“But how do we live with these secrets locked within us? How do we tie our shoes, brush our hair, drink coffee, wash the dishes, and go to sleep, pretending everything is fine?”(284-285)
Once upon a time, I was an immigration attorney. Many of my clients were “undocumented” or had “undocumented” parents. The point of that is to say that Erika Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter hit a little differently for me. I’ve met Julia and her family. I’ve represented them in immigration court. While I haven’t lived it, I’ve seen the nervousness and uncertainty of a child thrust between two identities. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be required reading in every high school across America.
Julia is a mouthy but academically gifted teenager who dreams of being a famous writer in New York. Unlike her “perfect” sister, Olga, Julia wants to get far away from her family. Her parents just don’t understand her. They don’t approve of her friends, the way she dresses, or her dreams. “You should be more like your sister,” they say. Neat. Tidy. A good cook. A perfect Mexican daughter ready to step into the role of perfect Mexican wife. But Olga’s dead, and her family is left broken.
Julia blames herself for her sister’s death. If she had been a better daughter, her sister wouldn’t have been taking the bus. The guilt eats at her. At night, she sneaks into her sister room and sleeps in her sister’s bed. In her attempts to bring herself closer to her sister and find closure, she discovers that maybe Olga wasn’t as perfect as she appeared. Julia becomes obsessed with the mystery, obsessed with finding Olga’s secrets and revealing her as less than perfect to her devastated parents.
Depression wraps itself around Julia, filling her head with guilt and thoughts of inadequacy. Her parents are so consumed with their own grief, they don’t notice their remaining daughter has spiraled to a place many don’t come back from until its almost too late.
After a failed suicide attempt and a brief hospitalization, her parents decide to send Julia to Mexico. She hasn’t visited her family in years, and she’s never gone without Olga. Her parents are undocumented and it’s too risky for them to leave the US, so she goes on her own. There, in the warmth of her Mexican family and with the help of the medication she’s been placed on, Julia begins to heal. While in Mexico, she’s faced with a reality of her parents’ shared history that had long been kept a secret. She begins to realize that some secrets should never be said out loud.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter isn’t a fairytale. It’s gritty, but it’s real. Julia is whiney and ungrateful; in short, she’s every other teenager. That commonality and Julia’s snarky voice brings levity to rather serious situations. It’s a relatable and extremely well-done young adult novel.
Read this book.