In 2017, young Latinx people entered the mind of Julia Reyes, the protagonist in Erika L. Sanchez’s New York Times bestselling novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Now through March 21, they can enter her world and serve as her confidant in the stage adaptation premiering at Steppenwolf, as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series. (Sandra Marquez directs.)
The story follows teenager Julia, an aspiring writer from Chicago who is often seen as rebellious and a nuisance by her family, as she grieves the death of her older more traditional sister, Olga. She also attempts to find herself in a world that tries to keep her identity confined to specific boxes of what a Mexican American daughter should and shouldn’t be. Throughout this path of self-discovery, she faces adversity in mental health, domestic violence, and sexual trauma–topics that are widely dismissed and seen as taboo in Latinx households.
“[These topics] are what I think has brought the book so much popularity over the last few years,” says playwright Isaac Gomez. “It resonates because of all of the various intersection points, especially for people who identify as Mexican, Mexican American, or Latinx.”
Gomez, who says he has read the book around 18 or 20 times, wanted to embody the world that Sanchez created and include all of the central themes that make the protagonist’s journey so challenging. This is especially important because although not everyone’s upbringing was the same as Julia’s, a lot of the struggles she faces ring true for many. Gomez, for example, says despite being a man raised in a home with four boys “there were some things that Julia said about not being the perfect Mexican daughter that allowed me to connect with her, especially because I was an aspiring writer who struggled with mental health and because I was someone who just wanted to get out and dream.”
Similar to Julia, many first-generation Americans face this pressure to adhere to specific standards of both their culture and the American culture while simultaneously having to provide for their families and put their dreams aside. First-generation daughters, specifically, have a harder time shedding these limitations and remain tied down by old-fashioned roles.
This is what makes Julia so inspiring to many Latinx individuals. “We have this Mexican girl who is 15 and grappling with ribbons of grief,” says Karen Rodriguez, longtime collaborator of Gomez’s and the actress playing Julia in the play. “Part of her grief and part of her struggle is that she is so unabashedly herself and won’t let others put her in a box, even if it comes at great pain and great disconnect for her family and friends.”
Gomez sent her the novel when he had first decided to adapt it into a play. “I read it and I just felt like Julia, Erika, and I were like kindred spirits,” Rodriguez says. “There’s something about Julia and the way that she talks and the way that her mind works that felt like projects Isaac and I had worked on before.”
Gomez says Rodriguez was a crucial part of his adaptation process because of their shared backgrounds. The two are from border cities between Texas and Mexico (Gomez grew up in El Paso, Rodriguez in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville) and know what it’s like to feel like they’re from two places and everywhere all at once. “Every play I’ve written, except one, has featured Karen in some capacity because she brings so much energy into everything she does,” he says. “She brings a piece of home in everything she does.”
But another aspect of the adaptation process was getting the rights from Sanchez herself. Luckily, the author and current Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz chair at DePaul University trusted in Gomez immediately. “As soon as I met Isaac, I felt like I could trust him with the story, and he put so much care in transforming it in a way that was respectful and very true to the original vision,” Sanchez says.
Though the material remains the same, some changes were made to fit the medium. This includes adding asides, since the novel is told from the first-person point of view. But according to Gomez and Rodriguez, this allows the audience to actively serve as Julia’s confidant as she finds her voice.
More than anything, what Gomez, Sanchez, and Rodriguez hope audiences gain from the play is a chance to feel seen in a new medium. “I think it’s really great that so many young people of color are going to see the play. I find that really moving for me because when I was growing up, I didn’t really have that,” says Sanchez. “I never saw any plays that were related to my communities or who I was, and so the fact that so many young people are going to have access to it is something that makes me feel really proud.” v