The Distance Between Us

  • Reyna Grande
  • Atria Books
  • 320 pp.

A memoir reflecting upon a Mexican immigrant’s girlhood experiences and how they fostered her independence and success as a writer.

Reviewed by Robin Talbert

The first thing I did when I finished Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance Between Us, was rush out and buy her first book, a novel. I wanted to read more from this talented author. Both this autobiography and Across A Hundred Mountains are born from the grim realities of Grande’s early life, and the triumph of a young woman’s hope and determination to build a better future.

Divided into two parts, Grande’s memoir first describes her life in Mexico beginning at age 4 when her mother leaves her and her siblings, and departs for “El Otro Lado” — the United States — to join their father. Her description of a child’s yearnings as she is tossed between one grandmother who is neglectful and cruel, and another who is loving but penniless, is heartbreaking. Grande and her siblings cling to memories of an intact family and maintain an aching belief that one day they will be reunited, seizing any reminder of life before their parents left: “As we were walking to the tortilla mill, a man passed us by on his bicycle and we caught a whiff of something spicy, like cinnamon, and Mago said, ‘That’s how Papi smelled.’ So I learned to find him in the empty bottle of Old Spice we were lucky to find in a trash heap.”

Grande’s poetic and vivid descriptions of small pleasures — savoring a mango dipped in chili powder or making mud tortillas with other little girls — temper somewhat the bleak realities of her childhood. The eloquence of her expression of both tenderness and anger towards those who try, but mostly fail, to provide for her, is remarkable. In this sense, the book has much in common with Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Walls’ memoir describes a childhood rocked by her parents’ instability. Yet her affection for them is sustained over time as, like Grande, she comes to realize that their erratic parenting not only created stress but also fostered independence. Both Grande’s and Walls’ fathers dream of building a family home, and for many years their children share that dream, though ultimately realize its futility. Even though the Grande home is eventually built in Mexico, they never live there and it is lost to extended family members who stay behind. Despite the despair and abuse triggered by his alcoholism, Grande maintains tenderness for her father. He instills in Grande the belief that “just because we are illegal, doesn’t mean we can’t dream.”

In the second portion, Grande and her siblings make the risky trip across the border with their father and move in with him and his new girlfriend in Los Angeles. What awaits them once there is not the paradise they expected, though they are much better off materially. As Grande begins school in a new country, she longs for Mexico where she could understand her teachers, and misses her kind grandmother. Once again, scents and tastes keep her memories alive: “Mexico was in a cup of hot chocolate, the steam curling up into the air. I would inhale Mexico through my nostrils. While at the supermarket with Mila, picking out vegetables and herbs, crushing cilantro leaves with my fingers, bringing a bunch of epazote up to my nose, I’d think of meals in Mexico, of a pot of beans boiling, of my grandmother adding epazote leaves for flavor.”

Grande’s life story would make for great reading even if she were not such a wonderful writer. She tells it beautifully, with keen observations of the people in her life, her surroundings, and a continuous self-reflection that makes it seem as if she were writing her story as she was living it. She paints a vivid picture of the upheavals experienced by immigrants’ children left behind. She lovingly describes the ambivalence she feels towards her sister, Mago, who in many ways served as a substitute mother and planned a lavish quincenaera for the author, but also disappointed Reyna by giving up on college. “Always, my eyes returned to my sister, who was standing by the door looking proudly at me. And I knew, I knew, that I should have been dancing this waltz with her.”

Like Walls, Grande shows us the many facets of her family members, the good and the ugly, while also expressing the range of emotions she feels towards them. She reveals love, sadness, hostility, and, ultimately, an understanding of the challenges that make it difficult for her relatives to be consistent parents and role models. Her salvation comes from within, however, and her discovery of music and books gives her the incentive to develop artistically.

Grande’s determination to stay in school, go to college, and become a writer benefitted not only her, but all of us. Readers of The Distance Between Us will gain a deeper insight into immigration and also enjoy Grande’s eloquent, honest storytelling. This book would be fabulous required reading for college freshmen or, even better, for freshman members of Congress.

 

Robin Talbert grew up in a cotton mill town in the foothills of western North Carolina. A consultant and executive for nonprofits, her career has focused on social and economic justice and gender equity.

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