The original version of this memoir was written for general audiences. This review is based on an advance reader’s copy of the young readers edition.
Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver
Echoes of Cinderella reverberate throughout Reyna Grande’s forceful and captivating memoir of a family torn apart by internal and external stressors, centered in a years-long separation across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Distance Between Us thrums with novelistic tension and detail, offering chiseled portraits of individuals and rendering the settings they come from in vivid form. As the story lends breath and heartbeat to a particular Mexican girl and her struggle to overcome unimaginable obstacles related to poverty, migration, and family turmoil, it also humanizes the faceless, nameless stream of undocumented migrants that we hear so much about in the news.
Due to the physical and cultural distances that develop between members of the family, Reyna spends much of her childhood feeling like an orphan. The memoir begins as her mother, Juana, leaves Reyna and her two siblings under the care of Evila, the children’s paternal grandmother. Motivated by the promise of steady work and higher wages, Reyna’s father has already left Mexico for El Otro Lado, and this happened so long ago that four-year-old Reyna must rely on a framed photo to remember what he looks like. Later, Juana decides she must migrate, too, and although she vows to return within a year, the separation stretches out much longer, stranding her children—Reyna, Mago, and Carlos—in a bleak, loveless existence. Even as the three siblings tend to chores and subsist on meager rations, Abuelita Evila lavishes treats and special privileges on Élida, another grandchild living under her roof. Although some of Élida’s spoils come from the money that Juana and her husband send for their children’s necessities, the couple remains unaware of these abuses. Each time they call to speak with their kids, Evila hovers nearby to make sure they don’t disclose anything negative.
When Juana returns from her two-and-a-half year absence, she is almost unrecognizable to Reyna. Her hair is dyed bright red, her clothes are much fancier than anything she used to wear, and there is a new baby in her arms. Worse yet, she demonstrates a chilling degree of detachment toward her children. Before long, Juana acquires a boyfriend and foists all four kids off on their other abuelita—a far poorer, but kinder woman whose house is a one-room shack constructed of bamboo sticks. A river nearby subjects the house to serious flooding.
When the children’s father finally returns to Mexico for a visit, eight years have passed. He reluctantly agrees to take Reyna and her two older siblings back to El Otro Lado. This will involve a bus trip of two thousand miles from the Mexican state of Guerrero to Tijuana, where they will engage the services of a coyote. But at a critical moment before they leave, Reyna catches a glimpse of Juana as she used to be and, aching to believe that her mother loves her, she is tempted to stay behind. Then it dawns on Reyna that her sister, Mago, is the true maternal figure in her life, the one who has offered sacrificial love and protection at every turn, and if Mago is fleeing Mexico, Reyna will, too.
In many aspects, Reyna’s story is reminiscent of the mother-son alienation described in Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, reviewed here. Like Enrique’s odyssey, Reyna’s story reveals conditions of unrelenting poverty, and shows the personal drive and courage of individuals who dare to leave behind all that is familiar in order to make a better life. The book also shows the steep costs, both literal and metaphoric, of migration in general and chain migration in particular. (Chain migration refers to the practice of one or more family members setting out to establish a home and/or save up money, usually in preparation for the rest of the family to join them.) We see this especially in how separations intended to be brief often last much longer than planned and lead to deep relational breaches. For those of us privileged with predictable lives of plenty, it is all too easy to pronounce judgment on parents who take such drastic steps, yet stories like The Distance Between Us illuminate the complex dilemmas faced by immigrant families caught in extreme poverty with no apparent recourse in their countries of origin.
Although this memoir offers an eye-opening opportunity to grasp the bigger picture, most young readers will home in on Reyna’s personal journey, as she crosses figurative and literal landscapes pocked with obstacles. Once she and her family take the plunge toward the better life they imagine is waiting for them in El Otro Lado, readers will clutch at their hearts, rooting for Reyna with every page turn. And their hopes will be rewarded.
Reyna Grande is the author of two novels, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies. The original edition of her memoir, The Distance Between Us, was a finalist in the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards. She is a speaker and workshop leader for creative writers, and is the recipient of scores of awards and honors. Visit her official website to learn more.
Reyna Grande has made many televised appearances and other interviews which are available on video. Here are a few:
Informal conversation with KBeach Radio:
Reyna’s video of Abuelita Chita:
Here is an excellent interview in Spanish. There are no subtitles, but even non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the images.