Being called "wetback" by a child who looks just like you hurts.
That's what author Reyna Grande experienced at 9, after entering this country as an undocumented immigrant to join her father. Starting school, she was unprepared for a fifth-grade teacher who made her feel excluded, invisible and voiceless. Settling in Los Angeles, Grande found herself surrounded by Latinos but still a target.
"The discrimination I felt came from my Latino community," she says. "The Latino kids who were born here made fun of us immigrant kids."
Grande had already written two novels pulling from her experiences growing up poor in Mexico and then as an undocumented immigrant in the United States when she decided to switch from fiction to memoir. The shift drew from a desire to explore her experiences and try to allow the writing to liberate her from what she refers to as the prison of her trauma. The result was "The Distance Between Us," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.
In the past, her novels had allowed her to explore her experiences at a distance, with characters standing in for her. "When I switched to nonfiction, there was no more hiding. I had to be the protagonist of my own story," she explains of the four-year process. "It was very difficult to confront my experiences and revisit my past, but it was very healing. My memoir did for me what my novels couldn't do: set me free."
The first half of "The Distance Between Us" goes into detail about what her life was like once her father and mother left to work in the U.S. She recalls it as horribly difficult because her identity was tied to absent parents, so she spent her childhood feeling that something was missing, that she was incomplete.
"The Distance Between Us" was chosen for All Henrico Reads, an annual program that encourages the community to read the same book and then discuss it, culminating in an author reading. When immigration moved to the forefront of the national discussion last spring, the book was any easy choice for the program.
Patty Conway, the Henrico County Public Library community relations coordinator, points to how the immigrant population in Henrico is growing. "There are over 80 languages spoken in our public schools," she says. "Immigration is an issue we thought would be relevant to our community and we felt this book could foster understanding and bring the community together."
The book offers readers a first-person look at a world they might otherwise never know. Instead of couching the national conversation in political and economic terms, Grande's book offers the opportunity to see the world through her eyes. Grande's hope is that it leads to more compassion and understanding of the plight of immigrant families, and not just in the U.S., but all around the world.
She says that we must look at the factors causing millions of people to leave their homelands. "And I don't mean building a wall," Grande says. "To end migration, we must end what creates migrants in the first place: poverty, hunger, violence, war, inequality, the list goes on. If we don't tackle these things, there won't be a wall high enough to stop migration. Migration is an act of survival, after all."
Living most of her life here has resulted in Grande's becoming an educated woman with a successful writing career. Accomplishments, she says, that never would have been possible in Mexico. But as good as things have been, she's also spent years wondering where she belongs and questioning her identity as Mexican or American, while feeling like an outcast.
"I'm trying to make a life in the hyphen that connects those two identities: Mexican-American," she says, adding in some advice for those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. "The dream is real and it's worth fighting for. Persevere and don't give in to despair." S
Reyna Grande reads for the 2018 All Henrico Reads, April 11, 7 p.m. at Glen Allen High School, 10700 Staples Mill Road. henricolibrary.org.