David Ulin: Hello everybody. I'm David Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal and welcome from the West Coast of America. This is the second installment in the Alta's California Book Club, the second book club meeting and tonight we are going to watch a discussion with Reyna Grande about her magnificent memoir, The Distance Between Us. Before the conversation starts, a few things to think about. First of all, For those of you who don't know about Alta, the California Book Club, I want to take the opportunity to introduce them to you. Alta, at a time when many publications are scaling back their literary coverage and coverage of books and writers, we at Alta have expanded ours. We have created the California Book Club, which is a monthly discussion with writers from the West about their books.
We feature author asks, live conversations on Wednesday afternoons, and we are running weekly book reviews online, as well as all of the great writing that has been a hallmark of the print magazine. California Book Club, as I said this is the second meeting of the California Book Club. I want to introduce our partners and tackle... Meeting to John Freeman, who will be doing the interview and the discussion. First, let me thank our partners, we have a number of bookseller partners and other kind of cultural institution partners who we're really grateful to be collaborating with on this project. So, Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Bookshop, please buy your books at Bookshop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, Los Angeles Public Library, Narrative Magazine, the San Francisco Public Library, Vroman's bookstore, and ZYZZYVA.
And please remember to support independent booksellers. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you about a bundling opportunity and for the California Book Club, for a total of $75 a year, which is a savings of $50, you can receive a one-year subscription or membership to Alta Journal. Paperback editions of the three California Book Club's selections for January, February, and March. Those will be, America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo, the Sellout by Paul Beatty, and Southland my Nina Revoyr.
And you can also get this nifty California Book Club tote, which is I see a lot of totes in the book world. This is a pretty spectacular item, pocket on the outside, velcro, nice little wallet, sealed pocket on the inside really well-made. So this is an incredible, a really good offering and allows you to show your literary bona fides. I want to also just thank Alta and thank all of you for coming, and I'm really looking forward to the conversation. I'm now going to turn the controls over to John Freeman, and I will be back to talk to you at the event with a little bit further information. So, John Freeman, please take it away.
John Freeman: Thanks so much David. It's a real pleasure to be here to talk to Reyna Grande about this incredible memoir, The Distance Between Us. When a book is good, when you hold it after you've read it, like it's something precious. This tells us the story of Reyna's family and their crossing from Mexico to the United States in the mid 1980s, Reyna like so many people was left behind first by her father and then when her mother went to join her father, by both of them. She was raised partly by a grandmother and eventually it came over herself. And this book is a powerful meditation on the cost of leaving children behind, the cost on the children and the cost on the parents and the extended family as well. It's one of those things that you don't actually get to read about quite as much in memoirs of crossing and representations of crossings, where we see so much about what it's like to actually cross the border.
And we don't get to see what happens to those who are left behind. This book was published in 2012, after Reyna had written two novels herself. And you can see that in the way that this book is constructed is an exquisite arc of storytelling. We watch, as the book goes on, as the point of view develops and complicates, as it then gets older, as her parents separate, as she begins to be able to observe this father that was gone for eight years of her childhood. And then as she gets to know him, she actually knows him even less. I think at this point, it would be smart to bring Reyna on and she can speak to these experiences and this extraordinary book, which, God help us, I hope it's a future classic. Reyna, it's such a nice thing to see you.
Reyna Grande: Hey, so good to be here.
John Freeman: Oh, well, I have a lot of questions for you and there's already questions pouring in from the audience. So what's going to happen over the next hour is I'll ask her some questions and she'll read. And then at some point we'll bring in Marissa Lopez, who is Associate Professor of English and Chicana/o studies at UCLA to put the book in context. But first Reyna, let me begin with this extraordinary book, which is told mostly from a child's eye perspective, you kind of look at this, you tell the story as if you are eight years old, nine years old, 10 years old, 11. What some of the challenges of going back to that time and recreating that point of view and why did you do it that way?
Reyna Grande: Yeah. Thank you. That's a really good question. I actually struggled a little bit to figure out what the point of view was going to be, because I've read memoirs that are written from an adult perspective looking back, and then I've read memoirs that are only child perspective with no adult. And I tried both ways and it wasn't working. So then I ended up having mostly child perspective, but also being able to bring in some of my adult thoughts also and it allowed me to provide some more information to the reader that I wouldn't have known at that time as a child.
I guess the challenging part was the early years of my childhood, I had some very vivid memories and then I also had a lot of gap in my memories, especially in part one. Part two was easier for me because I remembered most of that, but part one was harder and I relied a lot on my older sister's memories. So she helped me to fill in the gaps and then my brother also helped me to fill in those gaps and I found his is really interesting because he remembers stuff that only a boy would remember. And I thought it was kind of cool to pick his brain and to see our life through his eyes.
