After a well-attended successful launch of his third annual Idyllwild Author Series, Eduardo Santiago next presents Reyna Grande, author of “The Distance Between Us” (Atria Books, 2012).
Grande recounts in her memoir how, when she was two, her family life was devastated by the departure of first her father, then her mother, as undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. The family had lived in Iguala in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. An economic downturn caused massive unemployment and prompted her father’s departure in search of work. Two years later her mother followed, leaving Grande and her two older siblings with their uncaring paternal grandmother.
Grande related it was nearly eight years before her father returned for them, eight years of largely fending for themselves, given her grandmother’s detachment and cruelty. “I had not seen my dad in eight years,” she remembered. “We had all changed.”
During the interview, she talked of crossing the border. “We travelled three days on the bus to Tijuana,” she remembered. “My father hired a smuggler. On our first attempt we got caught and agents returned us to Tijuana. We tried again the next day and were caught again. The third time we left at night, and this time we made it.”
Reyna said they moved into their father’s one-bedroom apartment in Highland Park. The transition, she said, was very hard. “My parents had split up after my mother arrived in the U.S. My dad was difficult, very stern. I had spent eight years in Mexico dreaming of my father and even after we arrived in the U.S. part of me pretended that a real dad, a different dad, would come for me.”
Nevertheless, Grande credits her father with instilling in her a work ethic and commitment to becoming educated. “My dad did not let us get away with being lazy. He threatened to send us back to Mexico and our grandmother unless we did well in school. I guess for me education was the best way to get ahead.” When asked whether after coming to the U.S. she missed Mexico, Grande talked about how different the cultures seemed. “The hardest part for me was that here kids don’t go out and play. In Mexico we were always in the street playing soccer and volleyball. We felt safe in our neighborhood. Everyone knew everyone. Here [in Highland Park] it was like a ghost town. Nobody played outside. It wasn’t safe. There were gangs. We did not know any of our neighbors and for me that was a big surprise. There were things we definitely missed.”
Grande, who regularly talks to groups about her immigrant experience, said she does not talk about the politics of undocumented immigration. “I talk about my personal immigrant experience. I think what I give is an insight into immigration that people won’t get from the media. It’s about everything we gained and everything we lost. I think hearing my story has a big impact on people who otherwise would not know how complex immigration is.”
“The Distance Between Us” has received strong critical praise. The Los Angeles Times said of it, “A brutally honest book … the ‘Angela’s Ashes’ of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.” Booklist said, “Puts a human face on issues that stir vehement debate.”
Grande is the first in her family to have graduated from college, with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, film and video from University of California, Santa Cruz. She also completed an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles.
She appears at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 26, on the upper deck of Café Aroma. Admission is free.