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Crossing Borders

Published November 17 in Latinxs in Kid Lit

In my memoir, The Distance Between Us, I write about my experience as a border crosser. Borders have always been a part of my life. It saddens me to see that the world—instead of tearing down border walls—is actually building more of them. There are more border barriers today than ever before. In 1989 there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are more than 63, and counting.

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The author’s childhood home

My first experience with borders came at the age of two when my father left Mexico to seek a better life in the U.S. Two years later, my mother also left to the land across the border, leaving me and my siblings behind. By the time I was five, I had no mother and no father with me, and a border stood between us, separating us. I was left behind to yearn for the day when my family would be reunited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reyna (center) and siblings Carlos & Mago

At the age of nine I found myself face to face with that border. I had to run across it, become a ‘criminal’, break U.S. law for a chance to have a father again. I succeeded on my third attempt and began my new life in Los Angeles at my father’s house. I thought I was done with borders; I didn’t know there would be more to be crossed—cultural borders, language borders, legal borders, gender and career borders, and more.

As a Mexican immigrant, as a woman of color, as a Latina writer I’ve fought to break down the barriers American society puts up for the groups I belong to. It’s always been a struggle to be Mexican in this country, and especially so in these dark times. For over a year Mexican immigrants had been under attack, blatantly demeaned and vilified by Donald Trump, who began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, drug dealers, criminals. He said he would literally build more border walls, and now that he’s been elected president, we will bear witness to his hatred of my people. But he’s wrong about many things—especially when he said that Mexico doesn’t send its best. Like most Mexican immigrants, I have given nothing but my best to this country since the moment I crossed the U.S. border. I’ve worked hard at learning the language, understanding the American way of life, at pursuing my education, honing my writing craft, so that one day I could be a contributing member of this society and use my skills and passion to keep this country great. This is what most immigrants do. Our work ethic, our drive, our perseverance, our passion, our commitment to succeed and to give our best is undeniable.

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Reyna in her college years

Being a woman has never been easy. In the U.S. we might have it better than other countries, but still, women here have always struggled to overcome the borders put before us. We’ve had a long battle to redefine our place in the home and the workplace, our right to earn equal pay to what men receive. To be seen as more than someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. We had a long fight for our right to vote and to have a political voice, and for the past year we were fighting for our right to lead. For the first time we could have had our first female president since the birth of this nation, but despite her qualifications, since the very beginning of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was held to a double-standard because of her gender. Because she was a woman. We let that man get away with saying the most insulting, offensive, and ridiculous things. But Clinton? We let her get away with nothing. We elected a man who has absolutely no experience in running a country, instead of the woman who was more than qualified to do that and more.

 

We witnessed, at a national level, what happens on a daily basis to women in the workplace—we lose to men who are less qualified than us.

Last week we bore witness to a white woman failing to tear down the wall put before her by a sexist, patriarchal society. The fight is even harder for women of color who struggle not just against gender inequality but racial inequality. Since race impacts our feminism, we’ve always fought two battles at the same time. As a woman of color, I fight for equality but I also fight for justice. For us women of color, it isn’t enough to integrate ourselves into the existing system. We seek to transform the system and end injustices.

As a Latina writer, I’ve been dealing with other kinds of borders throughout my career. Latinos are 17.4 % of U.S. population, around 55 million of us, but we’re only around 4% of working professionals— including artists, writers, actors. We’re often kept on the periphery of the arts—and we fight on a daily basis for the right to contribute our stories, our talent, our creativity to American identity and culture. Through our art, we aim to fight against the barrier of invisibility. If we aren’t in books, in film, in TV, in art galleries, in music, does that mean we don’t exist?

The publishing industry lacks diversity at every level. The majority of books are written by, and are about, white people. Eighty-two percent of editors are white. Eighty-nine percent of book reviewers are white. They’re la migra of the publishing industry, the border patrol. They decide who gets in and who doesn’t, who gets published, whose books get attention. Latino writers have often struggled to get across the border of the mainstream publishing industry, often ending up with tiny presses (who lack the resources to do right by them) or self-publishing.

But having successfully run across the U.S. border at the age of nine taught me one thing—I can cross any border. This is the biggest reason why I wrote The Distance Between Us. I want to inspire others to believe in themselves and to find the strength to overcome. It is this belief that has helped me succeed in ways I never dreamed of. I want to encourage our youth, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to keep giving their best and continue striving toward their dreams, despite the obstacles they find along the way.