John Freeman: The book changes quite a bit between the first and second part. And the second part, you go back to where you grew up in Iguala, Mexico and see that place from an older perspective, but also from the perspective of someone who'd been living in America. But in the first half you see it and it sometimes feels a tiny bit like a fairytale. The way you tell later in the book you describe when you become a reader in fifth, sixth, seventh grade, that you fell in love with fairytales and this story has a lot of those elements. You have kind of grumpy if not evil, but certainly someone unpleasant guardian who puts you through lots of challenges. There's a long journey to go on and I wonder if you were thinking about that when you were crafting the first half of this book, because in that first part, there is this feeling like we're being enchanted into a story that's about to give us what we're expected.
Reyna Grande: Hmm. Oh, well, thank you so much for thinking of it that way. Definitely, I mean, I didn't set out to write a fairytale or to recreate that feeling of fairy tale, but I feel that maybe it was an organic thing that happened because as a child, I listened to a lot of fairytales on the radio. And I love fairytales and fairytales help me to understand my world a little bit better.
And definitely I mentioned a little bit about the Three Little Pigs in the book and how, when I heard that story of The Three Little Pigs helped me to understand why my father had left, and what the Brick House meant to him. And then I love the story of Hansel and Gretel, and I understood their pain of being abandoned by their father. So the stepmother, right in fairytales tends not to be a very good stepmother and I didn't have an evil stepmother, but she was very indifferent and very unloving. So I always felt that my life did have some elements of fairytale in there, but sadly it was my reality and I'm really happy to know that at least it came with a happy ending.
John Freeman: Yeah. I wonder if you could read from the very beginning of the book, because that might share with the audience, the kind of the mood and tenor of the story as you begin.
Reyna Grande: Yeah. Yeah. So I'm going to read the epila no, the prologue. I really like the prologue because it actually used to be part of a chapter, maybe chapter two, chapter three. And I had a writing teacher who asked me, "Why are Latinos always writing about [foreign language 00:44:46]?" And she said, "[foreign language 00:00:44:48] such a cliche. You should get rid of it." So I feel that [foreign language 00:44:54] is such an important part of my culture and I didn't want to get rid of it. So instead I moved that section to the opening and that's how it ended up becoming the prologue.
My father's mother liked to scare us with stories of the weeping woman who roams the canal and steals children away. She would say that if we didn't behave, [foreign language 00:00:45:21] would take us far away where we would never see our parents again. My other grandmother would tell us not to be afraid of [foreign language 00:45:31]. That if we prayed, God, [foreign language 00:20:34], and the saints would protect us from her. Neither of my grandmothers told us that there's something more powerful than [foreign language 00:00:45:43]. A power that takes away parents, not children. It is called the United States. In 1980, when I was four years old, I didn't know yet where the United States was or why everyone in my hometown of Iguala, Guerrero referred to it as the Other Side. What I knew back then was that [foreign language 00:21:08] had already taken my father away. What I knew was that prayers didn't work, because if they did, [foreign language 00:21:18] wouldn't be taking my mother away too.
John Freeman: That's beautiful. Reyna, I wonder if you could tell us for some of the audience who maybe haven't read the book yet, when your father was away, your mother, the book begins, you're moving out of the house or apartment, and you move in with your father's mother who has children of her own. And tell us about that situation when you moved in with her, what was it like? And you're with your sister and your brother and how did that affect the three of you together?
Reyna Grande: Yeah, this is a very common experience when parents migrate, they leave their children in the care of relatives. So for me, I was left with my paternal grandmother, and she was not very happy about the burden of having to take care of three grandchildren. And she was already taking care of my cousin, Elida, whose mother had come to the United States several years before my father did. So my grandmother was already taking care of my cousin. And then here, my mother comes and drops off three more children for her to take care of, and she was not happy about it. And she made it very clear from the very first day we arrived that we were a burden to her and that we were on our own.
It was very difficult to live in that situation, because my siblings and I had just experienced a big trauma of having to watch our mother walk away from us and go to another country and not knowing if we were ever going to see her again or see my father again. So coming to live in this household where we didn't get the love and the nurturing that we needed, it just really increased our trauma even more and we developed this sense of feeling unwanted and unloved. And that's really hard for a child to feel that way, to constantly feel that nobody around you loves you enough. And that I think it really affected my self-esteem for a very long time. So I'm still trying to walk through that trauma that I experienced at my grandmother's house.
John Freeman: Hmm. Yeah. One of the beautiful elements of that period of the book when you're describing living with your first grandmother, you describe how you and your siblings began to look out for each other. So when Carlos wants to run across town to spend some time with the family that he knows will actually properly feed him, you and your sister kind of distract your grandmother in order that he doesn't get caught. And so on one hand, there are these passages that show you and your siblings developing a protective instinct around each other, but simultaneous there's this growing capacity in you as an observer to constantly be trying to figure out or ask why you're not being loved? And I wonder if in your development as a writer, if you ever wonder if that experience has made you the powerful observer that experience has made you the powerful observer that you are, because this book is so potently observed and the characters of your mother and father, if they begin as fairytale characters, by the end of this book, they're incredibly complex and many-sided.
