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I Am Not Your Perfect American Daughter: Fragmentation of Family in 2nd Generation Mexican-Americans

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Second-generation Mexican-Americans are among the fastest-growing populations in the United States representing over 59% of the Latino population and are loosening cultural ties the family dynamic begins to fall apart even with strong maternal figures encouraging youth to accommodate both cultures, (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2001, 2004). “Several authors suggest that challenges created by this dual cultural adaptation process represent a substantial risk for Mexican American (and other minority) youths and may lead to negative mental health outcomes, low self-esteem, conduct problems, school failure, drug and alcohol abuse, and financial instability,” (Knight et al. 2011). Therefore, it is my assertion that Erika L. Sanchez’s novel I Am Not Your Perfect American Daughter seen through the Youth Lens suggests that the second-generation Mexican-American family begins to fragment and lose their cultural values and beliefs while adapting an American cultural youth construct with the characterization of matriarchal figures and their influence on the protagonist. Julia, the narrator’s older sister Olga Reyes suffered a fatal truck accident and at the funeral she worries that she will never live up to her deceased sisters memory in her parents' eyes. Mrs. Reyes decided to carry out all she missed out on with Olga on Julia by giving her an extravagant quinceñera they cannot afford. Julia finds clues to her sisters possible secret life while reminiscing through Olga’s old room after their mother entombed it and decided to keep investigating despite running into brick walls at every turn.

Sanchez’s uses the character of Julia’s uncle, Tîo Biogotes, to represent the expectations of Mexican parents imposed on their American-born children, when in reality through YL it is education and knowledge that Julia really values in order to find her own truth and identity. Julia feels a little frustrated having to attend her nephew’s seventh birthday which always end up showcasing the drunken shenanigans of her uncles. Tîo Biogotes reminds Julia that she must learn how to be a proper young lady just as her deceased sister was, otherwise she will get nowhere in life without the support of her family. “You know, without family, you won’t make it in this life. And now that you’re older, you have to learn how to be a nice señorita just like your sister, may she rest in peace,” (Sanchez 83).

The Spanish word señorita and its use by the adult character of Tío Bigotes emphasizes the importance of family. However, it elicits guilt as Tio Bigotes uses it. Calling Julia a “young lady” and pointing out to her that having her nose stuck in books is not ladylike is condescending and is purposefully made to cause her to feel guilty for reading during a family gathering. If Julia furthers her knowledge of published works that were predominantly American literature, suggests that she is abandoning her culture and seeking an escape in books depicting cultures that marginalize her own Hispanic culture. Thus, Julia is conforming to American culture and abandoning her Hispanic heritage. Julia’s uncle makes sure to note that family is extremely important and she would not amount to anything without them. Sanchez suggests that because the narrator insists on reading and ignoring her family to do so alienated Julia from her family not only physically at the time of the get-together, but metaphorically. This assimilation to American culture by Julia will separate her intellectually and culturally from her family. She seems to find an escape from her family and culture in reading. The further she educates herself or keeps reading the further it seems she wants to get away from not only her family but her culture. Julia is constantly struggling to live up to unrealistic expectations of the memory of her deceased sister, Olga. Tio Bigotes reminds her that she should act more like Olga, because she was the perfect Mexican young lady that they want Julia to be. It is unrealistic for the Sanchez family to expect Julia to live up to a memory that they have sanctified. They think of Olga only in perfection, because as Mexican culture dictates they should not speak ill of the dead. Thus, Julia is condemned by her family to never be quite good enough. Julia then escapes these expectations in the fictional worlds of other cultures her books provide. Julia enjoys the fictional worlds her books depict because they show cultures with strong characters, female characters, that are free to choose their own path as opposed to being forced by their parents to remain at home and be housewives.

The narrator's sister’s death symbolizes her further alienation from her family. The true nature of Olga’s death is a mystery left for Julia to solve representing how she is setting out to shatter the perfect image of her sister her family has made. This goes against Mexican culture’s beliefs of how to remember a deceased family member. Though Julia’s uncle reminds her of she should act like Olga, he fails to mention that she possibly committed suscide. According to Stanley Brandes, Mexican culture believes that one should not speak ill of the dead, but outline their accomplishments and contributions to the family. “Mexicans are surrounded by and live side by side with death,” (Brandes 128). Brandes argues that Mexicans have a morbid connection with death. In regards to Sanchez’s novel, the Mexican family has a strong connection to death in the constant and repetitive mention of Olga, “may she rest in peace”. Brandes notes that Mexican culture has an ironic connection to the notion of death mocking it which is contrary to Anglo-Americans. In continuously mentioning the deceased and wishing her rest is contradictory creating an irony that reflects the Mexican’s living parallel with death. Olga does not rest but lives alongside her family in what Mexican Catholic culture believes to be the afterlife. The irony lies in her being talked about and compared to the living even in death.

