Julia Alvarez

Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez is one of the most prolific and influential Latina authors in the United States. Her novels often feature bicultural characters and explore themes of identity, belonging, and displacement. Alverez's books, such as How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and In the Time of the Butterflies (1994)are modern classics of Latinx literature.

Julia Alvarez Julia Alvarez

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Table of contents

    Julia Alvarez: Biography

    Julia Alvarez's work has been deeply informed by her identity as a Dominican American woman and by her work as an educator. Let's take a look at Julia Alvarez's accomplishments and the major events over the course of her life.

    Early Life and Education

    Julia Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950. Shortly after her birth, her parents moved back to their home in the Dominican Republic, where Alvarez would live for the first ten years of her life.

    In the 1950s, the Dominican Republic was in the middle of an oppressive dictatorship governed by Rafael Trujillo.

    Trujillo assumed power in 1931, and his regime was marked by atrocities and human rights violations, including the 1937 Parsley Massacre, in which an estimated 67,000 Haitians were killed on Trujillo's order. Those who spoke out against the dictator were routinely murdered. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, and his son took control of the country. However, after just a few months, rebels seized control of the government, and the remaining members of the Trujillo family were forced into exile.

    In 1960, Alvarez's father was involved in a plot to overthrow the government of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The coup failed, forcing the Alvarez family to flee to the United States. Back in the States, young Alvarez struggled to adjust while mourning the loss of her country, culture, and language. This loss, however, caused Alvarez's attention to be drawn to the nuances of language, providing the first inspiration for her as a writer. In an interview, Alvarez explained:

    Coming to the United States suddenly thrust me into a world where I was an alien, where I spoke the language with an accent. This abrupt and painful 'translation' led me to the company of books, the homeland of the imagination where all were welcomed. In trying to master my new language of English, I had to pay attention to words, their little reputations and atmospheres, their exact weights and balances, their smells and sounds and textures. This, of course, proved to be excellent training for a beginning writer! And so it was that what I had once considered a tragedy, losing all I knew and loved, provided the opportunities for me to find my calling as a writer.1

    At thirteen years old, Alvarez's parents sent her to attend an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts. She graduated in 1967 and enrolled in Connecticut College. Alvarez later transferred to Middlebury College, graduating in 1971 with a bachelor's degree. She then attended Syracuse University, where she received her master's degree in creative writing.

    Julia Alvarez, Dominican Republic, StudySmarterJulia Alvarez spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic until she was ten years old, Pixabay.

    After graduating from Syracuse University in 1975, Alvarez began a career as a teacher. She became the writer-in-residence for the Kentucky Arts Commission and spent the next two years traveling throughout the state and teaching writing workshops. Following her time in Kentucky, Alvarez took on other teaching and writer-in-residence posts throughout the United States, including California, Delaware, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

    Literary Career

    Alverez's first published work, a collection of poems called Homecoming, appeared in 1984.

    In 1988, Alvarez accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Middlebury College, her alma mater. She became a Full Professor in 1996, and she remains the college's writer-in-residence today, teaching creative writing part-time.

    In 1991, Alvarez's first novel was published. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents tells the story of the García sisters, four girls from a Dominican family who were growing up in the United States and finding themselves caught between the two cultures. The novel was a commercial success for Alvarez and is now considered a classic work of Latinx literature.

    Alvarez's literary success was cemented with the publication of In the Time of the Butterflies (1994). The historical fiction novel is about the Mirabal sisters, four Dominican women who were murdered for their opposition to the Trujillo dictatorship in 1960, the same year Alvarez's family fled to the United States.

    Throughout the 1990s, Alvarez published a collection of poems, The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995), a novel, ¡Yo! (1997), and a book of essays, Something to Declare (1998).

    In the early 2000s, Alvarez began her foray into children's literature with the publication of the picture book, The Secret Footprints (2000), and the first in a series of four Tia Lola stories, How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay (2001).

    Alvarez continues to write, teach, and support a number of environmental and social justice causes through various activities. She lives with her husband on a farm in Champlain Valley, Vermont.

    Julia Alvarez: Key Works

    Julia Alvarez is the author of many works that have become classic examples of Latinx literature in the United States. She has written novels, poetry, essays, and fiction for children and young adults. Much of her work deals with themes such as immigration, identity, and the experiences of bicultural individuals.

    Julia Alvarez: Books

    Julia Alvarez's books include fiction, nonfiction, and juvenile and young adult fiction.

    Julia Alvarez, In the Time of Butterflies, StudySmarterIn the Time of the Butterflies is one of Julia Alvarez's best-known novels, Pixabay.


    • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) was Alvarez's first published novel. It tells the story of the four García sisters who were forced to leave the Dominican Republic as children when their father opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. The novel spans more than 30 years and is comprised of vignettes told from the point of view of each García sister. It describes the García girls' attempt to assimilate into the culture of the United States and the way they change as individuals and as a family.
    • In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) was Alvarez's second published novel, and it is perhaps her most well-known. The novel is a work of historical fiction, and it tells the story of the Mirabal sisters. These four women opposed the reign of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and three of them were murdered for their opposition in 1960, just months after the Alvarez family fled the country. The book, initially intended to be a nonfiction account, dramatizes the sisters' story. It was made into a feature film in 2001.
    • Julia Alvarez is the author of several other novels, including ¡Yo! (1997), which takes up the story of Yolanda, one of the sisters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, the historical fiction novel In the Name of Salomé (2000), and the recently published Afterlife (2020).

    Vignette: a short piece of writing that focuses on specific details or a certain period of time. A vignette does not tell a whole story by itself. A story might be made up of a collection of vignettes, or an author might use a vignette to explore a theme or idea more closely.


    • Something to Declare (1998) is a collection of 24 personal essays. The first half of the collection, titled "Customs," includes essays about Alvarez's childhood in the Dominican Republic and her later life in the United States. The second section of the book, "Declarations," includes essays about writing and language.
    • Alvarez's other nonfiction works include the memoir A Wedding in Haiti (2013) and the cross-cultural investigation of the quinceañera, titled Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the United States (2008).

    Juvenile and young adult fiction

    • The Secret Footprints (2000) was Alvarez's first children's book. The picture book is based on a Dominican myth about ciguapas. These strange creatures were said to live in caves, and their feet were backward, making their tracks difficult to follow.
    • Return to Sender (2009) is a book for middle-grade readers. It tells the story of a boy named Tyler, who lives on a dairy farm in Vermont that has been in his family for generations. However, the family is on the brink of losing their farm after Tyler's father suffers a tractor accident. To avoid losing the farm, the family hires three undocumented Mexican men, and Tyler makes friends with the daughters of one of the new employees.
    • Other works of juvenile and young adult fiction by Julia Alvarez include picture books such as A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia (2005) and The Best Gift of All: The Legend of La Vieja Belen (2009), and books for older children such as Before We Were Free (2002) and the Tia Lola stories (2001–2011).

    Poems by Julia Alvarez

    • First published in 1984 as simply Homecoming, Homecoming: New and Collected Poems was republished in 1996 with thirteen additional poems. Much of the poetry is autobiographical in nature and takes advantage of the author's perspective as a woman and an immigrant.
    • Alverez has two other collections of poetry: The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995) and The Woman I Kept to Myself (2004).

    Julia Alvarez: Facts

    • Alvarez is married but has no children.
    • Alvarez participates in an organization called Border of Lights, which works to foster good relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
    • Alvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, won the 1991 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, an award that supports the work of multicultural writers.
    • Two of Alvarez's novels for young readers, Before We Were Free and Return to Sender, have been awarded the Belpre Medal, an award for Latinx authors who best portray the Latinx experience in their work.
    • Alvarez's work was featured in an exhibit at the New York Public Library called "The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, From John Donne to Julia Alvarez."
    • Alvarez was awarded the 2002 Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature.

    Julia Alvarez - Key takeaways

    • Julia Alvarez was born in New York City on March 27, 1950.

    • When Alvarez was only a few months old, she moved with her family back to the Dominican Republic, where she lived until she was ten years old.

    • In 1960, the Alvarez family returned to the United States, and young Alvarez struggled to adapt to the new culture.

    • Alvarez obtained a bachelor's and master's degree and began a career in education after graduation.

    • Alvarez's most important works are the novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, but she has also published poetry, essays, and literature for children.

    1 Julia Alvarez. "Interview with Julia Alvarez." Chicago Public Library. 2004.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Julia Alvarez

    Who is Julia Alvarez?

    Julia Alvarez is a Dominican-American poet, novelist, and essayist.

    What is Julia Alvarez known for?

    Julia Alvarez is well known for her influence on Latinx literature, particularly for her novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies.

    When was Julia Alvarez born?

    Julia Alvarez was born in New York. Shortly after her birth, her family moved back to the Dominican Republic, where they stayed until Alvarez was ten years old.

    Where does Julia Alvarez live?

    Julia Alvarez lives with her husband on a farm in Champlain Valley, Vermont.

    Why is Julia Alvarez important?

    Julia Alvarez is one of the most prolific and successful Latina authors working in the United States. Her novels, such as How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, were some of the first books written by a Dominican-American author to receive national acclaim.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    After graduating, Julia Alvarez became the writer-in-residence in what state?

    True or false? Julia Alvarez has written several books for young readers.

    Which is NOT an example of Julia Alvarez's juvenile fiction?


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