Book People—podcast hosts, bookstagrammers, booksellers, and other folks who read advance releases of books for a living—have for months been telling me to read one new book in particular: Julissa Arce’s You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation. And I’m glad I did. It’s a tour de force nonfiction manifesto that rips to shreds the lie that assimilation leads to belonging. In doing so, she explores so many of the themes—the pain of trying to fit a mold or a place that doesn’t want you, the isolation that comes with “American success”—that I had wanted to discuss through the art of fiction in Olga, only with a surgical precision that ignited something in my soul. I loved this book so much!

So much of my own life and my family’s experience have been defined by assimilation—my Spanish skills have been just one casualty. So scared was my grandfather and his family by the discrimination they faced when they came from Puerto Rico, he, like many others, thought we’d be better off with nothing but perfect English. That’s just one example. And because I see assimilation as a sort of cousin to gentrification—particularly my specific obsession: the gentrification of people as well as places—I thought it would be fun to talk to Julissa for the newsletter.

Julissa is the best-selling author of My (Underground) American Dream, which chronicled her time working as an executive at Goldman Sachs while undocumented,  and Someone Like Me, her memoir for young adults. She is the co-founder of the Ascend Educational Fund, a college scholarship and mentorship program for immigrant students regardless of their immigration status. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. Below is our interview, conducted via email; it ranges from Bad Bunny to it being okay to love Gucci, and more.

Wow, so it’s really wild reading your book because it’s like a nonfiction manifesto of so many of the themes and feelings I wanted to express in the “lived” form of Olga and her brother’s lives. I think (and write) a lot about “Gentrification of Self,” this idea that in the quest for self-“betterment” we must push out parts of ourselves, and in the end risk becoming unrecognizable.

Do you think the very notion of “betterment” is itself an internalized attempt to assimilate? How do we reconcile ambition with rejecting assimilation?

Yes! I felt the same reading your book. Olga is living through so many of the themes in You Sound Like a White Girl. I don’t think that "betterment of self" is the same as assimilation. It only becomes synonymous to assimilation when we believe that we will find that improvement in whiteness. For me, bettering myself has meant reconnecting to my roots, turning away from the white gaze, and practicing indigenous healing practices such as meditation.  

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