Julia Reyes and her parents live in a roach-infested apartment in a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Stomping roaches dead and mopping up their guts is a regular necessity—and outside of the apartment, things are sometimes even worse. Julia must endure threats and harassment from neighborhood men as well as a chronic lack of money for public transportation and food. Her friends from school, Lorena and Juanga, face similar problems, and often have to resort to theft to get by or endure homelessness due to problems at home. Julia’s difficult circumstances make her feel trapped, and make her dreams of attending a prestigious college and making a life as a writer are all but impossible. On a visit to Mexico, Julia encounters poverty on a vastly different scale, and is forced to consider the ways in which poverty forces desperate people to do terrible things. Throughout the novel, Erika L. Sánchez examines the structural problems that threaten to hold Julia and her friends back, and ultimately suggests that extreme poverty is a cycle which only a fortunate few are able to escape.
The truly abject circumstances Julia has grown up in have always just been considered a given. As undocumented immigrants, her parents have limited opportunities to bring in an income: her father is a factory worker and her mother is a housecleaner. Because Julia is so ambitious and self-centered a lot of the time, she begins resenting her parents for entrapping her in poverty rather than taking a hard look at the mechanisms which are keeping them down, and extending to them empathy and assistance rather than judgement and vitriol. There are several moments in the novel that force Julia to reckon with the cyclical, systemic poverty which plagues her family, and to see that while her circumstances are difficult, the very idea that she has a chance to escape is more than so many people in her community have. When Julia goes with her mother to clean houses one winter day, she witnesses firsthand the sacrifices—both physical and moral—her mother has to make every day just to make ends meet for Julia. From employers who speak smugly and condescendingly in Spanish to her to those who sexually objectify her and force her to clean disgusting, almost purposefully dirty parts of their homes, Amá never knows what kind of house she’s walking into. Julia sees firsthand the repetitive and difficult nature of her mother’s work life, and begins to understand that her mother is trying her hardest to make the best of a system that’s rigged against her.
When Julia visits Mexico and discovers several beautiful drawings that Apá made when he was still living in Los Ojos, she understands even more deeply the sacrifices required of a life lived in pursuit of escaping cyclical, systemic poverty. Though Apá was widely regarded as the best painter in Los Ojos, he gave up his art entirely once he arrived in America. When Julia herself returns to Chicago and asks her father why he gave up drawing and painting, he explains that continuing to make them would have been “a waste of time,” nothing more than a painful reminder of all the avenues in life that closed to him the moment he crossed the border. Apá’s aloof, resigned nature makes sense to Julia in a new way all of a sudden—she sees that within the trap of poverty, there’s barely any opportunity to escape, let alone to stop and breathe.
Julia’s most personal reckoning with the nature of poverty comes when she begins dating a boy she meets at a used bookstore in downtown Chicago. The cute and smart Connor has grown up in Evanston—a wealthy suburb of Chicago—and has lived a life which is almost the opposite of Julia’s. When she goes to visit Connor at his parents’ sprawling house, which is the size of the entire apartment building Julia and her family live in, she sees at last the vast gulf between her life and Connor’s. Though fewer than twenty miles separate their homes, an unspeakable ocean of experience lies between them. Julia’s parents work hard, subject themselves to humiliation, and give up their dreams each and every day just to scrape by within a system which ignores or outright exploits them, while Connor has never known what it’s like to open the fridge and find nothing but condiments or stomp out roaches when they scatter at the flick of a light switch. Julia begins to understand in a more acute way just how difficult it might be for her to achieve her dreams—and how worth, dedication, and sacrifice rarely have any relation to success in America.
Julia is still just a teenager at the end of the novel, but wise beyond her years. As she boards a plane to fly off to NYU on a full scholarship, she is acutely aware of just how lucky she is to be given the opportunity to escape the south side of Chicago. She has seen in action the systems of oppression, debt, and labor which keep the poor impoverished while the rich get richer, and understands that her escape from it represents a responsibility to honor the sacrifices her parents have made for her, and to never forget the combination of hard work and dumb luck that have allowed her the chance to be the first in her family to break the cycle.
Poverty and Entrapment ThemeTracker
Poverty and Entrapment 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.
“Sometimes it’s like you think you’re too good for everything. You’re too hard on people.” Lorena doesn’t make eye contact.
“That’s because I am too good for everything! You think this is what I want? This sucks. This sucks so hard, I can’t take it sometimes.” I swing my arms, gesturing toward I don’t know what. I’m so angry my ears feel as if they’re on fire.
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?
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.”
"She opened the vault, the box in which she kept
herself—old filmstrips of her life, her truth. Broken
feathers, crushed mirrors creating a false gleam. She
takes it all apart, every moment, every lie, every
deception. Everything stops: snapshots of serenity,
beauty, bliss, surface. Things she must dig for in her
mesh of uncertainty, in her darkness, though it still
lies in the wetness of her mouth, the scent of her hair.
She digs and digs in that scarlet box on the day of her
unraveling, the day she comes undone.”
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.”