Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.
But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.
Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.
But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a moving, disturbing, and vibrant story of a girl trying to find her own way while under the out-sized pressure of family expectations, poverty, and inner city life.
Julia is a gifted student whose dream is to become a writer. Thanks to the mentorship of a dedicated English teacher, she may have a shot at college — anywhere, so long as it’s away — and a full scholarship.
But Julia’s parents just don’t understand, and since Olga’s death, Julia is reminded over and over again that she’s not what her parents want her to be. She’s not content to be at home, and chafes under the harsh curfews and ceaseless surveillance of her life. Julia’s mother cleans houses of rich people and her father works a fatiguing job in a candy factory. Both undocumented, they crossed the border from Mexico before their daughters’ births, so while the girls are both US citizens, the threat of deportation hangs over the family every waking moment.
The descriptions of the family’s poverty are heartbreaking, and so is the despair Julia feels over the lack of freedom and trust she experiences on a daily basis. She yearns to break free, to pursue her education, to be something and someone different — but she faces constant punishments and groundings every time she steps out of line, and finally gets to a breaking point.
This book deals with the pain of family secrets — everyone in Julia’s family has something they’ve chosen not to share. As she learns more about her parents and her sister, Julia discovers that the bland or hard surfaces hide painful pasts and secrets that could be truly destructive if brought to life. Julia’s understanding of her own family deepens as she learns more, and she starts finally to understand where the harshness and rules and need for control really come from.
I thought the book was very well written, with a sense of immediacy conveyed through Julia’s narrative. We see the world through Julia’s eyes, and understand how the world affects her own sense of self. The way she’s viewed by outsiders because she’s poor and Mexican, the way the boys at home and at school look at her body rather than looking at her as a person, the way her parents see her as untrustworthy because she doesn’t fit the image of a “perfect” daughter the way Olga did — all of these drive Julia’s suffering and the damage to her self-image.
There’s a section of the book that’s set in Mexico, as Julia is sent to visit her relatives there, and while the descriptions of the village are colorful, this interlude felt like it meandered a bit to me. Still, if the point was to show that even in situations that seem cheerful and safe on the surface, there is still darkness underneath, then it’s effective as well.
Overall, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a powerful read that really moved me, even while making me very uncomfortable in many parts too. It’s definitely not like anything else I’ve read, and Julia’s distinctive voice is a delight. Touching on subjects such as economic disadvantage, cultural insensitivity and prejudice, sexual health, and mental health, it’s an ambitious book packed with heavy topics, but manages to still keep rays of hope alive as Julia finds her way forward. I’m so happy that I made time to read this book, and definitely recommend it.
Title: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 17, 2017
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult