National Book Award finalist, Chicanx young adult author and poet Erika L. Sánchez has written an unforgettable debut novel in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, depicting the aftermath of the unexpected death of protagonist Julia Reyes’ sister. Reyes, a Chicago-based Mexican-American high school student, is often misunderstood in this stunning novel that grapples with such complex subjects as grief, depression, mental health, suicide, and biculturalism. The content, voice, and tone of the book demonstrate Sánchez’s skillful writing while at the same time keeping the story authentic.
This story revolves around the death of Julia Reyes’ older sister, Olga, but Julia is not exhibiting the garden variety kind of teen angst. Instead, Sánchez writes Reyes as a teen grappling with a deep well of grief and the trauma of losing a sister. Sánchez is very shrewd about the way grief sets in, particularly for an unexpected death, as she deftly crafts Julia’s innermost thoughts, “Nothing feels like it has a point anymore.” But, in addition to the perpetual waves of grief, Julia tries to stay afloat while also struggling with undiagnosed mental health concerns stemming from longstanding depression. The manifestation of that depression is often exhibited in the novel as inappropriate outbursts as Julia is routinely sent to the principal’s office for blurting out exactly what she is thinking. In short, her “big mouth” often gets her into trouble.
Layer grief and depression with a first-generation Mexican-American woman who is often at odds with her parents’ wishes and you get a nuanced story. The expectations set for the Reyes’ daughters conflict with the desires Julia possesses as a college-bound English major. Olga has chosen to remain close to home attending the local community college and securing a perfectly acceptable office job, at least in the eyes of her parents. All is not what it seems for staid Olga who Julia perceives as the “perfect Mexican daughter.” Not uncommon in first-generation Mexican families, even efforts to hang out with your friend at the mall or lose oneself in the local bookstore are hard fought battles as Julia tends to lie to her parents since her mother believes “only orphans and whores run around the streets by themselves.” This site of intergenerational conflict can have serious consequences on one’s mental health.
The story, though wholly unique as giving voice to Latina mental health issues, reminded me of some of the struggles experienced by Xiomara Baptiste in The Poet X as both protagonists struggle with intergenerational conflicts and also expectations stemming from living in strict Catholic families. And, in this regard, it becomes difficult for both young women to find their way. I don’t tend to read young adult books very often; however, what I appreciate about this one is the universal message it sends about Latina mental health and also in experiencing grief. Sánchez’s protagonist possesses deep intellect and sharp wit even in the face of her struggles with mental health. At a moment when white authors continue to culturally appropriate the stories of Mexican immigrants, if you are looking for an authentic story don’t hesitate to pick up this astonishing debut novel published in 2017.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
By Erica L. Sánchez
354 pages. 2017.
Buy it here.