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.
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