Julissa Arce, who charted an unlikely course from banker to writer, doesn’t want to be seen as a model immigrant. Sure, now she has los papeles and owns a home, but she can’t help asking, “What is the real cost of success?” For her, it was not being able to visit her dying father in Mexico because her immigration proceedings were not yet complete. It’s reading textbooks that omit any mention of the roles Latinx people have played in American history. It’s boxes on the U.S. census that erase entire ethnicities and prompt many Latinx people to choose “White” as their race. In You Sound Like a White Girl, Arce argues that now is the moment for Latinx people to reject assimilation and its attendant misconceptions.
These misconceptions, what Arce calls “the lies we’re told,” concern whiteness, English and success, which are all presented as essential to American identity. In the face of this fallacy, Arce wants to recenter Latinx history, identity, culture and language within America. She has thought carefully about not only how assimilation has impacted her—prompting her to modify her name so that her white teachers could pronounce it more easily—but also how such erasures function on a larger scale, causing Latinx folks to miss out on histories that could empower and embolden them. For example, as a girl, Arce wanted to be a cheerleader in Texas. At the time, she was totally unaware of the history of Chicana cheerleaders in Texas or of student protests in 1968, during which students held up signs that read “Brown legs are beautiful.” Without these stories to ground her, she felt isolated among her white teammates. When she went back to her middle school to speak after the publication of her first book, My (Underground) American Dream, she told this story, hoping to speak many such histories back into existence for the next generation.
Ultimately, through these acts of reclamation—of history, language, identity and culture—Arce argues that the very definition of what it means to be an American can shift. On a Christmas trip to Mexico, Arce recalls asking her nephews what they pictured when she said “un americano.” They imagined “a tall white person with blond hair and green or blue eyes.” She replied, “What about me? I am a U.S. citizen. Am I American?” This question, intended to make her nephews think a bit more deeply about their assumptions, is a relevant one for anyone seeking to shed narrow notions of American identity in favor of something truer and more just.