83 pages 2 hours read

Erika L. Sanchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2017, Erika L. Sánchez’s first novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a young adult coming-of-age story set in contemporary Chicago. The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Julia Reyes as she navigates her grief and struggles with mental health, her familial relationships, and cultural expectations when her older sister Olga unexpectedly dies. The book has won several awards, including the Thomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award in 2018.

Plot Summary

Julia’s parents, whom she calls Amá and Apa, are Mexican American immigrants who work thankless jobs to provide for their family. Twenty-two-year-old Olga was proper, obedient, and quiet, the ideal Mexican daughter. Julia, on the other hand, is loud, opinionated, and independent—characteristics that garner judgement and criticism from her devout and traditional family. When Olga gets hit by a truck and dies, the family’s grief further alienates Julia from her parents.

A few weeks after Olga’s funeral, Amá shocks Julia by informing her she wants to throw her a quinceañera—an elaborate party for Latina girls at the age of 15 that marks their transition into womanhood. Julia has no interest in having a party, especially because she is almost 16, but she knows that Amá regrets not having one for Olga.

One night, Julia sneaks into Olga’s room and finds several hidden items: a love note, a hotel key, and racy lingerie. Julia turns to Olga’s best friend Angie, who doesn’t reveal Olga’s secrets and blames Julia for caring about her sister too late. Julia’s continuous inquiries at the hotel and at Olga’s college lead nowhere, but she remains suspicious.

As Julia continues to struggle with her grief, her only sources of solace are her best friend Lorena, English class with Mr. Ingman, and the idea of going away to college. She is an aspiring writer, and while she waits for her chance to escape Chicago and see the world, she escapes her mundane, oppressive life by reading and writing.

Julia reluctantly participates in her quinceañera to please her family, but she gets into an argument with one of her aunts. Amá reprimands her and angrily blames her for Olga’s death. Julia spends the summer helping Amá clean houses, and in the fall, applies for colleges. She dates Connor, a wealthy white boy from the suburbs, and their relationship brings her joy, though their class disparity is sometimes a source of anxiety for Julia.

Julia finally finds the key to Olga’s room and moves Olga’s secret belongings to her room to keep them from Amá. Amá, however, finds them, and Julia allows her to think they are hers.  Amá grounds Julia, and Julia’s depression and isolation come to a head. She tries to commit suicide, but Apa breaks through her door and gets her to the hospital. Julia follows a treatment plan of outpatient therapy, counseling, and medication. After she completes the program, Julia’s parents decide that she should go to Mexico, thinking time with her grandmother and extended family will help her heal. Before she leaves, she finds the password to Olga’s computer and discovers old email exchanges between Olga and a married doctor from work.

In Mexico, Julia learns that Apa used to be an artist, and Amá was raped on their journey across the border, resulting in Olga’s birth. The cartel’s violence resurfaces in Los Ojos, and the family decides it is no longer safe for Julia. When she returns to Chicago, she and Amá mend their relationship, and Julia reconnects with Connor.

Julia learns that Olga was pregnant when she died, and she confronts Olga’s boyfriend. He insists that he loved Olga, but Julia has little sympathy for him. He gives her an ultrasound photo.

In the fall, Julia leaves for college in New York City, grateful for the opportunities that she has been given.

Drawing upon Sánchez’s own experience as a first-generation American “struggling to reconcile two conflicting cultures,” the novel explores immigrant cultural identity and its role in familial expectations and dynamics. Julia’s mental health issues are deeply intertwined with other serious themes like trauma, abuse, and poverty.