Sanchez characterizes Tio Bigotes in this statements as intoxicated and abrasive when addressing Julia. “ dad and uncles pile into the dining room to bust out the expensive tequila from the liquor cabinet. I should’ve known. This happens at every party,” (Sanchez 82). His intoxication suggests that he overindulges in alcohol to escape his life which contradicts drinking spirits to celebrate at a family gathering. Why would he want to escape family by getting drunk? Getting drunk is the only way that Tio Bigotes can escape his family and attacks Julia for being able to find an escape that does not impair her judgment but sharpen her mind. “Like always, they sit around the dining room table, passing the tequila and talking about how great it was to live in their hometown of Los if reminiscing about lost love...If they love that town so much, why don’t they just go back and live there? I wonder. Always crying about Mexico as if it were the best place on earth,” (Sanchez 82). His condition implies Sanchez’s claim of Mexicans in America have contempt for second-generation Mexican-Americans and their ability to use education to escape strong family chains. Bonds are reflected as chains in Tio Biogotes’ situation. Tio Biogotes would prefer Julia to show an appreciation for her family at least superficially as he does. Tio Bigotes remains physically with his family, but checks out mentaly like the rest of the men attending these frequent family parties with beer.

Julia contradicts the traditional institution of the female figure in Mexican families by finding refuge and solace in reading to escape her family and their selfless expectations. Julia’s family encourages and constantly reminds her to accomplish more than they have but still remain within the traditionally marginalized construct of Mexican culture in America which can allow her to have a better life while maintaining a strong connection to her family. Her parents want her to be more than they are but not better.

When Julia returns from school she finds her father soaking his feet in a tub after working a 12-hour shift at a candy factory. He still finds the strength to offer pearls of wisdom to his seemingly lost daughter.

Apa doesn’t say much, but he always tells me, ‘Don’t work like a donkey like me. Be a secretary and work in a nice office with air conditioning.” I never tell him I’d rather clean toilets than be some man’s assistant. Fetching coffee and being bossed around by a jerk in a suit? No thanks. Once, I told Apa that I wanted to be a writer, but all he said was that I had to make enough money so I didn't have to live in an apartment full of roaches. I never brought it up again.” (Sanchez 121)

Julia is actively trying to escape her culture through her education and reading. She aspires to become a writer. However, when she does mention her hopes for a scholarly future, her remarks are met with opposition. However, her dreams are not shattered they are merely suppressed. Apa wants her to work in service to others depicting the typical Mexican machismo of women working to serve men. Julia is strongly opposed to working for a man in a subservient capacity. She is determined to become a writer and write her own way regardless of the probability of having a low income. Making meager wages is not the American dream that brought her parents across the border. Their idea of giving their children an opportunity to have a better life than they did in Mexico is equivalent to making money not being educated. Regardless of how much Julia betters herself academically, she will never be a success in her parents eyes if she does not make a good living with whatever career she chooses. This is another way that Julia rebels against her family furthering her away from maintaining the strong familial bonds that are typical of Mexican culture suggested by her “never bringing it up again.”

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Research shows the Mexican family structure begins to break down after assimilation following the second generation of Mexican-American children as demonstrated by Sanchez’s character of Lupita and the adults in her family, (Knight, et al,. 2010). A growing number of Mexican-American adolescents show a growing academic motivation to separate from their families despite the tradition of staying close to home for continued education or going straight into the workforce after high school to remain in proximity to parents. Despite the development of a bicultural identity in second generation Mexican-American youths they still experienced an internal conflict with the struggle of independence verses maintaining traditional Mexican family values and traditions.

Theoretical frameworks suggest that many Mexican American adolescents develop a bicultural identity (e.g., Rudmin, 2008; Schwartz, et al., 2006) and adopt a value system and behavioral styles approved by members of the ethnic and mainstream cultures. Emerging evidence has linked Latino youths’ cultural values to a number of critical outcomes, including academic motivation (Fuligni, 2001), substance use (Brook et al., 1998), and externalizing behavior problems, (Gonzales et al., 2008). The theory also suggests that immigrants and other minority youth may have more positive adaptation in the U.S. when they adopt a combination of mainstream and traditional ethnic cultural values (i.e., biculturalism; e.g., Gonzales, et al. 2002). Further, youths who develop a relatively bicultural identity may more successfully navigate these dual sets of demands (e.g., Rudmin, 2008; Schwartz, Montgomery, & Briones, 2006). On the other hand, the demands of dual cultural adaptation may lead to the internalization of values that are sometimes difficult to reconcile (i.e., familism vs. independence), leading some youth to experience conflict internally (e.g., identity difficulties) and with significant others (i.e., intergenerational value discrepancies). (Knight, et al., 2010)

Biculturalism conflicts with the ability to maintain a healthy practice of Mexican family traditions, mainly the closeness and community. Many Mexican-American adolescents are raised with stories of Mexico, such as Sanchez’s character of Lupita while simultaneously having the idea of fulfilling the American Dream their parents aspire to drill into them. This dream is one of financial independence achieved through education. Though, it sometimes seems to be only a high school education and a steady paying job that Mexican parents inspire their children to have and all the while demanding they remain in the same geographical area to keep a strong frequent familial connections. This is in direct conflict with nationwide initiatives for all students to go to college. Mexican-American adolescents, like Knight, et al., claim to find this duality to be so difficult it often leads to struggles in other areas of their lives suggesting that the absence of practicing traditional Mexican family values has a negative effect on all relationships in their lives.

