Cultural assimilation, acceptance and the search for identity are dominant themes in many of Julia Alvarez’s poems. Being an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Julia faced several assimilation problems when her family moved to the United States.
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As a result of this, Alvarez had trouble adapting to a new culture, climate and people, and faced difficulty in coping with issues such as cultural differences and lack of acceptance. However, she gave vent to her feelings using poetry as a medium. Her poems reflect her experience and sensitivity for new immigrant families which face similar difficulties. Alvarez’s poems ‘Queens 1963’, ‘Dusting’, and ‘First Muse’ express her knowledge of cultural assimilation, acceptance and the search for identity by immigrant families.
In the poem ‘Queens, 1963’ Julia Alvarez recalls her experience of moving to the United States from another land. She recollects the time when she and her family had moved in and “everyone seemed more American” than them (Alvarez, Queens, 1).
Alvarez uses specific words to vividly describe her multiculturally diverse neighborhood where people from different communities coexisted including the ‘Castelluccis’, the ‘Balakians’ ‘Mr. Scott’ and his “plump Midwestern wife”, the ‘Jewish counselor’, and the ‘German’ family. However, the arrival of “a black family” (Alvarez, Queens, 8) had suddenly caused the place to become inhospitable and unfriendly towards these new immigrants.
This prejudiced attitude shocked Alvarez who recollects how each of these families had once ought a hard battle for acceptance and assimilation into the American soil. These families were now practicing the same intolerance which they had faced when they had arrived. Alvarez states that the seclusion of the African American family by her neighborhood was another desperate attempt to be like the American society, which does not welcome new immigrants.
Alvarez points to the hypocritical attitude of the neighborhood woman Mrs. Bernstein, who conceded that “it was time the neighborhood opened up” as “she remembered the snubbing she got a few years back from Mrs. Scott” (Alvarez, Queens, 36-40), but worried that the real estate prices would plummet with the arrival of the African American family.
Another couple, the Scotts, considered “moving back home where white and black got along by staying where they belonged” (Alvarez, Queens, 23-24). Racial intolerance is seen at its peak when “Mrs. Scott swept her walk as if it had just been dirtied” after the family had walked by.
Here the word ‘dirtied’ is used figuratively. Here the word ‘dirty’ is used as a connotation implying that the presence of the immigrant family is unhealthy and unclean. Alvarez is hurt and dismayed not only by the attitude of the neighborhood community who treat the new family like a stigma, but the American society at large which is hostile to the African American family, after whose arrival she notices cop cars patrolling their block due to “rumors of bomb threats” (Alvarez, Queens, 12).
Alvarez sympathizes deeply for the new African American family which reminds her of her own struggles to be assimilated and accepted by the American society. She wishes to be kind to the girl from the family but sadly is unable to do so.
Before she could make “a welcoming gesture” her “hand lifted but fell” (Alvarez, Queens, 54-55). This gesture of the hand provides vivid imagery, literally creating an image in the reader’s mind. The girl from the new family reminded Alvarez of her own plight when she had moved to the United States and had not yet been accepted completely by the community.
Alvarez immediately identified with this “look” which was “hardness mixed with hurt” due to the knowledge that “she could never be the right kind of an American” (Alvarez, Queens, 59-61). The poem ends with a tone of melancholy bringing out the sad plight of discrimination and prejudices prevalent in American society by those who were once new immigrants of this “free country” (Alvarez, Queens, 74).
Julia Alvarez’s poem ‘Dusting’ is a short, symbolic and meaningful poem which also revolves around the theme of cultural assimilation, a longing strongly held by immigrants to a new place. The image ‘dusting’ has been symbolically used as an act of cleansing one’s previous cultural traits in order to be accepted into the larger society.
The poem talks about Alvarez’s strong persistent desire for forming her own identity, which she expressed “each morning” by writing her name “on the dusty cabinet” (Alvarez, Dusting, 1-2). She would imprint her name in capital letters on the house furniture including the dining table and the backs of chairs, while her mother wiped it all away, removing any traces of dust and marks left behind by her.
Alvarez’s mother’s ‘dusting’ activity has been used as a metaphor to depict the desire to assimilate into and be accepted by the American society at large. Alvarez’s continual act of writing her initials in capital letters on the dusty furniture is symbolic of the struggles of the younger generation trying to create their own identities in a foreign land.
