The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande’s 2012 memoir, The Distance Between Us, chronicles her time as a little girl in Mexico, when she crossed the border illegally with her father and siblings, and then growing up in the United States. This book was chosen as a community read, so lots of events are happening this month to connect readers to Mexican culture, food, artwork, stories, and political conversations about immigrants. Because almost everyone in the book has the last name Grande, I will refer to the author as Reyna.

distance between us

When Reyna was two years old, her father left Mexico for the United States. When she was four, her mother joined him. Reyna and her sister Mago and brother Carlos are sent to live with Abuela Evila, whose name fits her personality. This grandmother already had one grandchild dumped on her; she’s old and burdened and lives in a tin-roof shack, but now with four kids. Consequently, she treats the first child wonderfully and practically starves Reyna and her siblings. They long for the return of their parents — who don’t come back for eight years.

When Reyna’s mother does return, she has a new baby. The new baby, who is American, confuses everything. It’s as if the Grande’s parents are in American starting a new family without them. Eventually, their mother returns to Mexico after a falling out with the father only to depart with a boyfriend. Later, their father comes back from America with a new wife. He decides to take his children to the States with him (after they plead desperately with him).

Thanks to metaphor, imagery, and siblings who can help fill in gaps in her memory, Reyna’s memoir is captivating and educational. She describes children with distended bellies full of worms, scorpions crawling on the walls and stinging them, and constant lice issues. The story is never too depressing in a way that made me want to stop reading. Reyna asserts outcomes that let the reader know her siblings are all right. For example, when Carlos is very sick as a boy and I wondered if he would die, Reyna reveals they learned when he was thirty that he had contracted hepatitis, the explanation for why he was in such pain. Knowing he makes it to at least thirty relieved some anxiety I felt. Reyna doesn’t “spoil” the story often; it’s just enough for a reader to have hope.

But there’s also the beautiful deep bond Reyna has with her older sister, who acts as surrogate mother. My favorite part between the sisters happened when Reyna feels that she doesn’t know who she is because she’s living temporarily with her grandmother and her parents are gone without a deadline for their return. The older sister takes Reyna to the place she was born, to the spot where Reyna’s umbilical cord was buried, and tells Reyna that this spot will always connect Reyna to her mother, just like the umbilical cord connected them during pregnancy. When Reyna feels unsure at different points in her life, she touches her belly button.

The physical distance between the Grande children in Mexico and their parents in the United States seems small — I’m picturing him just over the border in Los Angeles and the children sequestered on the other side of the wall — but it really hit me when she clearly wrote that they were separated by 2,000 miles. Even more impressive is their father makes it across the boarder with three children and a coyote. In America, land of plenty, the children can’t eat typical American food, like a McDonald’s hamburger, immediately after they cross because they need to get away from areas heavy with border patrol agents. Instead, they are given what the coyote has in his car: sunflower seeds. This is a typical snack in the States, but not in Mexico. Reyna laments that her first meal in America is “bird food.” She remembers and writes about seemingly small moments such as this that create a lasting connection with the reader.

In the United States, the children attend school, beginning in English as a Second Language courses. Reyna gives easy to understand examples of why learning English is so hard, such as this one from the time she received a pamphlet in school about puberty:

I was confused by this sentence: “Changes take place in a girl pretty fast.” For the life of me I couldn’t understand why the word “pretty” was there, after the word “girl.” Mr. Lopez had taught me that an adjective goes before the noun, so it should have read “pretty girl.” But if that was so, I wondered if only pretty girls got their periods and not ugly ones.

If you ask a native English speaker why “pretty” works as it does in this sentence, I guarantee they couldn’t tell you. On top of living in a small apartment with her father, step-mother, sister, and brother; in addition to her father physically abusing her, especially when he is drunk; added to her confusion about being a “criminal” for crossing the boarder, missing her mother and Mexico, Reyna must puzzle out a highly confusing language. She gives people like me insight into the immigrant experience that we hear and read about, but don’t know in detail.

I found The Distance Between Us compulsively readable and am happy my community is reading it, especially since we have a large Latino population here, surrounded by the endless cries to build a wall and “make” (whatever that means) people speak English. I’m also pleased to know that a follow-up memoir, A Dream Called Home, is due out in October 2018. I’ve heard it will cover her time in college at University of California-Santa Cruz and beyond. The memoir I read ends with her leaving community college and arriving at UCSC. Quite a cliffhanger!

