Julia Reyes is desperate to get out of the working-class Chicago suburb she and her family call home—she dreams of being a famous writer, of seeing the world, and of living all alone in a big, beautiful Manhattan apartment. Julia’s fierce restlessness and boundless ambition, however, are threatened by several factors beyond her control: her overbearing mother’s strict rules, the poverty that boxes her and her family into a shabby apartment and a dilapidated neighborhood, and the overwhelming grief Julia feels over her sister’s death, a grief that seems ready to swell up and crush her at any moment. As the novel progresses and Julia weathers hardship after hardship, Erika L. Sánchez argues that one must deal with the issues, traumas, and circumstantial difficulties facing them before moving on—otherwise, no amount of grit or drive will be enough to sustain someone through new, unfamiliar challenges.
Julia is fiery, fierce, intelligent, and opinionated—she feels too big for her small, gritty Chicago suburb, and too good for her stifling public school and her shallow classmates. Julia believes she’s destined for bigger things: a glamorous life in New York City, a career as a writer, an existence unimpeded by her overbearing parents and untethered to what she sees as her embarrassing, working-class roots. Her ambition and drive often make her come off as snobby or judgmental—but more importantly, she clings to her goals and aspirations as a way of ignoring the pressing problems in her present life at home and at school. When Julia’s best friend Lorena confronts her at a pivotal point in the novel about her inability to engage meaningfully with her friendships or her community—an inability which stems from her judgmental attitude and her belief that she’s better than everyone around her—Julia admits that she does believe she’s better than everyone, and deserves to move on already. She states, point-blank, that she feels “too good for everything” about her life in Chicago. This frank admission reveals that Julia would rather ignore her current feelings and problems and focus only on getting out of her present situation rather than deal with the reasons why she feels stuck, out of place, or desperate for escape. She is disdainful of everything in her life, and raring for a chance to get away from her parents’ grief, her own descent into Olga’s harrowing secrets, and her uncertainty about her academic future. Julia wants the idealized life she’s been dreaming of, but doesn’t understand that the things she wants won’t come easily to her—and that if she refuses to confront her worst impulses and darkest prejudices, she won’t ever be able to have the life she wants. Julia’s suicide attempt is a culmination of her restlessness and ambition taken to the extreme. With nowhere to go, and nothing to do with her misplaced forward-moving energy, Julia becomes overwhelmed by the gulf between the life she wants and the life she has. Julia’s suicide attempt—which she realizes, immediately upon waking up afterwards, was a “dumb” thing that she never wants to do again—represents the moment in which she understands that if she doesn’t fix the problems in her present life, she won’t even make it to the next stage. Julia’s ambition rockets her into a brick wall, and that collision ultimately forces her to slow down, take stock of who she is, what painful truths she’s been ignoring, and how she’s let down those around her, then reckon fully with all those things.
Ultimately, Julia’s unshakeable ambition does end up serving her well. She works hard on her standardized test prep and college admission essays, and wrangles her frustration with her family, her fear of wasting her potential, and the painful loss she’s suffered into an essay which gains her admission to NYU. As Julia boards a plane to New York at the end of the novel to at last pursue her dreams, though, she is finally able to live in the present. She’s unsure of what the future holds, but she’s okay with that—she’s at last learned to slow things down, take stock of her feelings and actions, and understand that blindly trying to escape from pain, discomfort, and uncertainty will only end badly.
Restlessness and Ambition ThemeTracker
Restlessness and Ambition 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.”
“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.
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.
“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?”
There are times the secrets feel like strangling vines. Is it considered lying when you hold something locked up inside you? What if the information would only cause people pain? Who would benefit from knowing about Olga’s affair and pregnancy? Is it kind or selfish for me to keep this all to myself? Would it be messed up if I said it just so I don’t have to live with it alone? It’s exhausting.
"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.”