Reyna Grande: Oh, thank you. They weren't always that complex in my earlier drafts. When I first started writing the book, I made the mistake of thinking that because my parents were real, I didn't have to work too hard to develop them as characters because they were real, I always thought that, Oh, they're going to be real on the page. And later when I was reading my first draft, I felt like, Oh my God, my parents are so undeveloped. So then I had to look at them, the way I look at my fictional characters, I work really, really hard to develop them. And I look at the three dimensions of character and I had to look at my parents that way. And it was really, really wonderful to be able to stop looking at my parents through a daughter's eyes, and instead look at them through a writer's eyes.
And I was more compassionate of them. I had so much more compassion and understanding of my parents when I saw them through a writer's eyes. And that really came across in the book, the way I wrote about them. I understood them so much more after I finished writing the book, but I think as a child, I was always observing and even as an adult, I'm still observing. I'm very introverted. So I'm always looking and listening and paying attention to my surroundings. So I've been like that since I was a kid. And of course, since my older sister was the one who was always at the forefront of everything and she was always protecting me. And I was usually hiding behind my sister's skirts or hiding in her shadow, feeling protected and just watching the world and trying to understand the world.
John Freeman: About halfway through the book, your parents come back and then you're about to cross over. And one thing I found very interesting about your memoir is the elements of which you often read about in the news. The crossing, you go when you're about in eighth grade to Tijuana, to the US Consulate to file paperwork. The moment that you get your green cards, eventually, I wouldn't say they're glossed over, but they're not described at length. The things which are described at length are the characters, your grandmothers, your cousin, your aunt, and then your mother and your father, and what the move does to you and your siblings. And I wondered if that was a deliberate decision to try to focus on what was happening at home rather than the official parts of the crossing and journey.
Reyna Grande: Well, I'm much more interested in relationships. So for me, the focus was really about exploring the relationships between me and my parents or my siblings, and that was my biggest interest. And I felt that writing about the border cross scene or writing about how we pursued our legal status, I mentioned it because it was important, but I didn't want to spend too much time talking about it. I feel like if somebody wants to know a little bit more about the process, they could Google it and get the information.
And also I'm not a journalist, so I wasn't writing from a journalistic perspective where I was able to add a lot of detail and a lot of context. I just wanted to write my story and keep it really personal, because that's something that I feel that when you read a newspaper article, you don't get that. You don't get that humanity of the experience. So I wanted to make sure that that's where the focus was in the book.
John Freeman: Well, I think this is why this book is so widely read and is being taught. [ZD Cabrera 00:04:44] wrote in the comments, "I love your book. I can personally relate to your story. My mother came to the US first and then sent for us, dad and brothers years later. I was six years old when we crossed the border. Today, I remind my kids that they will never experience poverty or go through what I went through because we live in a country that offers opportunities that my home country didn't offer. Thank you for sharing your story."
Reyna, I wonder if at this point, if we could bring in Marissa Lopez who's the Associate Professor of English and Chicana/o Studies at UCLA and the author of Chicano Nations. And Marissa can put this book in a literary and cultural context with other memoirs of crossing. Marissa, do you want to take this from here?
Marissa Lopez: I will take it from here, thank you. And thanks for having me. I'm really delighted to be here talking about Reyna's book. So I have just a few minutes to share with you three things. I'm going to put this book into some literary historical context. I'm going to make one, inside baseball argument about specific interventions. I see this book making in Chicana and Chicano literature, and then I'm going to close by using the book to oppose some theoretical questions about why we read and why and how we can read this book.
So, first context, what's this book? How can we think about it? The Distance Between Us offers, those of you who have read it know there's a picture of Mexican migration to the United States, and a view of immigration policy from below. So we see how legislation is lived and the impact that it has on individuals and families.
And so there's a cluster of contemporary books that we could think of as being on the same bookshelf with Reyna's. I'm thinking of something like Javier Zamora's 2017 collection of poetry, Unaccompanied. That's about his migration from El Salvador to the United States at age nine, alone. There's also Karla Cornejo Villavicencio's The Undocumented Americans that just came out earlier this year. It's generically really different from the Reyna's because it's pointedly not a memoir, but it's a collective telling of a similar story. There's also Valeria Luiselli's two books, Tell Me How It Ends, the Lost Children Archive. I'm just going to throw some titles out there, you can Google them.
And of course, one of the most well-known writers working in this metier of crossing and the border is Luis Alberto Urrea who, since the early '90s has been turning out award-winning, creative, non-fiction about the US-Mexican border, as well as fiction and poetry and memoir. So if you liked Reyna's book and you haven't read Urrea's work, you should definitely check out his books, especially his 2005, The Devil's Highway, which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer.
So Villavicencio, Zamora, Luiselli, Urrea and Reyna herself are contemporary flash points on a pretty long timeline of border crossing narratives. And I want to talk briefly this evening about one of the earliest and that's Daniel Venegas' The Adventures of Don Chipote, which was published in 1928.
