Dulce Candy has had her ups and downs on the road to becoming one of YouTube’s most famous beauty vloggers. As she prepares to expand her family and personal brand, she reveals all that she’s thankful for.

Dulce Candy Laughing With Son
Credit: Martin Rusch

Late one night in 2008, a 20-year-old Iraq War veteran and army reservist named Dulce Candy Tejeda set up a Sony Cyber-shot in her bedroom, hit record, and then just started talking into the camera about her Mary Kay eye shadow. “I got really nervous, so I was stumbling over my words,” she says, laughing. “But it was such a great outlet for me. In the military, you’re not allowed to express yourself as an individual, and I loved that I could come home and connect with people who share the same passions.” Since posting that first video on YouTube eight years ago, Dulce Candy married a fellow vet, Jesse Ruiz, gave birth to a son, Izek, now 5, and amassed her own small army: More than 2 million loyal subscribers now look to her to help them navigate the beauty world.

She’s so influential that she’s repped Target on TV; penned a memoir, The Sweet Life; emceed a town hall for Hillary Clinton; and even flew to Rome with other influential YouTubers for a private meeting with the Pope. “It all feels so surreal,” says the 4-foot-9 vlogger, who now earns enough from her channel not only to support her own family but also her parents. “I never expected any of these opportunities just from sitting in my bedroom, doing something I love.” Gratitude, as you might imagine, plays a huge role in her life, especially given the fact that she’s had to endure some pretty tough circumstances to get where she is today. Dulce Candy took a break from filming and editing her videos to look back on her life and share what she’s most thankful for.

I’m Grateful For: A mother who would risk everything just to give me a chance at a better life. 

I was born in Michoacán, Mexico. My mom stayed at home with me and my sisters, while my dad worked as a banker. In 1991, he decided to come to America, because he saw greater opportunities for us here. He went to work on a farm in California and could come home only four days out of every year to see us. That was really challenging for my mom. I remember seeing her cry a lot.

Three years later, when I was 6, my dad hired coyotes to help us cross the border. I still remember that night. We went to this supersketchy hotel with fleas on the bed. Then the coyote took us up to the roof to brief us on what we were about to do. We saw people getting caught, so we had to wait a few hours before we could go.

After we climbed the fence, I just remember running and ducking behind rocks. A coyote carried me on his shoulders through the Rio Grande. Then we snuck into an open garage and rested there for a few hours before moving on. I wasn’t scared. For me, it just seemed like an adventure. It must’ve been so hard for my mom, yet she always put on a brave face and acted as if it was normal. “We’re just going to see Dad.” I didn’t realize until recently how strong she is. I admire her so much for what she did for us.

I’m Grateful That: I learned to love myself before it was too late. 

I grew up in a trailer park in Oxnard, California, where most of the other kids were immigrants as well. Though my mom always told me I was beautiful, I didn’t feel it. All my clothes were from Goodwill, and I had braces. Between my teeth, brown skin, and textured hair, I never had anyone to relate to.

I was 14 when I first attempted suicide. I was talking with a boy over the phone, and the moment he saw me in person, he broke up with me. It made me feel so ugly, and when I got home, I took as many ibuprofen as I could find and drank a bottle of cough syrup. It didn’t work, but I tried to hurt myself other times too. I had zero self-worth—I thought things would never be better. If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self that she’s beautiful and worthy. I’ve learned to love the little girl I used to be, and who I am today.

I’m Grateful For: Near misses.

When I was 18, after graduating from high school, I joined the Army because I had no money for college. Even though I wasn’t a citizen yet, like I am now, I wanted to serve my country. Soon after I enlisted, I went to Iraq, where I spent 15 months. I was a mechanic and convoy driver, and every day we’d escort high-ranking officials from Camp Victory to the Green Zone. I was fearless— until we got attacked.

I remember that day clearly: It was hot and sunny, around 6 p.m. I was driving a truck along our usual route, when suddenly, there was an explosion. It shook the truck, and all I could see was white dust. Shrapnel hit my window, and my heart started pounding. “Push through! Push through!” That’s all I heard, so we did, and when we got to the Green Zone, we couldn’t believe what had happened. An insurgent had misfired. Had he shot correctly, we’d have been blown to pieces.

I’m Grateful For: Finding my partner—in everything. 

I met my husband at Fort Hood. We were in the same unit, and he was the only boy who wasn’t giving me any attention, so all I tried to do was catch his eye. Our unit shipped out to Kuwait, and that’s where we fell in love—over meals in the dining facility. Now, in addition to helping me film and edit all my videos, he takes care of our son and house. When we’re working together, we’ll say to each other how lucky we are that we get to be together.

I’m Grateful For: A son who lives in the moment, even if I don’t get to share all of them with him. 

The hardest part of being a working mom is the guilt. If I have to go away for work for a few days, Izek acts a little different when I come home, and it hurts my heart. My mom always tells me that there are sacrifices you have to make, but I don’t ever want to sacrifice my family for my work, so I’m trying to find that balance right now.

I’m Grateful For: Backup plans.

We’ve always wanted a big family, but we’ve been trying to give Izek a brother or sister for 5 years now. That’s been hard. Everything looks good health-wise, and we’re young still, so I think it’s going to happen when the time is right. In the meantime, we’ve started the process to become foster parents. I know I’ll be happy with any child God wants to put in my life.

I’m Grateful To: Have found my purpose.

With all that’s happening in the world lately, it’s become harder for me to sit in my room and talk about makeup. I’m struggling with that a little bit. I don’t exactly know where my life is headed next, but I do know that in two years, my channel will probably look totally different. Whatever happens, I know this: Life is too short to not fulfill your dreams.