But how do we live with these secrets locked within us?
National Book Award nominee I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a powerful young adult novel that deals with the very real trauma of grief and depression. Fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes, our narrator, lives in Chicago with her parents and older sister Olga, who has just died in a tragic accident. Julia is struggling with feelings of grief, guilt and anger, and her already fragile relationship with her parents is at the breaking point. Julia’s desire to find out the truth about who her perfect older sister really was, her dream of moving away from home for college and a career as a writer, and her increasing frustration and despair over her family situation will propel her toward the truth. But as family secrets unravel, will Julia herself unravel as well?
The Reyes family lives on the edge. Like their neighbors, they are poor and both parents work to try to make ends meet. Julia’s Apa works at the candy factory, while Ama cleans houses. Olga had what they considered a wonderful job as a secretary in a doctors’ office. Julia, however, had always found Olga to be a bit of a disappointment. She was smart, but only ever took classes at the community college instead of going away; she seemed happy to live at home, and was the perfect daughter who never complained and always helped. Julia believes that her parents, family and neighbors see her (Julia) as a disappointment by comparison. Julia is very smart but is also a “troublemaker” both at home and school. She argues with her Ama and teachers, which leads to Ama being called to school and Julia being grounded frequently. Julia feels oppressed by her parents, who always need to know where she is and who she is with; Ama seems to disapprove of everything Julia does. After Olga’s death, Ama and Apa seem to withdraw more and more into their grief. Julia also is grieving, but has no one to talk to. She takes to sleeping in Olga’s room and finds interesting items that lead her to question if Olga was the perfect daughter after all. When Ama discovers that Julia has been in Olga’s room, she locks the door and hides the key. Julia will nonetheless continue her quest to find out what Olga was doing before she died, trying to track down Olga’s friends and perhaps even get back into the room to take Olga’s laptop and see what she can find there.
Meanwhile, Julia struggles with school. She loves English, keeps a journal and writes poems, but her interest falls off in her other classes, especially after the death of Olga. Julia is desperate to finish school and get into college, but doubts herself and despairs of ever getting away. A number of people around her express concern for her well being, including her best friend Lorena, her favorite teacher, and potential boyfriend Connor, but Julia always brushes off their concern. She only admits to herself that she has always, since she was even a small child, struggled with inexplicable feelings of sadness, that even the smallest things can cause her to feel deep pain. Even when she is spending time with her friend Lorena, the feeling can creep up on her.
I feel sadness spreading inside me. I never know what to do when this happens. I try to convince myself that everything is okay, but I can’t.
Eventually, Julia will have to confront her depression, and Sanchez’ way of leading the reader and Julia to this reckoning is done perfectly. It is deeply sad and hard to read, but it feels very real. While confronting the truth about herself, Julia will also have to figure out how to handle the truth about Olga and her family. Part of Julia is angry about secrets that have been kept from her, but part of her must also decide whether or not to maintain those secrets. Is it better for the whole truth to be out there, or is it better to keep some secrets in order to protect the people you love?
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is an unflinching, honest portrayal of depression and trauma and its impact on the individual and families. Julia, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come across as obnoxious or pathetic, but Sanchez imbues her with complexity and humanity; the reader can feel and share in her deep sadness and desperation, while also seeing that perhaps there is more going on than Julia knows with her parents, her friends, her sister. This novel was nominated for a National Book Award and is an excellent choice for teens and older. I’m sure it could facilitate much needed conversation about dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health issues. Sanchez provides useful information on Mental Health Resources at the end of the novel.