I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Some people have a weakness for handbags or designer shoes.  Some people are coffee  connoisseurs.  Some people live for garage sale bargains.  My father collects old phonographs and my mom has acquired an assortment of small wooden and ceramic chickens from around the world.  My husband adores tacos, my eldest daughter is devoted to sitcoms from the 90s and my youngest daughter is a puzzle enthusiast.

I love books…I love books more than ripe mangos and dark chocolate and nearly as much as I love travel…travel with books is my idea of heaven:)

My love for books runs deep.  On the surface I adore the rush of entering a book shop with aisles upon aisles of written word.  I like to trail my fingers over book covers and to read the biographies of authors and illustrators.  I feel secure and snug in my home office where shelves of my favorite novels and children’s books surround me.

And on a more profound level, I love what books provide me with…imagination, escape, contemplation, reflection and above all, perspective.  I am a 41-year-old woman from the United States living in Guatemala and yet when I open a book, I am given a ticket to enter  a world that may belong to a character whose life looks very different from my own.  This ticket is what Rudine Simms Bishop would call a “window,”  an opportunity that offers a reader a  view into the lives of others.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez was my invitation to experience and relate to the life of fifteen-year-old Julia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who is growing up in a gritty Chicago Neighborhood.

Let’s imagine, even if just for a moment, what our world could be if we took the time to relate to others, gain new and different perspectives, learn of the struggles and accomplishments from people who have stories that are not our own.   I am not a social scientist, but I am a preschool teacher, and I spend most work days  living in a microcosm of a mini society.  I predict that if we collectively read more diverse books that provided us with “windows” into the lives of others, empathy, kindness and compassion would  replace judgement, assumption and discrimination. 

Title:  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Regional/Cultural focus:  USA/Mexico

Author:  Erika Sánchez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Themes:  cultural identity, family, coming of age, grief

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is brilliantly told through the voice of teenage Julia.  She is grieving the death of her sister Olga, who had always been “the perfect Mexican daughter.”  Olga was everything that Julia is not.  Olga was dedicated and obedient.  She had an ordinary job and spent time in the evenings watching telenovelas with her mom.  Julia is rebellious,strong-willed, sassy and  confrontational.

After her sister’s  death, Julia is surprised to discover a few provocative accessories in Olga’s bedroom.  She is determined to learn more about Olga’s not-so-pristine identity and in the process, she gains new insight into her family, her friends and ultimately herself.

We journey with Julia through her day to day…in her house where her family is falling apart in light of  tragedy, in high-school with the complexities of friendships, in cultural worlds of meeting family expectations while following her academic dreams.

What I love:

  • Julia’s voice is deeply present throughout the novel…painfully vulnerable at times and shamelessly hilarious at others.
  • Erika Sánchez doesn’t sugar coat difficult themes in her novel.  She explores topics such as death, immigration  and depression in a way that is both real and approachable.
  • While not the focus of the novel, there is a touch of romance.

Discussion:

  • In the first chapter of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter we learn that Julia is grieving the death of her sister.  Have you ever lost someone close to you?  What words come to mind when you remember that period of your life?
  • Julia feels that she is not meeting her family’s expectations of who she should be/who she should become.  What are the expectations that Julia’s family has for her?  How do they differ from her own hopes and dreams?  What are your hopes and dreams?  Are they the same as the expectations that your family has for you?
  • While Julia often feels alone, there are people throughout the book who play important roles in supporting her.  Who are they?  How do they help her?  Who are the role models/helpers in your life?

Activities:

  • In many ways I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about identity.  Make a list of words that come to mind when thinking about your identity.
  • Write a short diary of your day-to-day, from morning to night.  What do the details of your daily life reveal about your identity?
  • Learn more about mental health resources and how you can be a support system for friends who are struggling with depression.

 

 

 

 

 

Before We Were Free

Every other Sunday morning, I reunite with 7 junior high students at the neighborhood school in Santiago Atitlan.  I could write an entire essay about how these seven students are exceptional, pushing the boundaries of social and cultural norms, dreaming big, and vibrantly confident, but that would be a post for a different blog on young,  emerging leaders in rural Guatemala.

The teen reading group has been meeting for two years now, and the participants self selected  themselves to meet twice monthly and use books as a tool to explore culture, current events, history,  literature and their own personal stories via books.

Recently we finished reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez and I was impressed and inspired, yet not surprised by the conversation generated by our circle.

Guatemala’s current President, Jimmy Morales, who has been in office for 1.5 years, has recently been under scrutiny by national and international organizations.   Just three years ago, former President Otto Perez resigned after national protests and he was subsequently arrested.  He was accused of fraud.

Hence, when a group of teens is encouraged to explore the theme of freedom, especially in the light of corruption, conversation becomes thought provoking, genuine and real.  As we compared the current stories of Guatemalans to those living in Alvarez’ book in The Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the 5o’s and 6o’s  we we able to identify similarities and differences.  Most intriguing was our conversation about civil disobedience…when do we feel compelled to break rules in order to obtain personal freedom or the freedom of a group of people?

I do not know how the next weeks will transpire in Guatemala.  There is talk of planned protests and social media is overloaded with criticism of the current state of affairs.  However, I do know that the 7 teens in our reading circle are confident, critical thinkers, and leaders who, even at a young age, are capable of generating ideas about what’s just, on a personal and political level.  They are also aware of the power of their own voices, and sometimes, during periods of conflict, our voices  become the strongest resistance.

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Julia Alverez

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

In Before We Were Free, we meet 12 year old Anita de Torre in the year 1960, in the Dominican Republic.  We quickly learn that many of Anita’s extended family members have emigrated to the United States and that her Uncle Toni has been missing for some time after displaying opposition to the dictatorship of Trujillo.  Through the eyes of a young girl, we witness the fear, hope and struggles that are a constant presence for those living through a time of political unrest, all the while confronting the day to day of adolescence.

What I love:

  • Alvarez educates the reader about the history of the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo Dictatorship and Las Mariposas.
  • Before We Were Free is a true “coming of age story.”
  • Before We Were Free is less intense than Alvarez’s adult novels such as In the Time of The Butterflies, but equally as impactful.
  • What’s not to love about a strong, young, curious, female main character!

Themes: freedom, adolescence, war

Discussion:

  • In your own words, describe freedom.  How do you know that you are free?  Or lacking freedom?
  • Throughout the book,  Anita keeps a diary where she can record her thoughts, when she unable to speak them.  Do you keep a diary?  Why or why  not?
  • Can you remember a time in history or currently when a group of people or an individual has fought for freedom?  When? Why?  Where?  What happened?

Connections:

  • Research a recipe from the Dominican Republic such as Tostones (fried plantains) and prepare them for your friends and family.photo-1
  • In Before We Were Free, we learn that the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961,  was ruled by dictatorship, or a government in which  power is controlled by one person or a small group of people.  What kind of government exists in your country?  Explain how the government of your country functions.
  • In the book, Anita refers to “The Butterflies/Las Mariposas.”  Investigate and learn about the Butterfly Sisters and the important roles they played in the history of the Dominican Republic.28d0b5fa2cd600a0c24eb27f03710b61