I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter Seattle Rep Play Review
Updated: Jul 2, 2023
Edited by Madeline Montisano
Karen Rodriguez in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. (Photo/Nate Watters)
Before any scenes of Issac Gomez’s adaptation of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter have taken place, I am already transported into the story as I settle into my seat and look down onto the stage. The backdrop is lightly wavering and dimmed but still visible is a vibrant, multicolor beaded mural of a bird spreading its wings, and positioned at the center of the stage, is an elevated casket with a young woman in it.
Based on the best-selling YA novel by Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’s run at the Seattle Rep, marked the West Coast premiere of the play. The play spotlights the character Júlia, played by Pilar O’Connell on closing night, as she copes with the loss of her beloved sister, Olga, played by Sofia Raquel Sánchez. The perfect Mexican daughter that is no longer. Júlia presents herself as the antithesis of her older sister, a strong-willed, seemingly defiant teenager with aspirations to move away from home to pursue a college education to be a writer. Following Olga’s death, Júlia is forced to confront an array of not only her emotions but those of her family, especially her mother.
The play is split into two parts that span over Júlia’s high school years. At the top of the first act, the audience is thrown into the story as we are watching Olga’s funeral and the aftermath of her passing. While it’s a pretty heavy setting to introduce a storyline, the first act feels light and is filled with quite a bit of humor. We are introduced to characters like Júlia’s best friend Lorena, played by Leslie Sophia Pérez, who is witty, unapologetic, charismatic and even reminds me of my own bestfriend. Additionally, Gomez does a great job incorporating references to pop culture to update and modernize the storyline, including the infamous salad shake meme and mentions TikTok, Instagram and GrubHub.
O’Conell brings brillant comedic timing to Júlia’s character, personifying a relatable angst and brings brevity to the complex emotions and topics Júlia faces. This Júlia feels like a fresh departure from the Júlia readers of Sánchez’s book may be familiar with. As a reader of the book myself, I struggled at times to relate or root for Júlia. In truth - I found her annoying the majority of the time while reading the book. However, the Júlia in Gomez’s adaptation feels different to me. I see her, I feel for her, I know her because in many ways I was her as a teenager and still am. A first generation Latina trying to navigate the world around them struggling to find themselves, grappling with trauma and issues surrounding mental health.
Members of the cast of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at Seattle Rep. (Photo/Nate Watters).
As a reader of the book, I was curious to see how they would incorporate the character Olga, and was pleasantly surprised to see her character used as a ghost to drive the plot forward. The set design also played an integral part in using Olga as a plot driver. The expansive mural, adapted from Joseph Perez’s, also known as “Sentrock”, artwork, acted as a veil of the inbetween where Olga would appear either in Júlia’s thoughts or dreams.
One recurring theme that is present throughout the play but is first introduced in act one is the theme of secrets. That feeling of always being surrounded by your family, but never truly knowing them because of the different roles we are expected to play in our family. That feeling that prevents us from being seen as anything beyond that role. Júlia’s character conveys the idea of familial obligations as a point of sadness and feeling repeatedly misunderstood by her family. Her mother (Ama) is constantly frustrated at Júlia’s personality and actions for not living up to her expectations and a sense of misplaced blame for Olga’s death. This acts as a wedge between them that further widens into act two.
As we enter into act two, the tone has shifted and there is no longer that lightness that was present in the first half. Instead it’s been replaced with a more serious and darker mood. Júlia’s mental health is rapidly declining and we as an audience are forced to witness it. It is hinted in act one that Júlia may have struggled with some form of depression as there are other characters who mention how she was “always such a sad little girl”. Up until this point of the play it’s only been speculation and feels much more raw witnessing it first-hand. Watching Julia’s decline is gutwrenching and feels like watching an impending car crash oncoming and knowing you can’t stop it. Her narration is no longer sarcastic and full of spirit, but withdrawn and concerning. She talks of feeling trapped and suffocated in her house, and I am instantly taken back to my teenage years. That feeling of feeling stunted at home, as if it is impeding your growth, knowing it’s easier to blame your circumstances and even family than confront the bigger issue at hand - your mental health. The set design of Efren Delgadillo Jr.really shines through in this part, as the floor of the stage is set up into two spheres. They rotate endlessly, as we see Julia’s mental breakdown, emphasizing the feeling of uncontrollable spiraling.
While the play does a phenomenal job of exemplifying what mental health struggles feel like, I feel that the resolution to Júlia’s depression was hasty. She got her diagnosis then it was sort of glossed over in terms of how she got to a better place with it. Additionally, while the play gives small spotlights to the topic of racism and homophobia, I do feel like there could have been more opportunities to bring it to the forefront and educate. However, the one thing I feel that the play did the best in addressing was the topic of intergenerational struggles with a special highlight on the complicated dynamics of the mother daughter relationship. Ama expressed not knowing how to raise and deal with a daughter like Júlia, which I feel that I have actually heard that exact phrase come out of my own mom’s mouth. It isn’t until Júlia’s trip to Mexico when she stays with Mama Jacinto that she starts to see how she’s a lot more similar to Ama than she thought.
Karen Rodriguez in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at Seattle Rep. (Photo/Nate Watters)
Júlia’s time in Mexico is the perfect backdrop for the themes that are unveiled. Through her conversations with Mama Jacinto, a lot of truths are revealed about Júlia’s parents that give her a different perspective of who they are. This time also allows her to reflect and she begins to humanize her parents. She develops a new understanding that they too had dreams and aspiration, that they also broke family obligations, expectations and wants by leaving to the U.S.
Similarly to the book, the play closes out with Júlia boarding her flight to New York City for college. The final scene with everyone sitting in their plane seats pulling out copies of the book was such a special ode to the author Erika L. Sánchez. Overall, Gomez’s adaptation I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter brought new light to the story and is a wonderful example of representing the Mexican-American struggle and experience. I not only saw myself reflected, but my mom, my family and friends in so many different ways through the writing and acting. That is something that isn’t always present or well executed in art in terms of Latinx representation. It’s something that matters deeply, and something we need more of.
While I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter wrapped up its run at Seattle Rep, you can catch their next show Between Two Knees opening this weekend and running through March 26th.