There’s a special place in my heart for stories about kids raised by immigrant parents. My parents were pretty young when they reached the U.S., and at this point they’ve lived most of their lives in the States. I grew up very much immersed in the Cuban-American community in South Florida, but all things considered, I was lucky. My parents bore the brunt of the culture shock. They were much more lax with me than their parents were with them. I don’t forget to be grateful for that, because I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a worst-case scenario story for me.
The protagonist Julia is described as kind of a rebel, a troublemaker, decidedly Not Perfect. But it was hard for me to see her as anything but a typical teen. Maybe a tad mouthy, but otherwise pretty ordinary. All she wants is to spend time with her friends, go to college, become a writer…basically everything I wanted, at her age. But where my mother grudgingly dropped me off for movie dates at the Dolphin Mall, Julia’s parents are overwhelmingly old-fashioned. That’s kind of a weird way to describe it, because I had schoolmates whose parents were a lot like Julia’s. Is it “old-fashioned” if it’s still not really atypical? My parents never really concerned themselves with what I was reading or watching, but Cindy’s parents threw out all her Marilyn Manson CDs and demanded to know why she was into such Satanic stuff. Alex’s parents never let her go to sleepovers, and threatened to remove the door to her bedroom when they caught her on the phone with a boy. My own grandfather didn’t understand why my mother would even think of going away for university when there was a perfectly good community college campus just 30 minutes away from their house. The “old” attitudes aren’t so old, for some people.
There were moments while reading I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter when I felt like I was being smothered. Julia’s feelings of being overwhelmed and denied of her agency were painfully well presented. I mean, seriously painfully. Julia’s parents basically run her over with their beliefs again and again. There were elements of her upbringing that mirrored my own, though considerably more severe – the misogyny, the anti-intellectualism. Julia’s parents don’t expect her to be anything more than a secretary, and seem personally offended by the notion that she might want something else. Her needs and desires are like a slap in the face to them. The death of Julia’s older sister Olga serves to exacerbate things as her parents desperately try to shape Julia into something more like Olga. But Olga, Julia gradually discovers, wasn’t quite the Perfect Mexican Daughter her parents believed she was.
Even as Julia slowly gains some agency, every step comes with sacrifice. Sacrifice of sanity, of her image of her sister, of her belief in her family’s power to protect her. The story is strong, but it’s the emotion and Julia’s development as a character that stands out, for me. This is another one that I’m not sure I could make it through again – it was just too frustrating. I couldn’t help wondering how I might have turned out if it had been my grandparents rather than my parents who had raised me. My relationship with my mother has never been (and will never be) strong, but she never questioned my desire to write. And without spoiling too much, Julia’s fight for agency mostly works out, in the end. Which is just as well, because anything but a happy ending for her would’ve been crushing along the lines of They Both Die at the End…and I seriously can’t handle another one of those.
If you aren’t frustrated to the point of rage by generational conflict in literature, you’ll probably enjoy I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. I’m looking forward to seeing what Sanchez writes next!