Intersectionality and Intergenerational Trauma in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

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Erika L Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter focuses on the life of Mexican-American Julia who, in the wake of her sister’s death, is on the threshold of graduating high school or committing suicide. Unlike her sister Olga, Julia aspires to escape the oppression she experiences daily at home by going to college. Her depression stems from the intersection of her Mexican-American identity and her gender identity. Sanchez writes a narrative held together by the hidden history of Julia’s parents. In uncovering such a story, Sanchez transforms the young adult novel into an empowering story that seeks to imagine a queer future for Latinx women.

Catherine R. Cooper’s research on immigrant student success and failure correlates success with community. In— “Cultural brokers: How immigrant youth in multicultural societies navigate and negotiate their pathways to college—”Cooper describes the immigrant student pathway to success as one dependent on building bridges “across…cultural worlds” [Cooper 172]. Within the classroom, Julia engages with Mr. Ingman. He creates an educational space that seeks to create those same bridges Cooper describes. Mr. Ingman pronounces Julia’s name in Spanish and pushes her to apply to college. But, as a Mexican-American, Julia internalizes a negative perception of self within Mr. Ingman’s classroom. “See, I’m teaching you standard English, which is the language of power,” here, Mr. Ingman diminishes Julia’s sense of self by creating a binary of language [Sanchez 28]. As he describes English as the language of power, Spanish becomes the other language—the language of weakness. In fact, through out the novel Julia utilizes English to create distance between herself and that Latinx identity—speaking in English, a language her parents don’t fully understand.

In the second half of the book, Mr. Ingman centers Julia’s college application on the fact that she’s an immigrant student, exploiting her sense of otherness rather than empowering her ability to navigate white spaces, as a racialized body. To navigate a white space—as a racialized body—contradicts dominant ways of seeing, empowering the person of color. Horacio N. Roque Ramirez—in “Borderlands, Diasporas, and Transnation Crossings: Teaching LGBT Latina and Latino Histories—” argues that contradictions are a source of strength for Latinx students. As Lindsay Perez Huber explains, in “Healing Images and Narratives: Undocumented Chicana/Latina Pedagogies of Resistance,” contradictions foster opposition to a false sense of normality.

Although Julia can navigate white spaces, her female gendered performance, as a  Mexican-American further diminishes those bridges of success. “I never had any privacy when I was a girl,” Ama scolds Julia as she punishes her for talking back [Sanchez 26]. For Ama, Julia’s gender suggests she stays quiet and inside the home, cleaning and cooking. “Ama keeps all the blinds curtains drawn, which makes our cramped apartment even more stuffy and depressing,” for Julia, as a female Mexican-American, the home becomes an enclosed space, resembling a jail, she longs to escape [Sanchez 26].

There’s a sense of trauma in Ama’s strategy to silence her daughter. She labels her a “malcriada,” a word used to describe a woman who was raised wrong. Ama claims she wants to save her daughter from a bad life. Here, Ama correlates the female body with sin. There’s a sense of shame here. The shame can be described through intergenerational trauma. On her trip to Mexico, Julia learns the truth about her parents and their crossing over. Apa was held at gunpoint while Ama was sexually abused. In this traumatic event, both Apa and Ama forcefully learn silence as a strategy of survival. They perceive their silence and compliance as a survival strategy while resisting opposition, seeing opposition as threatening to their livelihood. This silence repeats, inacted by both parents in hopes of keeping immigration away from their door step. In the wake of his daughter’s death, Apa is completely silent. Throughout the novel, he is barely visible—he never speaks. Ama, to protect her daughter from sexual abuse and trauma, silences Julia, transferring her own shame onto Julia’s body.

Rather than upholding silence—as a strategy of survival—Julia talks back as a strategy of opposition. Talking back becomes a source of strength because it contradicts what Emma Perez calls “the white male gaze”. Contradictions to what “the white male gaze” perceives as normal (correct) and different (wrong) create multiple ways of seeing. In “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard”—Perez claims that just as land and history have been policed by a white male gaze, bodies too—Latinx bodies in this instance—are claimed and translated for us. In being translated, the Latinx person experiences erasure—for meaning is lost and forgotten in translation. The Latinx body, under the scrutiny of the white male gaze, experiences a misinterpretation, losing subjectivity. Perez responds with “the queer of color gaze”. The gaze works to recover memory and narratives that are otherwise overlooked by a dominant white male gaze. Uncovered memories and narratives illustrate alternative histories and identity. Therefore, opposition—to talk back—is to recover the agency to construct and interpret Latinx histories and bodies for ourselves.

