The Roots of Reyna Grande’s Immigration Story

What the author of The Distance Between Us endured is a reflection of U.S.-Mexican border history.

reyna grande
Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande was nine years old when she left behind her native Mexico as an undocumented immigrant to join her parents in Los Angeles. Grande chronicles her arduous journey—and her ultimate path to becoming the first college graduate in her family—in her celebrated 2012 memoir, The Distance Between Us. The book is the second selection of the California Book Club, which Grande will join as a guest on November 19 for a virtual discussion with host John Freeman.

The particulars of Grande’s story—how she was raised by an abusive grandmother in the town of Iguala, how she didn’t like spaghetti because it reminded her of tapeworms—are her own. Yet her dispassionate account humanizes the untold number of other immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America who have endured much the same hardship.

“The narrative of Latin America poverty and the ‘broken beauty’ of places like Iguala is buried deep in the psyche of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities,” Héctor Tobar wrote in his review of the book for the Los Angeles Times. “Our recent history has been shaped by Latino immigration. We live amid a million unknown tales of family longing, loss, ambition and dysfunction.”

For generations, immigrant parents and their children have lived through the trauma of being separated. Grande came to the United States—El Otro Lado—in the 1980s. Her father had left for the U.S. when she was two, and her mother joined him two years later. In recent years, however, another form of separation, one enforced by the U.S. government, has had a far more devastating impact on many families.

In a 2015 speech announcing his presidential candidacy, Donald Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

That inflammatory message set the tone for the immigration policy that Trump adopted after he was elected in 2016. Under the policy, thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents after families were held for crossing the border illegally. Children were detained in camps and cages. In 2019, at least seven children died while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Despite the Trump administration’s reversal of its “zero tolerance” policy in 2018, it was revealed earlier this month that the parents of 545 children who were separated from their families still cannot be found.

Trump’s talk of “an invasion of our country”—coupled with his repeated promise to build a border wall to keep out migrants—is a reflection of a nation that has become less welcoming to immigrants. Ronald Reagan, often invoked as a paragon of conservative values, signed an immigration reform bill into law in 1986; it offered amnesty to immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982. In a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

In coming to California, Mexicans are coming to a land that was, in fact, theirs before the United States declared war on our neighbor to the south in 1846. The Mexican-American War, also known in Mexico as the intervención estadounidense en México (U.S. intervention in Mexico), resulted in the U.S. acquisition of a vast area of Mexican territory: Alta California, whose name is the inspiration for the Alta Journal. As Grande's own story suggests, the distance between us, as Americans and Mexicans, is not so great after all.

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Washington Square Press

The Distance Between Us
John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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