Julissa Arce Tells her Childhood Story of Immigration and the Sacrifices her Family Made for the American Dream in 'Someone Like Me'
Julissa Arce’s new memoir reflects on the experience she had as an immigrant child and the sacrifices that families make in order for THEIR children to have a better life.
Best-selling author, speaker, social justice advocate, former Wall Street executive, and co-founder and chairman of the Ascend Educational Fund, Julissa Arce immigrated to America from Mexico at the age of 11 on a legal tourist visa. At the age of 14, she became undocumented after the expiration of her tourist visa. For the next 15 years, Arce lived in dread and fear of deportation, while also chasing the “American dream.” She had moved to New York City for a position at the prominent investment bank and financial services giant, Goldman Sachs. Here, at the age of of 27, she became a vice-president; achieving the very definition of the “American dream" while undocumented.
Julissa Arce is now a naturalized citizen, quit Wall Street, and revealed her story in her national best-selling memoir My (Underground) American Dream in 2016. Today, Arce releases her second memoir, Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream, a young adults adaptation of the former where she reflects on the experience she had as an immigrant child. “When I was in middle school I never read a single book that had a protagonist like me, a Latina, a Mexican, an undocumented person. There were no books that I had in middle school that spoke to that experience.”
Her story tells that of many immigrant children or children of immigrants whose parents made the difficult decision to leave their children behind to come to the United States and work, with the hopes of saving enough money to send some back to their families, bring their families to the United States, or to go back to their families with some savings. In Julissa’s case, she along with her siblings were left behind in Taxco, Mexico, while her parents went back and forth between Mexico and the United States. “I was three years old the first time my parents came to the U.S., and for the next eight years I only saw them every few months when they came to Taxco (Mexico) to visit, and then they would go back to the U.S., and I never knew how long they would be gone. Sometimes they would be gone for months and so that experience is something that I didn’t really get too deeply into in my first book.”
She recounts in her book the first time her parents left and how she would make little markings counting down the days for their return and the worry she felt while they were away or were late in coming back. She remembered being “overwhelmed by all the stories of all the parents that I knew that left and never came back. Los papas se fueron al otro lado… se fue pal otro lado y nunca regreso—they never came back. As a child, you would just hear horror stories of parents, that they forget their families in Mexico, or people who died crossing the border.”
For Julissa, the back and forth became a part of her life. She was raised during this time by many aunts, uncles, and other family members in the small town of Taxco where everyone also knew one another. Her parents would be gone months at a time (the longest she says being almost a year), and come back for a couple of weeks where they would typically make the best of it by spending their little time together filled with joy (gifts, parties, and dinners included). These visits of course were only momentary, and soon after Julissa would struggle with feeling unloved when they would leave her behind. “I used to think about all the things I thought I was missing out on with my mom, especially…I remember wishing my mom was the one braiding my hair, or taking me to school, or cooking my dinner,” Arce says. “I’ve realized my mom also wished that she could braid my hair, and that she could cook my dinner, and that she could walk me to school..and just coming to that realization has made me realize just how much my parents really loved and cared. I think that’s a big theme in the book: the things that we have to give up to gain the things that we want.”
Eventually, at the age of eleven, her parents made the decision for them to be together in the United States where she enrolled in school and began to learn English. She explains in her memoir that at this time she was getting used to having parents again, in a way, and how it took a rather long time. “When you’re away from your parents that long of a period of time it’s not like you can just turn on a light switch and you go back to having parents and having a relationship with your parents.”
At the age of 14 her tourist visa expired, rendering her undocumented. “I didn’t really know what that meant…I found out I couldn’t have my quinceañera, and I was more worried about this party I couldn’t have than I was being undocumented because I didn’t know what that was,” she says. Julissa had begun assimilating to this new American culture and became preoccupied with typical teenager things like going to school and becoming a cheerleader in middle school. She recalls her mother telling her, however, about Julissa’s status, “No le digas a nadie.” It was not until she was applying to college that Julissa realized how her undocumented status would affect her life. She felt lied to by everyone. “I felt really disappointed. I felt lied to. My whole life I had been told if you work hard and you stay out of trouble you can achieve anything you want in America. I had done that…and then I was getting rejected by every college I applied to.”
Although the challenges and circumstances of her immigration story are very much involved in her latest memoir, Julissa says this book is ultimately more about family. “I think at the core of this book is love for family and the sacrifices that families make in order for their children to have a better life. I used to think that my parents didn’t love me when they left me behind; and as I have grown up, I have realized that it’s because they love me that they were willing to leave me behind. That’s how much they cared for me.”
She hopes to see her memoir become a part of school curriculum or in reading lists for middle school students as it provides representation in the classroom for young students that can relate to someone like her. She says, “Children who live that experience never see themselves reflected in books, and therefore, feel like their experience is not important. In many times you don’t develop a love for reading because the books that you’re reading aren’t interesting to you—you don’t relate to them.” For other classmates who might not understand or never hear about these stories, they can become aware of experiences besides their own, while still relating to her accounts of trying to belong, being accepted, and having friends. Regardless of their situation, she hopes to inspire young readers to tell and write their own stories.
“My biggest reward in writing this book, in both books, has been people who then write to me and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen myself in a book. Your book has really inspired me to keep pushing forward, and keep pursuing my dreams.’ Or, ‘This book has helped me to feel seen, and heard, and understood.’ This to me is the biggest reward. Whether I sell one book or 500,000 copies of the book, it doesn’t matter because the people that have read the book have been really inspired by it—and that means everything to a writer.”
Julissa’s memoir Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream is officially out today and is available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, BOOKS-A-MILLION, INDIEBOUND, iBooks, Indigo Books, Google Play, Kobo, and Ebooks.com. She is currently on a book tour for Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream (which you can check out the events here). Julissa Arce’s book, My (Underground) American Dream is currently being developed as a television series at Twentieth Century Fox Television with producer and actor America Ferrera.
Learn more about Julissa Arce here
To read more about Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream and where to purchase visit here
To read more about My (Underground) American Dream and where to purchase visit here
For events and Julissa Arce’s speaking engagements visit here