Someone Like Me

How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream


By Julissa Arce

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A remarkable true story from social justice advocate and national bestselling author Julissa Arce about her journey to belong in America while growing up undocumented in Texas.

Born in the picturesque town of Taxco, Mexico, Julissa Arce was left behind for months at a time with her two sisters, a nanny, and her grandma while her parents worked tirelessly in America in hopes of building a home and providing a better life for their children. That is, until her parents brought Julissa to Texas to live with them. From then on, Julissa secretly lived as an undocumented immigrant, went on to become a scholarship winner and an honors college graduate, and climbed the ladder to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs.

This moving, at times heartbreaking, but always inspiring story will show young readers that anything is possible. Julissa’s story provides a deep look into the little-understood world of a new generation of undocumented immigrants in the United States today–kids who live next door, sit next to you in class, or may even be one of your best friends.




ON THE DAY I TURNED three years old, my mom scrambled to get everything ready so we could go to church for my presentacion de los tres años. This is the day children are taken to the church to give thanks for their life and receive God’s blessing. I had a lot to be thankful for.

I was born in a bathroom stall, two months before I was supposed to arrive. My uncle Alex had to slide his hands under the bathroom door and hold my head. I almost didn’t make it past day one of my life, but I survived. My mom reminded me constantly that I had been so strong. She called me her miracle.

My sister Nay, who is five years older than I am, tells a different version. She said I looked like a little purple rat, and smelled like a toilet.

My dad had hoped for a boy when my oldest sister Aris was born. He had prayed for a boy when my sister Nay arrived. By the time I came into the world, he was desperate to have a son. None of us would be able to grant my dad his wish, but unlike my sisters, I had ruined his chances of ever having a baby boy.

When I was born, I got tangled in the umbilical cord. “We were both very sick, and when we were both healthy again, the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to give you a little brother or sister anymore,” my mom would say to me.

My dad said he didn’t care. “I was so happy when you finally came home from the hospital after being in an incubator for more than a month.” But I wondered if my dad took me to soccer games, bought me toy cars, and dressed me in overalls because he did wish I had been born a boy.

Now Mom grabbed her purse and a big plastic bag filled with pink balloons, and we made the walk from our second-story apartment up the hill, through the winding cobblestone streets of Taxco, to church. Our parish, Santa Prisca, is a beautiful cathedral made with pink stones on the outside, and gold walls on the inside. My mom was wearing a white jumpsuit and a gold belt, her hair pulled back tightly. My dad wore a guayabera, a casual white linen shirt, that made his dark skin glow.

Aris, my thirteen-year-old sister, held my hand and as we were nearing the church she said, “You will be in kindergarten soon.” She meant it as a point of excitement.

But as I walked down the aisle of the church in my floor-length puffy pink satin dress, only one thought occupied my mind: I am old enough to be left behind with the nanny.

Every Wednesday, my parents and I left Taxco to travel to the next feria, one of the huge festivals that take place all over Mexico, where my parents rented a booth and sold cantaritos, beverages served in jars made of adobe. Aris and Nay couldn’t come because they went to school, so they stayed home with Cande, our nanny. I had thought that being my mom’s miracle made me special and I could always travel with her. But now that I was three years old, I, too, would be left behind to attend school with my sisters while my parents went to work in cities all over Mexico.

When mass was over, I walked down the aisle with a frown on my face. Despite the flowers that decorated the church, the applause from my family, and the awws from everyone seated in the pews, I was scared.

My mom and dad stood next to each other, waiting at the end of the aisle for me. In her heels my mom was much taller than my dad. When I reached them, Mom said, “My little miracle, look how pretty you are.”

“Why do you look so serious? Smile,” my dad added.

I wanted to smile; I was excited about my dress, the presents, and the cake I had picked out. But I kept thinking of what Aris had told me: You will be in kindergarten soon. It wouldn’t matter if I was my mom’s miracle; I would still be left behind, sometimes for weeks at a time.

My mom and dad walked ahead to get everything ready for the party at my maternal grandmother Mama Silvia’s house. All our birthday parties and holidays were held at her house. Even though my sisters went to an expensive Catholic school and I was having a big birthday party, our own apartment was old and too small for a party.

I walked with Cande and tried to catch up with my mom, but my legs couldn’t move fast enough. Taxco is in the mountains of the southern state of Guerrero, and the uphill and downhill cobblestone streets did not make it easy to walk fast.

