Julia Reyes has a large, overbearing, and occasionally abusive family. From her judgmental and gossipy Tía Milagros to the predatory Tío Cayetano to Julia’s impossibly strict mother and aloof, silent father, the extended Reyes clan often brings Julia more confusion than comfort. Julia is embarrassed not just of her family, but in many ways, of her cultural identity as well, and of her status as the daughter of immigrants—she feels disconnected from her family’s traditions, and disdainful of the idea that she needs to do certain things to be seen as the “perfect Mexican daughter.” As the novel progresses and Julia learns more about her family during a long trip to visit her mother’s relatives in Mexico, Erika L. Sánchez argues that taking the time to learn more about one’s family, roots, and cultural identity helps one to better understand themselves in the end.
From the beginning of the novel, Julia is self-conscious about her failure to be the “perfect Mexican daughter” her parents always wanted. Her older sister Olga stayed at home and cared for their parents while working a part-time office job and taking classes at a community college, while the rebellious Julia always nursed dreams of moving far away, making a career in the arts, and shirking the burdens of marriage and motherhood. Julia won’t even let her mother teach her to make tortillas—that’s how afraid she is of falling into the trap of familial and cultural duty. Julia has issues with judgement and superiority in her life at school and with her friends—issues that stem from her desire to escape her present life. The root of those issues is a feeling of not belonging in her family. Julia has always been the black sheep, overshadowed by the unimpeachably good Olga, and when Olga dies, her memory is canonized even more. In death, Olga is truly perfect—she can never make a mistake. In living and, inevitably, making mistakes, Julia becomes more and more flawed. Her self-consciousness about the mistakes she’s making, the outspokenness she’s unable (or unwilling) to tamp down, and the ways in which her beliefs about the goals of life increasingly diverge from those of her parents, all cause Julia to want to distance herself from her family. Little does she know that in distancing herself from her family—her roots, her culture, and her only sources of unconditional love in the entire world—she’s actually only growing farther and farther from the truth of herself.
As the novel continues and Julia wrestles with depression, anxiety, and an attempt at suicide, those around her realize that her grief, insecurity, and self-hatred are not merely growing pains: Julia is truly at sea, disconnected from her family, herself, her past, and her future alike. When Amá and Apá send Julia to Mexico to get some air, some space, and some distance, they’re actually hoping she’ll be able to reconnect with her roots—Julia always loved summer vacations to Mexico, and in spite of her ambivalence about her culture and her family in Chicago, they believe a break from the everyday will help Julia recover and reconnect with who she really is. Indeed, in the warm and small desert town of Los Ojos, Julia is able to reconnect not just with her family but with herself. She learns things about her parents she’d never known—terrible secrets, but also beautiful hidden parts of their personalities, such as Apá’s past success as a painter—and by understanding more about who her parents are and the things both good and bad that have made them that way, Julia understands more about her own journey. She sees at last that in spite of whatever conflicts or grievances she has with her parents, she has as much of a responsibility to them as they have to her. She must honor their sacrifices, remember their origins, and embrace the people life has made them into—relationships are a two way street, and as Julia returns to Chicago, she works hard to see her parents, her culture, and even the more difficult members of her extended family through a more forgiving and empathetic eye. Julia understands her family in a new way, and is able to see herself through a new lens as well: she knows she’ll never be the “perfect Mexican daughter” her parents want her to be, but at last has some confidence in her choices and less shame about her shortcomings.
For Julia’s family, many of whom have left behind loved ones and sacrificed their passions in order to make a life in the United States, culture is a way to connect to the past. For Julia—for most of her life, anyway—her family’s hard adherence to tradition and ritual has been impossible to understand, and she’s always felt like an outsider looking in. By the end of the novel, Julia has come to understand why her parents want her to carry on their family’s culture and traditions, and is able to see that her role in those traditions is special, and even sacred. Though Julia remains on track to pursue her dream of becoming a New York writer, her ability to talk about her responsibility to her family as the central component as her college admissions essay shows that she has come to better understand not just her parents, but herself.
Family, Immigrant Cultural Identity, and the Self ThemeTracker
Family, Immigrant Cultural Identity, and the Self Quotes in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Saint Olga, the perfect Mexican daughter. Sometimes I wanted to scream at her until something switched on in her brain. But the only time I ever asked her why she didn’t move out or go to a real college, she told me to leave her alone in a voice so weak and brittle, I never wanted to ask her again. Now I’ll never know what Olga would have become. Maybe she would have surprised us all.