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While Alvarez’s mother dusts the house to maintain cleanliness in her home, Alvarez struggles hard to imprint her initials. Both Alvarez and her mother are persistent in their efforts; the mother tirelessly engages in the activity to ensure that her home is clean while Alvarez ceaselessly puts her signature on every piece of furniture, knowing fully well that her mother is going to wipe it all away without a trace.
Alvarez leaves her signature “in capitals” on every piece of furniture in the house. She states that “the bookshelf and rocker, polished mirrors on the desk” are all “scribbled with my alphabets” (Alvarez, Dusting, 11-12). These objects create vivid imagery in the reader’s mind. The desire for creating a mark and search for self is so strong in Alvarez that she refuses to give up.
Her strong grit and determination are visible in her undying refusal to quit as she continues to leave her signature wherever possible in the house. Alvarez is undeterred with her mother’s ‘dusting’ efforts due to which her “name is swallowed in the towel” that is used to clean and shine all the house furniture. Alvarez refuses “be like her, anonymous” mother who lives a silent life of non-identity. She defiantly tries her best and does not give up her efforts.
While her mother accepts a life of conformity within the home, Alvarez is not willing to do so. She does not wish to settle for a life where women are confined to the household and engage in domestic tasks. She is unwilling to conform to the “anonymous” domesticated life in which women have no identity. Her act of scribbling her initials all through the house furniture mark her struggle for creating her identity and finding her place in a culture which restricts women to the confines of a home.
In her poem ‘First Muse’ Julia Alvarez once again defies the cultural and literary norms of society by failing to abide by its fixed rules. Alvarez recalls a childhood incident when she had heard a “famous poet pronounce” that “one can only write poems in the tongue in which one first said mother” (Alvarez, First Muse, 1-3), which had caused her to completely give up writing.
She was devastated and hoped that perhaps she had been exposed to the English language in childhood when her mother may have “left the radio on” beside her crib “tuned to the BBC or Voice of America” (Alvarez, First Muse, 11-12).
Alvarez was shattered by the thought of not being a native English speaker since she was deeply involved with writing English texts, something she loved. The idea of non-acceptance and non-recognition was so devastating to to her that she “suffered from a bad writer’s-block” (Alvarez, First Muse, 17), “gave up writing” and “watched lots of TV” (Alvarez, First Muse, 21). She lost her confidence and thought that since Spanish was her native language, she was not eligible to use English anymore.
However, once again her strong indomitable will surfaced when she saw Chiquita Banana on television. Chiquita had a “sassy, olive-skinned” and “lilting accent so full of feeling it seemed the way the heart would speak English if it could speak” (Alvarez, First Muse, 24-28).
This brought back Alvarez’s lost confidence and she decided that she will continue to write in English. Alvarez proudly claimed “I am Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say” accepting her differences yet asserting her will and determination to create her identity in a culture which she was not born in (Alvarez, First Muse, 29-30).
It seems that Chiquita Banana indeed became Alvarez’s “new muse” since it gave her the confidence and will to create her own individual space in a foreign culture. Once again, Alvarez had broken the shackles of conformist society creating her own identity in a world where she was not born. She defied the norms of culture and decided to reject the restrictions imposed by society.
The themes of acceptance, identity and assimilation resonate in all the three poems ‘Queen, 1963’, ‘Dusting’ and ‘First Muse’ by Julia Alvarez. In ‘Queens, 1963’ Alvarez points how immigrants go through immense suffering and challenges in a new culture and society. She expresses her shock at the attitude of her neighbors in their failure to accept a new immigrant family.
In the poem ‘Dusting’, Alvarez distinguishes the struggles between the old and new generation as they struggle for acceptance in a new culture. She does not wish to be like her mother and spend her life in anonymity simply for the sake of being accepted in society; rather she ceaselessly demonstrated her iron will to break free from the shackles of societal norms and desires to create her own identity.
Finally, in ‘First Muse’ Alvarez’s struggle and search for her individuality end. Rather than losing her identity, she accepts it and creates a unique place for herself by deciding to continue writing English texts even though her mother tongue was Spanish. All the three poems reflect Alvarez’s struggle and strong character to create her own personality without denying her cultural roots.
Alvarez, Julia. “Queens, 1963.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
Alvarez, Julia. “Dusting.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
Alvarez, Julia. “First Muse.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.