Reyna Grande on Immigration’s Toll
By Sandra TarlingJanuary 23, 2013
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
IN 1993, EIGHT YEARS AFTER Reyna Grande immigrated as a young child to the United States, Luis Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. was published. Like Grande, Rodriguez came to the US with his family as a very young boy, and he was drawn into the gang life. He wrote that he and his family “never stopped crossing borders.” Even when living here, they “kept jumping hurdles [...] It was a metaphor to fill our lives.” Conditions had not significantly improved since he was a young man in the 1970s, he claimed; too many hurdles still existed for young people, leading them to give up, marginalized, with no jobs or future, viewed by society as expendable, as not worth investing in. The result was far too many lives destroyed and lost.
Like Rodriguez’s, Grande’s writing describes the hurdles of broken families, poverty, abuse, and lack of opportunity that keep many young Latinos from realizing their hopes for higher education and an adequate job. As a survivor who became her family’s first college graduate, her attention is firmly focused on revealing immigration’s long-lasting effects on immigrants and their families. In the epilogue of her memoir, The Distance Between Us (just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award), she reminds us “that studies show that 80 percent of Latin American children in U.S. schools have been separated from a parent in the process of migration.” In this work as well as her two earlier novels, her intent is “to shed light on the complexities of immigration,” to show how immigration affects entire families “in both positive and negative ways.”
Grande acknowledges that much of what she wrote in her two novels — Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies — is drawn from personal experience. In Across a Hundred Mountains, the intertwined stories of the two protagonists, Juana and Adelina, fictionalize events and circumstances from her own life: the poverty and family hardships Juana suffers in her home town in Guerrero, Mexico, and which lead her to leave to search for her father; the lack of money and difficulty she faces traveling to Tijuana; the extreme physical demands and life-threatening danger Adelina confronts when illegally crossing the border — these all have their bases in Grande’s life. Dancing with Butterflies, again with autobiographical impetus, focuses on several different women connected by their love of Folklorico dance, a mosaic of immigrants and daughters of immigrants and their struggles living here.
At the core of Grande’s stories about immigrants and their children’s lives is her mission to reveal the deep, permanent costs of immigration, both the loss when parents are separated from their children, and the impoverished lives and unrealized hopes once they arrive. In Daniel Olivas’s LARB interview, Grande says she decided to write her memoir to tell “the real story about my life, before and after illegally immigrating to the US from Mexico.” In her memoir, she vividly depicts the very heart of the loss she felt as a young child, when her father left for “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side), and then later, at the age of nine, her emotional struggle when she leaves her mother and the only home she had known, in Iguala de la Independencia, in the state of Guerrero, to emigrate with her father and two siblings to the US.
Like Grande, Juana in Across a Hundred Mountains is very young when her father leaves to seek “the riches” in the United States, and his dream is that of Grande’s father: to earn enough money to have a house like the more prosperous people in their small town. In her memoir, Grande describes clinging to a framed photograph of her father: “this paper face behind a wall of glass was the only father I’d ever known,” the only link she had to her father for seven years of her childhood.
Two years after Grande’s father left, unlike many other men who simply disappeared and often formed new families, he sent for his wife. She leaves Grande and her two siblings with their grandmother. At age four, she writes, she “knew [...] that prayers didn’t work, because if they did, El Otro Lado wouldn’t be taking my mother away, too.” (She describes the deep loss of being separated from both parents in her memoir, but in the novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, she describes her worst fears: after years of not hearing from her father, Juana eventually leaves her home to search for him and discovers he has died crossing the border. She illegally immigrates and settles in Los Angeles, and then returns to those desolate borderlands some time later to search for and retrieve his remains.)
Grande’s mother returns to Mexico, bringing Grande a new little sister, but she finds few, meager opportunities for earning enough to create a home for them. An economic migrant once more, she leaves the children with their maternal grandmother again, and they are once again separated physically and emotionally from both parents, another in a series of abandonments; as Grande concludes, “Immigration took a toll on us all.” Eventually, after years of long separations, the ultimate toll is exacted: the marriage is irreparably broken.
At the age of nine, Grande leaves Iguala de la Independencia, its poverty and hunger, and her mother’s abandonment, to be reunited with her father in Los Angeles. The physically demanding, treacherous journey to immigrate illegally is also a deeply emotional one. Leaving her family and home, she “couldn’t help feeling torn,” and asks: “Why does it have to be so hard?” To have a father, she must leave her mother, her beloved grandmother, and her hometown in Mexico.
Grande’s experience when she arrives in the US is similar to those of several of her novels’ characters. Her new home is a small one bedroom apartment in a predominantly Latino working-class, gang-riddled neighborhood in Los Angeles, where she and her brother and sister sleep in the living room. Grande also discovers that her father can be kind, but at “other times, like when he was drinking, he would become a different person, one who yelled and hit. That father scared me.”
