Novelist Reyna Grande was 2 when her father left Mexico for the United States. It was a move that struck like an earthquake and soon disintegrated the Grande house.
It was 1976, and the family had been living in the dismal town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero. Mexico was coming off the boom years of the 1950s and ’60s with a population explosion. But soon the economy imploded. Massive unemployment, a devastating devaluation of the peso, and the persistent inability of the government to educate the masses led to a wave of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans going north in search of jobs.
So her father joined the exodus with hope and a few pesos in his pocket. Soon her mother followed, hoping to find him and bring him home. But years passed, and the children were left in the care of Grande’s paternal grandmother, the wicked and aptly named Evila. This episode in Grande’s life could have been plucked from Grimms’ fairy tales—she was so undernourished, she had worms in her belly, and Evila soaked her hair in kerosene to rid her of lice.
Instead the story is told in Grande’s new memoir, The Distance Between Us. It is a timely and a vivid example of how poverty and immigration can destroy a family. Grande and her siblings, like so many other children of immigrants, became los olvidados, the “forgotten ones,” left to fend for themselves and to eventually try to reunite with their parents.
When she was 9, her father finally returned to get her and her siblings. They made the terrifying journey north through the desert. Once she arrived across the border, she found that living in the U.S. was not an easy experience, and the parents she thought she knew had become broken and sad strangers. Her father was a tough disciplinarian with a tendency to beat her, but he did emphasize the importance of going to school, and Grande took that seriously. She is the only member of her family to graduate from college.
Even though Grande survived, her harrowing childhood stayed in her memories, and she felt she had to write it down. But first in novel form. The result was her first book, Across a Hundred Mountains, which chronicles the journey of two young women in search of their parents. Their exploits are at once harrowing and uplifting for their indomitable will to survive.
But Grande was still not done with purging her painful past. To write The Distance Between Us, she had to confront the anger she felt toward her parents for being abandoned. She was especially angry with her mother, who has never played the role of nurturer or protector. Her departure from her kids when they were young was like a severing of relations, an estrangement that has not eased to this day. But Grande was told by her editor that the first draft read like a “grudge” against them.
“The challenge for me was to remove all of the negative emotions that were coming across,” she sighs as she picked at a muffin in a café in Los Angeles, where she lives now. “I needed to know their fears, their aspirations, their past, their goals. I needed to give them their humanity.”
She went back to work, treating her parents as she would characters in a novel. While this did not lead to a reconciliation, especially with her mother, she did begin to see why they did what they did. Her father died this past year, having never read the memoir. Grande does not think he would have enjoyed it.
“He was such a private man, and I was exposing him to everyone,” she says. “He would have been very sad about it.”
Her mother is alive and well in Los Angeles, but she can’t read or write in English. She still collects bottles and cans from trash cans to make ends meet, Grande says, and she is a far cry from the mother the Grande children wish they had.
“My mother is oblivious to how we feel. She hasn’t changed a whole lot. That is why it has been hard for me to come to terms with the past,” she says. “We have very high expectations of what we wish our mother was like. And because she can’t meet those expectations, we are just setting ourselves up for disappointment after disappointment.” Her parents have been an absent yet powerful presence in Grande’s life.
So is Mexico.
As a child, Grande, now 37, wanted only to see the beauty of Mexico—its cobblestone streets, purple jacarandas, and crimson bougainvilleas. But the other reality was hard to ignore. “Banks lined with trash and debris floating in the water, the crumbling adobe houses, the shacks made of sticks, the children with worm-pregnant bellies running around with bare feet,” she wrote in The Distance Between Us. “Without my parents here, it was a place of broken beauty.”
And yet she is inextricably linked to the country of her birth. She returns to Iguala often, but also travels to other parts of the country. Sometimes she wishes she could live in idyllic cities like San Miguel de Allende, a tranquil tourist town.
“There is a very sad feeling that I have towards Mexico as something that I have lost,” she says. “I am an outsider looking in. Sometimes I dream about it and I long for it, and I don’t know why that is. I just do.”
Without Mexico, she would not have her writing, she says. Its looming presence has fed her craft and her imagination for years. “That is why I write about Mexico so much—because I try to hold on to it.”
Through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Grande family all became U.S. citizens. She recognizes how relevant her story is to the young people who were brought over by their parents illegally and are struggling to become members of society. Although she does not see herself as a role model or as politically active, she does want to connect with the latest generation of immigrants, who are waiting to see if Congress will pass the DREAM Act. She is a successful author who is married to an American and has two healthy children; she lives in a comfortable Los Angeles suburb. But her past is never forgotten, and she takes nothing for granted.
“Kids with a similar immigrant experience tell me they are happy to see a book that reflects their reality. I hope with the memoir that I can reach more kids,” she says. “That is the part I have really liked about the writing. It has opened the door for me to go to all these schools and talk to these kids and have a chance to encourage them to pursue their dreams. Life is hard, but you can’t let it beat you down.”