Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Title: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: 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?

Review: (Note: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, mentions of rape, brief descriptions of attempted suicide, homomisia, sex-shaming, fat-shaming, murder, and a semi-graphic description of an animal being slaughtered.)

This review is going to be a difficult one to write. On the one hand, there are a lot of excellent parts in Erika L. Sánchez’s debut—a prickly, angry heroine who deals with anxiety and depression, struggling to survive in the aftermath of her older sister’s death and trying to forge an identity and future for herself in spite of her parents’ demands and expectations. Mexican culture and the Spanish language permeate every corner of the book, and Julia’s opinion of and experience in Chicago are colored by all of that.

There’s also a lot of discussion about immigration, from the very real dangers and fear that compel some to risk everything to cross the border to the alienation and loneliness of being kept apart from family. At one point, Julia’s English teacher urges her to write about her parents’ undocumented status for a college entrance essay, and Julia’s immediate reaction is fear for her parents and disbelief that he would ask her to do that. Her family and community have seen lives torn apart by immigration enforcement; how can he be so cavalier about suggesting she expose her parents when there have been raids at the plant her father works in?

Julia’s anxiety and depression are also important to see on the page, both how mental illness is generally not talked about in Latinx communities and also in positive depictions of therapy and medication. This is the third YA book I’ve read in the last few years that stars a Latinx character who deals with mental illness (When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez and The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork being the other two), and it is reassuring to know that there is yet another novel out there to help Latinx teens.

Unfortunately, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’s helpfulness will be limited by its unrepentant fat-shaming. While the sex-shaming generally gets a not-insignificant amount of pushback, either from Julia’s commentary on double standards or from a conversation with her therapist, the fat-shaming largely goes unchallenged. And it is pretty awful and omnipresent: “Amá says Paloma has a thyroid problem, and I feel bad for her, but I’ve seen her eat three tortas in one sitting. Thyroid, my ass,” or “She is always sucking her teeth at what I’m wearing or making some comment about my weight, even though she’s more floppy and misshapen than a sack of laundry,” or “Even if they’re fat, they move as if they think they’re fabulous.” That last one is a clear moment where Julia’s own internalized fat-shaming has popped up, but aside from a brief passage where Julia points out that she’s fat on the U.S. side and too skinny on the Mexican side, all of this cruelty and snark and disgust about other people’s bodies is a slap to the reader’s face. It has been a while since I’ve read a book that made me feel this awful about my own fat Latina self, so take that under advisement before you dive in.

Otherwise, IANYPMD felt unbalanced plot-wise. Based on the summary, I expected this to focus mostly on Julia, her best friend, and her boyfriend uncovering the mysteries of Olga, but Olga gets shoved aside for a good chunk of the book to grapple with Julia’s problems, and the best friend and boyfriend do almost nothing to help uncover those mysteries. This had the unfortunate consequence of giving these supporting characters too little depth to be adequate supports for Julia’s story, and Olga’s story turns more into a distraction or an afterthought than anything else. I think I would have preferred there was no mystery to Olga because of how inadequately her story was handled.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. While I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tackles important and timely issues related to mental health, immigration, and the Mexican-American community, the novel is kept from greatness by its pervasive fat-shaming and unbalanced plot.

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