Washington Square Press|March 12, 2013|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-1-4516-6178-1
Reyna Grande vividly brings to life her tumultuous early years in this “compelling…unvarnished, resonant” (Book Page) story of a childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries. As her parents make the dangerous trek across the Mexican border to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) in pursuit of the American dream, Reyna and her siblings are forced into the already overburdened household of their stern grandmother. When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to "El Otro Lado” to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father.
Funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical. The Distance Between Us poignantly captures the confusion and contradictions of childhood, reminding us that the joys and sorrows we experience are imprinted on the heart forever, calling out to us of those places we first called home.
This story captured my heart from the beginning to the end. It was so eloquently written with such a descriptive narrative that I could literally feel and smell and see the sights around me. From the dust on the ground to the feel of the dirt and mud clinging to my feet to the taste of the medicine Abuela Evila used to rid the children of worms.
When Reyna was four-years-old she didn’t know yet where the United States was or why everyone in her hometown of Iguala, Guerrero referred to it as El Otro Lado, the Other Side. All she knew back then was that El Otro Lado had already taken her father away. What she did know was that prayers didn’t work because if they did, then El Otro Lado wouldn’t be taking her mother away too.
Both Reyna’s mother, Juana, and her father, Natalio had gone to the United States leaving Reyna and her siblings: sister Mago, eight-and-a-half-years-old; and her brother, Carlos 7-years-old behind with their miserable grandmother, Abuela Evila. By June of 1980 the children had been with her for six months. During that time they were never taken anywhere. The three children all had head lice and instead of cleaning their hair properly to rid them of the lice, Abuela Evila dosued their hair in kerosene, wrapped their heads in towels and plastic bags and forced them to sleep that way. Halfway through the night, the children couldn’t stand the burning of their scalps and would remove the towels and bags so in the morning, their grandmother shaved all their heads bald as punishment. The little girls were horrified.
One night the children received a phone call from their mother and father in America. They called to tell them they were going to have a baby. The three children felt as if they were being replaced. They’d now been at their grandmother’s house for eight long months.
The children’s parents sent money regularly from the States to buy clothing and shoes but Abuela always spent it on something else forcing the children to walk around in old, torn, and tattered clothes looking like orphans. Abuela wasn’t a very nice woman at all.
The children received word that their mother had just given birth to a baby girl whom she named Elisabeth (Betty). The kids were so upset it sent them to their rooms crying for the night. It had now been a whole year since they’d seen their mother and with this new baby they were afraid she would forget about them altogether.
Their cousin, Elida turned fifteen so a big quinceanera party was planned to celebrate. The kids other cousins came and gramma Abuela Evila spent all day making new dresses for the girls on her sewing machine. Elida’s dress was made in the United States because her mother, Tia Maria Felix said she had to have the best for HER daughter. By the end of the week everyone “except” for Mago and Reyna had a new dress. The day before the party, Abuela Evila bought a few yards of silver material, shiny like a brand new peso and began making dresses for Mago and Reyna. She made a mistake on Reyna’s dress and sewed the dress inside out and made the child wear it like that. And poor Carlos didn’t get any new clothes at all. Reyna was so upset at being forced to wear the inside-out dress at the party that she sat, hidden underneath the table and cried about the dress, and the fact that her parents had replaced her with Betty. Reyna was now no longer the youngest child.
The children were missing their parents something terrible and they asked their grandmother if she thought they’d ever return and she said “no.” When Reyna gets bitten twice by a scorpion, is burning up with fever and on her way to the hospital in a taxi with her aunt, she asks her if she believes her grandmother is telling the truth. Aunt Tia Emperatriz said she didn’t know, but Reyna felt that although where they lived was pretty, it was just a place of “broken beauty” without her Mom and Dad. It had now been two years since her Mom and Dad had been gone.
Eventurally, their mother comes back with little Betty in tow but soon leaves again. This pattern continues over and over again until one day their father returns after many years. He decides to hire a mule to smuggle himself and the three children back across the border to live with his new wife who has three children of her own. After three attempts they finally make it but the children’s dream of living in American isn’t the dream they had in mind. Natalio wasn’t the kind father they had remembered from their younger years. He was distant and extremely abusive and after years of having neither a mother nor a father the children didn’t deserve this type of treatment.
The experiences these children have during their childhood, and I’ve only just barely touched on what they went through, remained with them their entire lives. This memoir is one I won’t soon forget and is now part of my permanent collection. I loved ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls but The Distance Between Us has that beat by a long shot. If you want an unbelievable read, don’t miss this one, it definitely gets a thumbs up from me.