Memoir of immigration from Reyna Grande commemorates CMC Common Reader Tour’s 10th year
IF YOU GO
What: Colorado Mountain College Common Reader Tour
When: Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.
Where: Colorado Mountain College, Breckenridge
Crouched low in a ditch, 9-year-old Reyna Grande heard the pulsing of a helicopter flying above. Darkness enveloped the night, and she was terrified of getting caught again by border patrol as she had twice before. She didn’t really understand why she and her other two siblings, ages 11 and 12, were out there, but she knew that if they didn’t make it over that hill, she might not be able to see her father again, and they had just been reunited.
Led by a smuggler, the family successfully crossed into the United States from Mexico on the third try. Until then, Grande and her siblings had been living with their grandmother after their father had left them for a new life in the U.S. when she was only 2, her mother following him two and a half years later. It was almost eight years before her father returned to Mexico to collect the children, and it was a struggle to reconnect as a family, even after finally obtaining the dream of living in the United States.
Grande, now an author, teacher and speaker, will present her memoir, “The Distance Between Us,” at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) in Breckenridge on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. Her book is CMC’s selection for its 10th annual Common Reader community-reading program, and the author will present at CMC’s other campuses as well, including Edwards, Leadville, Steamboat Springs, Rifle, Aspen and Spring Valley. The general public is invited to participate with faculty and students in this “group read,” and to attend the free Common Reader presentations.
Joining the author will be Denver-based poet and performance artist Molina Speaks, who will bring his own perspective to the author’s words. Speaks is planning to create what he refers to as a “live scribe” poem, based on interactions between Grande and her audience at each presentation.
THE LIFE OF A CHILD IMMIGRANT
Grande’s memoir, published in 2012, tells the story of her life before and after coming to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. Like her other two novels, “Across a Hundred Mountains” (2006) and “Dancing with Butterflies,” (2009), the story gives a voice to immigrants, especially children.
“That’s how I see the issue of immigration, since I’m a former child immigrant,” she said. “I can speak with more authority from that perspective.”
As a child in Mexico, Grande and her four siblings lived with their paternal grandmother after both parents left for the U.S. It was challenging for the children, who already felt unloved after being left behind, made even harder living with an unkind relative. After moving in with her maternal grandmother, Grande said things improved, but she “could not make up for our parents’ absence.”
After her father returned to Mexico, she and her other two siblings went to live in Los Angeles with their father and new stepmother, leaving the youngest sibling behind, who was 4 ½.
From the stories she had heard as a child, the U.S. sounded like paradise. She expected her life to be easier — to not be hungry anymore, and to have things she wasn’t able to have in Mexico. They lived in an immigrant-dominated area of LA, and although it wasn’t a wealthy area, it did “feel like paradise compared to what we left behind,” Grande said.
Even though she had better access to education and other opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise, her family still struggled to reconnect, a concept reflected in the title of Grande’s memoir.
“The title of my book is ‘The Distance Between Us’ because I write about all the distances that separated me from my parents,” she said. “And I write about how when our family was separated, we were never really able to overcome that distance and function as a family anymore. It’s the price that we pay for the American dream — these broken relationships with my parents.”
Growing up, Grande said she was always desperate to find stories she could relate to. Before her father obtained a green card for himself and his children when Grande was 15, she and her siblings lived a secret life. Being undocumented to her meant they didn’t have permission to be there, to be at school and to live in LA, and her father would constantly remind them not to say anything about how they came to the U.S.
“There was fear in terms of, I’m going to give myself away if I say anything to anybody,” she said. “I never confided in anybody about this. So sometimes there was this feeling of isolation … when you carry around a secret and you can’t tell anybody. Then … to constantly struggle to feel that I belong here, that this was my home, but at the same time knowing that any day I could be kicked out and deported. So even though I wanted to feel that I was home, and feel comfortable and feel that I was part of a community, there was always that fear that I might not be here tomorrow.”
After receiving her green card when she started high school, she was able to qualify for financial aid and attend college, becoming the first person in her family to graduate. She spent two years at Pasadena City College before earning a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She later received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University. Grande applied for and received full citizenship at age 26.
“I felt a little torn, but at the same time I also felt proud,” she said of obtaining citizenship. “It was one of our dreams to be citizens one day, and then also to feel that I had a voice, at least politically. Now I could vote and have a say. … It made me feel closer to feeling that I was part of this community.”
At the CMC Common Reader events, Grande will talk about her experiences after the story ends in “The Distance Between Us.” She will speak with students about being a product of a community college and how it prepared her for life at a university.
“I hope to inspire them and encourage them to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential,” she said. “Make sure they understand that college is a time where they should learn how to fly. College is not something to be survived. I want to encourage them to take charge of their learning.”
She said she hopes her memoir will encourage readers to be more compassionate and understanding toward immigrants, especially youth.
“After I wrote the book, we had a surge of immigrant children coming, especially from Central America,” she said. “I hope that, again, my story sheds some light on their experiences as children and why they come here.”
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