Coming-of-age movies have long been a staple of Hollywood; however, they are dominated by White people on both sides of the camera. Girls of all backgrounds deserve to see themselves on screen and in director’s chairs, and award-winning actor—and soon-to-be director—America Ferrera will add much needed representation to the coming-of-age genre.
On February 24, news broke that Ferrera will direct the film adaptation of Erika L Sánchez’s young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Linda Yvette Chávez adapted the story for the “big” screen—the film will be distributed by Netflix. Although Ferrera has directed episodes of the television shows Superstore and Gentefied, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter will be her feature film directorial debut.
Sánchez’s 2017 novel tells the story of Julia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose life is upturned when her older sister, Olga, tragically dies. Julia navigates love, high school, and family while trying to disentangle her future from her sister’s legacy.
The film will add to the relatively short, but growing, list of US Latinx-led coming-of-age films. Ferrera—whose acting has greatly contributed to this genre—is a fitting addition as director. Well-known in front of the camera, Ferrera starred in movies like Patricia Cardoso’s acclaimed Real Women Have Curves in 2002, and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants in 2005 (along with its 2008 sequel). In television, her starring role in Ugly Betty (2006) brought Latinx representation to primetime. Audiences will see more of Ferrera’s behind-the-camera skills in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.
As the title suggests, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is about a Mexican-American girl. Chávez identifies as Xicana. However, Ferrera is Honduran-American. Although it is not necessary for the director to share the same background as their protagonist to make an authentic or compelling story, it does raise questions about how Ferrera will approach the material. Ferrera is fantastically talented and well-suited for the story, but don’t be mistaken: Latinas are not interchangeable.
Hollywood has a dismal history, ranging from inaccurate to offensive, when it comes to the portrayal of Latinx characters, if they are even present. Actors are often typecast into shallow and stereotypical roles. Think of caricatures like “fiery Latina,” “impoverished immigrant,” or “hardened gangster.” When stories about Latinx experiences come along, they are often White-washed. The classic “West Side Story” made use of bad accents and brown makeup to “transform” White actors into Puerto Ricans. On the other hand, Latinx actors may have to downplay their ethnicity in order to find work. For example, Jennifer Lopez plays an Italian character in The Wedding Planner (2001). And there are countless productions with absolutely no Latinx representation.
One of the worst results of these problematic portrayals is the perpetuation of the myth that there is a unified, monolithic Latinx identity. Latinx is a complex social identity made of people of all races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and more. Just look at voter trends. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter has significant potential to add another dimension to the portrayal of Latinx communities, by uplifting a story about an independent young woman—something rarely seen in the mainstream.
Despite the continuation of inaccurate representation of Latinx characters in film, there is some hope that these trends are reversing. Recently, Netflix has proven to be a major purveyor of original Latinx-led media for mainstream audiences (with varying degrees of quality and success). Last year saw additions like biopic Selena: The Series, horror-comedy Vampires Vs. The Bronx, and documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.
Ferrera is a shockingly underutilized talent and has spoken candidly about her struggles to find rich, complex roles in the film industry. It will be exciting to see what she and Chávez do with Sánchez’s powerful story.
While we wait for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, this Remezcla article by Manuel Betancourt has some recommendations for other Latinx-led coming-of-age films. I also suggest Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) and Vampires Vs. The Bronx (2020).