By Max Abelson
February 25, 2015
Julissa Arce went from selling funnel cakes in Texas to derivatives at Wall Street’s most profitable
Sitting at her desk at Goldman Sachs, Julissa Arce is doing her best to keep it together. It’s September 2007. Her father is dying in Taxco de Alarcón, a small and hilly city in Mexico, and she has just hung up after a call from her sister with bad news. Arce stands and leaves the row where she and her colleagues create derivatives and market them to rich people. She walks down the hall, opens the bathroom door, and locks herself in a stall.
“Do not be anxious about anything,” she says under her breath, repeating Philippians 4:6. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Then she straightens, washes her face, and returns to work. Her banker colleagues can’t understand why she won’t get on a plane to see her father. Arce tells them that her family will keep her posted, and she might be leaving tomorrow. There is no crying on the private wealth management floor.
The overachievers at Goldman Sachs aren’t all the same. Some have been valedictorians, or Navy SEALs, or the sons or grandsons of the company’s bankers. Some will stop at nothing to amass a fortune; others are patient. And at least one was an undocumented immigrant. Arce, who turns 32 in March, owed her bright career on Wall Street to fake papers bought for a few hundred dollars in a stranger’s living room in Texas. Over seven years at Goldman Sachs, she rose from intern to analyst, associate, then vice president, later becoming a director at Merrill Lynch. When her father died in Taxco hours after the 2007 phone call, she didn’t leave to see her family because with her bogus papers she couldn’t have come back.
Arce was 11 when she moved to San Antonio from Mexico. Despite arriving with little English, she joined the basketball, softball, cross-country, and dance teams, the student council, a Renaissance club, and two honors societies within a few years. She’s still intense. She likes The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends & Influence People and is eager to explain, without irony, why they’re illuminating. She does CrossFit and can hold 150 pounds behind her head. “You have to have a very A-type personality,” she says about weightlifting, sipping a beer in Ulysses, a bar three blocks south of Wall Street. “This workout—it’s not going to win. I’m going to win.”
She didn’t have to adjust to Goldman Sachs’s culture of undisguised ambition because she embodied it. A few weeks into her first summer there, as an intern in 2004, before her senior year of college, she arranged to have coffee with a managing director whose team she admired. She told him she had learned a lot and was ready for something faster. “I want to play basketball and go up and down the court,” she told him. When she followed up with a handwritten thank-you card at the end of the summer, the managing director told her to expect good news.
A sharp kind of dread sank in after Goldman offered her a full-time position. She was afraid of what could happen when one of the world’s most sophisticated companies examined her fake green card and Social Security number, took her fingerprints, and ran a background check. She had a recurring dream about being caught: She was sitting in an investment bank office. No one had to tell her she was being deported or threaten her; she just knew what was to come next. Then she’d wake up.
But Goldman never did discover her secret. It was 2005 and a good time to become one of the 23,000 employees of Wall Street’s most profitable securities firm. “I was like, sky’s the limit,” she says. “I’m in.”
Taxco is about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City. Arce remembers houses all painted white, tourists who flocked there for the silver work, and a dubbed version of Dennis the Menace called Daniel el Travieso. In one episode a flatbed truck moves the mean neighbor’s house, and in another he drives an RV. “So when I was a little kid in Mexico my aspiration in life was to live in a mobile home like the Americans,” she says. “Then when I got here I was like, ‘Oh!’ ”
Her parents left Taxco regularly to sell jewelry in Texas. They got her a tourist visa so she could join them, and on one trip the family simply stayed. They moved into an apartment in San Antonio and then a house one block from the interstate. She went to a local Catholic school and took to math right away, eventually placing in the honors track. She remembers a classmate raising his hand to ask how a Mexican could possibly keep up.
Arce was 14 when her visa expired. “I knew what that meant,” she says. “I became undocumented.” Desperate to stay in the country she had come to love, she pitched her parents on a plan to have her friend Tiffani’s family adopt her. The Arces didn’t go for that, or her half-hearted suggestion at age 16 that they pay a gay U.S. citizen who worked with the family to marry her.
She also wanted to be rich. “I just had this idea in my head that if I can work my way into this wealth and status, then it won’t matter that I’m undocumented,” she says. “I thought if I had a bunch of money I would be accepted.”
In her senior year of high school, Arce sent out college applications with the Social Security box blank—and got rejections. Just as she was graduating in 2001, a new law made it possible for undocumented Texas students to attend public universities at in-state rates. Five weeks later the director for admissions at the University of Texas at Austin wrote to say her application had been reviewed and she’d been accepted.
She majored in finance. The equations “made sense to me,” she says. “There was always a right answer. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about it. There was so much ambiguity in my life that I really appreciated that.” Antonia Bernal, a leader of the Hispanic Business Student Association that Arce joined, describes her at the time as vibrant and driven. Arce hadn’t seen many Hispanic men wearing business suits before joining the club, and she still does a Hollywood swoon when she describes them. Meetings with successful women were just as important. “I could be ambitious and go-getter without seeming greedy and aggressive,” she says. “There are all these amazing jobs, and there’s all this money to be made.” When the group handed out awards one April, it named her its Future Millionaire.
