Novelist and Poet Erika L. Sánchez

Erika L. Sanchez photo

By Catherine Hsu

Erika L. Sánchez (ΦΒΚ, University of Illinois at Chicago) was recently featured at Bakersfield College’s Distinguished Speaker Series, where she discussed her 2017 New York Times bestseller I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a young adult contemporary novel about generational expectations, family, and identity in a Mexican-American household. Her most recent book, Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir, is due to be released in July.

Sánchez grew up in Cicero, Illinois, a working-class town bordering Chicago. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she went to Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship and then received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of New Mexico.

As the daughter of undocumented, Mexican, factory-working immigrants, the border and all its sociopolitical contexts have always ben deeply ingrained into her identity. Ever since a young age, she has been determined to defy borders — and to defy binaries, whether metaphorical or physical, through feminist activism and writing.

“I want them to feel understood. That’s what I wanted when I was growing up. I didn’t really have a lot of literature that spoke to me in that way,” Sánchez said in NPR’s Latino USA podcast. “We’re expected to be perfect, both in society and within our families. And that’s just not realistic at all. I just want them to know that I know that they exist and that it’s okay. It’s okay to be who they are.”

For Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was a chance to create a complex Latina character that highlighted the struggles of the culture clash between immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

“There’s so much I love about my culture,” Sánchez said in the podcast. “I love the fact that we’re so family-oriented and like a million other things — but there’s a lot I don’t love. I don’t like the misogyny, the patriarchy, and when I was growing up, I pushed against those things, and it created a lot of conflicts.” 

The main character in the novel, Julia Reyes, represented many of Sánchez’s own teenage experiences. Julie is troubled and sarcastic — everything that her perfect sister Olga was not. 

While many literary agents had rejected the book because they did not like the main character, it remained important for Sánchez to write a young Latina character that showed readers it was okay to be “flawed.”

“There are pieces of myself in Julia. I didn’t grow up with an Olga of my own, but I was very aware of what was expected of me, and that I failed on every level,” Sánchez said in a Q&A with Underlined. “I never wanted to be perfect. Lots of Mexican American girls grow up feeling like they don’t live up to their family’s expectations.”

Other than shedding light on the generational immigrant experience, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter also comments on the stigma of depression and suicide, especially in Hispanic and Latino communities.

“I’m tired of the stigma. People need to see it as a part of health in general,” Sánchez said to NBC News. “People think [depression] is a character flaw, when it’s a mental illness that needs treatment.”

Since its publication, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter has also been a 2017 National Book Award finalist in the Young People’s Literature category, and the 2018 winner of the Tomas Rivera award in the Young Adult category.

In 2017, the same year I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was released, Sánchez also published a poetry collection titled Lessons on Expulsion, which The Washington Post called “a fierce, assertive debut.”

As a published author, being part of a writing community such as CantoMundo has been very important to her development, and Sánchez encourages all writers to find and support each other. The most important advice she would give to an aspiring writer is first, to build community, and second, to come to terms with rejection and still keep going.

“Not everyone is going to love your work, and that’s ok,” Sánchez said in an interview with Latino Book Review. “You just have to keep going. No matter how accomplished you may be, you probably won’t escape it. Write because you love it, not for fame or recognition.”

Catherine Hsu is a recent graduate of the University of California,Berkeley where she majored in political science and art practice. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in May 2021. UC Berkeley is home to the Alpha of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.