Katarzyna Marciniak

Ohio University


"Accented Bodies, Exilic Selves, and Trespassing Transnationalisms:  Julia Alvarez' How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent


 "Passport to the Universe: The American Museum of Natural History hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen of the cosmos named below to pass without delay or hindrance.  The bearer is empowered by knowledge and imagination to travel anywhere in the universe."  --American Museum of Natural History "Official Cosmic Passport" entrance pass

 "Grasses and real trees and real bushes still grew beyond the barbed-wire fence posted with a big sign:  PRIVATE, NO TRESPASSING.  The sign had surprised Carla since "forgive our trespasses" was the only other context in which she had heard the word.  She pointed the sign out to Mami on one of their walks to the bust stop.  "Isn't that funny, Mami?  A sign that you have to be good."  Her mother did not understand at first until Carla explained about the Lord's Prayer.  Mami laughed.  Words sometimes meant two things in English too.  This trespass meant that no one must go inside the property because it was not public like a park, but private.  Carla nodded, disappointed.  She would never get the hang of this new country."  --Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent

 A visitor to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City nowadays receives an unusual 3D "transnational" pass.  This pass--a legitimizing identity card of sorts--is figured as a dark bluish rectangle to resemble an actual United States passport.  The front cover of this "Passport to the Universe" features an image of the galaxy and it bears such words as "Earth," "Solar System," "Milky Way Galaxy," and "Observable Universe."  The back of the card contains the text that I use as the above epigram and, underneath, a line for the visitor's signature.

 The connotative temptation of this document is quite enticing.  First, this "passport" plays on the idea that the contemporary era of transnational capitalism alters our national and cultural mobility in liberatory ways.  The traditional idea of a "US citizen" is stretched to include the notion of "the citizen of the cosmos," inviting a reflection that such a citizen is free to roam the cosmic space.  This freedom, of course, implies the unhindered ability to cross national borders, including venturing into the outer space.  Moreover, one could argue that this conceptual shift from an American citizen to the cosmic citizen reflects not only an ontological empowerment, but an epistemological one as well since the traveler is promised a special access to "knowledge and imagination."  Thus, this "Official Cosmic Passport" with its implication of global citizenry opens up a space for an understanding of transnational crossing as a formation of a hyper-cosmopolitan identity ("the bearer is empowered to travel anywhere") and as a presumably celebratory possibility for the Museum's visitor to indulge in the fantasy of the cosmic subjectivity.  I wish to argue, however, that while the "Passport to the Universe" as a "transnational text" supposedly offers the emancipatory idea of the nation and the national self, it does so through the concealment of the imperial discourse and desire of "America" to extend itself beyond all imaginable borders via the Eurocentric logic of domination, and through the disavowal of those who have been historically "banished" from the priviledged structures of the nation.  Hence, for a critical reader of such a transnational representation, the important question in this context is the interrogation of what kinds of national identities would be permitted to occupy the privileged space of the "citizen of the cosmos."  In other words, who can own the "Official Cosmic Passport"?

 Treating the discussion of the "Cosmic Passport" as a framework for my inquiry, my project, "Accented Bodies, Exilic Selves, and Trespassing Transnationalisms," focuses on Julia Alvarez' 1992 How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.  Since my textual analysis concentrates on the theorizing of the representation of the foreign body of an alien--"accented body" as I call it--whose exilic subjectivity, to borrow Hamid Naficy's words, comes into being through the process of border crossing, I locate my analysis in the larger context of recent discussions of transnationalism.  The newly emerging field of transnational studies, generally defined as aesthetic productions crossing national boundaries, languages, and cultures, is intricately linked with the experience of exile, displacement, and dislocation. While, as the "Passport to the Universe" seems to imply, the concept of transnational experience appears to embrace, even at times celebrate, the idea of border crossing, it is important to acknowledge that for many exiles such crossings are extremely problematic, risky, or sometimes not possible at all.  And, as in Alvarez's text, even after the Garcia family does cross the border successfully, the stigma attached to them as "trespassers" haunts and continually undoes their unstable cultural positions.  In other words, contrary to what the ideology of the "Cosmic Passport" would make us believe, the Garcias' transnational status produces their cultural position as "illegal" bodies, unwanted strangers, foreign intruders.  At the same time, however, their exilic status opens up a discursively critical space for the decolonization of representation of the traditional notion of the foreign self.  Thus, in the context of Alvarez's text, to decolonize representation means, as I will argue, to resist the customary discourse of alienhood, which typically rests upon, in Zygmunt Bauman's words, either anthropophagic (nullifying the stranger's ontological otherness via coercive assimilation) or athropoemic strategies (ejection of the unwanted element).

 In order to focus on the way in which How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent decolonizes representation, I examine the specificity of the "accented body" and work against a celebratory understanding of the concept of a transnational subject because the experience of the Garcias in the "promised land" of the United States is a condition of liminality often marked by painful disorientation, instability, and ostracism rather than by the feeling of liberatory emancipation.  I argue that it is the accented body--body coded semiotically as an alien--that marks the Garcia "girls" as strangers-hybrids and attracts the force of coercive assimilation which invites them to lose their accented speech quickly so that they could begin to function socially at the level of a normative subject.  As Yolanda reflects, the cultural mechanism of coercive assimilation projects the idea of an accentless speech as desirable: "His parents did most of the chatting, talking too slowly to me as if I wouldn't understand native speakers; they complimented me on my "accentless" English and observed that my parents must be so proud of me."  Thus, to lose an accent, as the title of the novel foregrounds, means to obliterate the culturally and historically specific position marked by exile which might be imagined as a complex site of resistance to coercive assimilation, to the elision of the foreigner's otherness, and as a challenge to, in Bauman's words, "vomiting the strangers."


Short Bibliography:


Bammer, Angelika.  "Xenophobia, Xenophilia, and No Place to Rest."  Encountering the Other(s):  Studies in Literature, History, and Culture.  Ed.  Gisela Brinker-Gabler.  Albany: State U of New York, 1995.


Bauman, Zygmunt. "The Making and Unmaking of Strangers," Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism.  Ed.  Pnina Werbner and Tarig Modood.  London:  Zed Books, 1997.


Blocker, Jane.  Where is Ana Mendieta?  Identity, Performativity, and Exile.  Durham:  Duke UP, 1999.


Kristeva, Julia.  Nations Without Nationalism.  Trans.  Leon S. Roudiez.  New York: Columbia UP, 1993.


Naficy, Hamid.  "Phobic Spaces and Liminal Panics:  Independent Transnational Film Genre." Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary.  Ed.  Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake.  Durham:  Duke UP, 1996.


Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam, eds.  Unthinking Eurocentrism:  Multiculturalism and the Media.  New York:  Routledge, 1994.


Sontag, Deborah, and Celia W. Dugger.  "New Immigrant Tide:  Shuttle Between Worlds." New York Times  19 July 1998.