Arce’s parents moved back to Mexico in 2001, and she took over a food cart business they left behind. Every Friday she rode a Greyhound bus 80 miles to San Antonio’s Market Square to sell funnel cakes with strawberries, whipped cream, and cinnamon. Every Sunday she returned to Austin with money for rent and school.
When the cart lost its spot, Arce couldn’t land a new job with her expired tourist visa. And she couldn’t stay in college without a job. Getting a fake green card turned out to be unexpectedly simple. She confessed her need to a suite-mate, who connected her to her boyfriend, who introduced her to a woman, who asked her to come to her home. It was a mundane transaction, Arce says, in an average apartment with an average living room. She handed over the money, had her picture taken, and about two weeks later had the forged documents.
They worked. Arce used them to land customer service work on nights and weekends for a debit card company in Austin and interned for a Major League Soccer team. Then she saw a presentation about summer positions at New York banks. The pay could be $10,000.
“Oh my,” she remembers thinking. “That is where I need to go, and that is where I need to be.”
The most influential document at Goldman Sachs may be a list of 10 business commandments written by co-head John Whitehead, who died this year at 92. “Important people like to deal with other important people. Are you one?” No. 8 asks. “Don’t waste your time going after business we don’t really want,” says No. 1. By putting the Goldman thirst for competence, connection, rank, and respect into words, Whitehead set the strike zone for hitters at the bank, including ones born long after he retired in 1984.
The chances of joining them, with 350 summer analysts chosen by the investment banking unit from 17,000 applicants in 2013, are worse than the odds of getting into Harvard University. For those who do make the cut, the competition—for assignments, pay, power—only intensifies. Women do this battle knowing that 9 of the company’s 10 executive officers are men.
Arce got a 2004 internship through a nonprofit called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, which places Hispanic and black students into summer roles at banks. She liked it at Goldman, where she helped put together presentations for existing clients and searched for new ones among the names of yacht owners. She was asked to return to the firm full-time after graduation in 2005. In New York her career got off to an extraordinary start when she was invited to join a new team that built derivatives for the private wealth division’s clients. These were financial products that might, for example, include options whose value would rise 3 percent for every percentage point that an index gained, up to a cap. Arce became a rookie analyst reporting directly to a managing director, making it to the office by 7 a.m. to beat her boss, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.
If there’s something valued more deeply at Goldman than separating the irrelevant from what matters or anticipating issues before they erupt, it might be the dogged pursuit of opportunity. An early performance review praised Arce for all three. She talked to bosses months in advance about what she had to do to make their yearend decision to pay or promote her as easy as possible. She was so forceful that a boss once told her to laugh less loudly, advice she still doesn’t follow when discussing ex-boyfriends or her cats, Pancho and Nikko. Her uniform was so consistent that colleagues donned sweater vests and scarfs for a photo tribute.
She was also willing to do what others wouldn’t. One week, when she was calling colleagues to get a price for a deal, teammates listened as she began raising her voice to a senior colleague she thought was making a bad offer. Then she started yelling. In the end, a boss sided with Arce.
“Julissa is the type of person that a Wall Street firm wants,” says a former co-worker, Jodi Salsberg. “Somebody who is incredibly driven and hardworking and fiercely loyal to the firm.” Clients started asking for her, according to another former colleague, Bryan David Hughes. She looked after younger colleagues, too. “There are a lot of smart people, and the expectation is you should get it the first time,” says Hughes, 30. “Julissa was the person I could go to and say, ‘OK, Julissa, explain it to me for the 10th time.’ ”
Arce and her friends liked to sit back at Ulysses and watch Goldman guys attempting to flirt with women. If a banker came up to her and name-dropped the firm, she would ask what exactly he did there and try to stay polite when he answered that she wouldn’t really understand. If he asked about her, she would cordially explain that she structured derivatives at Goldman Sachs for its richest clients.
Perhaps the biggest reason Arce’s secret went undiscovered was that no one was looking. At this altitude, people assume that their friends belong. Mark Campbell, who had been hired at the same time, says he knew Arce was from Mexico, and it never occurred to him to question her citizenship. “It seemed to me that she had it all figured out,” he says. “You just sort of assume everything is fine.”
He explains his reasoning with a story about working construction in college, before joining the bank. When someone showed up at a site in a suit one day, workers bolted, thinking he was from the government. “Those were the people who were undocumented immigrants that I knew,” says Campbell, who now works for Morgan Stanley. “I think of people who are here to work in service-related jobs and work their way up for the next generation—but not here to become masters of the universe.”
Some days, Arce was tormented. “I don’t feel alright,” she wrote in a July 2008 diary entry. “I feel the stress in my stomach, in every muscle.” At Goldman international experience was crucial, and she knew that her fake papers wouldn’t withstand a border crossing. After a clash with a colleague based in London, he suggested it might be good for her to spend some time at the U.K. office. Yes, she told him, that makes sense. She stalled. When her own boss was transferred to London, Arce was afraid that the company would ask her to join him—and at the same time furious that she couldn’t pursue the opportunity.
