For over a decade, Julissa Arce was quietly breaking the law. Arce was born in the Mexican state of Guerrero but lived in San Antonio with her parents on a U.S. tourist visa. When she was 14 years old, the visa expired, and she became undocumented. Out of necessity, she learned how to fit in and how to keep her status a secret. At 22, she landed a job at Goldman Sachs, securing the position with a counterfeit green card and Social Security number. Arce kept quiet about her immigration status, rising up the corporate ladder until she married a U.S. citizen in 2008 and became naturalized in 2014.
After spending so much of her life hiding, Arce decided to tell her story, first in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, then to outlets from CNN to Time. Suddenly, she found herself upheld in articles and talking-head shows as a shining example of the “model immigrant.” After her story went viral, Arce left Wall Street behind and became a public commentator, writer, and advocate for immigrant rights. She’s immensely proud of her work, but looking back on her journey to citizenship, the praise felt hollow. As she details in her third book, You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation (Macmillan, March 22), she realized she had spent years trying to “become white.” She prioritized English over Spanish and perfected her accent, buying into a version of the U.S. that “erased any trace of the deep Mexican roots in this country.”
“Americanizing was supposed to help me fit in,” she writes. “But even after I learned English, became a citizen, got my coins, I still wasn’t welcomed. In fact the opposite was true. . . . I became a Frankenstein collecting the pieces I’d lost along the way—my language, my culture, my family.”
You Sound Like a White Girl is Arce’s attempt to reclaim her identity. The book weaves together Latino history lessons from the likes of the Chicano student walkouts of the sixties and the murder of Jose Campos Torres. Arce showcases Latino trailblazers and gives context for the racism and discrimination Latinos still face today. She combines these historical anecdotes with her own experiences, walking readers through her journey of self-discovery in two parts—first deconstructing the lies that immigrants are told about how they can find acceptance in the U.S., then illustrating how she learned to embrace her differences and celebrate her Mexican heritage. Arce spoke with Texas Monthly about the book and her changing perception of what it means to belong.
Texas Monthly: You say in your introduction that you “needed to write this book to heal.” How did the journey to unpack these complex experiences of immigration and assimilation start for you?
Julissa Arce: There’s been a really big evolution in my own thinking about the American dream—about what it means to be American. I used to believe that assimilation was the way to belong in my new home country. Over time, it became clear to me that I could assimilate as much as I wanted, but I was never going to be accepted or belong in certain spaces—specifically white spaces. Growing up, I didn’t learn a lot of Mexican American or Latino history, so I was not aware of just how deep our roots are in this country. Learning those things as an adult really illuminated for me that it’s a lie that we have to change things about ourselves in order to belong in this country, because this country already belongs to us.
TM: In the book, you talk about the pressure immigrants feel to be model Americans in order to be successful here. How did that manifest in you?
JA: I think in many ways, my story was used as an example of what a good immigrant looks like—because I went to college, I had a really amazing job, I had a successful career on Wall Street, and a successful career as a writer. So many people will sort of point to my story and say, “This is the kind of immigrant that we want.” But then when I think about my story—I broke the law. I used fake papers to work in the United States. I was in the country illegally for years. I drove without a license. I did all of these things that other immigrants are judged for, right?
TM: Is that what made you start to see the cracks in that idea?
JA: I do think that at one point in my life, I thought I had earned my right to be in the United States vis à vis my academic and professional and financial accomplishments. Those cracks became very visible very quickly when I started to see the unfairness of other people’s situations. Just the fact that I could legalize my status when I got married because I came into the country legally versus someone who is married to a U.S. citizen but crossed the border illegally. They can’t adjust their status as easily as I adjusted mine. Learning about the laws in this country really puts into perspective why there’s no such thing as a “good immigrant” and why it is such a lie that there is a “right way” to come into the U.S.
TM: Part of the reason assimilation is such a complex idea for Latinos is that we all view it differently from generation to generation, or even depending on whether or not you immigrated here. What was it like going through these feelings and talking about them with your family?
JA: My mom was just grateful to be in the United States. I say in the book that it’s not that I’m not grateful. I am grateful for the life that I have. I just know that my life has cost a lot, that there have been a lot of sacrifices, and sometimes I do question whether they were worth it. I was on vacation with my mom last year and she was telling me that my nephew was really cute because he’s light-skinned. And so I went through this whole explanation that I go into in the book about the caste system and how deeply embedded these ideas of whiteness are in our families, in their communities. Those are difficult conversations, but we have to have them because if we don’t, then nothing’s ever going to change.
TM: How did those realizations affect the way you saw yourself?
JA: Four or five years ago, people would write headlines about me saying, “She came from nothing and look where she is now.” I used to say that. But then I stopped to think about the fact that I don’t come from nothing. I come from so much. I come from a mother who has been through hell and back and still has the most positive outlook in life. There is room for both things to be true—for me to be proud of all the things that I have accomplished and at the same time bring awareness to the fact that I also got very lucky.
TM: There’s a section in the book called “Reclaiming Our History.” How did learning more about Mexican American and Latino history help you embrace your identity?
JA: I used to think that I had to change things about myself [to fit in]. In the book, I talk about how I wanted to become a cheerleader because I wanted to be like those all-American girls that I saw in the movies. They were always blond and they were always white and they were always cheerleaders—those were the popular girls; those were the girls that belonged. But had I learned about Diana Palacios and Diana Serna, who were proud to be Chicanos who wanted to be cheerleaders—not because they wanted to be all-American, but because they wanted to cheer and be part of the high school experience in Texas—had I known about them, maybe I would’ve still wanted to become a cheerleader, but for different reasons. I think knowing this history would have let me know a long time ago that I belong in this country, that the roots that connect me to Mexico connect me to this land, to this place as well.
TM: The book is obviously informed by your own journey, but it also dives into broader issues, including the complexities of Latino identity. What do you hope people get from reading it?
JA: What I hope happens is that different people get different things out of the book. I hope that even if people don’t agree with everything I wrote, it will be an opportunity to start a conversation and expand the public thinking around our community. But if there is one thing that people get out of this, I just hope that they feel the love that I have for my community. I hope that they feel like, “Damn. At least one person in this world sees us, loves us, and is willing to fight for us.”