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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Julia Alvarez

An American Surprise

Still Lives

The Drum

Summary

Carlos returned from a trip to New York City with a surprise for his daughters. He promised he would show them the surprise if they finished their dinners first. Carla wanted a clue what the surprise might be, but she had to wait. Gladys, their maid, began singing a song about going to New York. Carla liked to hear her sing, though her mother thought she was just a poor ignorant black girl. Gladys set the table and invited Carla into the maids' room. Chucha and Gladys bickered for a moment, until Gladys started daydreaming about going to New York. She thought that the Statue of Liberty was an American version of the Virgin Mary, so she prayed to her every day. The black maids complained about their work and the endless presents the girls received. Carla did not mind having to clean her plate if she got to eat spaghetti and meatballs, and waited impatiently to learn about their surprises. Their mother got a bottle of her favorite perfume, and the girls got small iron statues. They didn't understand what they were for, but Yolanda's was a man in a boat next to a whale, Sandra's was a girl jumping rope, and Carla's was a girl staring at clouds. Their father said they were all the rage at FAO Schwarz. Then they realized that they were mechanical banks that moved when a coin was put into a slot. Gladys was allowed to put a coin into Carla's bank, making Mary rise toward the clouds with her arms uplifted. Carla brought the bank to school and got almost a dollar in pennies from other children. Her mother's friends and Gladys also often put pennies into the bank. Eventually it was forgotten and put away on a toy shelf.

Christmas decorations and preparations then held everyone's attention, and Gladys began singing Christmas carols instead of radio merengues. Carla got the baby doll she had wanted for Christmas, as well as other toys. The maids each got a wallet with a little money as a gift. Gladys offered to buy the bank with her Christmas money, but Carla thought she might get in trouble for selling a gift her father had brought her. Gladys offered to throw in the wallet she had gotten, and Carla felt sorry for her. Carla said she could keep the bank for free, and Gladys thanked her before bringing the bank to her room.

A few weeks later, her mother noticed the bank was missing from Carla's room. Carla told her mother she did not know where it was, and her mother decided to search the maids' room. Her employers interrogated Gladys, and then Carla admitted that she had given the bank away voluntarily. Her parents still felt that they could not trust Gladys, and she was pressured to leave the family. As Gladys left the house crying, Carla put a penny into the bank and it jammed, leaving Mary stuck between heaven and earth.

Analysis

Carla's greed and materialism contrasts with Gladys's sincere desire to get ahead in life through hard work and frugality. Her ambition to make it to America, where a better job and way of life supposedly waits for her, reflects her faith and optimism. Her positive attitude also indicates innocence; since she does not understand what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes for Americans, nor does she understand the problems she could create for herself by taking Carla's statue.

The tragedy of this story is Carla's indifference toward the people who worked to improve the quality of her life under relatively exploitative working conditions. The bank symbolizes the crass materialism of the American dream, since it suggests that if you put money in, Mary will ascend to heaven, representing a spiritual and material fulfillment. The materialism of the American dream is contrasted by the sincerely hopeful attitudes of workers like Gladys, who are simply struggling to survive. The fact that the bank came from FAO Schwarz in New York lent it the allure of success and luxury. Carla disregarded this luxury once she became bored with it, indicating her spoiled and ungrateful attitude toward her privilege. Gladys, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice her Christmas gifts to have a piece of that luxury.

The ease by which Carla got her friends and family to contribute pennies to her bank fund contrasts with the difficulty Gladys faced trying to earn a decent living, supporting herself independently, and getting ahead in life through a working class existence. Carla earned money for the bank just by being cute and coming from a privileged background. Gladys could not even buy her way toward her dreams, since her effort to buy the bank resulted in her unemployment. The fact that the bank gets stuck as Gladys leaves the house symbolizes the limitations of the American dream and the difficult position immigrants and workers face as they try to get ahead. They end up stuck between heaven and earth, just like Mary, trapped between what they hope to leave behind and what they hope to achieve.

This story seems to be less about Carla, a spoiled child who does not appreciate what she has been given through her family position and privilege, than about the general difficulties the working classes face when contemplating immigration. The author might intend the narration of Gladys's troubles to balance out her portrayal of the Dominican immigrant experience, since she devotes most of the novel to an unusually wealthy family.

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