fiction · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. Sánchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. Sánchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States- Eileen Truax

There were a lot of great choices on the New Nonfiction shelf at the library during my last trip, but the first thing that ended up in my bag was How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax. It’s a timely, important read that will expand your knowledge of why so many of our neighbors to the south come here to live and work, why they need to, and the difficulties they face everyday regardless of their immigration status.
Each chapter is dedicated to two or three people who live in the United States who were either born in Mexico or born in the US to parents who were born in Mexico. You’ll get to know labor organizers, translators and interpreters, business owners, asylum seekers, US college graduates who can’t legally work here, a high ranking police officer, and even a practicing lawyer who remains undocumented. There are stories of triumph, to be sure, but the overall sentiment is more of frustration, anger, and occasionally heartbreak, as in the case of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, who had her newborn daughter taken away from her and placed in foster care, solely because she spoke no English. 
Another example:
‘In Texas, there have been documented cases of agents stopping ambulances to check the immigration statuses of patients. In 2015, the New York Times reported an account of a Brownsville pediatrician who stated that a child had died en route to Corpus Christi and the parents had not accompanied him because they were undocumented and were afraid to cross at the checkpoint.’

Heartbreaking. And so utterly unnecessary.
Just as Helen Thorpe does in Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, Ms. Truax expounds the complications of mixed-status families, where some members have legal status and others don’t. Nine million people in the US share this uniquely frustrating situation, some with no hope of improving their circumstances, living in fear that they or their families will be deported at any point in time and the family member or members with legal status will be left to fend for themselves (as happened to Diane Guerrero, whom you might recognize from such shows as Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. She details her life story in the book In the Country We Love: My Family Divided). These are agonizing situations, and far too often, there’s no good solution for these families. Sometimes there’s no solution at all.
This is a heavy book. And if it’s heavy to just read, imagine what it’s like to live it. Imagine what it’s like to flee the country of your birth, of your culture, your language, and your history, because your husband has been kidnapped not just once but multiple times, traveling to the only safe place that offers you opportunity, only to have every door slammed in your face and to hear that you’re nothing but a rapist and murderer from that place’s president, of all people- even though it was the rapists and murderers you were fleeing. Imagine working 72 hours a week on your feet, only to be called lazy and greedy by people who refuse to even try to understand what you’ve been through. Imagine the fear you would feel if at any moment, you could be sent to live in a place you don’t even remember being, a place where you don’t even speak the language. Imagine being a child and having to grow up with the fear of one or both of your parents being sent away; imagine what that would do to your ability to learn, to focus in school. Imagine knowing that even if you’ve lived 17 of your 18 years in one country, you’ve gotten straight A’s in school, you’ve earned a perfect SAT score and have unlimited potential for success, that country still doesn’t want you. This book, along with the two others I’ve linked to in this post, will further your appreciation for what Mexican immigrants live with.

I don’t think I can do justice to a book like this in such a short review; it’s such a necessary read in these terrible times. I’ll never fully understand the depth of the struggles faced by the people from Mexico who choose to seek a better life here. For all its issues, my life has been a privileged one; my parents never came close to having to contemplate leaving the country in which they were born. But I’ll always keep trying and adding to my understanding; these days, compassion and understanding are imperative, and it’s only through embracing not only our own humanity but that of our neighbors- ALL our neighbors- will we truly become that shining city on a hill.

Follow Eileen Truax on Twitter here.