Understanding children caught between cultures
"If you live and pay attention," says writer Julia Alvarez, "life gives you so much to write about." Alvarez has indeed been paying attention. As a child, she and her family fled the Dominican Republic to escape the harsh dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (her father had secretly been involved in the underground). Many miles and many years later, she speaks from an office at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she is writer-in-residence and the author of books for both adults and children, such as the award-winning How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies and Something to Declare.
Her latest is Return to Sender, a novel for nine- to 12-year-olds about a sixth-grade boy on a Vermont farm who befriends the daughter of undocumented Mexican workers.
Alvarez and her husband live on their own small farm, along with cows, rabbits, chickens and a new barn. She speaks on the day before America's presidential election, prompting her to muse, "When I get to vote, I get weepy. I know what it costs to get to this. Members of my family died so I could have this day."
When 10-year-old Alvarez and her family arrived in New York City in 1960, books and later writing became her ticket to freedom. "We had landed in this land that I had always heard was the home of the free and the brave, but I didn't find it very friendly at all," Alvarez remembers. "The kids on the playground called me 'spic,' they made fun of my accent, and they told me to go back to where I had come from."
Salvation came in the form of reading, guided by teachers and a librarian—and reading was something new. "I came from an oral culture," she says. "I was surrounded by the world's greatest storytellers, but we were not readers. I never saw my mother or father reading a book."
Eventually, Alvarez became a writer, realizing that there were some stories only she could tell. She says her books usually start with what she calls "the pebble in my shoe." "It's something that I try to shake," she elaborates, "but I keep going back over it. It's usually something that has unsettled me."
Return to Sender began when a farmer brought a Mexican farm worker in to see her husband, an ophthalmologist. Alvarez and her husband soon discovered that undocumented Mexicans were doing most of the milking on the dairy farms in their county. They met some of these workers, and Alvarez was asked to help with a schoolgirl who didn't know enough English to communicate with her teachers or classmates.
Certainly Alvarez could relate—on more than one level. She notes: "It's not just down in the border states that [immigration] is an issue. It's reached Vermont, and it's so much the issue of our times: mass movements of people from one place to another. As we globalize, people become aware of other opportunities and possibilities, and want to create a new story for themselves—and therefore leave everything to remake their story."
As Alvarez began to help out in the classroom, she realized that not only was the Mexican girl disoriented, but so were her classmates. Over time the children befriended each other, until the girl suddenly returned to Mexico with an aunt, while her parents continued to work in Vermont.
"The kids were really traumatized that their classmate had disappeared," Alvarez explains. "This doesn't happen in their United States, that somebody disappears because they're not supposed to be here, and their parents could be rounded up and they would be deported and put in holding. All of this can be very troubling stuff in fourth and fifth grade. And I thought that we need a story to understand what's happening to us."
Return to Sender tells this tale from both sides, using the voices of Tyler, a Vermont farm boy, and Mari, who was born in Mexico and now lives in a trailer as her dad and uncle work on Tyler's family farm. Tyler's father was injured in a tractor accident and can no longer handle the daily chores by himself. Mari's mother has been missing for nearly a year, and Mari and her sisters aren't sure if she is dead or alive. Their mother returned to Mexico when her own mother was ill, but she hasn't been heard from since attempting to secretly cross the border to return to the U.S.
Does Alvarez worry about introducing such heavy concepts to young readers?
"I'm not just a writer," she replies. "I've also been an educator for three decades. And a story protects us in a way. In a sense, it's a safe world in which to consider what's going to hit you broadside in the real world. You give kids the things that are bombarding them in their real lives, but it's within a safe context. It gives them a way to navigate through the world."
Alvarez navigated herself through many different parts of the U.S. early in her career, working as what she calls a "migrant writer," teaching poetry wherever grant funding was available, including Kentucky, California, Delaware, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Now that she's settled in New England, she still travels to the Dominican Republic about six times a year, to see family and to visit Café Alta Gracia, a 60-acre coffee farm that she and her husband own.
"The mountains here in Vermont remind me of the mountains of the Dominican Republic where we have our farm," she says. "We don't have winter there, of course, but the lush greenness of the mountains and a certain kind of accessible mentality—there's something that's very simpatico about the Vermont culture and my Dominican culture."
Although Julia Alvarez has found a place to call home, she continues to write about people caught between cultures. "Displacement is just part of the human story," she says. "You don't have to be an immigrant to write about that, because we've all felt it."