The Santa Cruz Feminist of Color Collective—in “Building on ‘the Edge of Each Other’s Battles’: A Feminist of Color Multidimensional Lens”—refers to this agency as “active subjectivity”. The collective uses the word active to describe how feminists of color actively resist “the colonial invasion of self”—that is to say, to escape colonized subjectivity (The Santa Cruz Feminist of Color Collective 26). What the collective argues for is the recovery of subjectivity. For Julia, talking back and hearing those uncovered narratives, back in Mexico, work to recover agency from “the white male gaze”.

Erika Sanchez utilizes the young adult novel to recover those narratives which shape Julia and other Latinx students. In recovering Ama and Apa’s narrative—Julia is able to better understand the circumstances which silenced her parents. By writing a narrative of recovery, Sanchez is able to illustrate how race and gender intersect to construct intergenerational silence. In “learn(ing) one another’s struggles and histories” I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter becomes testimonial. (The Santa Cruz Feminist of Color Collective 28). Sanchez utilizes alternative narratives to hold a discourse between the perceptions of a colonizer and the perceptions of the colonized.

Erika L. Sanchez, early on in the novel, establishes that Julia’s narrative acts a site of discourse. Sanchez juxtaposes Olga’s dead corpse with an Olga only Julia knows—revealing the friction between multiple perceptions, to create new meaning. Upon seeing her dead sister, Julia reacts in opposition, “This is not the Olga I know” (Sanchez 7). Sanchez signals to the reader that what is on the surface is not always the truth. Julia’s opposition also signals that, moving forward, bodies are read from her perspective. The word not suggests two perceptions exists, that Olga is perceived in multiple ways. Julia’s opposition illustrates contradiction. The Olga she sees in front of her is not the Olga she perceives. “Don’t they pump your body full of strange chemicals…to keep your face from resembling a rubber mask,” Julia is very much aware of social masks/social scripts (7). Even further, her claim—that Olga was possibly pumped with chemicals—illustrates how meaning is not concrete and can easily fall apart. In a sense, what Julia sees in front of her, as deceased, is the very perception she rejects.

The Santa Cruz Feminist Collective argue that memory and narrative have the power to imagine Latinx people as participants in meaning making processes.  Emma Perez identifies “the white male gaze” as being on the border in between immigrant bodies and meaning making. As discussed above—narrative can act as a translator, between individuals in shared spaces.  Erika L. Sanchez’s novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter showcases the tension between a subjectivity—not of one’s own—and a subjectivity emerging in response. As a narrator, Julia holds subjectivity over how readers translate. But her own subjectivity grows from her relationships with her Ama, Apa, and sister Olga. Additionally, Julia is able to unknowingly show readers the limitations of colonial meaning through her interactions with different performances.  Perez’s “the queer of color gaze” helps readers understand I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter works to recover what has been erased to reveal the contradictions and help the young adult reader imagine new possibilities.

Works Cited

  • Alvarez, Sandra & Bueno-Hansen, Pascha & Rastegar, Roya & Zepeda, Susy. (2014). Building on “the Edge of Each Other’s Battles”: A Feminist of Color Multidimensional Lens. Hypatia A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 29. 23-40.
  • Cooper, Catherine R. “Cultural Brokers: How Immigrant Youth in Multicultural Societies Navigate and Negotiate Their Pathways to College Identities.” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 170–176.
  • Horacio N. Roque Ramírez; Borderlands, Diasporas, and Transnational Crossing Teaching LGBT Latina and Latino Histories, OAH Magazine of History, Volume 20, Issue 2, 1 March 2006, Pages 39–42
  • Huber, Lindsay Perez (2017) Healing Images and Narratives: Undocumented Chicana/Latina Pedagogies of Resistance, Journal of Latinos and Education, 16:4, 374-389
  • Perez, Emma. “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 24, no. 2 & 3, 2003, pp. 122–133.
  • Zepeda, Susy J. “Queer Xicana Indígena Cultural Production:Remembering through Oral and Visual Storytelling.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, vol. 3, no. 1, ser. 2014, pp. 119–141. 2014.

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