Now more than ever, let us continue fighting for social justice, for a world without borders, for our right to create art, for our voices to be heard. It is through our stories that we will build bridges and tear down walls.

 

(Left) The original version of The Distance Between Us; (right) the young readers edition.

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Starred Review From Booklist!

So honored that Booklist has given a starred review to The Distance Between Us, Young Readers Edition!

 

The Distance between Us: Young Readers Edition. Grande, Reyna (author).

Sept. 2016. 336p. illus. Aladdin, hardcover, $17.99 (9781481463713). Grades 5-8. 973.
REVIEW. First published September 1, 2016 (Booklist).


Reyna’s parents have moved to El Otro Lado (The Other Side) and have left her behind. In this young readers edition of her memoir, Grande writes about a difficult time in her childhood when her parents moved to the U.S. and she stayed behind in Iguala, Mexico, with her older siblings. Grande shares a timely story of a transnational family and the economic and emotional hardships she endured—such as not being adequately taken care of by her grandmother and being called an “orphan” by other children. While her parents have left in search of work, Reyna just wants her family back together and does not entirely understand why they had to leave in the first place. Readers will be captivated by Grande’s beautiful and heart-wrenching story, from her detailed inner thoughts to the descriptions of the environment around her. Her longing to reconnect with her father, whom she refers to as the “man behind the glass,” because she only knows him through an old framed photograph, is one readers will avidly follow. Grande’s memoir offers an important account of the many ways immigration impacts children. Similar stories that touch on themes of immigration and family include the young-adult adaptation of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey (2013) and Margarita Engle’s Enchanted Air(2015).— Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez
 


Publication Party!

Come to the Publication Party of the Distance Between Us and support a great cause!

Heart of LA (HOLA) is a no-profit organization that provides wonderful programs to underserved youth in the Los Angeles area. They will be hosting me for a reading & signing on September 10th at 12:00pm. Your donations will be greatly appreciated. 100% of profits from book sales will fund the programs at HOLA. Hope to see you there!

RSVP here.  If you can’t make it but would still like to donate, you can so through HOLA’s website.

 

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School Library Journal Review of The Distance Between US

Great review of The Distance Between Us, Young Readers Edition. Check it out!

Grande, Reyna. The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition. 336p. photos. S. & S./Aladdin. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481463713.

Gr 6-9–In this adaptation of her memoir, award-winning author Grande chronicles her life, from living in Guerrero, Mexico, as a child to attending college in the United States. Themes of poverty, survival, undocumented immigration, health concerns, and domestic violence are juxtaposed against her deep yearning to experience her parents’ unconditional love and support and a hunger to excel academically. Throughout the book, she describes how she struggled to hold family relationships and her own identity together under the relentless strains of an immigrant experience. Strong sibling bonds provided support as Grande doggedly worked toward academic success and her dream of college and a place to find peace. This honest first-person account may be a mirror for many readers, allowing them to see reflections of their own strengths, possibilities, and hopes. For others, it offers a humanizing window into the Mexican American experience. VERDICT An important addition to any library serving middle grade students, given its compelling narrative and the gap it fills in the available memoir subgenre for this level.

–Ruth Quiroa, National Louis University, IL


Interview with School Library Journal

Reyna Grande on Immigration and “The Distance Between Us”

Award-winning author Reyna Grande has adapted her 2012 best-selling memoir and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Distance Between Us, for adolescent readers (S. & S./Aladdin, Sept. 2016). Grande caught up with SLJ to discuss immigration, the immigrant experience, and tips for librarians on how to welcome and support these often underserved populations. Grande will be speaking at SLJTeen Live! on August 10 as part of the “Stranger than Fiction” panel. Register for the free virtual event here!

The Distance Between Us was initially published for adult readers. Why did you decide to adapt it for teens and tweens? 

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and it’s important that our youth have access to stories that reflect this important (and beautiful) aspect of our country. I wanted to offer teens a mirror in which they could see themselves. Seeing their experiences reflected in American literature may make them feel less alone; knowing that their stories matter can be incredibly empowering. For nonimmigrants, this book could be a way for them to learn about their immigrant peers but also an opportunity to remember their own background—for most readers, at some point, someone in their family was an immigrant and went through similar struggles that I write about in my book. Sometimes I feel that people become anti-immigrant because they have forgotten their roots. I’m hoping this book will be an inspirational reminder.

