When author Reyna Grande’s 9-year-old son whined about walking to the local YMCA in their hometown of Whittier, California, she reminded him how lucky he and his sister were. “I ran across the U.S./Mexico border when I was your age,” Grande told her son. “You can walk 15 minutes to the daycare.”
A mother and wife, Grande is a survivor of a harrowing childhood in an impoverished Mexican village and a terrifying jaunt across the border with her father, older sister, and brother. Her story is told in memorable detail in her memoir, The Distance Between Us, which will be out August 28. The memoir, her third published book, is her most intimate. Her breakthrough debut, Across a Hundred Mountains, was a fictionalized account of two women searching for lost parents and crossing the border illegally.
It took many years for the 36-year-old author to get to the point where she could narrate the painful memories of her youth, some of which read like a Grimm fairy tale. The grinding poverty of her destitute village of Iguala, Guerrero, was only a few miles from the resort town of Acapulco. But the Grande family could not have been further away from the luxury of Acapulco resorts and romantic sunsets.
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Instead, hunger, beatings, neglect and sadness were the common refrains of her childhood. Abandoned by their father first, then by their mother, who followed her husband to El Otro Lado, the Grande children had to fend for themselves in a world where desperation and ignorance brought out cruelty in all. They were placed with their paternal grandmother, the properly named Evila. She not only tortured them with kerosene hair washes to rid them of lice or treated scorpion bites with useless onion and alcohol “remedies,” she also deprived them of food, clothing, and love.
THE PAIN OF REMEMBERING
For Grande, writing those details were not as tough, however, as writing about her parents.
Her mentor read the first draft and told her it read like a ‘big grudge against my parents,’ Grande says. “It helped a lot for him to point that out. He told me that even though I was writing about my life, it was a work of art,” she added, munching on a muffin in a local Starbucks. “It had to have a lot of weight and something that people could learn from.”
So she took a step back and began to see her parents as characters in a novel. She tried to understand their motivations, their backgrounds, and their personalities, with the cool neutrality of a fiction writer.
Writing about her mother was by far the hardest. Their mother returned to Mexico without her husband—he had found another woman. But then she abandoned her children again and again, leaving them in the care of her own mother. Once the children had made it to the U.S. with their father, they lived in California for six months without knowing that their mother had also made it across again and was living only a few miles from them in downtown Los Angeles.
“I started to see her as a woman who was a wife and who had fears of abandonment,” says Grande. “I started to see her as a woman who had her own desires.”
But even after viewing her mother through a different lens, it’s still hard to reconcile the woman she is with the woman her children wished she were.
“My mother is oblivious to how we feel. She hasn’t changed a whole lot,” says Grande. “That is why it has been hard for me to come to terms with the past. In many ways she is still behaving the same way, pushing us to the side.”
Yet, the process of writing has also made her strangely appreciate her mother’s need for independence. Grande, who is happily married to a fellow adult education teacher in Los Angeles, says she is often conflicted about her role as a mother and writer. The tension is most fraught when she leaves on book tours.
“There is a part of me that wants to stay but then there is a stronger part of me that wants to go out that door and have an adventure and be a writer without being torn,” she says. “When I am standing at the door with my suitcase, I am my mom. I understand my mom. But it is only at that moment. Sometimes when my kids get on my nerves, I think to myself, ‘what else do you want? I am here. Isn’t that enough?’ But I don’t want to think that way. I don’t want to measure my mothering that way.”
Grande was the only one of her siblings to graduate from college. She and her family were fortunate to have qualified for the Immigration Reform bill of 1986 which, among other things, granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982. Today, she is supportive of the DREAMers who are trying to push Congress into passing a bill that would grant college educated illegal immigrants some form of citizenship.
Mexico has been a font of inspiration for Grandes’ writing and she visits often. But when she returns to Iguala, she is also torn. While it saddens her to see her relatives still living in poverty and without much hope, Grande is grateful that her children were born into different circumstances. “I think to myself, ‘I went through that, I suffered for them, and they don’t have to go through it. And that makes me very happy.”