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From YA Novel to Stage: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

The creative team behind I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: author Erika Sánchez, playwright Isaac Gómez and director Sara Guerrero. Photo courtesy of Greenway Arts Alliance.

Some novels feel so viscerally true that they play in our heads like movies even when they exist only as words on a page. Playwright Isaac Gómez had that experience when he read Erika Sánchez’s 2017 young adult novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Gómez ended up adapting the book into a fast-paced play, now in a limited, sold-out run at Greenway Court Theatre–now extended through March 3 (see below for tickets).

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter opened at Steppenwolf in February 2020; the run was cut short by the pandemic. It had a subsequent run at Seattle Rep before coming to Los Angeles at the urging of Greenway Arts Alliance. Through their GreenwayREADS program, more than 600 LAUSD students are currently reading the book, working with Greenway Arts Alliance’s teaching artists and seeing this production at Greenway Court Theatre, on the campus of Fairfax High School. On weekends, the play is open to the public.

the cast of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Photo by Nick Graves.

We spoke to Gómez, as well as the play’s director Sara Guerrero and the co-artistic directors of Greenway Arts Alliance, Whitney Weston and Pierson Blaetz, about the process of writing and staging a deeply honest look into the life of a Chicago teen grappling with issues of identity, sex and grief after the death of her older sister.

Noelle How as Lorena, Christian Zamudio and Gabriela Machuca in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Photo by Nick Graves.

Isaac, how did you identify the book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter? Why was it important to you to see it staged?

Isaac Gómez: When the book first came out, I was struck by the cover: an electric blue that pulls the eye. More importantly, it was the image of the back of a head with a braid, a trensa, which is a significant cultural marker for Mexican women.

I like to read the first sentence of a book as a marker of an author’s talent. This opening sentence really hit me: “What’s surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on her face.” It felt like something I would say, or something I had heard. It felt like the way the women in my life talk. I bought the book and read it quickly.

At the time, I was in rehearsals for my play La Ruta at Steppenwolf. They have a subsidiary series for young adult works, so I pitched it and they read it, loved it and found Erika through Instagram. Erika agreed to an adaptation.

What made you so sure it would work as a play? 

IG: The book is cinematic in nature and I’m excited for the film adaptation [to be directed by America Ferrera]. It’s in first person, as solo shows are structured, with [main character] Julia [played in this production by Gabriela Machuca] talking to you. I had written The Way she Spoke, a one-woman show that premiered in Chicago in 2015. This play is essentially a solo show with an ensemble that fills out the world. I knew my dear friend and longtime collaborator Karen Rodriguez, who’s now an ensemble member at Steppenwolf, was Julia.

How did you work with the author?

IG: I asked Erika, What do you not want to see in this adaptation? She had only one request: don’t make it a musical. I laughed and asked her what was important for her to have. She said, This is your field of expertise. She had read my work and wanted me to do what I needed to make it a play.

I think the first draft was almost four hours long. I’d never adapted anything before so I literally transcribed the whole book, then restructured, refined and cut. I put myself into it to the point where you don’t know where Erika ends and I begin.

Sara, the staging of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is fast-moving and very physical, with set pieces being moved. What informed your direction?

Sara Guerrero: Isaac wrote a guiding note in the script about this being Julia’s world, taking place in the mind and life of a teenager. So the play leans into and away from reality. It was great to have Isaac to help us with the tone and work with the cast. With our protagonist, Julia, I said let’s take out the air, come in hot, not be precious. We have these lasting moments where we can pause, we can breathe. Our rehearsal process was very short and tight, so it was a mammoth of a beast, but a beautiful beast

Whitney and Pierson, why did you work so hard to bring this play to LA?

Whitney Weston: The Latinx population in the Los Angeles Unified School District is over 70%, and this stunning play speaks to, and is, the story of so many students we serve with our GreenwayREADS program.

Pierson Blaetz: For almost a decade, we have been producing meaningful shows under our GreenwayREADS program. Hands down, the reason for our success is choosing stories that matter to current and future theatergoers. Young audiences will continue going to theater if they see themselves reflected in the characters on stage.

