For the Garcia sisters, being forced to assimilate the mix of cultures when their parents migrated from the Dominican Republic to New York, left them very confused.
It was more than the 1,500 mile distance that separated them from their homeland. Not knowing the language, or the customs made them feel they had no identity.
That's the theme behind Julia Alvarez's 1991 novel "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," which opens today as a play at Stageworks Theatre.
"Everybody in the audience can relate to this play," said actress Isabel Natera, who plays the role of Carla, the eldest of the four Garcia sisters. "Not only those who have moved from another country, but also those who have moved from another state, since we all have to get used to new customs." When Natera was offered the role, she didn't think twice about it, despite the fact that she hadn't read the novel.
The actress said she identified immediately with Alvarez's story since she is also of Dominican descent. Her parents moved to the United States in 1969, when her father, a doctor, found work in a Dade City clinic.
And Natera, who is 39 years old, is the same age her character, Carla, is at the start of the performance.
The "Garcia Girls" begins when the sisters arrive in New York in the 1960s (just like the author) and experience culture shock.
"The play begins when Carla is 39 and her sisters are in their 30s, and it continues going back in time until they're little girls," said Natera, who studied theatre at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York.
For the actress, the most important aspect of the play is that it reinforces the values of the Latin family as they assimilate with American culture.
The audience also witnesses how the Garcia sisters treat each other, how they cry together, even how they dance together in several musical scenes.
While the play isn't a musical, music plays a pivotal role in Dominican culture, said Carolina Esparza, choreographer.
"Dominicans are kind, loving and they love to dance," Esparza said. "They love music."
Esparza said she interviewed several Dominican immigrants because she wanted to stay true to Dominican customs. She also researched merengue, a style of Dominican music and dance, from the 1970s and 80s because it differs from today's merengue.
"The modern merengue is influenced by pop and hip-hop and it's faster than the traditional merengue," said Esparza, 38, who studied flamenco dancing. "Merengue also includes dance movements with African and Spanish influences, because the Dominican Republic has those ethnicities as part of its cultural heritage. And that's part of the art of theatre, mixing symbols and metaphors with meaning."
'HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS'
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursday, and 3 p.m. Sundays through July 7
Where: Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
Tickets: $26.00; seniors $22.00, students, artists and military $10