And that novel follows Don Chipote, his friend Policarpo and his dog Skinenbones as they head North to work on the railroad. And they experienced discrimination, but also adventure and girlfriends who are also flappers, because it's the '20s. And the book has some serious moments, but mostly it's really funny except for the conclusion. So the moral of the story in that book is that being Mexican in the United States is a living hell. It's impossible to get ahead financially and Mexicans should just stay in Mexico.
So Don Chipote is interesting for lots of reasons, but mostly because it's so old and that undercuts two key assumptions that non-Latinos in the US tend to have about Latinos. First, people tend to assume that immigration from Latin America is a more contemporary, much later 20th century phenomenon, but there were migration circuits since before there was a border and people were writing about them.
And two, this leads to the second assumption, that people are usually surprised to learn that Latino literature predates the civil rights era. Latinos didn't start writing in the 1960s. That's just when Anglo-America started paying attention to us.
So there's a lot of 19th and 20th century Mexican-American writing about all kinds of stuff and a fair amount like Chipote about migration. So Chipote is noteworthy though, for being published right on the heels of the Johnson-Reed Act, which passed in 1924. And that act, it set national quotas for US immigration and it completely banned immigration from Asia.
So Venegas is writing as immigration laws have tightened significantly and the border is beginning to be militarized in 1924. And we see this in a really convoluted, but funny descriptions of how Chipote actually gets across. And one of the things that he has to do is go through a fumigation station, which reminds us that the very first border stations were actually health screening posts meant to stop the spread of typhus, which is oddly relevant for us right now in 2020 in the midst of an actual global pandemic.
But Venegas is writing at a really different moment in border history than Reyna is. And I'm going to come back to that idea in just a couple of minutes in the closing, but before I do, I just want to make my inside baseball argument. There's one immediate plot level connection between Chipote and The Distance Between Us is that Chipote is a father who leaves his family behind and spends a lot of time missing them. He does get a girlfriend, who's a flapper, but eventually Dona Chipota returns, or comes back. Doesn't come back, she crosses into the United States to take Don Chipote back to Mexico where he belongs, which is the language of the book. And it sounds serious, but Venegas manages to make it funny.
But the plot twist, sets up my point, that Chipote is a really great example of something called [Spanish 00:10:55], this idea of Mexico on the outside. And this is an idea promulgated by Mexican intellectuals who are living in exile in the United States during the revolution, the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century. So the idea basically is that, Okay, we're in the United States now, but we've got to keep being as Mexican as possible so that we can go back as soon as it's safe. So Mexicanidad or Mexicanness was seen as under constant attack from Anglo-America. And the biggest chinks in the armor are women, as these writers perceive it. So the early 20th century, Mexican-American, cultural elite like Venegas is really invested in controlling women's behavior as this way to preserve cultural integrity.
So Reyna's is a really different book in many ways, but what I want to highlight is that this book is woman-centered. It's about the world-making power of women. And I'm inclined to read the struggle to reconcile with the father, to understand the father as a rejection of this idea of women as bearers and preservers of culture and an assertion by contrast of women as cultural producers. So returning to Mexico is not the way forward for the women in this book, but staying in the United States, doesn't herald the end of Mexicanidad the way writers like Venegas thought.
So the 21st century mainstream press, however, is not comparing to The Distance Between Us to The Adventures Don Chipote, and this book has been compared to lots of things. It's been compared to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. That is the blurb that's on my copy, at any rate. Angela's Ashes or in at least one review to Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle and here, I'm rounding the corners of my theoretical observation.
So why Jeannette Walls? Why Frank McCourt? I have yet to see a mass market book by a Latino writer that did not compare them to a white writer. So why and what does that tell us about why we read and what we expect from non-white writers and what does any of that have to do with Reyna's book and how we're going to read Reyna's book?
So my edition has this comparison to, I'm looking at it here, it has this comparison to McCourt. There's also a blurb on the cover of mine by Sandra Cisneros. And it's right on top of that blurb about Angela's Ashes, which came from an LA Times review by Hector Tobar. Hector Tobar's name is not on the cover of this book, but LA Times is. So Tobar is also a really well known writer, Latino writer who, according to whoever marketed this book, didn't have as much name recognition as Cisneros or The Times.
More recent additions have a blurb by Cheryl Strayed on the cover, which also makes my point that non-white writers are deemed valuable and made legible through their proximity to whiteness. And so I just thought that comment about more from Reyna and I'm going to be done in 30 seconds.
So proximity to whiteness. And the counterargument, I can explain that more in the Q and A, but I'll finish up here. The counterarguments, when I'm saying is that this kind of referential thinking actually reminds me of why is it just a way to connect across difference, right? That in the words of one reviewer, that reading Reyna's book allows us to focus on "The way that some experiences transcend specific culture or ethnicity." And so that impulse to look for similarity over difference is what we academics like to call problematic, because the important thing about this book, at least to my mind, is not that the Reyna character is just like you, because she's not like you and she's not like me. And she's not like anybody else who tries to cross the US-Mexico border today. Because today, we just can't do what Reyna and her family did.
