Julia Alvarez was born in New York City on March 17, 1950, the second of four daughters. Three months later, her parents returned to their native Dominican Republic after a self-imposed exile from General Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. When her parents became involved in an underground movement to overthrow Trujillo, the Alvarez family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic in order to escape imprisonment. They returned to the United States in August of 1960, four months before the founders of the underground, the Mirabal sisters, were brutally murdered by the government. The Alvarez family settled in Queens, New York.
Alvarez was ten years old when her family returned to the U.S. and she had a difficult time adjusting to immigrant life and learning English. She was homesick and faced alienation and prejudice. “I consider this radical uprooting from my culture, my native language, my country, the reason I began writing,” Alvarez has said. “Language is the only homeland, Czeslow Milosz once observed, and indeed, English, not the United States, was where I landed and sunk deep roots.”
Many of Alvarez’s works are influenced by her experiences as a Dominican in the United States, and focus heavily on issues of assimilation and identity. Her cultural upbringing as both a Dominican and an American is evident in the combination of personal and political tone in her writing. She is known for works that examine cultural expectations of women both in the Dominican Republic and the United States, and for rigorous investigations of cultural stereotypes. The immigrant experience and bicultural identity is the subject of much of Alvarez’s fiction and poetry. Her popular first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991. Interrelated stories narrated by the four Garcia sisters describe their difficulties adjusting to New York City after leaving the Dominican Republic.
When asked why she wrote In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Alvarez said that “being a survivor placed a responsibility on me to tell the story of these brave young women who did not survive the dictatorship.” In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional account of the murders of the revolutionary Mirabal sisters. The book has alternating first-person narratives from the three martyred sisters and the fourth surviving sister, Dede. Alvarez says she wrote the book as a testament to these remarkable women who “have served as models for women fighting against injustices of all kinds.”
In addition to her successful writing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist, Alvarez is the current writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.