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Reyna Grande’s Acclaimed Memoir Is A Lens On Immigrant Youth

Reyna Grande

Photo of Reyna Grande. Reyna Grande

In this election year there’s been a lot of talk - much of it negative - about immigration, immigrants who lack documentation, borders and walls. Amid the rhetoric, the voices of immigrants themselves have been drowned out. Through her writings and speaking engagements, Reyna Grande has been working hard to be one of those voices.

Author of two novels and a memoir, Grande writes touching narratives about Mexicans whose lives change once they decide to reach or cross the border. "Across a Hundred Mountains" (Atria, 2006) tells the devastating story of a young woman making the dangerous trek to the border in search of her father, placing her life at risk at every step of her journey. The novel received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the Premio Aztlán. Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press, 2009) is a novel set in the vibrant world of Mexican folk dance in California, but off-stage the collective of dancers and costume makers have complex lives with worries that reach into the depths of Mexico.

The Distance Between Us, Reyna Grande
"The Distance Between Us," a memoir by Reyna Grande. Reyna Grande

In 2012, she published her memoir "The Distance Between Us" (Atria), allowing her readers an honest glimpse into her own difficult path from undocumented alien to college graduate. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

This year, her memoir will be reshaped as a book for young readers. NBC sat down with the busy writer for an update.

I’m curious about that process, Reyna. Was it simply a matter of leaving out the more sensitive material? What were some of the hard (or even pleasant) choices in creating this new version of your memoir? What do you hope this book will say to younger readers?

Adapting the memoir for young readers was enjoyable and scary at the same time. It allowed me to dig my hands back into the manuscript to give it new shape and form, but it was challenging to shave off 100 pages and add new chapters while at the same time not going over the word count and not distorting the structure of the book!

I did take out the age-inappropriate sections, but I also didn’t want to water down the story so I stayed true to the themes of the original—family separation, abuse, childhood trauma, the price of the American Dream.

I enjoyed pruning the story and paying careful attention to each sentence, each word. In some ways this version is cleaner and tighter.

Having this book released for young readers was very important because I wanted to inspire them and encourage them to work hard to achieve their own dreams. For Latino youth especially, I wanted to give them a book that they could relate to, a book that reflects their own experiences.

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The memoir has been a popular selection of the One Book programs in a number of colleges and communities across the country. Why do you think this particular story holds such an appeal? How do you think your book speaks beyond the sound bites and headlines about immigrant rights in the U.S.?

Immigration is an important issue in this country and people need to hear from immigrants themselves to balance out what you’ll hear from the media or politicians. This is why a book like this appeals to schools and communities—because it is a story written by an immigrant.

"The Distance Between Us" helps people understand the complexities of immigration, particularly how it impacts our youth—the DREAMers and our newest arrivals—in a way that the media and our politicians cannot do.

By writing my own story, I hoped to shed light on the experiences of immigrant youth because I feel that their voices are not being heard. For example, how many times has the DREAM Act failed to pass? How is the government handling the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America? "The Distance Between Us" humanizes the issue, it helps people understand the trauma, the pain, and heartbreak that immigrant children go through, and the price that we pay for a shot at the American Dream.

"Across a Hundred Mountains" and "The Distance Between Us" have also been translated into Spanish. Have you engaged with your Spanish-speaking readers? How is that experience different than the reception to your work in English?

I love to do presentations in Spanish because the two groups to whom I speak are parents and child immigrants. High schools and adult programs have been using La Distancia Entre Nosotros with the students and the parents as part of the effort to help immigrant families with the process of reunification.

It is a very, very vulnerable time for these families because long separations have deep consequences. The children can become angry, resentful, and hurt from the experience and this creates tension with their parents. At the same time the parents are sometimes unable to understand their own children’s experiences and feel that their children are being ungrateful or don’t appreciate the sacrifices that were made.

My book has been used with families to get them to talk about their own experience and to make significant steps through the healing process.

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Your hometown in Mexico is Iguala, Guerrero, where the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College took place. Can you tell us about what it’s been like to contend with that tragedy from afar and about your efforts to bring something positive to the residents of Iguala?

When I lived in Iguala, all I had to deal with as a child was the extreme poverty in the city. Nowadays, my cousins growing up there have to deal with much more: poppy fields that surround the city to supply the heroin trade, the cartels who fight over the area, the numerous killings and disappearances.

Because the 43 disappeared in my city, I have a personal responsibility to them. This is why I have tried, from this side of the border, to speak about what is going on in my hometown and keep people informed. Every month, I’m in front of a microphone at some college or conference, and I use that time onstage to speak about Iguala.

Last year the families of the 43 came to the US on a tour of the country and I helped to promote their tour and raise funds so that they can continue to fight for justice. I don’t want anyone to forget what happened in Iguala because if it’s forgotten injustices like this will continue to take place in Mexico. It has to stop.

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Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next and when we can expect to read the next new book by Reyna Grande?

I am working on a novel set during the Mexican-American War. The topic of immigration is something that I always write about, so this novel will be no different in that respect.

However, I am writing about immigration from Ireland. The main protagonist is an Irish immigrant who deserts the U.S. army because of the rampant discrimination and racism he encounters. He ends up switching sides to fight for Mexico.

I wanted to write about the Mexican-American War because I feel that this particular war has been swept under the rug. It isn’t taught much in schools, and American children are growing up without much knowledge about the common history between the US and Mexico.

Many of them don’t even realize that a huge part of the US once belonged to Mexico. I think if people knew more about the past they would understand the Mexicans living here a little better. Knowing how deeply intertwined our histories are would give people a clearer insight into the complex relationship Americans and Mexicans have had through the ages. I can’t tell you when exactly I’ll be done with this book because it usually takes me a long time to finish, being the perfectionist that I am. But, I am passionate about this project and I can’t wait to share it with my readers!

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