Author Reyna Grande offers a touching account of her coming-of-age as a young undocumented immigrant in her newest release, “The Distance Between Us.” (Photo/Courtesy Ibarionex Perello)

In new book, Mexican author retraces childhood as an undocumented immigrant

Acclaimed author Reyna Grande remembers how her journey began. She was just nine years old when she begged her father to take her to El Otro Lado with him; not to leave her behind as he had during his other trips to find work in California. It took some convincing, but her papi reluctantly consented: he would pay a smuggler to sneak in her and her two siblings across the border and together, they would begin a new life.

It was a moment that Grande had envisioned for as long as she could remember – a “si” that would lead to a reunion between families, hearts and lives separated by the desert plain on the U.S/Mexico border.

She was just two years old when her father left his young family and wife behind in Mexico during one of the country’s worst recessions to find work across the border. American dollars were harder to earn than he expected and in an effort to earn the money sorely needed at home, he sent for his wife and helpmate. And so, Grande and her siblings – sister Mago and brother Carlos – were brought up by a grandmother who was a dysfunctional, bitter caretaker at best.

There was never enough money for shoes that fit, medicine or for wholesome meals for the trio. The siblings suffered from the emotional distance from their parents, who eventually split. And amidst it all, Grande hoped that if she too, could just cross to the country of opportunity, her broken family would be mended.

In new book, Mexican author retraces childhood as an undocumented immigrant distance between us cover people NBC Latino News

But the journey that ensued once Grande grabbed her older sister’s hand and ran with the whirring sound of helicopters overhead – the siblings’ second attempt at crossing the border – was completely unlike what she had envisioned.

“Hardships will come, but you need to find the strength to face them head on and not let go of your dream,” says Grande, who, upon arrival to the United States suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. “By offering my immigrant experience to the world, I hope people can be a bit more understanding of the issues that we’re dealing with as people who leave one country for another.”

Since graduating with her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Grande has achieved her childhood dreams by becoming a published author whose novels have received national acclaim. Her debut novel, “Across a Hundred Mountains” received an American Book Award and her second novel, “Dancing with Butterflies” was the recipient of a 2010 International Latino Book Award. But with her third book, the memoir “The Distance Between Us,” Grande – the first in her family to graduate from college – delves into a deeply personal account of her childhood in a dusty town in Mexico and her teen years in the United States.

Page after page in the heart-warming memoir offer a telling glimpse of the difficulties Grande had as a youth in Highland Park, California. Even with the challenges of learning English, earning good grades and fighting her way through turbulent adolescence, the 37-year-old emerged as a successful writer whose prose has the potential to touch the generation of youth whose story is so reminiscent of her own.

“Most books are about the hardships you face once you’re here, but no one was telling the story of children that stayed behind,” says Grande, who until recently taught English as a Second Language in the Los Angeles public school system. “Those experiences really needed to be told – because for me, being left behind by my parents was scarring.”

For Grande, who is a staunch advocate of the DREAM Act, the publication of her memoir is an opportunity to offer inspiration to the current generation of young immigrants who have dreams as lofty as she did as a teenager.

“I do feel like I have my happy ending in terms of going from that little girl in Mexico to being who I am now,” says the happily married mother of two. “There were times when I couldn’t get past my place of anger and hurt, but writing helped me. “

“Because I know that I what I went through shaped me – and that’s something that that thousands and thousands of young immigrants can relate to. These kids need inspiration and I want to give that to them.”

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