Julissa Arce talks American dream, rejecting assimilation

Julissa+Arce+speaks+about+her+experience+immigrating+from+Mexico+to+the+United+States+at+Canvas+Stadium

Collegian | Michael Marquardt

Julissa Arce speaks about her experience immigrating from Mexico to the United States at Canvas Stadium Sept. 20. “To tell you the truth, being undocumented felt very shameful,” Arce said. “Having a human be illegal — and yes, that’s the word that a lot of people use to describe our immigration status — it’s just a status. It’s nothing about us as humans. It’s a piece of paper that we no longer have or that we never had.”

Ivy Secrest, Life and Culture Director

On Sept. 20, bestselling author, businesswoman and immigration rights advocate Julissa Arce spoke to the Colorado State University community as a part of El Centro’s Latinx Heritage Month events. 

One of the most critical aspects of hosting events like Arce speaking is acknowledging how history affects those living in the modern world. For Arce, that means looking into how immigrants are treated and what the American dream really looks like. 

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Arce lived in Mexico until she was 11 years old and moved to the United States with a visa that expired when she was 14.

“That’s one little kind of thing that is often lost when we talk about immigration,” Arce said. “About half of the people who are undocumented in this country never (illegally) crossed the Mexican-U.S. border.”

Arce shared with the audience how the new status of “undocumented” affected her self-perception. 

“I was undocumented, and I used to think there’s something inherently wrong with me,” Arce said. “But what I didn’t realize was that there was actually something inherently wrong with the system.”

Arce discussed the shame associated with being undocumented and not realizing at the time that there is a long history of the United States treating immigrants poorly. 

With references to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States for a decade beginning in 1882, and the ongoing issues with the immigration of people from the Americas to the United States, Arce highlighted how deeply ingrained it is to exclude people from the misleading concept of the American dream. 

Arce was a highly driven student in high school. She shared with the audience that when she graduated, she remembered not hearing the name of a university following her name as her diploma was handed to her. She said no university was required to allow undocumented students at the time. 

But this was, in fact, a misremembering of the events. A video later proved her acceptance to a liberal arts school with an essentially full-ride scholarship was announced. But when they asked for Arce’s social security number and she couldn’t provide it, they took away her acceptance and scholarship. 

“I don’t feel like it’s my job to convince somebody else of my humanity.” –Julissa Arce, bestselling author, businesswoman and immigration rights advocate 

“I think that that memory had been so painful that I erased it,” Arce said. “It was the first time that I started to question the American dream — started to question what my parents have been feeding me since the moment I got to this country, which was if you work hard and stay out of trouble, you can do anything you want.” 

This realization was a theme throughout Arce’s talk: looking deeply into what it means to be in tune with cultural identity and what it means to be proud of your identity. This meant discussing the value of whiteness in Mexican culture as well.

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One audience member asked Arce if she felt immigrant parents contributed to the push toward assimilating to whiteness. 

“I think previous generations felt the pressure,”Arce said. “I think some generations thought that they provide protection in whiteness and in proximity to whiteness.” 

Another audience member asked how they could go about having a conversation around assimilation with family members who are still ingrained in assimilation. 

“We’re having these conversations ultimately because I love you, and I want to free you of this kind of thinking,” Arce answered. 

Eventually, Arce was able to go to university due to a change in Texas state policy. She became a successful professional on Wall Street, and eventually, through her first marriage, she won the battle for citizenship. 

This path in life meant not being able to return to Mexico when her father was fighting an illness that eventually lead to his death. And while Arce has many accomplishments, she regrets this. 

“That was the second time I really started to question this American dream,” Arce said. “I started to question what it all was for because I had made it. … If it had been about hard work, if it had been about application fees, if it had been about anything I could actually do, I would have done it.”

Arce’s story may seem like an anomaly to be used for inspiration about how one can overcome great obstacles, but what Arce really hammered home in her talk was the reality of the American dream and assimilation. 

Speakers like Arce bring to light the harsh realities of immigration in the United States. For some, her experiences offer someone to relate to and look up to and for others, someone to wake them up from their privileged, tinted view of the world. But Arce has no interest in being responsible for changing the minds of the intolerant.

“I don’t feel like it’s my job to convince somebody else of my humanity,” Arce said.

Reach Ivy Secrest at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest.