The interpersonal conflict within the Garcia family takes root during the point of political and cultural rupture, when the family had to leave the Dominican Republic. The fragmentation of the extended family in 1960 due to immigration leads to a spiraling dissolution of the Garcia nuclear family. As the girls mature, they grow increasingly distant from one another, their parents, and their relatives on the Island. Their integration into American culture tears them further apart from their family roots and leaves them badly prepared to deal with their parents’ more traditional perspectives. During Sofia’s rebellious phase, she leaves home and prompts a serious rift in the family. Carla’s clinical indifference toward the family also reveals interpersonal distance. The fact that the Garcia parents commit their daughters to mental hospitals so quickly indicates that they cannot reach out to their daughters during emotionally challenging times. Though the origins of the family conflict are in the past, the effects continue to reverberate even when the girls begin families of their own.
Sexuality poses problems for nearly every character in the novel. Yolanda’s problems begin with her cousin, who promised her a Human Body doll if she’d drop her pants. She has continuing problems with a boyfriend, Rudy, who calls her frigid, and her husband, John, whom she eventually divorces. Sofia uses sexuality as a tool to rebel against her father and assert her independence. Carla sees sexuality as an embarrassing and possibly threatening aspect of human psychology, a perspective that stems from her exposure to a perverted exhibitionist in a green car. Sandra’s perception of sexuality is not explicitly discussed, but it must have been influenced by her experience watching a drunk woman, Mrs. Fanning, kissing her father in the restroom while out to dinner with the entire family. All four sisters feel caught between Dominican sexual and gender norms, framed within a traditional Catholic ideology, and more liberal American and even feminist standards of behavior.
Language has different cultural and literary meanings for each of the members of the Garcia family. Laura uses adopted idioms carelessly, yet always effectively communicates her meaning even if she mixes up the particular images. Yolanda would never be so careless, since she considers herself a poet with a highly discerning literary perspective. Her husband John’s monolingual limitations frustrate her and lead to the end of their relationship, when they lose the ability to communicate effectively. The deterioration of her ability to make sense of language also signals her imminent mental breakdown. Sandra’s breakdown is also preceded by her fear that she’ll lose the ability to read and reason with language, indicating that humanity for her is symbolized by language itself. Carla’s difficulties fitting into American society and communicating with the authorities, such as teachers and the police, stem from her limited English ability. For her, language has the power to exclude and isolate, in addition to the power to connect and facilitate interactions.
Throughout the novel, nicknames are used to convey a sense of intimacy. This intimacy can be positive, such as when the Garcia daughters refer to their mother as Mami to express affection. On the other hand, nicknames can convey a negative sense of being overly familiar, such as when John refers to Yolanda as Josephine, anglicizing her name and distorting her identity in the process.
The mother cat that haunts Yolanda’s dreams symbolizes her home, the Dominican Republic, which reproaches her for leaving. The violation the cat suffers in losing its kitten represents the pain of a country that has lost its children, who cannot find their way home again. Yolanda is unable to find her roots when she returns home in the first chapter, representing the culmination of her search to reclaim what was lost when her family left the Dominican Republic.
The black bird that emerges from Yolanda’s throat and attacks Dr. Payne symbolizes her fears that language, specifically her own words, could hurt the people she cares about. Her affection for and attraction to Dr. Payne is threatened by the aggressive and ugly words that could come out of her mouth. The bird freely moves from the room through the window screen, just as Yolanda might be able to freely speak her own mind if she were able to stop misquoting others and truly express her love and desires.
The guavas Yolanda craves when she arrives on the Island symbolize her desires to reconnect to the best memories of her childhood. She hopes the taste of the guavas will take her back to a vivid experience from the past. Instead, the outing highlights how culturally unprepared she is to pass as a Dominican woman, and how culturally American she has become as an adult.
Snow symbolizes hope for the future and the positive aspects of the American dream, as well as the terrifying potential of the unknown. Yolanda’s first experience of snow makes her think of atomic fallout, and she terrifies her class with a warning of imminent doom. Once she realizes her mistake, the snow comes to symbolize the culmination of her long-held hope to experience a mysterious and wondrous occurrence she has only heard about. The unique nature of each snowflake also symbolizes the possibilities that America offers Yolanda to explore her identity and express a new voice.