Erika Sánchez: Perfectly Imperfect
Erika Sanchez writes for young adults who are like she was at their age: complex and confused.
Erika Sánchez is an award-winning poet and young adult novelist. She was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who loses her older sister. It won the 2018 Tomás Rivera Award for best Mexican American children’s book.
Sánchez grew up in Illinois as the bilingual child of Mexican immigrants. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Chicago, lived in Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship, and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Mexico. Her poems have appeared in many prestigious literary journals, including the Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. She released her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, in 2017.
From 2012 to 2015 Sánchez was the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas. She has also contributed nonfiction articles to Time, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. She is a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
Erika Sánchez is not, as the title of her National Book Award finalist and New York Times’ Bestselling Book for Young Adult Readers declares, The Perfect Mexican Daughter. Like her protagonist, Julia, Sánchez is snarky, daring, and smart. She’s determined to have an impact on the world, while not forgetting those whose sacrifices made her extraordinary, if sometimes confusing American existence possible.
Erika Sánchez: I try to honor the parents in the book. I thought it was important for me to show their humanity and to show that they’re, you know, individuals with back stories and sometimes we don’t see that when we’re kids. We don’t understand that our parents are flawed people who have endured, you know, trauma.
The daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, Sánchez grew up in the working class down of Cicero, Illinois. Her mother worked in a factory. Her grandmother was illiterate, but writing beckoned and Sánchez seized it. Demanding time alone with books and stories and an independence unusual to her culture.
Sánchez: I felt very misunderstood. I had a very rich inner life that I didn’t know how to explain to anyone.
AJC: Even your mom. Your mom would get paranoid when the door was closed, right?
Sánchez: She didn’t like it, no, no. In Mexican culture, it’s not okay for you to be closed off and be away from your family and so that created a lot of tension for us. But yeah, I’ve always been different and I think that’s what had triggered the writing.
AJC: And it’s all about anger.
AJC: You’re a great advocate for us. And people are not allowed to be angry anymore, you know?
Sánchez: No! And why not? There’s so much to be angry about. I’m so mad all the time But I think what’s important is how to use that anger and not to let it consume you and I think that young people, they should be given the permission to be angry sometimes. It’s hard to be a young person and I think some people didn’t like that about my character because she’s just so off at the world and she’s kind of unlikeable at times. I agree, she is unlikeable, but why? You know, and why is it that male protagonists are allowed to be flawed and all these things but when a brown girl acts in a similar way, people are really put off by it?
Sánchez gained early recognition as a blogger and as a poet, but building her career, she says, took time. There were the jobs she took that she never wanted. There were long stretches of frustration. Throughout it all, Sánchez never lost sight of her good fortune.
Sánchez: My family was incredibly poor in Mexico, just desperately poor. It formed me. It’s really shaped how I see the world. I’m really, I’m conscious of class. I’m conscious of money. Now that I’m living very comfortably, it’s an adjustment now. I have to allow myself to live well and be okay with it. There’s a lot of guilt that one must tackle.
But happiness has never come easy to this author who’s made no secret of her mental health struggles. In her essays, poems, and stories, Sánchez writes openly about them. In her conversations with young readers, she reassures.
Sánchez: People have this idea that you’re crazy if you have a mental illness and I am really tired of that. And so that’s part of the reason I wrote my novel. I wanted young people to know that it’s okay to be mentally ill and that it’s okay to ask for help.
In 2017, Erika Sánchez released two books long in the making. The novel and a critically acclaimed book of poetry, Lessons on Expulsion. Both are built out of the stuff of Sánchez’s life. Both are proudly unapologetic.
(Excerpt from Lessons on Expulsion,“Crossing,” 2017)
In Chicago, we live in basements— the rattle
of heaters, jaundice paint.
The smell of beans, boiling, breaking
their skins. Everything fried up
in pig grease.
The roaches make nests in our toys.
One makes its way inside my shoe
and comes out in school.
inside my brother’s ear to start a home
until my mother drowns it out with alcohol.
I exist because you see me.
You will not work like us. You will not work like a donkey,
my mother says
in factory heat, the murmur
“Be honest,” says Sánchez, “be who you are and speak freely of it. “Our lives,” she suggests, “are best lived in the light. “Our futures are not fixed.”
Sánchez: Identity is fluid and we change and we transform and I think that to say that we have one label is, you know, that’s not accurate at all. I contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman said. We all do.