We live in a world that's very different from the one described in this book. And the US-Mexican border was becoming increasingly militarized when Reyna was in college during the Clinton administration. Since then, the Border Patrol's budget has nearly quadrupled. In the mid '90s, there were about 50 miles of actual fencing along the border, today, there are nearly 700 miles.
Apprehensions on the border have decreased by around half since then, but deaths have more than doubled. So today, Reyna and her siblings would likely have ended up either dead, detained or deported. So even as we appreciate this book, we have to take responsibility for our complicity in the impossibility of this story in 2020. And that means, to take responsibility, means that we have to read this book for the differences between us and of Reyna, and between Reyna and all of the other people who didn't and won't ever make it.
And Marissa out. I'll hand it back to John and Reyna.
John Freeman: Thank you so much, Marissa. After our event, there will be a link with many of the books that Marissa mentioned in that wonderfully rich context.
Reyna, as I was listening to Professor Lopez speak, it occurred to me that within your own book, as your voice evolves, as you get older, you start to describe ways that you are beginning to express yourself. Once you've arrived in the US, and it begins with letters that you write home to your mother, and none of them are answered, which I think is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the book. And you and your siblings are writing these letters together. And I wonder if you can take us back to that time and describe what you thought was happening in that period of silence?
Reyna Grande: Yeah. I think before I answer your question, John, I would really love to say something about what Marissa said, because I thought-
John Freeman: Yeah, sorry. Please go ahead.
Reyna Grande: ... It was very interesting that she brought out a lot of good points. And when she said that in today's America, Reyna would have ended up dead, detained or deported, they like, Oh, it hurt me because it's so true. And I think about that all the time, Marissa, especially when I read the news about these children, the children that are being detained, the children that are being separated from their parents or the children that are found dead at the border, I take it personally because I see myself in them. And I know last year there was a little girl, I think she was seven years old who was found dead by Border Patrol in the middle of nowhere, I think she died of dehydration and it just really, really hurt me.
And when I was hearing about Trump separating children from their parents and then blaming the parents, and they said, "If the parents don't want their children taken away from them, then they shouldn't bring them in the first place." And I thought about my father and about the difficult choices that he had to make as a parent. And he was faced with two choices and he did make both of them. The first choice was to leave me behind, which is a choice that so many parents are forced to make, to leave their children behind, to go look for something better for them. And then the second choice is to bring them along and risk their lives. And my father also made that choice later on. And yes, definitely I could have ended up dead when we got caught by Border Patrol.
Luckily back then, they were not separating children from their parents. So when we got caught at the border, they would take us to a processing center. Mostly, it was my dad who was brought into the office to be interrogated and processed. And then they would just drive us back to the border in a van. And the next day we tried again. If we were trying to cross today, that would not have been the case. We would definitely have been taken away from our father for who knows how long and my life would have been completely different than it is today.
So I just want to acknowledge that because I know it's something that I do think a lot about in today's America compared to the America that I came to live in. And if there's a bigger difference to address, it's of course that when I came to the United States, the next year after I arrived, we had the amnesty, the Amnesty of 1986, which legalized 3 million people, including both of my parents. And we have not seen immigration reform to that scale ever since, and it's been 30 years. So I really would love to, I wish we had more time to talk about this, but I'm very grateful to Marissa for having brought up this moment for us to think about what kind of country we have become today and where do we want to go from here and what kind of country do we want to be?
So, John, going back to your question about my mother, I have a very difficult relationship with my mom even to this day, definitely as a mother myself now, I have come to understand her a lot and to really see why she did what she did and try to be more compassionate and forgiving towards her because I know that being a mother, being a wife, being a woman is hard and she made some choices that I wish she hadn't made, but I feel that as a mother myself now, I also have made some choices that who knows how my children are going to be traumatized. And who knows what they're going to tell me 10, 15 years from now about the kind of mother I was to them. So I have learned to be more loving towards my mom.
John Freeman: Well, one of the commenters has noticed that one of the presiding ethics over this memoir is one of forgiveness. And without revealing too much about the second half of the memoir, I think it's fair to say as a child, you felt abandoned, first by your father and then later by the mother when she came to the US but didn't come and see you and your siblings. And when you went across town in Los Angeles to see her, she had another child with another boyfriend and you felt pushed aside.
And I think what Marissa was addressing among many things and in her points there, was the fact that you don't direct all of your attention to understanding your father, but understanding all the people in your life, many of them, women. And I guess I want to ask you where that ethic of forgiveness came from? Did it come through the act of writing or were there other support structures or processes underway that allowed you to come to that point of view of forgiveness?
Reyna Grande: Well, I think first of all, I got a little bit of that maybe from my maternal grandmother, my Abuelita Chinta, she was very sweet when we lived with her, very loving and I aspired to be that kind of person that she was. Although, according to my mother, she was not always a sweet, loving woman, but she was to me. And that is how I remember grandmother. My sister, my older sister, because she was older, she was really aware of our situation. And she took the brunt of it. She was always trying to protect me as much as she could. And she held onto to a lot of toxic emotions. She was very angry and she always tried to express her anger by hurting others. And I would see my sister the way she struggled with her anger and with her pain and not knowing what to do with it, so that it became something very negative.