“I thought if I had a bunch of money I would be accepted.”
In 2008 the global financial system was on the verge of collapse, Goldman’s clients were jittery, and the firm was losing money. When Arce opened her mail one day that July, she found a letter from the IRS asking about her tax filings. An operations manager for a unit called Input Correction wanted “more information to process the return accurately.” She put it in her closet and tried to forget about it.
“It was terrifying,” she says. More letters arrived; she shelved them, too. “You sort of have to force yourself to live in this alternate reality, just pretending like it doesn’t really exist.”
Arce’s anxiety would spike when a colleague looked at her weirdly, or if she was suddenly called into an office. “This is it,” she always thought. One day, distracted, she made a mistake on a Japanese trade for a client. She thought her career might end.
Other times she was too busy to worry. She thought it was taking too long to get promoted to associate, and as soon as that came through, she went to work on becoming a vice president. And she started dating someone she had met in college. She liked that he was strong and good at pool, and she felt safe around him, she says.
After her father died in 2007, she thought about taking some of her things on a flight to Mexico and not coming back. Her boyfriend told her he thought getting married might be a solution. “I hope this is not a proposal,” she remembers telling him. “Because if it is, it kind of sucks.”
It was a proposal, and she said yes. “In retrospect,” she says, “I don’t think we were ready. But I did love him.” Her college friend Bernal, who hosted the small wedding in her building’s yard and was a witness and photographer, remembers the ceremony as short and happy.
By 2011, Arce was making $300,000 to $400,000—she won’t give the exact amount—and had been promoted to vice president. She replaced her fake green card with a real one from the U.S. government after the wedding. She was legal, elite, and rich. She was also unhappy. The only thing stranger than going from selling funnel cakes in Texas to equity derivatives in New York was how vacant she felt.
Three-and-a-half years after quietly chanting her anxiety prayer in a locked bathroom stall, she took a piece of paper that listed her bonus into the ladies’ room. “I made it to this place that I always thought would get me everything I wanted,” she says. “But I remember leaving and going to the bathroom with my little letter that said how much money I was being paid and just feeling so empty.”
She started a blog whose first posts counted down her last days at Goldman Sachs. “I am nervous in an excited kind of way. In the way that I imagine a QB is nervous in a rivalry game,” she wrote. “I feel responsible to the universe to go and live my dream,” she posted the next day. Less than a week later she was gone, writing: “Now is time to go ask more questions and hopefully find more answers.”
Arce visited her family in Taxco, flew to Europe on a Mexican passport, and paddled down North Carolina’s Roanoke River. She thought she could start a website for arranging impromptu vacations, then a business to get community funding for small ventures; both fell through. She and her husband, who moved away for a job, separated. “Life is all about adapting to change, moving when things are shaken up,” she wrote on her blog.
In 2012 a coffee with a friend working at Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch turned into a job opportunity, and she took it. The role wasn’t what she’d thought—mostly project management and compliance strategy. When her boss stopped looking her in the eye, she says, she knew what was going to happen. She was let go last May.
She may have gone back to banking if she hadn’t seen a 2013 movie called Documented. It follows Jose Antonio Vargas, who was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and came out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times essay. “My life on film—I was just so inspired by it,” she says. “I basically stalked him.”
Arce is moving to California this March as the development director of Define American, a nonprofit founded by Vargas. The group pushes for rights for undocumented immigrants with projects including a campaign to have newspapers drop the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of “undocumented.”
The group faces a backlash against rights for immigrants. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who signed the bill that allowed Arce to attend college, told a Republican forum in Iowa this year that “if Washington refuses to secure the border, Texas will.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz asked his fellow Republicans to “show me where you stood up and fought” an executive action on immigration President Obama announced late last year. (In an awkward coincidence, Heidi Nelson Cruz, the senator’s wife, worked in the same Goldman Sachs unit, private wealth management, as Arce.)
Making hundreds of thousands of dollars on Wall Street didn’t protect Arce from fear. “There is still the stigma that what we did is shameful,” she says. “I’m tired of being ashamed for pursuing my dream, for climbing up the ladder, and for having success.”
When asked for comment on Arce’s story, Goldman Sachs sent a statement from Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could give a home to more of the talented young people who come to this country for an education and want to apply their energy and skills to supporting our economy?” Goldman now verifies information from job applicants against government records, according to two people at the firm who asked not to be identified discussing its vetting process.
In August, Arce arrived at a courthouse in Lower Manhattan to become a U.S. citizen. She struggled to speak and had to take a breath before reciting the Oath of Allegiance. Her passport came in the mail in September.
She got tattoos after quitting Goldman, including a line linking moles on her left arm. “I guess I just always felt everything happens for a reason, and I just have to connect the dots,” she says. “And the one here says Redeemed.” She crooks her arm up by her head. “I always sleep like this, so when I wake up every morning it’s the first thing I see. It reminds me that no matter what happens, no matter how I feel, I have been redeemed.”