“I won’t be gone for long.” Those were the words that Reyna Grande’s mother told her young daughter when leaving for the United States. Grande’s father had already left Mexico years earlier, hoping to make money for the family back home, and Grande knew, deep down, that she wouldn’t see either of them for a long time.
“My experience of being left behind helped me because it made me strong,” Grande has said. “I learned to be independent and self-reliant. It taught me to be a survivor. But it also hindered me because it left me emotionally scarred.”
Grande chronicles her experience of living without her parents—and eventually leaving Mexico for the U.S.—in her acclaimed 2012 memoir, The Distance Between Us. The California Book Club will discuss the book with Grande at its second virtual gathering, on November 19.
“It’s a classic memoir of coming to America, and its costs, and to some degree the upsides of it,” John Freeman, host of the club, said in an Alta Asks Live conversation. “And it’s a journey that, I think, has been dangerously and unfairly stigmatized by everyone up to the president of the United States, which I think is unconscionable. And this book is really beautiful, and parts of it are even funny.”
Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Distance Between Us.
It was January. The following month, my mother would be turning thirty. But she wouldn’t be celebrating her birthday with us. I clutched at my mother’s dress and asked, “How long will you be gone?”
“Not too long,” was her response. She closed the latch on the small suitcase she had bought secondhand for her trip to El Otro Lado, and I knew the hour had come for her to leave.
Sometimes, if I promised to be good, my mother would take me along with her as she went out into the neighborhood to sell Avon products. Other times she would leave me at Abuelita Chinta’s house. “I won’t be gone for long,” she would promise as she pried my fingers from hers. But this time, when my mother said she wouldn’t be gone long, I knew it would be different. Yet I never imagined that “not too long” would turn out to be never, because, if truth be told, I never really got my mother back.
“It’s time to go,” Mami said as she picked up her suitcase.
My sister Mago, my brother Carlos, and I grabbed the plastic bags filled with our clothes. We stood at the threshold of the little house we had been renting from a man named Don Rubén and looked around us one last time. Mami’s brothers were packing our belongings to be stored at Abuelita Chinta’s house: a refrigerator that didn’t work but that Mami hoped to fix one day, the bed Mago and I had shared with Mami ever since Papi left, the wardrobe we’d decorated with El Chavo del Ocho stickers to hide the places where the paint had peeled off. The house was almost empty now. Later that day, Mami would be handing the key back to Don Rubén, and this would no longer be our home, but someone else’s.
As we were about to step into the sunlight, I caught a glimpse of Papi. Tío Gary was putting a photo of him into a box. I ran to take the photo from my uncle.
“Why are you taking that?” Mami said as we headed down the dirt road to Papi’s mother’s house, where we would be living from then on.
“He’s my papi,” I said, and I clutched the frame tight against my chest.
“I know that,” Mami said. “Your grandmother has pictures of your father at her house. You don’t need to take it with you.”
“But this is my papi,” I told her again. She didn’t understand that this paper face behind a wall of glass was the only father I’d ever known.
I was two years old when my father left. The year before, the peso was devalued 45 percent to the US dollar. It was the beginning of the worst recession Mexico had seen in fifty years. My father left to pursue a dream—to build us a house. Although he was a bricklayer and had built many houses, with Mexico’s unstable economy he would never earn the money he needed to make his dream a reality.
Like most immigrants, my father had left his native country with high expectations of what life in El Otro Lado would be like. Once reality set in, and he realized that dollars weren’t as easy to make as the stories people told made it seem, he had been faced with two choices: return to Mexico empty-handed and with his head held low, or send for my mother. He decided on the latter, hoping that between the two of them, they could earn the money needed to build the house he dreamed of. Then he would finally be able to return to the country of his birth with his head held high, proud of what he had accomplished.
In the meantime, he was leaving us without a mother.
Mago, whose real name is Magloria, though no one called her that, took my bag of clothes from me so that I could hold Papi’s photo with both hands. It was hard to keep my balance on a dirt road littered with rocks just waiting to trip me and make me fall, but that January morning I was extra careful because I carried my papi in my arms, and he could break easily, like the bottle of Coca-Cola Mago was carrying the day she tripped. The bottle broke into pieces, the sweet brown liquid washing away the blood oozing from the cut on her wrist. She had to have three stitches. But that wasn’t her first scar, and it wouldn’t be her last.
“¿Juana, ya te vas?” Doña María said. She was one of Mami’s Avon clients. She ran down the dirt road with an empty shopping bag on her way to el mercado. Her lips were painted hot pink with the Avon lipstick she had bought on credit from Mami.
“Ya me voy, amiga,” Mami said. “My husband needs me at his side.” I’d lost track of how many times Mami had said that since my father’s telephone call three weeks before. It hadn’t taken long for the whole colonia of La Guadalupe to learn that Mami was going to El Otro Lado. It made me angry to hear her say those words: My husband needs me. As if my father were not a grown man. As if her children didn’t need her as well.
“My mother will be collecting the money you owe me,” Mami told Doña María. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Doña María didn’t look at her. She nodded and wished my mother a safe trip. “I’ll pray for a successful crossing for you, Juana,” she said.
From The Distance Between Us: A Memoir, by Reyna Grande. Copyright © 2012 by Reyna Grande. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.