“We are almost there, nenita,” Cande said, calling me her little girl. I saw the huge red bougainvillea tree that ran up the three stories outside my grandmother’s house and knew we were close. It was impossible to miss Mama Silvia’s house. In winter or spring, the tree’s red color popped brightly against the white house. Her home was my favorite place in Taxco. I especially liked that I could flush her toilet by simply pulling a shiny silver handle, a luxury in a small town like Taxco. The single toilet at my apartment needed a bucket of water thrown into it to flush.

The small black gate at the entrance of her house was open and I ran up the few steps made of tiny stones. When I opened the front door, my mom welcomed me with a set of big balloons. “¡Feliz cumpleaños, mijita!” I loved it when my mom called me “my little daughter.”

My mom led me to the big living room, which was filled with thirty to forty extended family members, including my many cousins.

A clown with a red nose, huge red lips, and a red suit was making balloons in the shapes of dogs, flowers, and hearts. Songs by Cepillin, the famous Mexican clown, played in the background. We had a dancing contest and played musical chairs, and for a while I got lost in the celebration. I forgot what turning three years old really meant: Soon my parents would leave me behind.

I heard Uncle Alex, my mom’s brother who had saved my life, call out, “Chachis! It’s time to cut the cake!” Chachis was my nickname growing up, because my youngest cousins couldn’t pronounce my middle name, Natzely. I ran over to the dining room to blow out the candles and cut the cake. Everyone sang happy birthday—“Estas son la mañanitas….”—while I stood on a chair so I could reach the top of the cake.

“Make a wish, mijita,” my mom said, smiling.

I blew out the candles and wished I could stay two forever.

But time does not stop, not even for a birthday wish.


A FEW MONTHS LATER, ON my first day of kindergarten, I stood in the shower while Cande poured warm water over me from a big round plastic bucket on the floor. Our showerhead didn’t work. My mom was in the kitchen making breakfast for my sisters, who had started school a week earlier.

We attended Centro Cultura Y Accion, or “La Centro” as it was best known. La Centro was a K–12, all-girl Catholic school, except for three years of kindergarten when boys were allowed. It was a school for the wealthy kids in Taxco. We were not rich. The rich people in Taxco lived on the quiet outskirts of town, in houses with many rooms and gardens. Our building was next to the town’s dumpster. We kept the balcony door in my parents’ bedroom closed to avoid the smell of rotten food. Our apartment had running water, something a lot of people in our town didn’t have. But if we wanted a hot shower, the water had to be warmed on the stove.

We also weren’t poor. From the balcony of our apartment, I could see the poor kids in the street walking around with no shoes, helping their parents sell cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and avocados instead of going to school.

We lived on La Calle Nueva, “the new street,” even though it was a really old and run-down street in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of town. Eighteen-wheelers filled the street early in the morning, and dozens of men unloaded the trucks and carried produce, milk, and other goods up the street to the Mercado Tetitlan, the main market in town.

“Ready?” Cande asked when she was done putting the finishing touch on my ponytail—a red ribbon to match my red-checkered uniform.

“No!” I said. “I don’t want to go.”

“You look so pretty. Your mom is taking you to school. Isn’t that exciting?” Cande said, trying to cheer me up.

“But she won’t be here when I come back,” I said.

From then on, I would stay with Cande, Nay, and Aris each time my parents left to sell cantaritos at the ferias. Cande had been living with us for as long as I could remember, and even though our matching dark-brown skin made me look more like her daughter, she was not my mother. We had other nannies to help out, but only Cande had stuck around for many years.

My mom and I made our way downhill to my new school, passing the houses and shops that lined the street on both sides. The houses are built right next to one another, sharing walls, and they are all painted white, as is the rule in Taxco.

While I walked with my shoulders shrugged and a frown on my face, my mom’s face was radiant with pride.

“You are going to learn so much,” she said.

She had been one of those children on the street with no shoes and no education, and now here she was walking me to the best school in town.

When we reached the school entrance, she said, “I love you, mija. I’ll be back next Monday.” And with that, I walked into La Centro, and she left town with my dad.

The teacher, Maestra Isabel, welcomed us and said, “When I call your name, please introduce yourself.”

I was the first one to be called. “Julissa Arce,” she said.

“Julissa La Longanisa,” a boy called out.

“That’s not my name!” I yelled.

“Julissa La Longanisa,” the boy called out again, and all my new classmates laughed and joined the chant. I hated being called a sausage, but even I had to admit, it had a ring to it.

“Stop that!” Maestra Isabel warned.

It didn’t help. The chants followed me to the playground that day, and until I started elementary school three years later.

It didn’t take long for me to learn why La Centro was the school for the rich kids. The students had parents who owned hotels, buildings, and even silver mines. In order for me to attend this school, my mom and dad traveled all over Mexico, selling cantaritos, working fifteen- to eighteen-hour days, standing on their feet all day.

