Reyna Grande was only four years old when her mother left her and her brother and sister. Two years earlier, their father, too, had gone north to the United States, leaving their town of Iguala, Guerrero, in Mexico, in the hope of earning a better living for the family by crossing to El Otro Lado, the other side. The trauma of feeling abandoned was compounded by the children having to go live with a grandmother who had no desire to take care of them and, worse, was physically abusive. As if out of a dark fairy tale, the cruel grandmother was named, no less, Evila.
What ultimately helped Grande was writing about her ordeal—especially in her heartrending and revelatory memoir The Distance Between Us. Published in 2012, the book—justly celebrated and no less relevant today—was the topic of discussion in the second gathering of Alta’s California Book Club, on November 19. Grande, who now lives in Northern California, took part in the virtual event that was moderated by host John Freeman. You can watch a video of the conversation here.
“We developed this sense of feeling unwanted and unloved,” Grande recalled of her childhood. “And that’s really hard for a child to feel that way, to constantly feel that nobody around you loves you enough, and I think it really affected my self-esteem for a very long time. I’m still trying to work through that trauma that I experienced at my grandmother’s house.”
Confronting her past, Grande explained, came as a blessing. “I was very fortunate, because when I discovered writing, it allowed me...to remove all the toxicity in my body and just literally put it on the page…. And once I finished writing the book, I had gone through this process of transformation where I felt liberated.”
Grande said the process 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.”
With time, she said, she was able to better comprehend how her parents, out of love, made their supremely difficult choices of leaving their children behind at home: “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.”
Grande emphasized that what she endured—being left alone with unsympathetic relatives, then trying to reconcile with her parents once she herself immigrated to the United States, at age nine—is not at all rare. “This is a very common experience,” she said. “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.”
During the live event, several book club members shared similar experiences in the interactive chat thread. “I can personally relate to your story,” wrote one member. “My mother came to the U.S. 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.”
Another book club member said that Grande’s book has encouraged a younger generation to explore their own experiences through the written word. She wrote, “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.”
Marissa López, a member of the book club’s selection panel, joined the discussion as a special guest. A professor of English and Chicana/o studies at UCLA, she stressed that as difficult as it was for Grande to make it across the border in 1985—she and her siblings and father succeeded on their third attempt—it would have been far riskier today.
“We live in a world that’s very different from the one described in this book,” López said. “The U.S.-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.” López added that this stark contrast means that “even as we appreciate this book, we have to take responsibility for our complicity in the impossibility of this story in 2020.”
Grande echoed López’s sentiment. “It’s so true,” she said. “I think about that all the time…. 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.”
This fraught moment, Grande said, should give us all pause to think about how we as a nation have changed. “What kind of country do we want to be?” she said.
Alta’s California Book Club will return on December 17 with a conversation with Walter Mosley. We’ll be talking about his celebrated novel Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in the author’s Easy Rawlins mystery series. For more information, click here.