'I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter' lays out a real and raw world

At times, this blistering YA book is as messy and unlikable as its protagonist. But it’s also authentic and deeply moving.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter By Erika L. Sánchez Random House Children's Books 352 pp.

Julia Reyes is many things.

She’s a 15-year-old writer who desperately wants to go to college. She’s an outspoken feminist with big dreams and a hunger for art. She’s sarcastic, intellectual, and judgmental. She’s the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, living in a roach-infested apartment in Chicago. She is unremittingly poor – and eternally bitter about it. She’s angry almost all the time.

When her older sister, Olga, dies in a car accident, Julia adds one more line to her bio: She is not now, not ever, going to be like her terminally boring sister – no matter how much her parents wish she were. She is going to be somebody, and she’s going to leave as soon as she can.

Her parents don’t know what to do with her. In their eyes, a good woman should want to get a job, marry a Latino, raise children, and make tortillas until the day she dies. Olga seemed to be ideal; why, her mother rages, can’t Julia be good?

A month after Olga’s death, however, Julia discovers something that makes her think she didn’t know her sister at all. Behind the facade of a mousy, sweet, dutiful daughter – Saint Olga, who lived at home at 27 and always listened to her parents – who was she really?

No one takes Julia’s suspicions seriously, but she can’t let it lie. “I’ve had this feeling that won’t leave me alone, like tiny needles in the back of my head,” she says. Alone and unhappy, Julia the Sleuth gets to work.

Erika L. Sánchez’s blistering book, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, lays out a real and raw world, one with some gems and some monsters, and with everyone in the middle just trying to figure out how to live.

There’s a lot of strong content here that some readers may find disturbing. Sánchez is blunt about drug use, strong language, sexual content, depression/anxiety, violence, abuse, and suicide.

Julia’s many struggles are those of a hibiscus fighting to blossom in a garbage heap. This is a girl who feels everything deeply. She fights with all of her heart to make it out of her circumstances, but some days she feels like the heap will bury her alive.

“I want to go to school. I want to see the world,” she cries. “I want so many things sometimes I can’t even stand it. I feel like I’m going to explode.”

Julia’s persona rockets off the page and into your face from the get-go. The blend of harsh, practical, ambitious, and lonely leaves behind an emotional wake like an oil spill. Julia’s heart is streaked with grime and yet iridescent.

She compares herself to Edna in “The Awakening.” She talks about Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks.” She writes poetry. She likens her mother’s behavior to that in Federico García Lorca’s play “The House of Bernarda Alba.” Her favorite painting is Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes.”

“I love art almost as much as I love books,” she says. “It’s hard to explain the way I feel when I see a beautiful painting. It’s a combination of scared, happy, excited, and sad all at once, like a soft light that glows in my chest and stomach for a few seconds.… I had a similar feeling when I read an Emily Dickinson poem. I was too excited and threw my book across the room. It was so good that it made me angry. People would think I’m nuts if I try to explain it to them, so I don’t.”

With Olga’s death, her parents tighten the screws and dial up the pressure – but that dam won’t hold forever. When it breaks, the whole book changes.

After reading all of this, you may find yourself wondering why you should jump into the mind of a severely depressed antihero on a dark, violent, coming-of-age journey. The short answer is, it’s real life. “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is not a dystopian novel or a flight of revisionist fancy. All the grit comes from someone’s – many people’s – truth.

Watching Julia hit rock bottom and ask herself, “Now what?” is important because her story doesn’t end there. Like real people, Julia must then begin the brutal work of rebuilding herself and addressing the fundamental issues. There is no deus ex machina in real life. But there is always, always hope.

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is not a perfect novel. At times, it’s as messy and unlikable as its protagonist. But it’s also just as strong, just as defiant, just as beautiful, and just as worthy of your time and attention.

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