One thing I’ve always felt strongly about is my cultural identity. Norteño music holds a special place in my heart, I can eat pan dulce every day and not tire of it, and there are words in Spanish that can describe my feelings in a way that is much more profound than I could ever express in English. I love being Mexican, and this doesn’t negate my identity as an American. I recognize that being able to feel this way is a privilege because so many others were shamed out of their culture and made to believe they must aspire to whiteness. Assimilation may have seemed like the natural choice for our ancestors who left their home country to come to the United States, but it never fully guaranteed they’d be accepted. In You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation, author Julissa Arce argues that rather than seeking approval from white culture, we should embrace our own identities and help change the narrative that there is only one way to be American.
For some, the embodiment of an American is a soldier. Someone willing to put their life on the line for their country and fight for the freedoms we are supposed to be guaranteed. But history has shown that whiteness and American culture are so intertwined that Latinxs tend to be othered even as soldiers. Even as citizens.
One heartbreaking and infuriating example that Arce highlights in her book is when she recounts the story of Private Felix Longoria: “In 1945, [he] was killed in the Philippines while serving in World War II. Upon the return of his body, in 1949, his family wanted to make use of the local chapel in Three Rivers, Texas. The director of the funeral home refused because Longoria wasn’t “white.” Longoria was a Purple Heart veteran, but that didn’t matter to the racist funeral director. He was deemed unworthy solely because he was Mexican, and this xenophobic behavior cannot be dismissed as something that existed only in the past.
In 2019, Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a US citizen and Marine who served in Afghanistan, was detained and held by ICE Custody for three days. Julissa Arce mentions two other similar incidents where US Citizens Julia Isabel Amparo Medina and Francisco Erwin Galicia were also detained by Customs and Border Protection, the latter held in ICE custody just short of a month. If citizenship makes us American, then why were Ramos-Gomez, Galicia, and Medina profiled? Because as Arce puts it, “…there is only one correct way to exist in America, to have unquestioned belonging, and that is to be white,” and while it’s true that non-whites can also perpetuate white supremacy, it is everyone’s job to help dismantle it. We cannot be excluded as Americans because of our names or skin color.
Additionally, Julissa Arce touches on the idea that, “English is our savior… [the] conduit to acceptance in this country.” Just like in the title of her book, she emphasizes within it the false belief that perfect, unaccented English is something to strive for, a sign of true belonging. She continues by explaining that, “the truth is that [those] who demand we speak English with insults, racism, and violence use it as the excuse to make a distinction between them and us. They further draw the line between Americans and supposed non-Americans, where the sides are dictated only by the color of our skin.”
To further illustrate her point, Arce addresses a videotaped incident where a woman interrupted people having a conversation that she wasn’t even a part of, saying “English is our first language, so you need to speak English…get the f— out of my country.” Not only does the US not have an official language, but the entire confrontation took place in English. Sergio Budar, the man in the video, spoke to NBC News and said “I’ve been living here for almost two decades and counting. I got my U.S. citizenship while here, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t speak other languages that are not English.” To Budar’s point, Julissa Arce states, “Only when we have the audacity to use our mother tongue do racists worry about the future of the country, but for [Anglo] others it’s an added skill to speak Spanish. For us, it threatens our livelihoods, our families, our lives.” She’s right.
The deadly mass shooting that took place at a Walmart in El Paso on August 3, 2019, was carried out by a white supremacist whose goal was to “kill as many Mexicans as possible and stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” This murderer’s words and actions are sickening. The unfortunate truth is that there is a portion of America that will never see us as fully belonging despite assimilation and despite the fact that, as Arce says, “Americans and Latinos are one and the same.”
Julissa Arce’s You Sound Like a White Girl is filled with historical facts and personal anecdotes that are both painful and necessary. Constantly seeking validation outside of ourselves will leave us feeling inadequate and disappointed. We must accept and love ourselves for who we are instead of seeking approval from a community that we can never truly, and frankly don’t need to, be a part of. We have always been, and will continue to be, an important part of this country – no matter how we talk, what wars we fight in, or the languages we speak. Let’s own that and demand the US changes for us instead of us always changing for them.