I was very fortunate because when I discovered writing, it allowed me to learn how to express my feelings and how to express myself in a way that didn't hurt me and didn't hurt other people. And it allowed me to remove all the toxicity in my body and just literally, just put it on the page. So when I wrote the memoir, that's something that happened to me.
I wrote the memoir. That's something that happened to me in the process of writing the memoir. It allowed me to take out all of the things that were hurting me, all of this trauma, all of this painful memories. I put into the book, the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially the ugly. I knew I had to take it out of me.
And once I finished writing the book, I had gone through this process of transformation where I felt liberated, where I felt that I could finally start to heal from the experiences, where I could finally understand and really get the deeper meaning of my experiences.
And it also filled me with gratitude, because I realized that so many of those things that I resented, and that I wish had never happened, are the very things that have now allowed me to have the life that I love. I love my life, I love who I am. And I wouldn't have these things, if I hadn't gone through what I went through.
So then, I started to look at my life in terms of gratitude, and compassion, and understanding, instead of regretting and being ashamed of it, and wishing that it had never happened.
John Freeman: Wow! Thank you. I mean, one of the attendees said, "I used to wonder if one day I would see myself and my family fully reflected in the books I read. Thanks to you I have, thank you for capturing our history. I'm so grateful for you Reyna. I see my mother's story, my grandmother's story, and my story." And there's many comments like this, I won't be able to say all of them.
And I was struck, in 2000 you became a ESL teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District, and you taught students, and you found them telling stories like the story you've told us in this book.
And I wonder what that dual experience did for you as a memoirist. These two jobs were before you published your first two novels. On one hand reading students young children stories and one hand reading the stories to the parents.
Reyna Grande: Yeah. When I was a middle school teacher, I was teaching beginning ESL. So, I got all the recent arrivals. All the immigrant children that had just crossed the border, they were learning English. And I heard so many similar stories, so many experiences that I had gone through they had gone through as well. And I guess the best thing that happened was that I realized I wasn't alone, that it hadn't just happened to me, that it was happening still to these children.
So, it made me feel connected to them in a way in all that. I might not have been connected, but it just made me feel less alone. Then, when I switched over to teach adults ESL, I was now teaching parents. And what that allowed me to see was, I saw my parents in my students. And it helped me to understand their perspective in that, so many of them were coming to my classroom after having worked all day in blue collar jobs and they were exhausted, but they came because they wanted to learn English so that they could get better jobs, so that they could help their children with their homework.
And I had so much compassion for them. And then I understood what it must have been like for my parents. And my father, when I was a teenager, he started going to adult school also to learn English. So, it brought back those memories of me watching my father go off to adult school. And I feel that this experiences as a teacher helped me to understand myself a little more, and also understand my parents a little more.
John Freeman: There's several teachers Reyna in the comment section, Sandy Lynn, who teaches ESL to adults at San Diego Community College, and has done for 30 years. Each spring she teaches immigrant experience writing class and she's been reading The Distance Between Us. And she said, you came to the class and you were great. So, five stars on Yelp for that.
But in all seriousness, there's just so many comments in the comments queue like Sandra Flakes, "As I taught your book three times in a general education course, literature for life, and it inspired several students to write memoirs and stories based on their own life."
Another commenter said it just basically reading your book, made her want to finish her BA. One comment here, a question I think I might bring us back to some of the things that Professor Lopez was saying by Kathleen, was about how you might like your book to be taught, and how can teachers of immigrant children use your book to understand immigration and its force on children? How would you like it to be taught?
Reyna Grande: Yeah, yeah. Hi Kathleen. Thanks for inviting your students to this discussion. So good to see you here. I think one of the things that was really surprising to me when the book was published, was the responses that I started getting from different kinds of readers. Because when I wrote the book, I dedicated it to the dreamers.
And the one reason why I did that was because for me it was really important for non-immigrants, to understand more about the experiences of our undocumented youth. And at the time when I was writing the book, the Dream Act had failed to pass yet again. And I was really, really angry about how as a country, we were denying our undocumented youth, the opportunity to legalize their status and to be able to reach their full potential, so that they could contribute to our society.
And we're cheating ourselves by cheating them. And I wanted that through my book for people to understand, who these undocumented children are. And why it's important for us to support them, and to give them a path to legalization. Like I was given that opportunity, and at 15 I became a legal resident. And it changed my life, and I took the Green Card and I ran with it. So, I hear from people who tell me that because of my book they've gotten a deeper understanding, and they're more supportive of the Dream Act of some path to legalization. So, I really hope we can continue to push forward with that.
And the other reader of course, as an immigrant reader who sees himself, or herself in my story. And to me, that was also really important because as an immigrant reader, I hardly ever saw any books that reflected my experience as an immigrant.