The cycle of violence and abuse in poor, broken families is central to the novels as well. In Across a Hundred Mountains, Juana becomes friends with Adelina, a young prostitute in Tijuana who is beaten by her pimp boyfriend and still holds onto her belief that he loves her and will change one day. (Influenced by her friend’s brutal death, Juana eventually works in a women’s shelter in downtown Los Angeles.) Two sisters in Dancing with Butterflies, Elena and Adriana, also endure physical abuse and struggle with the deep resentments they hold towards one another. Adriana is drawn to abusive relationships, feeling unworthy of a healthy one. She has an awareness of this and even sees herself in Frida Kahlo’s painting, The Two Fridas: one of the two Adrianas “wishes she was free, free of those memories that hurt her, free to live her life in a better way,” and the other is completely “loca.”
In the memoir, Grande recognizes her father’s alcohol-fueled abusiveness, but also that he can be supportive at times. She is thankful that her father taught his children to “dream big” and to value the importance of an education, which he hoped would lead them to succeed in their new country. He instilled this in them even though his own “dream” was never realized.
When Grande and her siblings arrive in Los Angeles, they try to adjust to living in cramped quarters with a little-known father and new stepmother; start school and learn a new language while understanding little of what is being taught; and adapt to a new culture with different customs, manners and expectations. She longs for her home in Mexico:
I could see my little sister, my mother, and my sweet grandmother again. [...] I would be in a classroom where I understood what my teacher said. But what about my dream of one day making Papi proud? I stood there [...] feeling as if I were tearing in half. Where do I belong? I wondered.
With immigrant families, divisions also occur among siblings, especially between older children and their younger siblings who immigrated when very young or were born in the US. In Dancing with Butterflies, the distance between Soledad, who was 20-years-old when she came to Los Angeles to join her family, and her younger, US-born sister is vast. Soledad continues to yearn for her home country, a place her sister Stephanie barely knows. She still clings to the Mexican traditions and sews costumes for the folklórico dance company, and she prefers to accompany her mother to scavenge for discards to sell at the swap meet, while her sister, Stephanie, is a typical American high school girl who wants a new dress and shoes for the prom. The distance is too great for them to bridge.
Immersed in her new American life, Grande still misses her friends, family, and home. Nearly eight years after leaving Iguala, she returns with her sister and their mother for a visit and finds it even more impoverished. Her grandmother’s shack looks smaller and shabbier than Grande remembers: “Had I really lived in this place?” But in her grandmother’s arms, she finds “her scent was all I needed to feel that I was at home.” These moments of feeling “at home” are few. More often she feels torn between herself and her life in Los Angeles, and her family and friends in her hometown.
Grande came to the US when she was young enough to adapt to a new language, customs and cultural values, and even before she had mastered English in elementary school, she showed hints of her emerging interest in writing. For a schoolwide competition she wrote a story spurred by the “chance to make Papi proud.” She didn’t win, but she vowed to write another book that would make her father proud. In the eighth grade she had another chance to write a short story for a school contest, and this time won first prize. In the process, she discovered, “I was beginning to fall in love with writing. In my writing, you couldn’t hear my accent.”
Writing has provided Grande purpose and meaning in her life. In Dancing with Butterflies, the four main characters, Yesenia, Elena, Adriana, and Soledad have a love of and commitment to folklórico dance, which also exemplifies this redemptive power of art. Watching the young people practice, Soledad says that “it’s good for the kids to dance folklórico instead of joining gangs,” and the women’s dedication to their art accomplishes something beautiful, teaching their cultural history while expressing themselves individually and collectively through dance.
Grande understands the price her family paid for her and her siblings to join their father in El Otro Lado. She also shares her father’s belief that they “had been given the opportunity of a lifetime.” Her works clearly depict the cost of this “opportunity,” the anger and resentment it causes, yet she is still grateful, in particular that her father’s dream emphasized the importance of an education in giving his children a better life. Her family also was fortunate to benefit from the Amnesty of 1986. When Grande received her green card, she finally felt able “to step out of the shadows,” and she now hopes “that the DREAM Act can finally pass,” so the young people today can have “something permanent on which they can build a future.”
Grande’s memoir ends with her standing beside her father’s deathbed, holding his hand. She asks herself yet again, if she had known what her life would be with her father, would she “have still followed him to El Otro Lado?” She then realizes, “You made me who I am,” and knows that for her, despite the destructive cycle of abandonment, the answer is “yes.”
Sandra Tarling has published articles, essays, and book reviews in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Pregnancy Magazine, and Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. Recently she completed a novel, Mrs. Adair, and is now developing ideas about her next one. She also has taught writing and literature at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica College.
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