Today, Reyna Grande was a special guest in an anthropology course titled, "Mexican Immigration: South Bend Case Study" taught by Professor Karen Richman. In collaboration with Letras Latinas, Richman had adopted Grande's memoir for the course. The students had insightful questions for the author of The Distance Between Us, and the session and dialogue between students and writer could not have been more substantive. Earlier that morning, Letras Latinas Associate and MFA candidate (poet), Ae Hee Lee conducted an oral history video interview with Grande. Stay tuned for that.
And last night, Grande dined with Notre Dame sophomore and Letras Latinas Associate, Amanda Castañeda, who had spent the last several weeks reading The Distance Between Us, and Grande's first novel Across a Hundred Miles in order to draft some questions. Here is the result:
An interview with Reyna Grande
(class of ’17, ND)
AC: Amanda Castañeda
RG: Reyna Grande
[about the memoir]:
AC: I noticed throughout your memoir, The Distance Between Us, that along with your immediate family, there were numerous other outside family members that had a strong presence in your life such as Tia Emperatriz and Abuelita Chinta. Coming from a Mexican family, I understand how important this large family dynamic and interdependence is. Can you comment on how the importance of family affected your perspective while writing The Distance Between Us, and how you wanted to portray the people in your life?
RG: Writing memoir is a difficult thing because you do worry about what your family is going to say or not say about what you write. I found myself struggling with that question through the four years I spent writing the memoir. The one I worried the most about was my father. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by writing about some really horrible things he did, but I wanted to write the truth and to be honest with the writing. My father passed away while I was still working on the memoir and when that happened it allowed me to finish writing the book without worrying about what my father was going to say—but I was actually more careful about the way I wrote about my father. My father’s death helped me to really look at him in a different way. It made me determined to write about my father as a human being, with flaws and virtues, with all of his complexities. This is why in the memoir my father is neither villain nor hero. He is my father. And I loved him because he made me who I am.
AC: You mentioned at one point the differences between your step-mother, Mila, and your actual mother, and noted how Mila seemed to be taking advantage of the opportunity she was given in the U.S., while your mother was content with simply being in the U.S. and 'making ends meet'. Do you think the differences between Mila and your mother could reflect a broader situation in the U.S., namely the different paths that immigrants take upon arriving in the U.S.?
RG: This is a great question. Yes, I think that these two examples could reflect the different paths that immigrants take when arriving in the U.S. I know people like my mother who have come here and haven’t really done much with the opportunities they’ve found in the U.S. My mother for example, to this day, still hasn’t taken advantage of the fact that she is a U.S. citizen. For the past few years she’s been making a living by recycling cardboard, cans and bottles. She is barely making enough to pay her rent, but for the past 30 years that she’s been in the U.S. she never did anything to improve her work opportunities. But there are many immigrants like my stepmother, and many other people I know, who have really done their best to improve their lives and not replicate the life they had in their native countries. They have truly come here to better themselves and they have done everything they can, especially going to school to learn a trade and learn English, to ensure a brighter future for themselves.
AC: Throughout the memoir you bring up the cost of "El Otro Lado" and how this opportunity of a lifetime severely damaged your relationship with your parents. At the end, you say that the pain, sorrow, and loss were all worth it. Do you think that this is true for most families? Can these relationships be slowly built up again or do you think most families stay separated?
RG: I think that the answer to this question comes down to what immigrants do with their lives once they get here. I was severely scarred by my parents’ decision to leave me behind in Mexico. That separation really affected my relationship with my parents. To this day I still deal with the trauma and the emotional wounds of that experience. When I got to the U.S., I was angry, hurt, and resentful to some extent, but I was able to go above those feelings and really appreciate the opportunities that I now had in this country, so I focused on that and tried to better myself and not dwell on the past. I know other child immigrants who have gone through a similar experience and they let their emotions control them. They let their hurt, anger, and resentment take over their lives and they become bitter and self-destructive. Instead of making good choices to better themselves, they end up doing things that are damaging to themselves and their families. So it really comes down to the choices that you make to be able to say whether it was worth it or not.
AC: I was born and reared in California, but up until high school I spent most of my vacations in Mexico, where my mother's side of the family still lives. Having seen it my whole life, I understand the pressure to do well in the U.S. and report to family in Mexico that life is perfect in America. Do you believe that this constant pressure widens the gap between both countries, making it feel as though you have to choose which side to be on?
RG: I think that immigrants themselves contribute to the romantic idea of the U.S. that people back in Mexico have. Most immigrants, when they go back to visit their families, don’t talk much about the difficulties of living in the U.S. Instead, they only talk about the good things. I think in part they don’t want their families to see how much of a struggle it is to make a life here in the U.S. My mother for example, when she goes back to Mexico, she puts out this image that she is successful and has money and that her life is great in the U.S. But the reality is the complete opposite.
