Arriving at Abbot Academy in the fall of 1964 as a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez AA ’67 found herself grappling with issues of alienation and assimilation for the first time, a story she shared at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM).
Alvarez, a renowned author and poet, spoke about moving to the United States and dealing with a lack of diversity and acceptance of immigrants in the nation during ASM. On stage, she was awarded the 2015 Alumni Award of Distinction, an honor bestowed on alumni who have served with distinction while embodying the values of Phillips and Abbot Academy.
“For the first time in my life, I experienced prejudice and playground cruelty [when I arrived in the United States]. I struggled with the language and culture I didn’t understand. I was heart-broken,” said Alvarez. “[My sisters and I] learned the new language, the new way to dress and behave ourselves. Diversity and multiculturalism… That vocabulary had yet to be invented.”
Born in New York, NY., Alvarez was raised for most of her early childhood in the Dominican Republic, during the era of Dominican President Rafael Trujillo’s regime. She and her family were forced to leave their country and immigrate to the United States after her father participated in a failed plot to overthrow Trujillo.
Blending Dominican and American culture was a struggle for Alvarez as she searched for a place where she felt she truly belonged.
“I had become a hybrid… I was not an American girl, and I was not only a Dominican girl anymore, and yet I wanted to desperately belong somewhere….I see how lucky I was to have found a place that could nourish the new American self I was becoming. Of course [though], back then, like any other outsider, I yearned for that warm, cozy, privileged feeling of belonging,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez’s most famous novels, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In Time of the Butterflies,” center on topics of cultural hybridization and the Trujillo dictatorship, respectively.
During her ASM speech, Alvarez invited the community to recognize the similarities between one another by emphasizing the statistics in the Human Genome Project, the sequencing of the entire human genome, which was completed in 2000. She underscored the fact that humans are 99.9 percent genetically similar to each other.
“[However,] our true diversity as a community lies in each one of you discovering and developing that one tenth of one percent that only you can bring back to the 99.9 percent that is overlapping with everyone else… your unique talent is not yours. You have to bring forth and bring back to the rest of us,” said Alvarez.
Following her appearance at ASM, Alvarez gave a separate presentation on the power of storytelling and activism, as well as her work in the nonprofit organization, Border of Lights, in Kemper Auditorium on Wednesday night. In her presentation, Alvarez spoke about what activism and humanitarianism means to her.
“Activism is the need to discover, develop and bring forth that unique talent in each of you for the benefit of the human family. The benefit of the human family is what makes it activism,” said Alvarez.
“It makes me proud of who I am and where I come from to know that there is another Dominican out there with the same history of having to leave the home country and live in two worlds, two different value systems. It makes me keep fighting, makes me always remember to stay close to my roots,” said Anny Candelario-Escobar, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.
Alvarez is currently a faculty member and writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, where she teaches creative writing on a part time basis, advises Latino students and serves as an outside reader for creative writing theses written by English majors at the school.