CW: This post discusses violent accidental death, mental illness, and suicide.
“There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why—when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.”
― Kate Chopin, The Awakening
“Whenever I think of my sister’s crushed organs, I want to scream in a field of flowers until I’m hoarse.”
Published in 2017, Erika Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a disorienting, achingly beautiful window into the life of a brilliant LatinX youth, starting with the tragic death of her older sister. Across a large part of this novel, the consciousness of 15-year-old Julia Reyes is held fast between a dizzying intake of aesthetic beauty and an unrelenting outpouring of despair.
Julia struggles with many conflicts, a lot of them outside of her control, but her poor mental health poses a particular challenge because it is directly influenced by the other problems in her life, and vice versa.
The first thing to explore is the way Julia’s struggles with identity in this novel are reflected in the research and arguments of the academic community. As is explored by multiple experts in this new age of LatinX literary and cultural scholarship, being a LatinX individual poses unique social challenges. Chief among these is maintaining a strong sense of identity without feeling like one isn’t being “real” or has “betrayed” their community. This is something Julia experiences time and again from the people in her life: her mother, her uncles, her classmates, her friends and even passing acquaintances take time to let her know that the elevated way she talks and behaves isn’t normal for someone in her social group. An example of this is when a classmate responds to her rejection of his advances: “You’re conceited. That’s your problem. You think you’re better than everybody. You think you’re all smart, talking like a white girl and shit.” Comparing her to a “white girl” in the same breath as claiming her to be conceited presents her as an outlier, a person who isn’t being true to the way those in her cultural group operate. She’s not merely conceited or uppity; she’s betraying her own “people.”
To look further into Julia’s characterization being slated as deviant behavior, we turn to Leslie Espinoza’s article, “Latino/a Identity and Multi-Identity.” Espinoza touches on something Julia struggles with in a major way: the concept of multi-identity. More specifically, of not conforming to the perceived characteristics of her identity. According to Espinoza, “Once placed [in a racial category], the individual is assumed to possess all the characteristics of that category, good and bad.” Further into the article, Espinoza makes a point about the identity of an individual being distinct from, and often at odds with, the identity of a group to which they belong. This, I believe, particularly applies to Julia. As a member of the LatinX community in modern-day Chicago, Julia Reyes is expected to model herself after the majority of the community, with characteristics both “good and bad,” like Espinoza says. However, she simply doesn’t fit the mold. Like the title of this book says, she’s not her mother’s “Perfect Mexican Daughter.” In Espinoza’s article, she lists out her own identities, all distinct and all important to who she is. Using this listing model, Julia Reyes is: Imperfect, Mexican American, LatinX, Daughter, Sister, Cousin, Niece, would-be Aunt, Writer, Student, Indie Music Fan, Friend, Patient, Lover, Gen Z, Neurodivergent. There are likely many more things to add to this list, but already there are more aspects to her than most (if any) of the people close to her acknowledge.
The stress of being at odds with everyone in her life shows its strain on Julia, especially when her depression begins to peak. It’s impossible to confirm whether Julia’s mental health would have been as problematic as it is if her sister hadn’t died and if she received more motivational support from her family. However, the text suggests that even without these external problems, Julia’s depression would likely still have persisted to the point of needing professional help. The primary piece of evidence for this is when Julia is reflecting to herself: “My moods shift like that all the time, even before Olga died. One minute I feel okay, and then all of a sudden my energy plummets for no reason at all.” Julia shows trouble socializing with her peers because of her elevated vocabulary and a dislike for things she deems a waste of time. However, the other side of her pride in her language capabilities is her need to be seen as intelligent, like when Julia is set up with a Spanish-speaking boy and she panics because, though she speaks Spanish perfectly well, “[her] vocabulary is just not as extensive, and sometimes [she] get[s] stuck.” This is followed by the nervous thought, “I hope he doesn’t think I’m dumb, because I’m not.” Julia shows her command of the English language as a point of pride that she’s reluctant to do without when using the language of her parents’ homeland. Perhaps in being ostracized by her peers for her intelligence and particular nature, Julia has come to rely on that same intelligence to bring her power and agency.
Julia uses language to express her feelings and those of the people around her. She does so even when it’s painful, even when the words are in Spanish or English, and even when the words aren’t hers to begin with. She loves language, even taking inspiration from a woman’s shirt on the subway or the painfully beautiful words of a peer at group therapy. When her English teacher coaxes Julia into writing her college essay down on paper, there are tears in her eyes because she expresses herself through language. The act of translating her thoughts about what her family has gone through into such an intimate medium forces Julia to sift through the broken pieces— “the wreck,” as her favorite poem says—to find what needs to be put into words. Countless times Julia uses intertextuality to describe moments and situations with countless pieces of music, art, cinema, poetry, literature… the list goes on.
The intimacy Julia has with the written and spoken word can help her explain her own jumbled thoughts, but it can also bring her to the edge of existence. When her depression is at its worst, Julia becomes obsessed with the song “Todo Cambia” by Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa. The lyrics speak to her, and the four lines quoted in the text are significant, primarily the last two:
|Cambia el rumbo el caminante |
Aunque esto le cause daño
Y así como todo cambia
Que yo cambie no extraño
|The traveler’s path changes |
Even if it hurts him
And just as everything else changes
That I change is not strange
Pain is mentioned in these lines, specifically the pain of a traveler changing his path. This is followed by a justification for why it is unsurprising that the narrator of this song should also change. This song’s message is darkly fitting for a depressed Julia to grow attached to, as it is the song she is listening to as she sobs in her room and then begins the attempt to take her own life.
The need for visibility and inclusion is more urgent now than ever. Young members of the LatinX community with situations like Julia’s surely exist today—this book was only published in 2017. Throughout this book, others ask Julia about her mental health. Mr. Ingman asks at multiple points if she is okay, to each she responds with a lie. After her suicide attempt, a fellow patient asks if she would do it again, and she lies once more. She is also not fully honest with her therapist, either. Asking is simply not enough. “Checking in” is simply not enough. There must be a change in the environment that fosters the youth of the LatinX community, some sign that they are welcome; there is room for them, even if they don’t conform to “normal” ideas of what others in their demographic should be. Sanchez is masterful in showing this.
Fortunately, there is beginning to be a positive change in the inclusivity of these communities. Proof of this is in the rising popularity of the modern title “LatinX.” In the video “Why We Use ‘Latinx’: Fusion Spanish 101” by YouTube channel Fusion, one of the news correspondents states that “LatinX is [like] saying, ‘I’m leaving this open.’ One of the first steps of solidarity is to say, ‘I accept you as you are. And I call you what you want to be called.’” Something as small as removing the gendered element of a word can have a positive impact on the younger LatinX generations. In Julia’s case, she has never doubted her gender identity, but in a world where people from all sides are telling her to be this or that, the simple act of being accepted and, above all, seen, makes all the difference. We owe it to our friends, family and future: don’t fail these kids.
Espinoza, Leslie G. “Latino/a Identity and Multi-Identity.” The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader, Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. NYUP, 2011.
“Why We Use ‘Latinx’: Fusion Spanish 101.” Fusion Media Group, 2017.
Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, 2017.