So it made me really happy to be able to provide this book for immigrant readers, and for them to be able to see themselves in literature. And to know that their story is important enough to be in a book. And it's very empowering when you see your story reflected in the pages of a book that you read.
But the biggest surprise for me was when I started to hear from children of immigrants, who tell me that when they read my book, it helped them to understand what their parents went through, or what their grandparents went through.
And that has been really important to me because, I wasn't really thinking about the children of immigrants when I was working on the book. And it makes me so happy whenever I hear that because of my book, children of immigrants have a better relationship, or a better understanding of who their parents are. And also to want to celebrate their roots, and to celebrate where they come from.
And that's important to me because now my children are children of an immigrant parent. So, I want my children to be able to feel that way too. I want them to feel that connection with me as their immigrant mother, and I want them to celebrate where they come from.
John Freeman: Hmm. Wow. That's really powerful. After you come to the United States in the second half of the book and you go to school, you learn to play the saxophone. You fall in love with certain boys, you're in the marching band. You make it seem really cool. I'm not sure how you pulled that one off. There's some very sweet moments, but you're also learning how to figure out who you are and how to tell your story.
And at some point after high school, you begin to read Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez and Latino writers from a generation older than you. Writers whom amazingly, of course, deservedly you've now shared a stage with. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what those writers meant to you, and I'll bring Marissa on now as well, because I think she might be able to ask you a question on the back of your answer.
Reyna Grande: Yeah. I was just telling my friend yesterday, how Sandra Cisneros, and Julia Alvarez, Ana Castillo. All these Chicana writers, were the age I am now, when I was reading them in my 20s. And so now, it makes me think about the 20 year olds, who are reading my work. And I'm really like hoping that I can inspire them to tell their stories, so that in 20 years they have all these books out too, and they're inspiring the next 20 year olds.
So, it's this beautiful connection that I have with the older generation of Chicana-Latina writers. And it makes me feel that I have a place in Chicano literature, and that I've come full circle because I admire them so much. And their work inspired me to become a writer.
And now my work is inspiring other young Latinas to become writers. And we're just connected that way, and we're going to keep it going. And another thing that I really appreciate about these writers like Sandra is that, they paved the way because when they were trying to get the work published, it was very difficult for them. And they weren't getting as many opportunities as Latino, Chicano writers.
So, they got a machete and they just made a path for themselves. And I've benefited from that. And I'm trying to widen that path for the next generation.
Marissa Lopez: I love that you keep talking about community and threads of continuity and that I'm just going to ask you to think about difference that's like my light motif for the evening. And maybe this is a hard question for you to answer, but you're both generationally distinct from those kind of early, fore parents of Chicano literature. And also you're a Mexican foreign, and you're differently located geographically. Ana Castillo is in Chicago, and Sandra Cisneros is in Texas, and Alvarez in the East.
So, given all those differences. I mean, how do you understand your voice is generationally distinct? What are the concerns of the 21st century Chicana writer? I know they're all still [inaudible 00:13:16].
Reyna Grande: Well, first of all, it's kind of different because, Sandra, Ana Castillo they're Chicana. So, they're writing about the experience of being Mexican-American, whereas I'm an immigrant, right. So I'm writing more from that perspective of what it's like to be an immigrant in the United States. And I hardly ever called myself a Chicana because I feel like I don't have a right to call myself a Chicana because I wasn't born here.
So, I call myself a Latina more than I call myself a Chicana, or Mexican-American writer, but emphasizing the Mexican part. So, I feel that their experience is somewhat different for mine. And my writing, I mean, every single book I've written and even the novel that I'm finishing right now, it's about immigration.
So, that's what I write about. And that is the topic that most interests me. And I want to make sure that whenever my reader picks up a book, it will give them a deeper understanding of the immigrants that live in this country.
John Freeman: Reyna, I want to say that Palo Serantes is also a child of immigrants and a LAUSD, All City Marching Band alumni.
Reyna Grande: Yay!
John Freeman: So, if you want to give that [crosstalk 01:29:50].
Reyna Grande: Oh, sweetie.
John Freeman: ... fellow shout out. One thing, that's coming up a lot in the questions and most of this is a kind of interesting dialectic perhaps, which is that people have a lot of questions about the cruelty, or temporary cruelty of Abuela Evila and how it's portrayed in the book, and how you eventually came to grips with that being just part of your family history. And how you were able to forgive her.
And I think Marissa what you're describing and sort of a more recent waves of migration, is a cruelty that seems more directed by the state on the bodies of migrants. And I don't know if that's worth parsing out here, but Reyna in that-
Reyna Grande: Yeah. So, I'll talk about my grandma, because that's a question I get a lot about my evil grandmother. And by the way, her name was Evila. I didn't make that up, people ask me if I made it up. I did not, her name was Evila. So yeah, with my grandmother, I had a really interesting experience when I was in my 20s, I was in college.
