How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
When the Garcias had been in the United States for one year, Mami made a flan to celebrate. They all closed their eyes to make a wish as Sofia blew out the candle stuck in the middle of the flan. Carla prayed that they could return to the Dominican Republic. She did not like their house and yard on Long Island, and missed her cousins back home in the family compound. There was an empty lot near their house that had a sign against trespassing. Carla did not know that the word meant something different in that context than in the phrase "forgive us our trespasses." Carla had to walk to school by herself, and she learned the route by heart. As she walked, a gang of boys who hurled stones and ethnic slurs harassed her. She felt ashamed of the changes her body was undergoing during puberty, such as growing breasts and leg hair. She feared the pale, bland, and nasty American boys. They would talk about different makes of car, but she could only identify Volkswagens, which were used by the secret police in the Dominican Republic. One day after school a car followed her as she walked home from the bus stop. She could only describe it as a "long-nosed, lime green car." The car stopped and honked, and an American grownup gestured for her to come closer. She had trouble distinguishing between different American grownups, and would only notice their hair or their clothes.
Carla assumed he wanted directions and felt embarrassed that her English was not good enough to be of much help. He smiled at her in a strangely apologetic way before Carla realized with shock that he was naked from the waist down, with a string tied around his erect penis. He asked her to get into the car but she backed away, struck dumb. He masturbated and Carla ran down the street.
Her mother called the police when Carla explained what had happened, but Laura did not understand what it meant to file charges. The police insisted on talking directly to Carla, even though she was afraid of them. She could only say that the man had little hair and was in a green car. The police needed more useful details about the car or the man's appearance, and seemed frustrated with her limited English vocabulary. She was also mortified to have to describe what she had seen him doing, since she did not have the vocabulary in Spanish or English to effectively articulate what she had seen. After noting that he had a string around his thing, the police left. After this incident her mother walked her to and from school, and she later changed schools, but Carla was still haunted by the memory of the boys who taunted her to go back to the Dominican Republic. As she fell asleep, she would pray to return to a place full of those people who knew and loved her.
As the oldest daughter, Carla has the closest ties to the Dominican Republic, and the most trouble adapting to the English language and American culture. The harassment she endures also makes her painfully aware of the hostility toward immigrants that faces the family in their new home. Aside from the pain of leaving her extended family and the difficulty of transitioning to a new neighborhood, school and country, Carla also faces the traumas of puberty that any girl her age encounters. Her innocence regarding sex leaves her unprepared to deal with a perverted exhibitionist and possible child molester.
Ironically, Carla seems more permanently disturbed by the boys her own age, who taunt her small breasts and hairy legs, than by the pervert in the green car. It seems that the pervert's strange behavior perplexes Carla, but the boys' stones and slurs leave no doubt that they hate her. She also is particularly ashamed of her English pronunciation and vocabulary. Though she tells the boys to stop their abuse, they ridicule her pronunciation, disarming her linguistic tools and leaving her without a voice to protest or defend herself.
Carla is also left unarmed when she cannot to scream or make a sound as she realizes that the pervert is shocking and possibly dangerous. Even though she is able to explain the situation to her mother, she is unable to use language to her advantage when dealing with the police. Her lack of words to describe what she has experienced leaves her unprotected, isolated and humiliated. The American men she has encountered are either directly threatening and abusive, like the boys and the pervert, or coldly indifferent, like the police. She does not feel any sense of community in the United States, but rather perceives only an assortment of indistinguishable and possibly dangerous people who resent her presence, hope to exploit her innocence, or are frustrated by her ignorance of the language.
Carla longs for the familiar and comfortable home she left behind in the Dominican Republic, as any girl her age might after moving a long distance. Yet unlike a child who is allowed to keep their language and culture, she also must face an openly hostile environment. It is not clear the tactics Carla will use in order to adapt and survive in her terrifying new surroundings, since she returns to the past to pray for a safe and loving feeling. Her memories of her extended family back home sustain her at night when she has nightmares about the abusive boys. Yet, Carla will eventually have to create new relationships rather than longing for the old ones, and she does not seem to have the tools to do so.
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