‘Exile’ was originally published in Homecoming in 1984. Throughout, the poet uses clear and easy-to-read language to describe what it was like to escape to the United States from the Dominican Republic from a child’s perspective. As a young girl, she had little understanding of the danger she and her extended family were in within the country she knew as home. This perspective is incredibly interesting, especially as the poet weaves in an extended metaphor connecting the family’s movements to swimming and ocean-related imagery.
Alvarez was born in New York in 1950 before spending the next ten years of her life in the Dominican Republic. At ten years old, she was forced to flee the country along with her family. Her father, who was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the country’s dictator, brought his family to the United States where they could be safe from Rafael Trujillo’s influence.
‘Exile’ by Julia Alvarez is a thoughtful narrative depiction of the poet’s journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States as a young girl.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing a darkened curfew in her home country of the Dominican Republic. Her family is preparing to flee to the United States. While trying to keep the children calm, their parents have them pack one toy under the impression that they’re going to the beach. They drive along with their extended family to an airport in the middle of the night. They make it to the United States, where the speaker and her father contend with feeling out of place and alienated among Americans, American culture, and their vision of the future.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, Alvarez utilizes several significant themes. They include:
- Loss. Loss of home and one’s identity is one of the major themes of this poem. As the speaker is leaving the only country she’s known, she’s also walking away from everything she understood about life. This loss confronts readers most clearly at the end of the poem when the young girl is standing with her father in front of a Macy’s display.
- Alienation. As new residents in the United States, the speaker’s family feels incredibly out of place. This is represented clearly through the depiction of the advertisement in the Macy’s window and the speaker’s clear interest in how different she and her father look from the family in the image, and the families around them. There is a great deal she doesn’t understand about the US, and, like many new immigrants, it likely took her a long time to come to terms with her dual identity.
Alvarez utilized a few different symbols in this poem. They include:
- Water/Swimming — the speaker travels from the only country she’s ever really known to America as a young girl and several times describes herself with water-related imagery. She notes how the young children were told they were going to the beach rather than to a secret rendezvous with an airplane. She describes lying back in “deep water” and floating rather than sinking as they travel. Water and the ability to swim symbolize the young speaker’s adjustment to her new life and the various changes she has to contend with. It’s possible to float and swim, but it’s not easy. When the speaker realizes the danger that’s ahead, she compares it to the “deep end of the pool,” where the consequences of not staying afloat are far greater.
- The Macy’s Display — within the shop window, the speaker and her father see “a family outfitted for the beach: / the handsome father, slim and sure of himself.” The advertisement symbolizes the ideal American family. The speaker feels even more like an outsider when she sees the people it depicts and can’t help but contrast her father’s appearance and way of carrying himself to the “slim and sure” father in the image.
Structure and Form
‘Exile’ by Julia Alvarez is a narrative poem made up of seventeen four-line stanzas, known as quatrains. These quatrains are written in free verse. This means that the poet does not use a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. For example, the end words, like “Papi,” “beach,” “others,” and “out” in the first stanza do not rhyme. Additionally, the lines are of different lengths and contain different numbers of syllables. But, the repetitive use of quatrains does provide the poem with some unity.
Throughout ‘Exile,’ Julia Alvarez makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between the first eight lines of the poem. By using this technique, the poet controls how fast readers move through the lines and how they connect images.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “highway, heading” in stanza seven and “worried whispers” in stanza two.
- Simile: the comparison between two unlike things that uses either “like” or “as.” For example, “I let myself lie back in the deep waters, / my arms out like Jesus’ on His cross.” Here, the poet’s speaker is comparing their body position to that of Jesus on the cross.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “My,” “Into,” and “To” which each start multiple lines in the final stanza.
The night we fled the country, Papi,
while posted at a window, you looked out
The poem begins with the epigraph: “Ciudad Trujillo, New York City, 1960.” This information tells the reader where the poet was as a young girl, up until the age of ten, and where this journey was taking her. With the epigraph taken into consideration, readers should have a general understanding of what the poet is going to discuss before starting the first line. She describes the “night we fled” from Cuidad Trujillo (known today as Santo Domingo) to New York.
At the time (from 1936 to 1961), the city was named after the country’s dictator—Rafael Trujillo. He was assassinated in May of 1961, and the country resumed its original designation—Santo Domingo. This small piece of context reveals some important information about the place the speaker was leaving and how it can be compared and contrasted with the United States.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses the second-person perspective. She is directing her lines to “Papi,” her father. She describes how, as a young girl, she was directed to get dressed and told they were going to the “beach.” During this time her father was standing at the window looking out. Through the poet’s use of language, she reveals that at the time these events were happening, she had no idea what was going on or the consequences of their action. Her father’s place at the window indicates he’s concerned for their safety.
at a curfew-darkened Ciudad Trujillo,
what explanation to give should we be discovered …
The phrase “curfew-darkened” is another indicator of the times. The citizens of Ciudad Trujillo were told to stay inside after a certain time at night. This adds a degree of pressure to their situation as the family is trying to flee. With this context, the speaker goes on to describe how her father was speaking to her uncles, discussing who should drive the car, which car to take, and what they should tell a government official if they were discovered.