Is there hope in the future for more humane attitudes toward immigrants and immigration? Cover_TheDistanceBetweenUs

I want to say yes, because I am a dreamer and I dream of a world where there is respect for all human beings regardless of where they come from or the color of their skin. But I think we need to do some serious soul searching—not just here in the United States but all over the world, and especially in powerful countries that have a history of denying or failing to recognize that their acts and policies create instability in other countries. In other words, first we create catalysts to make immigrants and then we punish them for immigrating. We are living in the time of the highest ever international migration. There are more displaced people in the world today than ever before. This is caused by many factors, but most of them could be mitigated by more humane foreign and domestic policies and greater awareness.

A crucial scene in the book is during your first day of school in Los Angeles, when your name is shortened from Reyna Grande Rodríguez to Reyna Grande. Not only is this an unnecessary practice but a harmful one, too. Are there ways that librarians and educators can be more aware and respectful?

I feel that just by asking the question you are already working towards the solution! The first thing to do is to recognize that there is something we can all do for child immigrants. Learning about their culture and customs (and their names!) would go a long way in helping them because we can then find ways to reduce their trauma of being in a new country. They will have a hard enough time struggling to figure out American life, and we need to meet them halfway. In learning about their cultures, we can also encourage them to celebrate their roots without ever making them feel ashamed of who they are and where they come from.

The other thing to keep in mind is that these child immigrants [often] carry with them trauma upon trauma, and what they need most is kindness and understanding. Before they can be taught letters and numbers, they need to feel psychologically and emotionally safe. Above all, I would like educators to remember that regardless of where these kids come from, or their legal status, they are—more than anything—simply children, and they need to be more patient and understanding of every child immigrant who walks into their classrooms.

As you age in the memoir, what the “distance between” is, and who it is in relation to, grows in complexity and meaning.

One of the reasons I wrote this book was so that I could help others understand the complexity of the immigrant experience. Sometimes, we tend to focus only on what [the children] go through once they are in the United States. We also need to discuss what happens to them before they even setting foot in the [country]. The struggle doesn’t begin at the U.S. border. Family separation—in all of its forms—has a deep impact on children that will affect them for the rest of their lives. I also want to highlight that any immigrant who has managed to achieve the American Dream has paid a big price for it. For me, I had to deal with the disintegration of my family. What immigrants lose is just as important as what we gain. The experiences of child immigrants are complicated, and we grow up in the United States dealing with issues of belonging, identity, and culture. As the 1.5 generation, we have to fight harder to overcome all kinds of distances so that we can find our place in the world. authorphoto_ReynaGrande

Writing becomes essential for young Reyna. Any advice for aspiring teen writers?

You are never too young to publish. There are many literary journals, online magazines, etc. that welcome works by young writers. Ask your teacher or librarian to help you create a list of publications you can send to, and do it. This will teach you how to prepare your work for submission, how to pitch your work, how to deal with rejection and success, and [how] to balance the writing (art) with publishing (business). Above all, I want teens to remember that if you don’t write your story, you are allowing the powers that be to keep you invisible. Writing is a way to fight disempowerment. And if you don’t write your story, nobody else will. Or worse, if they do write it, they may get it wrong.

In The Distance Between you cite reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and authors like Isabel Allende, Julia Álvarez, and Laura Esquivel as a revelation—a mirror to your experience. In addition to your forthcoming work, do you have any Chicano/Latino literature recommendations for middle and high schoolers?

There are the classics that I love: Esmeralda Santiago’s memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman and Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima. I also enjoyed Pam Muñoz Ryan’s novelEsperanza Rising, Margarita Engle’s memoir Enchanted Air, Guadalupe Garcia-McCall’s novel Under the Mesquite, and Joe Jiménez’s novel Bloodline.

For more mature students, I recommend Daisy Hernández’s memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed, Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel We, the Animals, Rigoberto González’s memoirs Butterfly Boyand Autobiography of My Hungers.

I could go on and on. The most important thing is for middle and high schoolers to see themselves in the books that they read. Unfortunately, things have not changed that much since I was a middle and high schooler—there isn’t a lot of books by writers of color made available to students in the classroom. But there is always a public library nearby, and hopefully, a wonderful librarian ready to guide these students to the right book.


Interview with Reyna Grande

Recently, a high school student from East Leyden High School in Illinois asked me for an interview for a class assignment. I loved her questions so much I thought I would post them here.

