearing in national magazines such as the New Yorker, she was winning countless poetry prizes, and in 1984 her first book of poetry, Homecoming, was published by Grove Press. Alvarez really had no intention of becoming a fiction writer, but after the release of Homecoming, she was approached by Susan Bergholz, one of the most influential agents of Latino fiction. Bergholz took one look at some of Alvarez's story ideas and immediately signed her as a client. She then began to send Alvarez's work around to various publishers. In 1991, Bergholz found a publishing house, Algonquin Books, willing to take a chance on her talented client. Later that same year, Alvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was published.
Strong Dominican women
García Girls is actually composed of fifteen interconnected stories that focus on the lives of four sisters, who like Alvarez, moved to New York from the Dominican Republic. According to a collection of literary criticism titled Voices from the Gap, the book recounts how the girls "struggle to find their place somewhere between the two distinct cultures to which they belong—that of the American mainstream and the old world from which they came." García Girls made Alvarez an acclaimed writer and remains her most recognized novel. The book also won critical acclaim, taking home the PEN-Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, given annually to promising new multicultural authors.
Alvarez followed García Girls with the novels In the Time of Butterflies (1994), ¡Yo! (1997), and In the Name of Salomé (2000). ¡Yo! is a contemporary collection of stories that revisits the characters introduced in García Girls; Butterflies and Salomé are works of historical fiction.
In the Time of Butterflies introduces readers to the legendary Mirabel sisters who devoted their lives to fighting the cruel dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Called "Las Mariposas" (The Butterflies), three of the four sisters were murdered for their political activism just three months before the Alvarez family fled the Dominican Republic. In 2001, the novel was made into a film starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek (1968–).
Alvarez delves even deeper into the history of the Dominican Republic in In the Name of Salomé, which takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on another female heroine. This time the central figure is Salomé Ureña (1850–1897), whose poetry written during the Dominican Republic revolution made her a literary and political legend. Both Butterflies and Salomeé received high praise from critics and earned many awards, including the American Library Association's Notable Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
From footprints to miracles
Whether her books are based on fact or fiction, at the core of Alvarez's work is the story of the Dominican Republic. As she explained in a 2000 Bookreporter interview, "Because of who I am, where I come from, what my heritage is, the stories I have to tell come out of a certain history, background and a certain spot on this earth." According to Alvarez, however, although her characters tend to be from the Dominican Republic, any reader can relate to them because they share universal experiences. In the same interview, the author reinforced that what she writes about is the "human experience."
Alvarez continued to explore her Dominican roots when she branched out into the children's market and released a picture book in 2000 called The Secret Footprints. At the heart of the story are the ciguapas, a secret tribe found in Dominican legend, who live underwater "in cool blue caves hung with seashells and seaweed." Footprints was followed by
Coffee and Literacy
What is the connection between coffee and literacy? Well, for Julia Alvarez one has naturally led to helping the other. In the late 1990s, Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, purchased a 60-acre farm in the Dominican Republic. They named the farm Alta Gracia, which means "high grace"; the name also refers to La Altagracia, the patron saint of the country. The rich, volcanic soil of the farm proved perfect for growing organic Arabica coffee, which is produced and sold all over the world.
Alvarez and Eichner used proceeds from the sale of Café Alta Gracia to form the Foundation Alta Gracia. The foundation supports a school and a small library that serves the local farming community, which has a 90 percent illiteracy rate. Students from around the globe, including those from Middlebury in Vermont, have traveled to Altagracia where they spend part of the day working on the farm and part of the day attending workshops and teaching. According to the Café Alta Gracia Web site, Alvarez and Eichner sell "coffee with a conscience."
the publication of How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay in 2001, a novel for readers of middle-school age (eight to twelve), which centers on a young Dominican boy who experiences culture shock when his family moves from New York City to Vermont.
In 2002, Alvarez published her first young adult novel, the acclaimed Before We Were Free. According to the author she considers the novel to be her best work. It also may be the most autobiographical. The story focuses on twelve-year-old Anita whose family lives under the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Told in a diary format, Anita's entries recount watching her cousins, the Garcia girls, escape to America and the subsequent terrors that she and her parents must endure. Although Alvarez's own family fled the country during the turbulent period of the 1960s, as she told AudioFile, "I wanted young people to know what life was like for the families who stayed."
Critics applauded Alvarez for her warmth and sensitivity in handling a difficult subject. Publishers Weekly called the novel "a stirring work of art" and declared that "Alvarez's pitch-perfect narration will immerse readers in Anita's world." In 2004, Before We Were Free was awarded the Pura Belpré Award. That same year Alvarez published her second young adult novel, Finding Miracles, the story of Milly Milagros Kaufman who, according to a 2004 Publishers Weekly review, is a girl with "two names and two identities."
Once again Alvarez tackles the subject of a young person torn between cultures who struggles to carve out her own identity. When she is less than a year old, Milly is adopted by two Peace Corps volunteers who are living in her unidentified Latin American country. She grows up in Vermont and although she loves her adopted family, she is curious about where she comes from. She reconnects with her birthplace when she meets Pablo, a young refugee from her homeland. Miracles, like Before We Were Free, was well received, especially in the Latino community. According to Resource Center of the Americas, "Finally, a book for adopted Latin teens about their journey growing up in Caucasian families!"
Not just a Latina writer
By the mid-2000s Alvarez was no longer a migrant writer. She was a full-time author who made her home on an eleven-acre farm in Vermont with her husband, Bill Eichner. Alvarez continued to teach at her alma mater, Middlebury College, serving as writer-in-residence, teaching the occasional creative writing course, and giving readings. She also continued to produce in a variety of genres: The Woman I Kept to Myself, Alvarez's first poetry collection in nine years was published in 2004, and a book for young readers, titled A Gift of Gracias, was released in 2005. Although she is considered to be a Latina writer, Alvarez balks at being labeled. As she explained to Voices From the Gap, "My main goal in writing is to make meaning through the telling of stories and to 'remind us'."
For More Information
Alvarez, Julia. Before We Were Free. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Alvarez, Julia. Finding Miracles. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Alvarez, Julia. How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Alvarez, Julia. "Noah's Ark Choices." Library Journal (September 1, 2000): p. 168.
Bing, Jonathan. "Julia Alvarez: Books that Cross Borders." Publishers Weekly (December 16, 1996): p. 38.
Review of Before We Were Free. Publishers Weekly (July 22, 2002): p. 180.
Review of Finding Miracles. Publishers Weekly (November 29, 2004): p. 41.
Rich, Charlotte. "Talking Back to El Jefe." MELUS (Winter 2002): p. 165.
Cafè Alta Gracia Web Site. http://www.cafealtagracia.com (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Biography." Las Mujeres. http://www.lasmujeres.com/juliaalvarez/profile.shtml (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Biography and Criticism." Voices from the Gap: Women Writers of Color. http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/alvarez_julia.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Julia Alvarez Interview." Bookreporter.com (September 22, 2000). http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-alvarez-julia.asp (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Julia Alvarez Official Author Web Site. http://www.juliaalvarez.com (accessed on August 10, 2005).
Legwold, Jane and Kate. "Review of Finding Miracles. " Resource Center of the Americas. http://americas.org/item_17545 (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Talking with Julia Alvarez: Julia Alvarez Interview." AudioFile. http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/features/A1445.html (accessed on August 10, 2005).