There’s a great deal of tension in these lines even as the speaker recalls the memories in the distant past. It’s clear that their lives are dependent on their actions in these moments.
These lines also reveal the poem’s narrative nature. Throughout, without using a rhyme scheme, the poem tells the story of her youth. The action plays out in almost a prose-like manner.
On the way to the beach, you added, eyeing me.
Back in my sisters’ room Mami was packing
The idea that the family is going to the “beach” reappears in the third stanza. It is clear that this is a white lie the speaker’s family is attempting to maintain in order to keep the speaker, and any other children, calm. It seems unlikely that it would as an effective excuse for being out after curfew.
The use of the phrase “chuckling fake chuckles” adds to the general atmosphere the poet is creating. Everyone in the family is under a great deal of pressure but, for the sake of the children, they are trying to maintain an outwardly calm appearance.
The third line of this stanza, “What a good time she’ll have learning to swim!” is an example of one of the comments meant to soothe the speaker and make her feel as though this is a normal, family outing.
a hurried bag, allowing one toy apiece,
She dressed us in our best dresses, party shoes.
There is a great transition between the third and fourth stanzas where the speaker describes her mother packing a “hurried bag.” This very clever use of descriptive language allows readers to interpret how the mother was moving and the items she might be choosing. This includes “one toy apiece.” There wasn’t room, this line suggests, for many possessions. The children were forced to choose “one toy” and to do so quickly. The mother does not provide an explanation to her young children. Instead, the speaker interprets her desperation and fear through her “red eyes.” The poet’s use of language suggests that her mother has been crying and is under a great deal of pressure.
There is a good example of sibilance in the fourth line of the fourth stanza. Here, the repetition of the “s” sound a more rhythmic line that helps lead readers into the next stanzas of the poem.
The image of the children being dressed in their “best dresses” and “party shoes” indicates that the family wants to bring their most important belongings. This might also help bolster the moods of everyone involved and make them feel as though they are on an important outing. I,t might also remind readers of the pressure of the situation. When facing difficult circumstances it’s not uncommon to find men and women dressing in what makes them feel confident and dignified. Such may be the case here. The parents are preparing for the worst should they and their children be captured.
Stanzas Five and Six
Something was off, I knew, but I was young
and didn’t think adult things could go wrong.
magically, that night, I could stay up,
In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker demonstrates her trust in her family. She was young, and knew something was off, but, she didn’t think that the adults in her family would ever allow something to go wrong. These were adult choices made by people she trusted and she was willing to go along with them. The speaker drives away, noting how she wouldn’t see her home again for “another decade.” Here, the implications of their actions are furthered. They are leaving everything they knew behind, something that upsets the speaker’s siblings in the following stanzas.
Rather than crying and worrying about the situation, the speaker let herself lie back, as if an “deep waters.” She uses a simile to compare herself to Jesus on his cross trusting her fate to her mother, father, and extended family. That night, she could “stay up” floating in the metaphorical waters of her present and future. She was at that moment on a very important course/journey, one that had lasting implications.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
floating out, past the driveway, past the gates,
the family beach house, Mami consoling,
there was a better surprise in store for us!
The extended metaphor comparing their journey out of the Dominican Republic and into the United States to swimming and floating in water continues into the next lines. The family heads towards the coast, with the father driving their black Ford. The use of the color “black,” the depiction of the night, and her father’s “grim” aspect all create a very specific atmosphere of fear and darkness. It is juxtaposed against the speaker’s interpretation of events. Even though the family is in a great deal of danger, she is calm. She continues to metaphorically float along the “winding…backroads” heading to the coast.
The young speaker’s calm mood is made even more important when it is contrasted against her “sisters crying.” Her siblings become distressed after the family passes by their beach house, and it becomes clear that the lie their family was perpetuating is not the truth. But, their mother attempts to console them, telling them there was a “better surprise in store for us.” The children, including the speaker herself, are far too young to understand what the family is attempting and why it is so important. All they know is that they’re leaving everything familiar behind.
She couldn’t tell, though, until … until we were there.
more danger than the deep end of the pool.
The extended metaphor that depicts the speaker swimming continues into the ninth stanza. It’s at this point that she interprets a “danger” that is coming closer. She had guessed at something much larger than she could understand. The only way she could envision it in her mind was something that was more dangerous than the “deep end of the pool.” This is an allusion to their escape attempt and the loss the speaker is going to endure as she’s forced to leave her home behind.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
At the dark, deserted airport we waited.
that a part of both of us had been set adrift.
