Julissa Arce at the 2022 MAKERS Conference
- Please welcome Julissa Arce.
JULISSA ARCE: So when I was 14 years old, I had a crush on a boy. And I wasn't allowed to talk to boys, so one night, I snuck the phone into my room and I had a conversation with him. And during that conversation, he said to me that I sounded like a white girl-- as if.
In that moment when he said those words to me, I took it as a compliment, even though he didn't mean it as one. At 14, I thought that the way to belong in the United States was to assimilate into the whiteness that is centered in American culture. I hadn't yet realized that belonging isn't found in assimilation. Little did he know that those words, you sound like a white girl, would become the title of my latest book.
The future that I am working on now is one where other Latinos, other immigrants, other people of color don't have to compromise who we are in order to fit in, a future where we can all reclaim our cultures, our languages, our identity, and our heritage.
I immigrated to the United States from Mexico at the age of 11. And the first order of business was to learn how to speak English-- and not only to learn how to speak it but, if at all possible, to speak it without an accent-- to speak it like the white people do. It was the very first step in a long process of assimilation.
So as a child, I would stand in front of a mirror and enunciate my words to sound like the white girls in my school and like the white girls I saw on television. At 14, the visa that I had used to come to the United States also expired and I became undocumented. So sounding like a white girl gave me a false sense of belonging, a false sense of security.
Maybe if I sounded like I was from here, no one would question whether or not I was actually supposed to be here. Or so I thought. Because, you see, in the United States, we don't approach learning how to speak English from a place of strength. We approach it from a place of deficiency, as though kids who are learning how to speak English are somehow lacking, as though we are less smart.
When I was in the seventh grade, I got placed into the honors math class, and one of my classmates raised his hand and he asked, why is she in the honors math class? She's a Mexican. And that was bad enough. But what made it worse is that the teacher didn't say anything.
She didn't correct him. She didn't reprimand him. So every message around me was that English was more valuable.
I wasn't encouraged to keep my Spanish while learning it either. So over time, I lost my connection not only to my mother tongue, but to my own mother. My mom only spoke Spanish. And the more and more of it that I lost to English, the harder it became to communicate with her, to express all of the things that were going on in my life with my limited vocabulary in Spanish.
And the thing is, it didn't have to be that way. I could have learned English without it being so traumatizing. And I could have kept my Spanish if someone would just have encouraged me to do so-- if someone would have told me to value my Spanish just as much as I'd valued my English, if somebody had told me that being bilingual was an asset and not a detriment.
But this country has a long history of beating Spanish out of us. In 1931, for example, 80% of schools in Texas and California were segregated by Mexican schools and white schools. And the excuse for this segregation was that Mexican students didn't speak English. Later, when schools were integrated, students were beat or placed in closets for speaking Spanish in the hallways, in the classroom, or even at lunch.
The message was once again that Spanish was dangerous, that Spanish was not valuable. So there's a whole generation of Latinos that didn't teach their children how to speak Spanish for fear of retaliation. English was my first step in assimilating.
It was also the first lie of assimilation. Because even after I learned how to speak English, mostly without an accent, I still didn't fit in. And I realized that assimilation, the taking in of another culture, while getting rid of my own, was never going to give me belonging.
So instead, I reclaimed my Spanish, my culture, my history. And the most important part of my journey to reclaim has been to learn the history of my people in this country-- and not only all the terrible things we have been through, but also learning about the heroes who have stood up for our community. And it is that history that has helped me to understand just how rooted I am in this country.
And I encourage anyone out there who has ever felt like they have to give pieces of themselves up to fit in to reclaim them, to own them, to wear them proudly, to learn about the history of your people beyond what we learn in the classroom, because that history that we learn in the classroom is sometimes incomplete and sometimes just altogether wrong. The more of my Spanish that I gain back, the more that my accent shows up.
But this time, I have found the beauty in the texture of my English, in the story that it tells. Yes, I was born someplace else, but America is my home. And I don't need to change anything about myself to claim it.
We can build a future where people like me don't have to compromise who we are in order to walk into work, in order to find success, in order to climb up the corporate ladder. We can build a future where we can bring our full, entire selves, where we can walk into rooms in our gorgeous brown bodies and say, we belong here. Thank you so much.