Attention to word choice marked Alvarez's entrance into the world of reading and writing. Newly learned English words formed the books and stories that helped 10-year-old Alvarez assimilate to life in America. She wondered why one would choose to use “friendly” instead of “amiable” or “slender” rather than “skinny.”
Alvarez became a poet, essayist, novelist, and translator. She explains, “Readers ask me how come I jump around so much in terms of genres: writing poetry and children's books and stories and novels and essays. I blame my life. Something happens which sends me in a new direction...and the telling requires a different form, rhythm, voice.”
Alvarez felt as though the immigrant's experience was missing from American literature until she read Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1975), which she calls “a beautiful, lyrical memoir about coming from somewhere else and reinventing yourself, while still bearing the burden of the past.”
Alvarez's first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), is a series of interwoven stories about four sisters and their parents. In circumstances similar to that of Alvarez's own family, the Garcías flee the Dominican Republic for America during the Trujillo era and struggle to adapt to American life. ¡YO! (1997)—a title that plays on the Spanish word for “self” and the name of the book's main character—follows Yolanda García after she has written a novel based on the lives of her family and friends.
Like In the Time of the Butterflies, two of Alvarez's other novels have a basis in historical events. In the Name of Salomé (2000) is based on the life of one of the Dominican Republic's most celebrated poets, Salomé Ureña, and her only daughter Camila, who taught Spanish during the summers at Middlebury College, where Alvarez is now a writer-in-residence. The inspiration for Saving the World (2006) was a footnote Alvarez noticed while researching Ureña. In 1804 a Spanish expedition sailed around the world with the smallpox vaccine. Because there was no refrigeration, orphan boys were conscripted and vaccinated sequentially during the ship's passage to keep the virus alive.
In addition to her best-selling novels, Alvarez has published several books for young readers including Before We Were Free (2002) and Finding Miracles (2004). A fable for all ages, A Cafecito Story (2001) was inspired by the organic coffee farm Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, founded in the Dominican Republic. She has also written works of nonfiction: a collection of essays, Something to Declare (1998), Once Upon a Quinceañera (2007), a memoir that examines the customary celebrations for young Latinas coming of age in America, and A Wedding in Haiti (2012), a chronicle of her visit to attend a friend's wedding.
Alvarez has received numerous awards for her work, including the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature (2008), the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement (2009), and the National Medal of Arts (2013).
Alvarez's stories examine what it means to be a part of a family, a nation, and a culture while maintaining one's own identity. Through her novels, poetry, and books for young readers, Julia Alvarez's voice adds depth and harmony to the chorus of American literature.
"People came out of their houses. They had already heard the story we were to pretend to believe. The Jeep had gone off the cliff on a bad turn. But their faces knew the truth."
—from In the Time of the Butterflies