I was thinking as I watched the show about the 600 LAUSD students who would be seeing it, as well as reading the book. What does it mean to have high school students see this show—which for some will be their first theater experience?

IG: I love our student audiences, but my favorite audiences are multigenerational. They experience a story that some may be living through at the moment, while others remember their first kiss, or experiencing loss and grief.

Something that isn’t talked about enough is the adultification of the children of immigrants. We are put into adult roles really early in life. You see Julia essentially having to parent her parents. Language is a big part of it, especially if your parents don’t speak English or have limited English proficiency. Education is part of it, when your parents can’t help you with your homework. You have to figure things out on your own. Julia is the first in her family to go to college; so was I.

This adultification is especially true when it comes to loss. Julia had no one at home who could help her process the death of her sister. That’s why she goes on the journey she does and ends up attempting suicide. I also attempted suicide as a young person. When she speaks to [therapist] Dr. Cook, I resonated with her saying she wanted to be a writer, to her feeling suffocated in that house.

Sara, did the fact that high school students were going to be seeing this show affect your staging in any way?

SG: I kept the audience in mind, but I didn’t want to talk down to them. I kept thinking about how we feel at certain ages. Sometimes adults invalidate youth: “That’s not love…” We see them as children. It was important to be thoughtful about how people feel at any age, especially to validate a young girl’s experience and feelings. I liked Julia’s ability to explore her sexuality and the conversation about consent within the simulated sex scene. They’re both sober kids. They’re alone. And when people are alone with someone they want, there’s an opportunity to be more vulnerable, especially at that age.

Twice the script addresses consent. I really appreciated that, especially right now with rights being taken away, books being banned, access to education that enriches us being curtailed. Where do kids get to build their own opinions, deal with their feelings?

What perspective do you think your work as a teacher brings to your direction and to your work in theater generally?

SG: I always come into the room and try not to make assumptions. I admit I don’t always have the answer. The opportunity to share theater, to learn how others experience it, always informs how I work. Every production is its own production, every classroom is its own classroom. I hope there’s always a sense of collaboration, that we can be vulnerable, that we can play, that one person doesn’t always have to have the answers.

What was it like to see high schoolers reacting to the show?

SG: The first time we had a preview audience with high school students, we were still trying to tighten the running time because it wasn’t where it needed to be. But they were engaged. It was amazing to watch.

As a director, I love to watch my audiences watch a show and see what’s hitting and how involved they want to be. Then to hear their responses afterwards. In this case, I wasn’t expecting the students to want to stick around as much as they did, to ask questions, give their opinions. It’s very gratifying.

Isaac, I saw a reading in January at the Kirk Douglas Theatre recently as part of the L.A. Writers’ Workshop Festival of your play Teresa. I was blown away by your layered story about a group of nuns who you portrayed as real people. Why did you choose this subject and how did you develop it?

I was raised in a staunch Catholic household and was very involved in my church as a young person. Even now, as I’ve been in therapy for years, I’m recovering from my religious trauma. In writing about Mother Teresa and her nuns, I’m writing about myself and that’s what that journey has been.

We go to the theater in part to see our own lives reflected back to us. How do you think stories about people we might see as the “other” can help us see our own lives more clearly, as well as expanding our idea about other lives?

IG: A lot of time I write to heal myself, to make sense of what hurts me. What I learn in the process is that healing is ongoing, not linear, and with no end point. When I invite an audience to see a play, it invites their healing, too. When someone says they saw themselves in the story, oh man, that’s such a humbling feeling because when they feel they’re not alone, in turn I feel less alone. It’s a beautiful exchange of energy.

I think it comes from being specific in your stories. I focus on character and myself, because the closer I get to the truth of what’s happening in my story, the more likely the audience will see themselves. Everyone has pain, joy, dreams, aspirations. I think that’s why the Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car” is recirculating: it feels as relevant today as it did when it first came out.

Sara, were there any obstacles to your involvement with this show?

SG: I wasn’t sure I would be able to direct because of my schedule. But I kept listening to the reasons to do this and I couldn’t say no. Even though here I am, older, this story speaks to me. Hearing other Latina woman say they finally see themselves as they never have tells me we need more stories like this.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter runs through March 3. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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