I went to Mexico during my winter break to visit my grandmother, my good grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. And while I was there, my good grandmother told me I should go visit my evil grandmother, even though I didn't want to. She said, "You have to go visit her, I hear her health is not very good."
So, I went to visit her, and I was really hoping to have a conversation with her and asked her, you know what, why she had been so, so mean.
But when I got there, I realized I was never going to have that conversation with my grandma because she was very sick, and she had kind of digressed. And she, was thin like a child. And she thought that everybody around her were either her parents, or her siblings. So she didn't know who I was when I walked into the room.
And then she started doing this really weird thing where she started to go like this in her arm. Like she was picking something off her arm. And I said, "Grandma, what are you doing?" And she said, "The maggots, the maggots are eating me."
And it really freaked me out because there was nothing there on her arm. And I ran out of the room and I asked my aunt, "Why does she think that she has maggots in her arm?" And my aunt told me that when my grandma was a little girl, she had gotten the measles and the sore got so infected. She had maggots crawling on them.
And my grandma had to pick up the maggots from her arm. And her parents were too poor to take her to the doctor. So, after that experience, I started to think of my grandma's a little girl who was so poor. She couldn't go to the doctor, and she had to pull out the maggots from her own flesh.
And after that, I just couldn't be angry at her, you know. After that, whatever resentment I had, I just let it go. And I realized that my grandma had had a very cruel life and he had turned her into a cruel person. And unfortunately, she passed on that cruelty to my father. And I realized that I was going to have to break that cycle. And that was what I learned from that experience.
John Freeman: Wow! We're actually getting a little short on time. Marissa was there anything you wanted to follow up with Reyna about?
Marissa Lopez: I was just going to say, I hope that that story... I'm inclined to read that story as an aspirational analog for the future of our country. I mean, obviously the United States sponsored violence is related, but different than the kind of familial violence Reyna that you experienced. But I like this idea of how you just articulated it.
It was not effective, or useful to be angry. And you had to go to like break a cycle of violent, anger and be the change basically. So, maybe we're at a similar turning point in our nation's history.
Reyna Grande: Yes for sure.
John Freeman: There's several questions in the common queue, one by [Bega 01:34:33] Shivaz about, "Thank you for your luminous book. You spoke about wondering what kind of country America's going to be in the future." Several of the people I've asked, do you feel more optimistic at this point after the election? Sorry to drop the big question on you at the end but, do you have any-
Reyna Grande: Well, yes I feel optimistic because honestly, with Trump moving out of the White House is something I was really looking forward to. So, I'm really glad to see that it's going to happen very soon. I have big hopes for Biden, although I have learned not to be unrealistic in my expectations of my political leaders.
I think with Obama, the Latino community had huge expectations that he was not able to live up to. And obviously it wasn't all his fault I know that he had challenges to overcome in terms of being able to fulfill the promises that he made to the Latino community. I hope that Biden is able to pick up on some of those things.
Reyna Grande: And hopefully, what didn't happen during the Obama administration I hope it happens under the Biden administration when it comes to the immigrant community, having more opportunities.
John Freeman: Hmm, well, Reyna, it's been a very fast hour. There's so many more questions we could ask you. There's so many appreciations in the chat comment queue for your wonderful book, Distance Between Us. It's really a great California book.
It's been such a pleasure talking to having you here on The Alta California Book Club with Professor Marissa Lopez, who I think we would definitely have to have back in several capacities.
You can check out more online about this, but before we sign off, I'm going to bring back David Ulin who will take us out. And I think give us some information about where to go. If you want to read more about what Reyna, or Marissa talked about tonight.
Reyna Grande: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here.
John Freeman: It's just a joy.
David Ulin: Thank you John. Thank you Reyna. That was really remarkable. And what a fascinating conversation, really beautiful. On behalf of Alta, I want to thank Reyna and I want to thank Marissa for participating in this and bringing such intelligence and insight and enjoy to the event. And thanks to John as always for doing the interview.
I also want to thank the selection panel, the California Book Club selection panel, which I neglected to thank, and the opening remarks, that is the panel that sort of selects the books for the book club. It includes John and Marissa as well as Lynell George, Danzy Senna, Oscar Villalon, Paul Yamazaki, and myself.
I want to tell you that next month on December 17th, the book club selection will be Walter Mosley's novel Devil in a Blue Dress, which transformed the hard-book mystery genre when it came out in 1990.
So, please come back for that. Please remember to sign up and get the bundle. The one year Alta Journal membership, the paperback editions of America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and Southland by Nina Revoyr, and that magnificent tote bag. I'm just going to be talking about that tote bag for a while.
So, please sign up for that. Also, if you are in the audience, we would love for you to participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as the event ends. Oh, I should also say this interview will be available if you want to see it again on @californiabookclub.com.
So, you can look for it there if you want to go back and see it again. And other than that, happy Thanksgiving to everyone. We will see you in December, stay safe, stay home, and keep yourself sane. Thank you very much for being here and have a good night.