 

1. What were you like in school?
In elementary school I was mostly a shy, frightened kid, trying to figure out how to navigate this country and learn the language. In middle school I was still a shy kid, and as a went through puberty I began to develop an obsession with boys and what they thought about me. Because my father paid no attention to me at home and was very abusive, I guess I began to look for that attention and love outside of home. This need to be loved and wanted I carried all the way through college. High school was tough for me. Because of my shyness, girls were mean to me. They misinterpreted my shyness and called me conceited. This angered me a lot, to be accused of something I was not, and I became a rebel. All through high school girls hated me. Boys thought I was easy. I was considered the “least likely to succeed.” But it was all a mask. That wasn’t the real me. I am glad I’ll never have to go to high school again!
2. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was at Pasadena City College my teacher gave me books written by Latina writers. It was then when I discovered that I could turn my life experiences into art. That I could share these stories with the world and through the pages of a book be able to connect with other people who might be going through the same things.
3. Why do you write?
I write so that I don’t have to carry all that pain and hurt inside of me. I put it on the page. I write so that I can understand why things happen, so that I can find meaning and be able to know that the things I’ve gone through were for a reason. I write so that others can learn about me and my culture and realize that we are human beings and that our stories matter.
4. Which writers inspired you?
Sandra Cisneros, Khalil Gibran, Ayn Rand, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jamaica Kinkaid, Leila Lalami, Gina Nahai, Laura Esquivel, Juan Rulfo, Juan Bosch… and many more!
5. What have you written?
I have written many short-stories that I have not published because I wrote them when I was a beginning writer and they are not very good! Then I switched over to writing books and I wrote Across a Hundred Mountains, Dancing with Butterflies, and The Distance Between Us. Those three books I did publish! After writing so much for many years I finally wrote books that were worthy of publication.
6. Which book that you have written is your favorite?
All three of my books are my favorite. I love my first book because it taught me that yes, I do have it in me to write–and finish–a whole book. My second book I love because it was a very difficult book to write. It has four main characters and I had to learn to juggle multiple points of view, multiple story lines, and there was a time when I thought I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t have it in me. And then I did.  The third book I love because it was nonfiction and it was my first time writing nonfiction. It was scary to write about my own story, to put myself out there in the world like that, so exposed, so vulnerable. And when I finished it I felt so much better and happier.
7. Do you write full time or part time?
Well, I mostly write full time. I am lucky to be able to work while my kids are at school. However, I also have many trips. I go and travel the country to speak about my books. When I travel I don’t have as much time to write. But I only travel half of the year and the other half I get to be home all day and write. I am very lucky and I love my job!
8. What do you use to write? (laptop, pencil and paper or a tablet)
My handwriting is quite awful. So I never handwrite. I am a very fast typist and I love to write on the computer because my hands can keep up with my brain, my thoughts. And everything is kept nice and neat and I can cut and paste and move things around without making a big mess on the page. Thank God for computers!
9. Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
Usually I just see where the idea takes me. I start with a character in mind and then I discover things about this character as I go. But there comes a point when I do have to have some kind of outline, even just a basic one, so that I can have a sense of where the story is going to end up, what the major plot points are, what the arc of the story is.
10. How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
Well I’ve come a long way as a writer. When I was young and learning the craft I used to write a lot of cliches in my work. My stories were cheesy at times. My characters underdeveloped. Now I am very good at not having cliches and I know how to develop characters and I know how to identify the problems in my stories so that I can fix them. I have grown with each book I’ve written. I think I am a better write now than I was ten years ago when I first published my first book. Well, at least I hope I am!
11.What is the hardest thing about writing?
Sitting down and doing it.
12. What is the easiest thing about writing?
Using your imagination.
13. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Four years.
14. Do you ever get writers block?
That’s another word for laziness. Yes, I get lazy. I get frustrated and scared. There are times when I say to myself–Reyna, who are you kidding? you can’t do this. You have no talent. Your writing sucks. But that’s just fear speaking. Fear keeps your imagination from doing what it’s supposed to do. So if I can overcome my fear and my laziness then I have no writer’s block.
15. Any tips on how to get through writers block?
 
Remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Failure is not putting anything down on the page. Just write–and revise, write and revise, write and revise, and little by little you will get there. Another trick I have is to read my favorite books. When I revisit the House on Mango Street, The Prophet, The Mists of Avalon, Girl With Pearl Earring, I remember why I love to write. And then I go and do it!

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