My mom enrolled my sisters and me in etiquette classes so that we knew how to behave at our classmates’ fancy parties. We took art, English, piano, dance, and swimming lessons, despite the fact that paying for our school tuition was already a struggle. My parents wanted to give my sisters and me all the opportunities they didn’t have, and were willing to sacrifice for it.

I wasn’t very good at straddling the line between the rich world of my daily life at school and the world I actually lived in. But the kids outside my school didn’t know that; they just saw my school uniform as a sign of wealth. One day, when Cande picked me up, there was a group of kids from the public school gathered outside the main entrance of La Centro. Their uniforms were different than ours—that is how we could tell who went to another school.

Cande and I sat on a bench in the courtyard waiting for my sisters so we could all go visit Mama Silvia. When school got out, the kids from the public school started chanting, “Here come the fresas.”

I saw my sisters and ran to them. “Oh look, a fresita,” a “little snob,” one of the kids said.

Nay yelled back at them, “Leave her alone!”

“Look, the Hello Kitty is getting mad,” the kids said.

Nay had a round face with chubby cheeks. When she got mad, she did look a little like an angry Hello Kitty.

¡Centro Cultura Y Accion es para los que sienten calentura en su calzon!” the kids kept yelling.

“Why do they think we have a fever in our underwear?” I asked Aris.

She ignored me. “Are you okay, Nay?”

“Yeah, stupid nacos,” Nay said, using her own insults, calling the kids from public school “tacky.”

“Nay, stop it! That’s not ladylike,” Aris said.

I didn’t even like the kids at my school. They were snobs, calling me “longanisa” every day.

I wanted to yell, “We’re not rich like them!” But I didn’t say anything; I just held Nay’s hand. Just like the street I lived on was called the new street, even though it was far from new, I went to a school for rich kids but I wasn’t rich at all. I felt like a fraud who didn’t really belong anywhere.


BY THE TIME I STARTED elementary school when I was six, my parents had begun construction on a house across the street, and the money from each cantarito they sold went to pay for our tuition and the material and labor for my mom’s dream house. In the meantime, we kept living in our two-bedroom apartment, where none of the rooms had doors.

From the window, as Cande braided my hair each morning, I saw the new house go up brick by brick. “Mama Cande, how many cantaritos does Mami have to sell to come back home forever?” I asked Cande one morning.

“I don’t know, nenita,” she said.

After spending most of my days with Cande, I started calling her Mama Cande. I became very attached to her, especially because other nannies had left me for better opportunities in the United States, but Cande had stayed.

Even though I loved Cande, I still wished for my real mom to braid my hair in the living room of our new house, where she would help me do my homework and play with the dolls she bought me.

I was pleasantly surprised one day to see my mom picking me up from school when I thought she was still away at a feria.

“Mami!” I said, running to her.

“We’re all going to the Ciudad Valles feria,” Mom said. “So we can spend your birthday together.”

My parents had decided to come back to Taxco and take my sisters and me with them to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ciudad Valles feria, one of the biggest ferias they attended each year.

“Is Mama Cande coming too?” I asked as I wrapped my arms around her small waist.

“She is coming too, but she is just Cande. You only have one mom,” Mami said, her smile disappearing.

“But I call Mama Silvia ‘Mama,’ and she is not my mom,” I responded.

My mom let out a sigh. “Yes, but Mama Silvia is your grandma. She is your family.”

I was confused because Mom had previously said that Cande was like family. She had worked with us for many years, and we were to treat her like family, not like she was the help.

When we got home, Cande had prepared dinner and said, “Nenita, are you hungry yet? Let me make you a plate.”

My mom interrupted. “No, I’ll serve the plates for the girls. Please finish packing their bags.”

I later realized that my mom felt like she was losing me to our nanny. I often thought about all the things I wished I could do with my mom. It didn’t occur to me that my mom also wished she could take me to school and make me breakfast, but she had to work.

The next day we made the ten-hour drive to Ciudad Valles, in the north of Mexico. My dad had a Ford pickup truck, and he had installed a camper on the back of it. I rode in the front with my mom and dad while my sisters and Cande rode in the camper.

Once we got to Ciudad Valles, we got right to work. The crowds were huge each night, and our cantaritos booth had a line that never seemed to end. Everyone wanted the refreshing orange, lime, and grapefruit soda drink. My sisters and I volunteered to help. The more cantaritos we sold, the faster the house could be built, and the sooner our parents could stay home.

“I can cut the oranges and limes,” Aris said. She was old enough to handle a knife, so Mom agreed.

