I don’t think any other book has quite captured my anguished, pissed, etc. side quite like Erika L. Sánchez’s “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.” It’s definitely one of the best YA books I’ve ever read.
Julia is a high school student living in Chicago. She’s poor, brown, and has big dreams. She wants to go to college and become a writer. This is not what we Mexican girls do. We are expected to be more like Olga, Julia’s obedient and dutiful sister. She stays home with her parents, doesn’t mess around with boys, and goes to church. She basically has no life outside of the house. This is not the life Julia wants for herself.
When Olga dies, everything in Julia’s life gets worse. Her mother becomes so depressed she doesn’t leave her room, and her father somehow becomes even more quiet and distant than normal. Julia, however, finds out some secrets about her sister and wants to know more. This plot line is what keeps the reader turning the pages. It’s almost like a mystery in the middle of this coming-of-age story.
As Julia tries to find more clues into her sister’s secret life, we get to know her and her world. She loves to read and write and pretty much hates everything else, especially the quinceañera her mom is forcing her to have (been there myself, it sucks). Her anger is so relatable to me. She’s stuck in a financial situation that she cannot control, her parents don’t understand her and criticize her life choices, and she feels as though she is surrounded by people she can’t relate to. The only person other than her best friend Lorena that cares about her is her English teacher. He praises her writing and encourages her to go to college.
In her quest to get more information about Olga, Julia has to break a lot of her parent’s rules. She also has to struggle with having the knowledge of who her sister really was and whether or not to tell her parents. She wasn’t the daughter they thought she was; she was involved with a married man of all things! Julia is constantly compared to her perfect Mexican sister, to the point where she is made to feel as though her death is Julia’s fault. Having to hold that secret definitely takes a toll on her.
The climax of the book happens when Julia tries to end her life. Suicide is a major theme in a lot of literature for young people and I think it’s written about in a real way. I didn’t grow up reading YA novels, especially ones with girls of color in them. Julia’s depression validates a lot the feelings I had as a teen and I’m sure the same goes for a lot of people out there. The fact that a Mexican girl’s mental health is being talked about at all is amazing to me and I’m so glad that this is out there.
Julia gets a happy ending in the book. Which makes me happy. She gets the mental help she needs and she gets to go to college. She gets what she wants in order to work towards her goals. I hope a lot of us brown girls get the happy endings we want.
This one is definitely a 5 out of 5 stars:
CAUTION: Many feelings ahead.
I read this book after reading Celia C. Pérez’s “The First Rule of Punk.” After reading both, I was definitely feeling inspired because I had these amazing brown women writing the books I needed to read as a youngin’. But I also—still—feel angry that I didn’t have these books back then.
I probably would’ve been a stronger person had I had characters like this to relate to. I probably wouldn’t have felt so out of place being a brown girl that likes to read, being told that her interests were “white” while all the white girls got left alone or worse, praised.
I have a lot of resentment about that and about not having any mentors or people to encourage me in my interests. I feel as though I am barely starting in my attempts to really, really start writing. I was starved of the representation I needed. I have it now in my mid-twenties, though. It’s definitely not too late.
Also, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” made me realize that I may have some underlying depression, and some recent life events have definitely jumpstarted my wanting to return to therapy. I want to be better and go after my goals just like Julia. So thank you for that, Erika.