The most potent theme throughout Erika L. Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is that of secrets and lies. As the novel unfolds and Julia digs deeper into the secrets her recently-deceased older sister Olga left behind, she comes face-to-face with more and more unsettling truths about her family’s past. In the end, Sánchez ultimately suggests that some secrets are too painful to share—and that some lies are actually a mercy, meant to protect people from hurtful, devastating truths.
When Julia’s sister Olga dies in a tragic freak accident, Julia is left with many pressing questions about her quiet, saint-like sister’s life. She wonders whether Olga could really have been the “perfect Mexican daughter”—and, if she wasn’t, how she was able to hide the truth from so many people. As Julia digs into Olga’s past for clues, she discovers secrets more confusing and painful than she bargained for—and then, as she continues down the rabbit hole, she winds up encountering secrets about other members of her family that threaten to tear them all apart. Olga’s secret unfolds slowly as Julia pieces together the strange objects she finds in her sister’s room—a box of sexy lingerie and a key card to a fancy Chicago hotel called The Continental. Julia learns due to slips-of-the-tongue from Olga’s best friend Angie and another one of her acquaintances, a school friend named Jazmyn, that Olga had a secret lover. When Julia, desperate to learn more about what Olga was hiding, hacks her way into Olga’s laptop, she discovers that her sister was sleeping with a married man for years—and later learns that Olga was even pregnant with his child at the time of her death. As Julia slowly uncovers the truth about the life Olga was living—surely a lonely, strained, and even dangerous one—she feels almost vindicated in learning that her sister wasn’t the “perfect” girl everyone knew her to be. There’s a part of Julia that wants to tell her family the truth about Olga—partly to take the constant scrutiny and spotlight off herself and her own mistakes—but something inside of Julia holds her back from telling her parents the truth. Julia’s conflict over keeping Olga’s secret, combined with the pressures of school, home life, and her faltering first relationship with Connor, leads her toward self-harm—Olga’s secret threatens to buckle Julia’s entire life, and yet she remains committed to maintaining the lie, for reasons she can’t yet understand.
The second huge secret Julia uncovers is one she learns while visiting Mexico shortly after her suicide attempt—an attempt she made because she became too overwhelmed by the weight of Olga’s secret compounded with all the other struggles in her life. While in Mexico, Julia’s relatives all urge her to be less combative with her parents and more understanding of her mother Amá especially—and then Tía Fermina, Amá’s sister, reveals that during the border crossing Julia’s mother and father made many years ago, Amá was raped by a “coyote” while her father Apá was held at gunpoint. The secret is terrible enough in and of itself, but as Julia considers the timeline of her parents’ arrival in the US and Olga’s birth about nine months later, she realizes that Olga was not Apá’s biological daughter but rather the product of the rape Amá suffered. This secret comes to dwarf Olga’s in scope and terror. Julia had allowed her life to become ruled by the need to discover the truth about Olga, but once she learns her mother and father’s secret, she is forced to confront the utility, or even value, of such large, painful lies. She begins to understand that perhaps the secrets people keep are kept for a reason. Just as Amá and Apá knew it would hurt Olga and Julia to burden them with such a terrible truth, Olga knew that to shatter her parents’ image of her as the “perfect Mexican daughter” by telling them about her affair and resulting pregnancy would be to cause them pain they might not be able to endure or recover from. As Julia considers the weight of these two secrets—and whether she will ever be able to have an open discussion with her parents about either of them—she comes to realize that sometimes truth and lies are not black and white. Not all lies are cruel, and not all truths are freeing.
Though Julia enters some dark places discovering the many hidden truths which define her family’s past history and present struggles, she ultimately learns a very important lesson about the moral ambiguity of what it means to keep a secret or tell a lie. It’s difficult to understand when keeping someone’s secret is actually the right thing to do—especially in a family like Julia’s, in which, perhaps due to the dark secrets stitching them together, privacy and secrecy have always been villainized. Over the course of the novel, though, Julia comes to see that sometimes a lie is a mercy, and keeping someone’s secret is the greatest gift one can give.
Secrets and Lies ThemeTracker
Secrets and Lies 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.
“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.”
The sun begins to set as we finally approach the city. The colors are so beautiful they’re almost violent. I feel a pang in my chest and remember a line from a poem I read a long time ago about terror being the beginning of beauty. Or something like that. I don’t quite remember.
There’s a dead donkey in a field behind a barbwire fence. Its legs are bent and stiff, and its mouth is open, as if it had been smiling when it died. Two vultures circle above it.
I can’t look at Amá without thinking about the border. I keep picturing her screaming on the ground, Apá with a gun to his head. I don’t think I can ever tell her that I know. But how do we live with these secrets locked within us? How do we tie our shoes, brush our hair, drink coffee, wash the dishes, and go to sleep, pretending everything is fine? How do we laugh and feel happiness despite the buried things growing inside? How can we do that day after day?
“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.”
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.”
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?