I recently finished reading a new book that I keep thinking about. It is The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande, and it’s a devastating memoir about the rifts caused by immigration. Grande shows how children grieve for their missing parents, especially when they are out of reach, but not entirely gone. The sadness at the heart of her story is unrelenting; this is the opposite of a light summer read. But that’s OK, because summer is just about over, and this book should have a long shelf life. Grande is the kind of unsparing witness whose voice we don’t hear enough. She remembers her childhood with Maya Angelou-like immediacy, and she made me think about why parents leave their children, and what responsibility Americans bear for the temptation and pain of border crossings.
Grande’s father left his family in Mexico for “El Otro Lado,” the United States, when she was 2. He was a bricklayer who wanted to make money to build his own house. He never really came back, and a few years later, he called for her mother to join him. For her this came as a relief: Many men crossed over, found new wives, and abandoned the women and children they’d left behind. But it also meant that the United States had become the super power in Grande’s life, the evil god that takes parents from their children.
The special torment Grande endured was that her parents never really came back to her and her brother and sisters, but they didn’t entirely leave, either. They split up before her father could build his dream house, and their separate involvement with their children was episodic and fitful. Grande’s real caretakers were her fierce older sister and her loving maternal grandmother (her other grandmother could be the witch in a fairy tale).
In a sense, the book is a testament to the capacity of siblings to look out for each other. It is Grande’s sister who insists that her indifferent grandmother take her to the doctor when she is bitten by a scorpion. But there are limits to the protection kids can give each other, of course. Later in the book, Grande and her siblings persuade their father to take them to California with him. Her brother Carlos starts playing soccer, but has no shin pads, because his father refuses to buy them. By now, the father is a landlord, so this isn’t about dire poverty; it’s about his rigid temperament. Carlos gets kicked in the shin and comes home in agony from the pain. Grande and her sister stay up with him all night while their father refuses to take his boy to the hospital. When he finally relents in the morning, it turns out that Carlos has two broken bones.
Like I said, hard. At the same time, Grande argues that this book, and her skill in writing to it, are a testament to her father’s high expectations for her. He told her she had to make good on his investment in bringing her to America, and she never stopped wanting to please him and to prove herself. It’s a perverse lesson to draw, and it’s not the norm: Grande tells us briefly that it didn’t work for her siblings. The way in which she is exceptional is worth unpacking. I wish she’d thought and written more about this, and also about her enduring loyalty to her father, and her ongoing relationship with her mother. Mostly, though, Grande trains her hard-earned acuity on her family’s failings with unusual authority and energy. She has, indeed, traveled a long distance.