Nay helped organize the jars out of their sacks and neatly set them up in rows so they were easily accessible. I helped put salt around the rims and dress the cantaritos with an orange wedge. My dad served the cantaritos, and my mom took care of the money.

During the day when the crowds were smaller, Mom even let me play cashier. We sold each cantarito for fifteen pesos. It was a nice easy number. Even if someone bought three cantaritos and paid with a one-hundred-peso bill, it was easy to figure out the change. Eventually, I started memorizing how much change to give a customer with different combinations of cantaritos bought and the bills used to pay.

By the end of the third night, my feet and hands hurt—everything hurt. I knew my mom and dad must be even more exhausted, since they had worked another feria the week before coming to Taxco to bring us to Ciudad Valles.

Mom could tell I was tired. “Cande, why don’t you and the girls head back to the hotel?”

Almost in unison, my sisters and I cried out, “We’re not tired!”

We wanted to soak in each second with our mom and dad, no matter how tired we were. Aris and Nay were older and stronger, but my eyes betrayed me, and not even the sounds from the music and the crowd kept me up. I woke up at the hotel. I was lucky to be sleeping in a hotel. When my parents first started working at the ferias, they slept on the floor of the booth. Once, a cockroach climbed into my mom’s ear and she screamed and ran around shaking her head and waving her hands in the air, asking for help. My dad finally got her calm enough to take her to the hospital, where they removed the nasty pest.

I woke up the next morning and my mom was already awake, counting the money from the previous day.

“Happy birthday, mijita,” she said when she saw I was awake.

“Thank you, Mami!” I said. “Can we ride the Ferris wheel today?” I asked. She glanced at the pile of cash on the desk and said, “Yes, I think we can do that before the crowd begins.”

We had huevos rancheros at the hotel, rode the Ferris wheel, and then we had chocolate cake at the cantaritos booth. I blew out the six candles, and then we went back to work.

I put a tip jar at the booth and told each customer, “It’s my birthday today!” and they would say, “Happy birthday,” and put a couple of pesos in my jar. At the end of the night, I had over one hundred pesos in birthday tips.

“You better share them. We all did work,” Nay said.

“But it’s my birthday,” I complained.

“You can keep my part,” Aris said.

My mom and dad were in high spirits when the feria ended, and I knew it must be because we sold a lot of cantaritos.

For the first time in years, we had all been in the same place. Family vacations were like this for us. We were working, but we were together, and that’s all that mattered.


  • "One doesn't often think that a harrowing immigration story will end with an undocumented girl becoming a vice president at a U.S. multinational investment bank. And yet, Arce's story paints a picture of an ambitious child willing to do anything to live the American Dream, even in a country that may not initially want her."—The Los Angeles Times
  • "Someone Like Me is a brave and important story that shows the beautiful resilience of immigrants forging a home in an unfamiliar land. Julissa's honest, assertive voice is both refreshing and inspirational, a gift for young women of color everywhere. This book should be required reading."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 13.0px Times}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Erika L. Sánchez, New York Times Bestselling Author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
  • "Brilliant! In a captivating fashion Julissa shows us that when we believe in something with all our heart and prepare for success, opportunity will find us."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 13.0px Times}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Diane Guerrero, actor and author of In the Country We Love: My Family Divided
  • "Someone Like Me is a beautiful tale of love, perseverance, and survival. Arce gives readers a poignant and heart-wrenching window into the pain and anxiety endured by immigrant families separated by the border in a time when we desperately need it. She's an inspiration to all Americans."—Sara Saedi, author of Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card
  • "As a young girl desperate for inspiration, I wish this book had existed when my dreams felt beyond my reach. Young people are lucky they can read Julissa's story and know without a doubt that the impossible is possible."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 13.0px Times}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Reyna Grande, Nationally bestselling author of The Distance Between Us
  • * "Like today's "DREAMers," Julissa makes her appreciation of her heritage clear, along with her gratitude for all of the advantages in the U.S. Offering young people a clear autobiographical viewpoint of a controversial issue, this is a must for all collections."—Booklist, starred review
  • "An honest and heartfelt story of survival."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Sep 18, 2018
Page Count
240 pages

Julissa Arce

About the Author

Julissa Arce is a CNBC and Crooked media contributor, writer, speaker, and social justice advocate. She is the cofounder and chairman of the Ascend Educational Fund, a college scholarship and mentorship program that assists immigrant students, regardless of their immigration status, ethnicity, or national origin. Julissa is also a board member for the National Immigration Law Center and for College Spring. Prior to becoming an advocate, she built a successful career on Wall Street, working at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

Learn more about this author