Saturday, September 12, 2020

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

When I was really struggling with my depression as a young woman, someone trying to comfort me actually said something to me that made me feel about a thousand times worse for a really long time. She said that people with depression were "deep, sensitive, caring people" and that we cared too much about others and didn't spend enough time caring about ourselves. It made me feel like trash, because I didn't feel sensitive or caring. I felt angry all the time-- mostly with myself, but with others, too. I just despised myself slightly more than I did the things and people around me. I walked away from that person hating myself a little more that day, because it was like, "Oh, great, so not only am I depressed, selfish, and hateful, I'm not even feeling depressed in the way that I'm supposed to."

It really messed me up.

And while it's true, some people with depression are outwardly caring and compassionate, it is also a condition that can make you incredibly self-absorbed through no fault of your own. I don't think enough people really talk about the different ways that depression can manifest. Sometimes it's a deep feeling of despair that feels like persistent sadness. Sometimes it's emptiness. Sometimes it's anger. Even though I understand why so many readers felt put off by Julia as a narrator for her snarkiness and her attitude and her explosive, confrontational rages, I actually related to her more closely than I have related to any other YA character in a long time because the way she behaves is actually a lot like how I did as a teenager. I can understand that if someone doesn't like themselves, it can be hard to like them as a person. Mental health disorders, especially depression, can be incredibly self-centered. When you feel bad inside, it's really hard to muster the energy to care about others, and Julia is so consumed with her pain that it does make her seem selfish, but she's actually in desperate need of help.

Julia has a lot on her plate. Her perfect older sister just died and her parents are grieving. Olga, the sister, always related to their parents better than Julia did. Olga knew what her parents expected and was only too content to deliver. Julia, however, doesn't subscribe to the traditional beliefs that her parents have brought with her from Mexico. She doesn't like cooking, and she doesn't want to get married, and she has a lot of thoughts about Catholicism and conservative values. She wants to go away-- far away-- to college, and eventually, become a writer. The gulf between her and her parents feels very wide, and even though her parents try to demonstrate their love, they do it in a way that Julia perceives as them ignoring her own wishes and desires, and Julia, with the dreadful, self-consuming weight of her own depression, does not have the means or the will to breach the gulf.

And sometimes, the pressure of trying to fulfill so many expectations, with the crushing threat of failure looming over her head, just makes her feel like she's about to explode.

This is just such a great book on multiple levels. The portrayal of depression, as I said, is incredibly relatable. I loved that the author had Julia's depression manifest as anger, because I think it shows how many teens acting out might do so because of hidden problems that aren't quite so obvious. Meg Medina did something similar in YAQUI DELGADO, with the heroine retreating into herself and acting out because of the depression that bullying at school brought on. I also really liked how the author wrote about Mexican culture, and how there were parts of it Julia really loved, and parts of it she tried to distance herself from, and this becomes especially clear when Julia's parents send her to Mexico to make her feel better, and Julia begins to question her own privilege and the way that she has misunderstood some of her parents' intentions. It reminded me a bit of the PATRON SAINT OF NOTHING, where a character goes to the Philippines and it cements his identity by making him more aware of his roots while also making him realize how much he had to learn about his own culture from his biased perspective of it living in the United States.

There are so many great conversations and dialogues that are brought up in this book. Sexual abuse. Suicidal ideation. Depression. Pleasing and disappointing your parents. Being the first in your family to go to college. Mental health. Cultural identity. Immigration. Fear of deportation. Family sacrifice. Privilege. Miscommunication. The divides that can arise between generations. Family values. Compromise. Dating. Socioeconomic status. And just-- so much. It's a mature young adult book that isn't afraid to tackle tough subjects with finesse, and everything, from Julia herself, to the way mental health is discussed, to the way Julia and her parents relate to their own culture, and how their cultural identity was influenced and shaped by living in the United States as immigrants, and how age and generation influenced that shaping-- it was all so brilliant, and the ending was satisfying.

I did see some people complaining that there is a lot of Spanish in this book-- and yes, there is. Most of it you can probably guess from context, though. I'll admit to being biased: I speak Spanish as a second language, so I knew most of the words, and the ones I didn't, I was able to look up or guess. I really liked it, though. I think it adds a lot of depth to the book, and it sounds like the way people around me talk in real life. Spanish speakers living in the U.S. dip in and out of English and Spanish, slipping back and forth depending on which word or phrase comes first, and I really don't think the book would have felt so comfortably natural without all the Spanish words and phrases. Some of them are actually quite cheeky, or lewdly insulting, so if you look up the words, you may find yourself quite amused.

I loved this book. I wish it had come out when I was a teenager, as I would have loved it then, too.

5 out of 5 stars

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