How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Laura briefed her four daughters on their manners before the family went out to dinner with an important couple, the Fannings. She warned them to behave themselves and to let her order for them. The family had been in the United States for three months after escaping from the secret police, and Laura would often cry or lose her temper. She tried to interest the girls in the dinner at a Spanish restaurant by mentioning a floorshow with flamenco dancers. Sandra was upset by an unfriendly and prejudiced neighbor who complained about the noise the girls made.
The family put on their best clothes for the dinner and got excited for the special occasion. Dr. Fanning had arranged for the family's arrival in the U.S. through a fellowship, and was helping Carlos get a job and pass the American medical licensing exam. The couple realized the family had little money, and wanted to treat them to a little luxury. Sandra secretly hoped the Fannings might adopt her so she could be rich and have an allowance. Their mother's father paid the rent, bought the girls' clothes, and took them to the ballet.
That night their father splurged and they took a taxi to the restaurant. Sandra realized she missed the chauffeurs and maids she was used to in the Dominican Republic. Their mother insisted it was fair that the Fannings pay for the elegant dinner, since her family had hosted them luxuriously when they visited the Dominican Republic. Their father was embarrassed by his temporary inability to support his family.
Sandra thought Dr. Fanning's wife was ugly and did not understand why he had married her. Sandra flirted with the busboy and drank so much water that she had to go to the bathroom. Her father and Mrs. Fanning accompanied her, and Sandra noticed when Mrs. Fanning planted a brief kiss on her father's lips. Sandra was shocked by what she had seen. In the bathroom mirror she noticed that she was a very pretty girl and could even pass for an American because of her light coloring. Her father asked her not to tell her mother that the drunken woman had kissed him. Sandra then feared that the busboy would try the same thing on her. Mrs. Fanning kept drinking more wine until Dr. Fanning told the waiter not to serve her any more. Mrs. Fanning called him a "party fart," which the girls did not understand. Sandra did not eat her food and instead watched the beautiful and passionate dancers. Then Mrs. Fanning ran on stage and made a fool of herself, which the rest of the restaurant enjoyed watching. Sandra resented her ruining the show, though Dr. Fanning then toasted to the family's arrival in the United States.
When offered a little Barbie doll dressed as a flamenco dancer, Sandra ignored her mother's warning not to ask for extra treats from the Fannings and asked to buy the doll. Her father refused, but Mrs. Fanning insisted that her husband pay for four dolls, one for each girl. When her mother prompted her to say thank you, Sandra made her doll give Mrs. Fanning a kiss on the cheek and said "gracias."
The entire family feels an enormous pressure to behave properly in an American social setting, and express their gratitude for the favors Dr. Fanning has done for the family. They also need to let loose for a night and have some fun after the traumas of leaving the Island and immigrating to the United States. The family was used to a very high standard of living in the Dominican Republic, and they feel deprived by having to live in a small apartment, consider the needs of unfriendly neighbors, and adapt culturally and economically to their new situation. The outing with Dr. Fanning presents the opportunity to prove that they can survive and even enjoy the process of becoming Americans. Sandra's perspective on the evening is crucial because she witnesses a darker and embarrassing side of American culture. The Spanish restaurant serves as a kind of cultural haven, where Sandra feels like her heritage is appreciated and celebrated rather than complained about to the superintendent of their apartment building. The drunken American woman intrudes into this cultural haven twice, first by kissing her father, and secondly by interrupting the dancers' act.
Though Sandra seeks a respite from American culture, she cannot separate herself in a fantasy of passion and artistry for long. The issue of class also interrupts her family's fantasy of luxury. Especially for a child like Sandra, who had been spoiled in the Dominican Republic by her family's wealth and social position, it was difficult to transition into a social setting where her family name earned her no particular respect or extravagance. For her father, the shame of his inability to provide his family with the same wealth and prestige they had enjoyed at home leads to a sense of powerlessness. His desire to fit into the American culture leaves him unprepared to deal with an unexpected situation, and he is mortified by the idea of scandalizing his family and his benefactor by exposing Mrs. Fanning's indiscretion.
Ironically, despite the family being on their best behavior, the evening turns out to be an enormous embarrassment for all involved. Sandra uses this awkward moment to get a doll, perhaps indicating that she will be able to manipulate social situations in her new culture to get what she wants materially.
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