I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Sánchez, Erika. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. NY: Penguin/Random House, 2019.
Teen & Young Adult Fiction/Teen & Young Adult Social Issues
The plot of this debut YA novel, by Erika Sánchez, can be summed up in the words of its complex and imperfect narrator, Julia Reyes, as she writes her college application essay: “In 1991, my parents—Amparo Montenegro and Rafael Reyes—got married and left their hometown of Los Ojos, Chihuahua, in search of a better life…All they wanted was the American dream, but things didn’t work out that way for them. Amá cleans houses and Apá works in a candy factory. Life for us was already difficult, and then last year my sister was run over by a truck.”
Julia, 16, is trying to navigate life under a cloud of depression as the rebellious older sibling of a seemingly “perfect” younger sister whose sudden loss has sent the family into its darkest days. She believes her family, including her parents, love and have always loved her sister more than her. Why not? Julia is a bookworm, doesn’t dress the way a Mexican daughter is supposed to, shoots off her mouth when she shouldn’t, and questions both her parents and their rules at every turn.
In the midst of this, there’s a mystery surrounding Olga who she loved dearly, despite their differences. Julia finds things in Olga’s room that send her on a quest to understand who her sister really was. Meanwhile, Julia—who never feels comfortable in her own skin while critiquing a culture that makes women feel physically judged—struggles with feeling truly loved. Her feelings of grief and isolation, and the burden of secrets that keep unfolding around her, take her to the brink.
As a character, Julia can really get on your nerves. She spits out hurtful things and nastily critiques every person in her path. Our journey into her inner life reveals the harshness with which she sees the world, including and especially herself. At the same time, her depth makes her deeply lovable—she quotes poets and writers, loves Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and she is a truth teller, saying what most girls want to say but often stuff back into themselves.
Sánchez manages to layer this YA novel with all the themes above AND give us a deep look into the life of an undocumented family doing their best to navigate life in the U.S. It also celebrates Mexican-American culture and family values while critiquing them. As a reader, I love this complexity.
This book is a good read, a page turner—will we find out who Olga really was; will Julia’s parents ever start to understand her; will Julia find a way to climb out of darkness to live the life she’s dreamed? It’s a great book for parents to read along with their teens—encouraging honest conversation about difficult things.
Note: this book includes incidences and issues of self-harm. It concludes with a list of resources for adults and teens.
Review by: Valerie Martinez, Director HLA-NHCC