According to Susanne Gamboa, et al., second-generation Americans who are millennials are having an increasingly difficult time balancing or even knowing exactly how to maintain their biculturalism. They often feel like they are unable to live up to their parents' expectations of maintaining a close tie to their family and realistically achieving their parents' American Dream for them of being successful independent Americans, (Gamboa, et al,. 2018).

Over half of Latinos under 18 and roughly two-thirds of Latino millennials are second-generation Americans — born in the U.S. to least one immigrant parent. “These young Latinos are the U.S. born, going through U.S. schools,” Lopez said, “yet they grew up in Latino households, exposed to the culture of their parents’ home country — that is the distinguishing point. They have all the markers of being American, yet they are the children of immigrants.” Navigating their parents' immigrant culture while being born and raised in the U.S. has shaped their views on identity and what it means to be an American — factors that are, in turn, shaping the nation’s adult workforce and the electorate. Like other population waves throughout the country’s history, these young bicultural Americans are coming of age enmeshed in their Latino and American worlds and trying to carve out a place for themselves in both of them and between. Berenize García, 16, of New York City, said her father, a Mexican immigrant, has pressured her to be “more American,” while her mother told her it’s disrespectful not to retain and speak Spanish to their Mexican relatives. (Gamboa, et al,. 2018)

Second-generation American’s such as Lupita, continue to use education as a way to realize their parents dream of them becoming self-sufficient, but inevitable leads to a rift in the familial structure definition of the traditional Mexican culture.

According to Knight’s La Familia study in 2010, second-generation adolescents are not affected significantly by their ethnic cultural values because of assimilation to American cultural values as opposed to the significant effect it has on their immigrant parents.

Among adolescents, immigrant status was not significantly associated with ethnic cultural values (Familism Support, Familism Obligations, Familism Referents, Respect, Religion, and Traditional Gender Roles…(Knight, et al., 2010)

Thus, second generation Mexican-American youth detach from their familism ultimately leading to the degradation of the traditional strong Mexican family structure by the pursuit of the American Dream through education.

Therefore, I Am Not Your Perfect American Daughter suggests that Julia being the second generation Mexican-American begins to fragment, and lose her cultural values and beliefs while adapting an American cultural youth construct through education. Julia is stifled by her huge tight-knit family, so much so that she drowns herself in books in hopes to become a famous writer someday. “I want to become so famous that people stop me on the street and say, ‘Oh my God are you Julia Reyes the greatest writer that has ever graced this earth?’ All I know is that I’m gonna pack my bags when I graduate and say, ‘See ya later mothafuckas!’” (Sanchez 2) The narrator's mother’s attempts to live vicariously through her daughter and do all the things she believes to have missed out on because of Olga’s death with Julia are misguided and futile. Julia’s biculturalism has made her independent and detached from her family, even disdainful and having an active rebellion towards everything that has to do with her Mexican culture. Julia is now in search of a new identity, though she is not willing to share her plans with her family they are still happening. This internalization of her future plans is yet another example of the detachment from the traditional Mexican values of the second-generation adolescent. Sanchez’s novel is extremely important in showing though perhaps unintentional degradation of the institution of family traditionally expressed in Mexican-American young adult literature by the adolescents active pursuit of an education far away from their families and search for independence as a separate entity from the grater familism that is the Mexican family.

Work Cited

  1. America's Health Rankings. (2019). Explore Teen Suicide in the United States | 2019 Health of Women and Children Report. [online] [20 Nov. 2019].
  2. Brandes, Stanley. “Is There a Mexican View of Death?” Ethos, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar. 2003), pp. 127-144. Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
  3. Cahlan, Sarah, Suzanne Gamboa & Sandra Lilley. NBC News. (2019). Young Latinos: Born in the U.S.A., carving their own identity. [online] [20 Nov. 2019].
  4. Knight, George P et al. “The Mexican American Cultural Values scales for Adolescents and Adults.” The Journal of early adolescence. Vol. 30,3 (2010): 444-481. doi:10.1177/0272431609338178.
  5. Miller, Cody. Reimagining the Canon to Study Youth Culture. NCTE. 06.18.18 Diversity.
  6. Sanchez, Erika L. 2019. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. New York. Random House Children’s Books.
  7. Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. NYU Press, May 21, 2019, 2019.
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I Am Not Your Perfect American Daughter: Fragmentation of Family in 2nd Generation Mexican-Americans. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
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