I’ve been quite busy with a variety of excuses, but have kept reading. Coming up soon, expect the following posts:

  • notes on Reyna Grande’s recent talk at my local library
  • a review of Fat Bodyguards by Marita Fowler
  • a review of In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon
  • a review of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence
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36 comments

  1. This does sound like the sort of story that really draws the reader in. It seems to put a human face on the immigrant experience, and I find that fascinating. I’m glad you found it so readable.

  2. This sounds very insightful. It’s always important to humanise the immigrant experience so those going through it don’t just become a faceless statistic, and first hand accounts are the best way to give others a glimpse into what it’s like. Great review!

    • I always hear about immigrants coming to America for a job and/or to live the “American Dream,” so I can see why people think immigration is bad. Many Americans aren’t living the American Dream. I disagree, but I can see what people mean. However, when I read about the worms, lice, scorpions, starvation, accidental drownings as a result of uncontrollable flooding, and tin/stick shacks…..well, I can see that people aren’t leaving “okay” lives for “the American Dream.” They’re in survival mode.

    • The parents were so young, had education up to the age of 9, and live in deadly poverty. The author talked trying to understand her parents’ choices when she was a parent herself.

  3. This sounds like an important book for your community to be reading and I’m glad it was chosen. It’s so important to read these first-hand accounts, as well as novels, which do give the sense of it all, too. I read a lot of books about the immigrant experience in the UK and US, as well as reading books about what we call ex-pats but are of course immigrants into places from the UK.

    We have a big narrative on immigration in the UK which upsets me a lot in its negativity. I value and cherish the people who have come here and joined our community. Just in our street, we have a guy who came here from the Caribbean in the 50s, a Sri-Lankan-German couple, some French people, an American family a street back, lots of Muslim families who are typically multi-generational, with the younger two generations born here. Yet we also have two lots of UKIP voters and one of those houses has a union flag hung outside and a picture of a woman in a hijab crossed out in their window. Ugh. I try to challenge this when it’s safe to, e.g. had a long conversation with the wndow cleaner about how I bet he knows “English” people who cheat the system, too, and no, I don’t think, “Yugoslavians” hang around in the local suburb to steal your takeout pizza …

    I would also challenge anyone who looks like they “come from” here as to whether they 100% do. My gran’s grandfather was Spanish and my cousin is married to a Polish man, and I love that about my family (my friend Karen was very disappointed to find out she was 100% English!).

    • When people openly put signs in windows or hang flags with anti-diversity symbols, I wonder how to approach such people and if it’s safe or effective to do so. Studs Terkel famously travelled the States and spoke to any and everyone, which actually changed since people’s minds about race and community.

      • I will tend to challenge speech directly addressed to me always, challenge speech next to me when it feels safe (I told some grannies in a bus stop off for being homophobic on Pride Day once) and keep away from my scary neighbours but make sure I tell anyone who they might be “othering” that although I look like them, I think the opposite.

    • One part I found interesting that I didn’t expect was when she takes about understanding where her father was coming from. I get the feeling she wasn’t as close with her mother (it was her father who pushed her to educate herself even though he was also physically abusive).

  4. Oh, how I have missed your thought-provoking reviews! I appreciate how you identify while the subject matter can be overwhelmingly sad, Reyna Grande injects hope into the story throughout. I avoid memoirs with depressive synopses. I get enough terrible news from the media– while personal accounts are always better, they are also always haunting. That said, I might actually pick up this memoir!

    The idea of a “cliff-hanger memoir” fascinates me. Do you suppose Grande did that intentionally? Why or why not?

    • I’m not sure. Possibly she ended when she “made it,” which was for her a four-year university. The memory was published a few years ago, so Grande likely has received enough positive feedback to encourage her to write more. The Distance Between Us was already over 300 pages. Thanks for your kind words; I have felt your absence deeply.

      • Ahhh. I can see that. So, at the time, particularly to Grande, this might not have been much of a cliff-hanger. But as a reader… the story is obviously different.

        It makes me happy to hear when authors have received feedback which encourages them to write more. And when it encourages their publisher to take on the book! I hope her next memoir is just as well written… but perhaps a bit less tragic. 😉

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