Olga’s friend Angie comes running in, looking like she was the one hit by a semi. She’s beautiful, but, damn, is she an ugly crier. Her skin is like a bright pink rag someone has wrung out. As soon as she sees Olga, she starts howling almost worse than Amá. I wish I knew the right thing to say, but I don’t. I never do.
“You know, Julia, you’re always causing trouble, creating problems for your family. Now that she’s dead, all of a sudden you want to know everything about her? You hardly even spoke to her. Why didn’t you ask her anything when she was alive? Maybe you wouldn’t have to be here, asking me questions about her love life.”
The sky is still dark, but it’s beginning to brighten. There are beautiful, faint streaks of orange over the lake. It looks like it’s been cracked open.
I think of Jazmyn’s face when I told her about Olga. Everywhere I go, my sister’s ghost is hovering.
Amá just shakes her head. “You know, Julia, maybe if you knew how to behave yourself, to keep your mouth shut, your sister would still be alive. Have you ever thought about that?” She finally says it. She says what her big, sad eyes were telling me all along.
Connor’s house has a giant wraparound porch and enormous windows. It’s as big as our entire apartment building. Part of me wonders if I should go back home. I feel nervous and start tugging at my hair.
I walk toward the ice-skating rink as the sky begins to darken. I wish I had a few dollars for a cup of hot chocolate, but I barely have enough to get back on the bus. I’m tired of being broke. I’m tired of feeling like the rest of the world always gets to decide what I can do. I know I should go back home, but I can’t seem to move. I can’t keep going like this anymore. What is the point of living if I can’t ever get what I want?
What if I’m wrong about my sister? What if she was the sweet, boring Olga I always knew her to be? What if I just want to think there was something below the surface? What if, in my own messed-up way, I want her to be less than perfect, so I didn’t feel like such a fuck-up?
How could I have been so dumb not to notice anything? But then again, how would anyone have known? Olga kept this sealed up and buried like an ancient tomb. My whole life I’ve been considered the bad daughter, while my sister was secretly living another life, the kind of life that would shatter Amá into tiny pieces. I don’t want to be mad at Olga because she’s dead, but I am.
My body feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. I picture my mother’s face streaked with tears and dirt, my father bowing his head in defeat. “And Olga? What about Olga? She was . . . She was ...” I can’t get the words out.
Tía Fermina clasps her hands to her chest and nods. “See, mija, that’s why I want you to know. So when you and your mother fight, you can see where she’s come from and understand what’s happened to her. She doesn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I understand that it hurts, believe me, but this isn’t about you. […] Why would you want to cause your family more pain?
“Because we shouldn’t be living lies,” I say. […] “I’m tired of pretending and letting things blister inside me. Keeping things to myself almost killed me. I don’t want to live like that anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Forget it.” Part of me wonders if Angie is right—who am I to do this to my family?—but I hate this feeling, like the weight of this will make my chest collapse.
Angie wipes the tears from her eyes with her palms. “Some things should never be said out loud, Julia. Can’t you see that?”
“What do I do with this?” I say to myself aloud. “How do I bury this, too?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how am I going to keep this secret? Why do I have to be the one living with this shit?”
“Please, don’t tell your parents. Olga never wanted to hurt them.”
“Why wouldn’t I? And why should I listen to you?”
“Sometimes it’s best not to tell the truth.”
How can I leave them like this? How can I just live my life and leave them behind? What kind of person does that? Will I ever forgive myself?
“We love you, Julia. We love you so much,” Amá says, and presses some money into my hand. “Para si se te antoja algo,” she says, in case I crave something when I get to New York. “Remember you can come back whenever you want.”
I still have nightmares about Olga. Sometimes she’s a mermaid again, other times she’s holding her baby, which is often not a baby at all. Usually, it’s a rock, a fish, or even a sack of rags. Though it’s slowed, my guilt still grows like branches. I wonder when it’ll stop, feeling bad for something that’s not my fault. Who knows? Maybe never.
I pull out Olga’s ultrasound picture from my journal before we land. At times, it looks like an egg. Occasionally, it looks like an eye. The other day I was convinced I could see it pulsing. How can I ever give this to my parents, something else to love, something dead? These last two years I combed and delved through my sister’s life to better understand her, which meant I learned to find pieces of myself—both beautiful and ugly—and how amazing is it that I hold a piece of her right here in my hands?