The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande
Washington Square Press, 2013; 322 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us: A Memoir tells the story of illegal immigration. But it also tells many other stories and shows how they are all connected. It tells the story of poverty that forces children out of school and into the fields. It tells the story of mothers who abandon their children and fathers who drink their worry away until they become violent. It tells the story, too, of children who rise above their poverty and abandonment and abuse to live out their dreams and contribute to the literary world.
Reyna Grande is four-years-old when her mother leaves her poverty-stricken town in Mexico to work in The United States. Her father is already there, and alone without parents, Reyna and her brother and sister live with their strict and sometimes cruel paternal grandparents. The narrator describes living in cardboard homes that flood in the monsoons and have scorpions crawling on the walls. More painful than her poverty, though, is her longing for her parents. She writes in simple, child-like language: “I felt I had a kind of scorpion inside me that was stinging my heart again and again.”
The first half of the book describes the children’s life in Mexico, and it is difficult to read. The poverty is unyielding, and the Grande siblings crave love and affection that their grandparents refuse to give. Then their father comes back from California and sweeps them away to live with him in The United States, and they believe that their troubles are at last over.
Of course they are not. In California the Grande children face discrimination from their teachers and classmates. They struggle to learn English, and they worry about being deported. At home their father is with another woman, and the children miss their mother who has gone back to Mexico. Their father drinks and flies into rages, beating his children frequently with his belt and fists.
I wonder often what makes a story more suited either to nonfiction or fiction, and The Distance Between Us begins to answer that question. This book must be nonfiction. The sadness in it is too relentless for fiction. Were this book fiction, it could be more easily discounted as unrealistic, an exaggeration meant to highlight the struggles of immigrant children. Grande chooses to publish it as nonfiction, though, and in so doing she forces her readers to accept her experiences as true. It really was that bad.
In the end the book becomes about the narrator’s struggles to understand her father. She dedicates the book to him, and she writes of him with compassion while also refusing to shield his reputation from times when he broke her nose or put his wife in the hospital. “You know, Chata,” her father tells her once; “when my father took me to the fields to work, my job was to guide the oxen in a straight line. My father gave me a rod and said that if the oxen didn’t listen to me, to hit them as hard as I could. I was nine years old, Chata. Do you understand?”
And she tries to understand. She tries to understand the poverty and the abuse that he experienced as a child and how it shaped him. She tries to forgive.
In the end, Reyna’s father is the one who pushes her into a better life. He tells her, “Just because we’re illegal doesn’t mean we can’t dream,” and she clings to that. He helps all his children get their green cards, and Reyna attends college and moves in with a professor for protection. This professor introduces her to Sandra Cisneros and other Chicana/o authors, and suddenly Reyna is no longer alone. There are others who share her experiences. Others who look and talk like she does.
The prose in this book is plain. The author presents her story with simplicity, choosing to focus the memoir on plot instead of language. The dialogue sometimes sounds stilted, especially when it is translated from Spanish. Despite this, the book is powerful and deserves to be read widely.
Grande’s story is not unique, she claims, stating that 80 percent of Latin American children have been separated at one point from a parent during migration, and The Distance Between Us highlights the many struggles that these children are facing. In depicting her own journey through immigration, Grande illustrates both the importance of reading experiences different from our own and the way that some experiences transcend specific culture or ethnicity. She speaks for children who grow up torn between two countries, children who grow up fighting poverty, children who grow up abandoned or abused, and children who somehow find the strength to rise out of all that. She is a voice I am glad exists in this world.