I don’t think that the pressures that immigrants face in the U.S. widens the gap between families, nor does it mean you have to choose between one country or the other. But I do think that by prolonging the idea that life is perfect in the U.S. creates a false reality for those that are left behind. For instance, my mother pretends that her life is perfect in the U.S. so that her siblings don’t worry about her, and also because I think to a certain extent she is ashamed to admit that she didn’t get very far in “the land of opportunities.” But this has led my aunt and my uncles back home to romanticize life in the U.S. and think that the money my mother sends to them every month is easily earned, where in fact, it is not.
AC: If you could indulge me for a minute, I was very interested in your relationship with Abuelita Chinta. At one point you mentioned that she would go "without food and make sure [you] were fed first." I feel that your Abuelita Chinta and my mother are extremely similar because my mother has always looked to provide for my brother and me first. Could you talk a little bit more about her and why she was an important figure in your life?
RG: My Abuelita Chinta is very dear to my heart. She was an amazing grandmother, very generous, kind, and loving. I wish I had taken the time to get to know her more once I became an adult. I only went to Mexico a few times before she died a sudden death. She was stung by a scorpion and died two days later. I got to my hometown a few hours after she’d died, so I didn’t even get to say goodbye. I remember one time when I was 22 I asked her about her life and she told me that when she was young she’d been in love with a young man but her father didn’t approve. She ended up running away with this young man and her father and brother went to look for her and dragged her back home. She was forced into marrying a man that was much older than her. That was my grandfather. This story she told me made me very sad because I think my grandmother should have been allowed to marry the man she loved. Despite that, my grandmother was a good wife to my grandfather and eventually, she was a wonderful grandmother to me and my siblings. I don’t think she ever got over that young man she’d loved.
AC: The memoir ends when you move into your apartment at UC Santa Cruz. For those of us yearning to learn more about you, can you talk about an important event that has happened since you moved to Santa Cruz, and how this experience impacted your life?
RG: I can’t choose one thing that has impacted me the most, but I am happy to say that I have continued to work hard on my education and my writing. In 2006 when my first book came out it was an amazing feeling knowing that I had done it—I had become a published author and made my dream come true. In terms of my personal life, I am very happy being married. I found an amazing man to spend my life with. Being a mom is hard for me, but I love my children dearly and I want to give them a loving and stable family life to make up for the one I didn’t have when I was growing up. I have created the family I wanted to have when I was a child.
[about the novel]:
AC: Along with faith, sin and penitence also appear to be recurring concepts throughout the book. Juana's life is engulfed by the sin that her mother commits as well as the sins Juana believes she has committed herself. They spend their lives seeking forgiveness from their demons and being chastised by the village or themselves. Why did you decide to make sin and redemption such a huge part of their lives?
RG: I don’t know if I ‘decided’ to do that—the story emerged and became what it became. When I was writing Across a Hundred Mountains, I was actually writing a memoir, but it became a very challenging book to write on many levels, so I turned it into a novel. As soon as I made the switch from nonfiction to fiction, I ended up getting rid of the brother and sister (me and Carlos) and only kept the oldest daughter (Mago). Juana’s character was inspired by my sister. From that point on, everything started to change, the mother in the book was based on my own mother until the second draft of the story, when I replaced that mother with Lupe. The father was based on a romanticized version of my father (the one I fantasized about). And then, when I had the father disappear and never return, I was exploring my deepest fear that I had as a child—“What if my father never returns? What would happen to me?” Across a Hundred Mountains was an exploration of my fears and what I imagined my life might have been like if my father had never returned. I didn’t set out to write a book about sin and redemption. I set out to write a book that explored my deepest fear.
AC: The structure of the novel is also very interesting. In most novels, we see the character slowly develop until we see the final product at the very end. In this novel, from the beginning we see a child struggling to survive and the woman she eventually becomes, and the contrast is so different it seems like two different people. Why did you decide to structure the novel like this? Is it a reflection of the drastic changes one undertakes upon moving to El Otro Lado?
RG: Once I decided I was going to write a novel and not a memoir, I approached the story using a traditional plot line, and it was going to be only young Juana’s story. I wrote all of Juana’s chapters first, but the more I spent time with her and really immersed myself in her story, the more I found myself wanting to know more about her. I started to wonder what Juana’s life was like once she became an adult, and how everything that happened to her as a young girl had affected the kind of woman she grew up to be. She became so real to me, and eventually I knew that I was going to have to write about her adult years as well. However, I didn’t want to do a traditional structure anymore because I didn’t want to cover all of Juana’s life from when she’s 11 to 32, so I ended up going back and forth between her past and her present and I found a way to make those two storylines come together at the end.
In terms of her identity changing once she gets to the U.S., I was definitely exploring the situation that most immigrants find themselves in once they arrive. I have a friend who was undocumented and was using a borrowed social security number to work. At home her name was Rosa, and at work her name was Gladys. She had two identities, just like my character. I found myself in a similar situation too when I arrived in the U.S. In Mexico my name was Reyna Grande Rodriguez. When I got to the U.S. they made me take away my second last name and from that moment on I became Reyna Grande. It took me a while to get used to that!