I Am Not Your Pefect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Christmas is around the corner, and that means it’s gift giving season! The next couple of reviews I’m going to put up in the coming weeks are going to be part of my Christmas List — books that I think will make great gifts to your friends and family (or yourself! #TreatYoself) this holiday season. We’re kicking things off with this amazing Young Adult novel by Erika L. Sánchez. I’m probably never going to be too old for YA books, and I know my 14 year old self would have loved this one. I think your nieces, nephews, little sisters, brothers, and cousins will too!
Our narrator is the sixteen year old daughter of Mexican immigrants named Julia, and our story opens as she buries her older sister, Olga. Olga was killed in a tragic accident, and her death leaves more questions than answers for her younger sister. She discovers that there was more to her sister than met the eye, and that there was much she did not share with her. In the midst of searching for answers about her sister, Julia finds much more pain, much more secrets, and much more sorrow and sadness than she expected. She has always had a spirit of melancholy about her, but the loss of Olga deepens and darkens her spirit nearly to the breaking point.
This story deals with heavy topics like mental health, self-harm, and immigration with a deft hand. What is most exciting to me was that I don’t recall reading many books like this when I was in the YA demographic myself. But these stories are real, and they need to be told. The exceptional beauty of this novel, is that Sánchez tells it through the lens of a teenage Mexican girl whose parents are both “illegal” immigrants. Sidenote: I believe that no human is illegal. I don’t like to use the word “illegal,” but it comes up in the text so that is why it is presented here. Julia’s Latina heritage is presented in the text without bells and whistles and not as the butt of some joke. In fact, Sánchez does not even do a lot of work to explain it to us. Characters think and speak in Spanish often, and there is never any direct word-for-word translation; sometimes Julia translates the words/contexts for herself, and we are able to gain understanding from her thoughts. I love this kind of no qualms about it authenticity. Our hands are not held through the story like so many Americans want to be when they are introduced to a different culture.
We see Julia navigating her identity as both Mexican and American. She doesn’t know how to make tortillas to her mother’s standards, and she resents being forced to have a quinceanera. She even wants to go to school far from home in New York City. She is constantly fighting against her overbearing, overprotective mother who is quick to remind her that she’s nothing like Olga, her seemingly perfect dead sister. Yet when a white boy named Connor wants to come into her world, she is keenly aware of the differences in their lives from socio-economic class to culture. But when she goes back to her mother’s hometown in Mexico, she is wrapped in the loving embrace of her grandmother, Mamá Jacinta, and all her aunts and uncles, and she learns that she and her mother are much more alike than she thought.
In learning about her sister, Julia actually discovers, and learns to love, herself, even the ugly parts. This is a story about self-esteem and self-love as much as it is about culture and identity. We all have dark, gritty parts of ourselves that are easier to look away from than accept. Perhaps we can be more like Julia and, in loving ourselves more fully, find a way to achieve our dreams.
This book is actually a whopping 340 pages long. I didn’t anticipate it being this long, and in some ways the length was a bit much. It spans the course of two years, and I felt that it took a bit too long to reach the climax of the plot about Olga (or perhaps, I’m just interpreting the plot line wrong). However, I was very invested in the story by the time I started to realize I was still waiting for something that I thought should have already happened, so this was not difficult to overcome. Additionally, the pace at the end of the book really picks up, and the last 100 pages or so are very easy to get caught up in. Sánchez wraps the story up in a very satisfying way — no cliff hangers here! I’d recommend this book for readers 15+ due to language and themes.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was a really fantastic and captivating book, and one that I’m excited to have you share with your friends and family. You should read this book if you want to create space for young Mexican women to share their stories and to become a more emphathetic global citizen. Have you read it yet? Are you planning to make it a gift for someone? Let me know in the comments below!