Welcome to the Age of the Latina Nerd! Anywhere you look—on stage, on screen, on the written page, in the Senate (hello, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!)—Latina nerds are taking up space and offering nuanced depictions of Latinx identities and experiences, something that has all-too-often been left out of mainstream media. Writing for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Monica Castillo declared that the Latina genius has finally cemented her place alongside other archetypes on the small screen. Intellectual Latinas are playing significant roles in Disney+ and Netflix series such as Diary of a Future President, One Day at a Time, On My Block, and The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia (and let’s not forget Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin). And, of course, Latina nerds have long held an important place in Young Adult (YA) literature as evidenced by the publication of Nerds, Goths, Geeks, and Freaks: Outsiders in Chicanx and Latinx Young Adult Literature (edited by myself and Cristina Herrera) and Cristina Herrera’s forthcoming book ChicaNerds in Chicana Young Adult Literature: Brown and Nerdy (forthcoming in 2021 with Routledge). YA novels such as Artistotle and Dance Discover the Secrets of the Universe; Gabi, A Girl in Pieces; and Shadowshaper have placed Latinx nerds and other outsiders front and center, giving valuable representation to a community of nerds who have long been on the margins of mainstream—and often stereotypes of—Latinx identity.

This reality of the Latina nerd finally entering the mainstream is precisely where Steppenwolf For Young Adults’ stellar production of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter finds itself. Based on the best-selling book by Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is adapted by playwright Isaac Gómez and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Sandra Marquez. The production runs through March 21, 2020, in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Co. 

Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Harrison Weger (Connor) in "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Harrison Weger (Connor) in “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia, a high school student in Chicago, who must navigate the ups and downs of following her dream to become a writer. After her older sister, Olga, dies, Julia begins to question if her sister was as perfect as she seemed. Julia is an uber-nerd. She loves school, especially English class. She loves to write. She dreams of going to college in New York. Her story is led by a sense of intellectual curiosity that cannot simply be contained. 

Gómez’s adaption of Sánchez’s novel is the best thing I have seen on stage so far this year. While oftentimes TYA can paint a watered-down version of reality, Gómez’s script hits all the spots and had me, a high school teacher, missing my students. These teens great each other by saying “Hey, bitch!” while eating Flaming Hot Cheetos like they are getting paid for it. These teens curse. They smoke pot. They have sex. They struggle with body image. They don’t always like their families nor do they always live up to their parents’ lofty expectations. They battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. And, oh yeah, they do fully-choreographed Quinceañera dance routines. 

While the ensemble cast of Charin Alvarez, Eddie Martinez, Peter Moore, Leslie Sophia Perez, Robert Quintanilla, Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller, and Harrison Weger is top-notch across the board, Karen Rodriguez as Julia steals the show. Yes, the play is an ensemble piece, but I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is Julia’s story. Rodriguez is on stage the entire-show and shows a masterful ability to make audiences laugh at just how quirky and nerdy Julia is while also punching us in the gut when Julia experiences the shitty parts of growing up. The marriage of Rodriguez’s Julia, Gómez’s writing, and Marquez’s direction is a sight to behold, a well-oiled machine, running on all cylinders. 

Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller (Olga) in "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Karen Rodriguez (Julia) and Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller (Olga) in “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I was fortunate enough to attend the student matinee performance on March 6, 2020. TYA artist/scholar Roxanne Schroeder-Arce discusses a “split focus” approach to theatre spectatorship; she advocates for witnessing theatre multiple times with one or more of those experiences being focused on watching the reactions of the young people in the audience. The reactions of the audience become just as important as what happens on stage. Marquez’s staging of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daugher tennis court style allowed me to engage in split focus spectatorship even if I only saw the play one time. There is simply no better way to watch TYA than with students and this audience of predominately Black and Brown high school students from Chicago certainly did not disappoint. While the production is a homerun by any standard, being able to watch Julia’s story unfold surrounding my students were anything but shy about their reactions only added to the world of the place. When Julia got her first kiss, they cheered. When she smoked pot, students roasted each other. And ,in perhaps my favorite moment of the 90-minute production, when Julia tells her teacher that she is on her period and that “It feels like someone is stabbing me in the gut” a girl seated directly behind me said “and that’s on periodt!” and, reader, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. 

And this, folks, is what theatre is all about. Theatre should not just be a luxury that is afforded to those with privilege. We need more young people in our audiences. We need more people of color in our audiences. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is doing all of these things in a  genuine way. As is typical of Steppenwolf Education, the production of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter doubles as a community engagement project. In addition to the weekday student matinees reserved for school groups that will see thousands of Chicago public school students attend the production, Steppenwolf for Young Adults is partnering with Teen Arts Pass (TAP) so that teenagers can see the show for only $5. Moreover, the production will partner with Storycatchers Theatre to tour to three Illinois Juvenile Justice Facilities following the run. All of these community engagement projects enhance the ways that young audiences experience arts education. 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is exactly the type of play that we need right now. Hopefully, producers and high school drama teachers from across the country take note. This play needs to be seen in every community. It needs to be performed at regional theatres. It needs to be performed at community theatres. It needs to be performed at high schools. So, grab yourself a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos and be a part of the Age of the Latina Nerd. The time is now. 

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.