The Distance Between Us, a Memoir
Reyna Grande's latest: An inspirational coming-of-age story about the immigrant experience
"In this poignant memoir, Reyna Grande skillfully depicts another side of the immigrant experience--the hardships and heartbreaks of the children who are left behind. Through her brutally honest firsthand account of growing up in Mexico without her parents, Grande sheds light on the often overlooked consequences of immigration--the disintegration of a family." -- Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Enrique's Journey
Published on LatinoLA: April 30, 2012
Creative writing professors often admonish their students to "write what they know." Award-winning novelist and acclaimed public speaker Reyna Grande took this advice to heart when she wrote her debut novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria 2006). The daughter of parents who left her and her siblings behind in her native Mexico to seek a better life in America, Grande herself illegally immigrated when she was just nine years old.
Eloquently, and with great power, she put a human face on undocumented immigration with Juana, her young protagonist in Across a Hundred Mountains who leaves her small town in Mexico to find her father in the United States. "I used many of my own experiences," Grande admits, "to give shape to Juana's life." Indeed, Grande's harrowing life story imbued "Across a Hundred Mountains" with a sense of authenticity that could only come from living the realistic and horrifying events Juana witnessed and endured.
Grande wrote another critically acclaimed novel, Dancing With Butterflies (Washington Square Press 2009), before deciding it was time to write about what really happened to her, her sister, and her brother when they were young children. She says, "My parents left me in Mexico for many years while they worked in the United States. Being left behind scarred me for life. This is why I began to write about my childhood. Growing up in the United States--after immigrating--I never read any books that dealt with the experiences of children who were left behind, even though it is common for parents to leave their children when they come to America."
The Distance Between Us (Atria Books; $25.00; August 28, 2012) is Reyna Grande's personal, heart-wrenching, and ultimately triumphant memoir about her journey from Mexico to the United States, where she learned that the separation between a parent and child can be measured as much in emotional distance and abandonment as it can be in miles. An engaging writer with a talent for infusing her narrative with personal and affecting characterizations and stories, Grande truly offers an unprecedented look into the immigration experience and the reality that millions of people are facing each day.
The Distance Between Us isn't just the story of Grande's flight to El Otro Lado (The Other Side), but also the tragic story of what she experienced before--the poverty, the abuse, the shame…and the devastating feeling of abandonment and loneliness she and her siblings felt after their well-meaning, but dysfunctional, parents left to find a better life for their family.
The Distance Between Us…
In 1977, Reyna Grande's father became one of the many illegal immigrants entering the United States. He left his family--Reyna's mother, her sister Magloria (Mago), her brother Carlos and her--behind in Guerrero, Mexico. They lived in a small shack made of bamboo sticks and cardboard. The children's bellies were full of parasites; their hair was infested with lice. They went barefoot and had no money for school. They had no running water. They bathed in a canal littered with trash. They went around gathering cow dung to burn in order to keep warm and chase the mosquitoes away. Reyna's father left because he had two choices: 1) Stay in Mexico and see his children suffer, with no possibility of a better future, or 2) Leave for the United States and give them a chance to succeed in life. By choosing to leave, Reyna's father gave her the greatest gift a parent can give a child--the possibility to succeed.
Two years after he left, Reyna's father sent for her mother. He returned home five years later and brought Reyna and her siblings to the United States, leaving Reyna's mother and their sister behind. By then, Reyna was almost ten. On their first attempt to cross the border from Tijuana, Reyna became sick and suffered from fever most of the way. Her father carried her on his back…up until they were caught.
On the second attempt, they got caught again. By this time Reyna's father was getting frustrated. He wanted to take his three oldest children back to Guerrero and forget the whole thing. But he vowed to try one last time--this time crossing the border at night. Reyna vividly remembers the darkness, holding her sister's hand and being afraid of getting lost. She remembers the helicopter flying above them, and running, trying to find a place to hide. But in the end they actually made it.
But life in the United States was definitely not the dream Reyna had envisioned. She was enrolled in the fifth grade in Aldama Elementary in Highland Park, CA, although in Mexico she was just finishing third grade. As she didn't speak English, she was put in a corner to be taught by the teacher's assistant. Her teacher didn't speak Spanish, so for the rest of the year Reyna yearned, but could not, communicate with her. Reyna's father truly believed in the value of education, drilling into his children's heads that they were lucky to be living in America. He often threatened to send his them back to Mexico if they didn't learn English and get good grades. He frequently stressed the importance of having a stable job, a retirement account, and owning a house. But Reyna's father, like her mother, had demons of his own. His alcoholism and own disillusionment caused an irreparable break between him and his children.
Reyna Grande persevered, however, and is now living the American dream. "By leaving Mexico," she says, "my father changed the course of my life completely. Because I live in the United States, I am a college graduate and a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. I have my own house. I have a car. Best of all, I am a published author. Only in America can a person go from being an illegal immigrant to a published author."
When she's not writing, Reyna Grande teaches English as a second language to adults, most of whom are illegal immigrants. Grande claims she sees her parents in them. Some of her students have children in other countries, and they struggle daily to find a way to be reunited with their sons and daughters. In her classroom Grande sees hardworking people who came to this country to flee miserable poverty at home. "I don't see criminals," she declares, "I see human beings who want what's best for themselves and their children."
Reyna Grande is an author, speaker, educator, and event coordinator. Her first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria 2006), received a 2010 Latino Books Into Movies Award, a 2007 American Book Award, and the 2006 El Premio Aztlán Literary Award. It was chosen by Eastern Connecticut as its 2007 "One Book/One Region" selection and in 2010 the city of Watsonville, CA selected it for its "On the Same Page" community reads program. Her second novel, Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press 2009) was also critically acclaimed and was the recipient of a 2010 International Latino Book Awards. Both novels have been read widely in schools across the country and have been very popular with book clubs. Across a Hundred Mountains has been published in Norway, with upcoming publication in Russia and South Korea.
Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the U.S. to find work. Her mother followed her father north two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. In 1985, when Reyna was going on ten, she entered the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. She went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. Reyna holds a B.A. in creative writing and film & video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University. She is an active promoter of Latino literature and has worked as a program coordinator for festivals such as the 2009 and 2010 Latino Book & Family Festival. She has also served as a judge for literary awards such as Pen USA Literary Awards and the El Premio Aztlán.
Reyna Grande currently teaches creative writing workshops in her community and speaks at high schools, colleges, and universities across the nation. She is also a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop, which was founded by renowned author Sandra Cisneros. The Distance Between Us, Grande's memoir about her childhood in Mexico and her young adulthood in the United States, is scheduled to be published by Atria Books on August 28, 2012.
To learn more about Reyna Grande and her work, visit: www.reynagrande.com .
The Distance Between Us: A Memoir
By Reyna Grande
Published by: Atria Books
Price: $25.00 US / $28.99 CAN
Pub Date: August 28, 2012