Now, the family is waiting at the airport. There, they wait tensely for the plane to arrive and for their final leg of the journey to begin. They are far from safe in these moments. The speaker continues her metaphorical swim within a “fitful sleep” that she can’t quite understand. The depiction of these moments from a child’s perspective means that there are few details in regard to how exactly the family planned their escape or the consequences of their failure. The lack of detail forces readers to see things in the same way as the speaker and perhaps understand some of her and her sisters’ confusion.
In the eleventh stanza, the swimming language continues. She describes her father looking into the distance, trying to spot a swimmer as though seeking out and luckily not finding anyone or anything that’s going to stand in the way of their escape from the Dominican Republic. In the stanza, readers confront both positive and negative language in regard to the family’s journey to America. Their desperation to get away is contrasted with their fear of leaving their home and everything they knew behind. A “part of both of us had been set a drift.” The family lost some of their identity in their choice to escape.
Weeks later, wandering our new city, hand in hand,
blond hair and blue eyes: a genetic code.
There is a transition between the eleventh and twelfth stanzas as the poet jumps ahead to describe what their life in New York was like. Again, there are only a few details in regard to what happened there and what their circumstances were. Through clear and easy-to-understand language, the speaker describes wandering the city hand-in-hand with her father and encountering all of the marvels that she’d never seen before. These include things that Americans take for granted, like elevators and moving belts. She also mentions “blond hair and blue eyes,” a reference to Caucasian men and women whose coloring the speaker had never seen before.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
We stopped before a summery display window
in my storybook waded in colored plastic.
There is an intentional juxtaposition between the contents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th stanzas with the depiction of a family fleeing in the darkness that began a poem. Now, the speaker and her father are standing in a busy New York street, looking in the window of an enormous department store. Nothing could be farther from their previous life experiences. Within the department store window is an advertisement depicting an American family outfitted in beachwear.
Here, the speaker is forced to contend with her understanding of the Dominican Republic, and their beach home there, with her new reality. She also contrasts the image of the American father with the image of her own father. The two were so different from one another that the comparison evokes feelings of alienation and distance in the speaker. (This is also seen through the title, ‘Exile’ which suggests that the speaker has been separated or cast out from the world she knew.) She does not understand her new home in the way that she understood her previous one.
There is also an allusion in these lines to the character of Heidi, a young girl who features in Swiss children’s books. There is something about their new world that reminds the speaker of Heidi’s fictional life. Everything is technicolor and bright and, the speaker suggests, like “colored plastic.”
We stood awhile, marveling at America,
both of us trying hard to feel luckier
eager, afraid, not yet sure of the outcome.
The speaker’s feelings of distance and separation from her new home continue into the next lines. She and her father attempt to learn more about their new home as they point out the various aspects of a Macy’s advertisement. But, they’re forced to contend with how out of place they feel and even the way they stand apart visually from the people around them.
They are dressed “too formally,” making it clear that they are “visitors to this country.” It is hard for the speaker, and her extended family, to feel safe, comforted by, and happy with the new world they live in.
This is furthered through the final iteration of the extended metaphor that the poet began early on in the poem. She compares herself and her father to swimmers looking down at the surface of their isolated waters. They admire their reflection in the glass, seeing themselves eager, afraid, and unsure of what will happen next.
The poem’s message is that one’s connection to their home is not defined by political circumstances. The speaker feels like an exile in the United States. This is despite the fact that she and her extended family were in a great deal of danger in the Dominican Republic.
Alvarez likely wrote this poem in order to share her experiences as a 10-year-old girl forced out of the only home she remembers in the Dominican Republic. As a child, she did not understand the political implications of the work her father was involved in or why they needed to leave their home.
The poem ‘Exile’ is about a young girl’s journey out of the Dominican Republic and entrance into the United States along with her family. Alvarez was ten years old when she made this journey and describes it in clear, narrative language throughout this seventeen stanza poem.
There are multiple conflicts that present themselves within Julia Alvarez’s poem. The first is the danger the young speaker and her family are in at home. To resolve this, they flee in the middle of the night to the United States. But, a new conflict arises as the young speaker and her family are forced to contend with feelings of alienation within the United States. This conflict is not resolved within the seventeen stanzas of the poem.
Julia Alvarez based the narrative in the poem ‘Exile’ on her own experiences as a ten-year-old girl escaping with her family from the Dominican Republic. She is the commonly accepted speaker in the poem.
Readers to enjoy this poem should also consider reading some similar poetry. For example:
- ‘Parsley’ by Rita Dove – is based on the true story of a mass killing that occurred in 1937 in the Dominican Republic.
- ‘Immigration’ by Ali Alizadeh – describes the poet’s experience when he and his family left Iran after several years of public school in order to escape the unending war and in search of freer, more peaceful lives.
- ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens – describes the life of a child who emigrated to a new country. The poem speaks broadly about the difficult lives of refugees.