Top Quotes: “My [Underground] American Dream” — Julissa Arce
“From the balcony of my home I could see men unloading all of the trucks at the Mercado in the early morning, and I started noticing that they didn’t have any food, coffee, or water. There was no one there in the early am to serve them. So I said, ‘We should sell them tortas!’ I didn’t even make sandwiches for myself at that age. I had a nanny to do that when I was hungry in the morning, and I figured all those men must get hungry in the morning, and I turned that into one of my first entrepreneurial endeavors: selling food and lemonade to the dozens of men who unloaded the 18-wheelers. But I hadn’t yet learned the importance of recognizing and celebrating teamwork. I was too proud of myself to share the credits or the profits with my nanny, who did all the work. Instead, I spent all the profits on candy. Over time there would be women selling breakfast food and coffee to the drivers and delivery men in the early morning. But growing up, I had a monopoly on the fast-food breakfast business.
Everyone in my family was entrepreneurial, and even though I didn’t get to see my mom nearly as often as I wanted, I knew how far she’d come in life. I knew she was a force to be reckoned with in the business world, and I wanted to be just like her.”
“By the time I was born in 1983, my mother had started what would become a very successful business selling silver jewelry and merchandise from our hometown of Taxco (pronounced Tas-co) to buyers at trade shows all over the US. Within a few years, my parents set up shop in San Antonio. From that moment on, the 2 of them stayed in the US pretty much year-round, working as hard as they possibly could to provide for their family in the hopes of building a better life for us.
While I grew up under the care of a nanny and my 2 older sisters in a house just 5 minutes from my grandmother’s house, my parents grew their business, traveling to faraway ciies with exotic names like Chicago, NY, and New Orleans. I’d later learn that my parents were importing $300k worth of sterling silver into the US each year when their business was at its peak in the mid-80s. I was told that my mother was responsible for putting Taxco silver on the map all over the US.”
“Wasn’t he supposed to be excited? He wasn’t supposed to cry when he saw boobs, and then tell on me.
What a wimp, I thought.
It didn’t occur to me that the ripples of this event might be life altering. I never imagined that my bold gesture to Enrique would turn my world upside down. But, suddenly, with 1 phone call to Mama Silvia, all hell broke loose.
My grandmother prayed 3 extra rosaries for me that night. My sisters were brought home in the middle of the week from their far-off schools. Within a few days, both my parents flew back to Mexico. Everyone told me they were sorry for leaving me alone. Everyone blamed themselves because apparently I was turning out to be some degenerate child.
I just wanted a cute boy to think I was cool. That was all. I didn’t realize that slipping a Playboy to my crush would change my life forever.
As I lay down to take a nap on the first afternoon my mom was there, I overheard her talking with one of her close friends on the phone. ‘All my daughters are so good,’ she said, ‘I don’t know where we went wrong with Julissa.’
A few days later, my parents went back to the US, and I thought the whole ordeal was over, but I was wrong.
When summer came, I flew to San Antonio with my sisters to visit my parents, just as I had many times before. When summer ended, both of my sisters flew back to Mexico to start school, but I did not.
‘When am I flying back?’ I asked.
At first my parents seemed to avoid the question. Finally after I nagged them enough, they gave me an answer I never expected: ‘You’re not flying back,’ they told me. ‘You’re staying with us.’”
“My parents’ business was completely on the up-and-up. They were registered with the state and federal governments. They paid all the fees and taxes that were necessary under the law. I know this because it didn’t take long before they enlisted me — an 11-year-old — to help them with the mountains of paperwork that buried our dining room table.
My parents both had TX driver’s licenses. All they needed back then was a passport and a visa to get one. In fact, both of my parents also had social security cards that specified they were ‘NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT.’ Those cards allowed them to pay their business taxes and open lines of credit in the US.
The only ‘illegal’ thing they did was take me, their own daughter, to school — even though it was a private education, at no cost to American taxpayers and for which they paid top dollar.”
“I learned about slavery and the civil rights movement in middle school, and it made a deep emotional impression on me. I’d share everything I learned with my dad on our rides home after school, and with my mom when she’d come home from her trade shows. ‘I can’t believe they treated black people so badly,’ I’d say with tears in my eyes. ‘I can’t believe you brought me to a country that owned people!’
I assumed that racism was a dynamic exclusively between black and white people. I hadn’t read anything about Mexicans or Latinos being a part of the civil rights movement, so I wrongly assumed that we weren’t a part of it — and that racism wasn’t something I needed to worry about.
In fact, since I wasn’t black, I figured that must mean I’m white.
As I finally began to settle into my new life I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware.
That all changed the moment I tested into an honors-level math class.
Throughout my 6th-grade year, math was the only class where I didn’t feel stupid. 2+2 is 4 in any language, and most of the things they were teaching in 6th grade I’d learned way back in 4th grade in Mexico. So when the teacher announced the names of the students who’d be placed in honors math, I was so happy to hear my name.
A boy named Justin was not.
‘Why is she in the honors class?’ he said. ‘She’s a Mexican! She doesn’t even speak English!’
The whole class laughed.
In a flash I realized that ‘a Mexican’ was something less than desirable in his brown eyes. Everything in his voice and his expression told me that I was an other. And it hurt. I have no idea how I kept myself from crying.
I wasn’t just like everyone else. I wasn’t white. I wasn’t black. I was a Mexican.
Was that the reason I didn’t fit in? Was that the reason I had such a hard time making friends? I might not’ve read about any other Mexicans in US history books, but I knew instantly that this boy saw me the same way so many people saw and treated black people in those books.
They were American. They were white. And I wasn’t one of them.”
“‘You cannot go to Mexico,’ my mother said as she pulled her hands away from her eyes and looked right into my own.
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you go to Mexico, you won’t be able to come back.’
I couldn’t understand what she was saying or why she looked so sad.
‘Look, I didn’t want to get into this, but your visa is expired. You can’t go back to Mexico, and you cannot have a quinceanera.’
‘What?!’ I screamed. I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. You cannot have a quinceanera. I’m so sorry.’”
“TX became the first state in the US to allow undocumented students to attend public universities, pay in-state tuition, and receive state financial aid. In the 15 years that passed, only 20 states have enacted similar laws.”
“Then it was just me working the funnel cake stand. Making the 90-minute Greyhound ride back to the UT campus every Sunday night with a backpack full of cash. Sometimes it was thousands of dollars, mostly in small bills. I knew it was dangerous to carry that much money, but what else could I do? I couldn’t open a bank account. I had no driver’s license, no social security number, and therefore no options. I would stuff all the cash under the mattress or into the pillowcase on my bed in the room I shared with Kim. It wouldn’t stay there long. I’d use it to pay tuition and rent, and buy food and supplies.”