Craig White's
Literature Courses


Thanks to
Reyna Grande

(b. 1975- )

Reyna Grande (b. 1975) has published three award-winning books:

  Across a Hundred Mountains (2006), a novel

  Dancing with Butterflies (2009), a novel

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir (2012), excerpted in Immigrant Voices anthology for LITR 4340 American Immigrant Literature and LITR 5831 Seminar in World / Multicultural Literature.

As of 2012, Grande reports living in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA, where she is married with two children. Her website is

Reyna's first 8 years were lived with her elder siblings Mago and Carlos in Iguala, southern Mexico (see map at right). Her family's story primarily concerns her and her siblings' sense of abandonment by their parents, resulting in financial and emotional stress.

When Reyna was two, her father "Papi" illegally emigrated to Los Angeles and later sent for their mother ("Mami"), who left their children in care of Papi's mother, who neglected them.

Papi and Mami had another daughter, Elizabeth / Betty, whose birth in Los Angeles gave her automatic American citizenship. (Betty's story is an especially tragic sub-plot, as she is repeatedly separated not only from her parents but from her siblings. At last report, Betty is an unmarried, pregnant teenage chola or gang-girl in L.A.)

Papi takes up with another woman, Mila, and divorces Mami, who returns to Iguala with Betty and transfers Reyna, Mago, and Carlos to the care of her mother, who is more caring but very poor.

map indicates locations of Los Angeles, California (northwest)
and Iguala, Guerrero (southeast)

The Distance Between Us and our anthology selections

The selections in our Immigrant Voices anthology occur after the changes described above.

Our Immigrant Voices excerpts from chapters 19 and 20 occur at the midpoint of Reyna's life-journey, first south and then north of the US-Mexican border. This thematic structure to the book conforms to the characterization of Mexican Americans (and other groups) as "border people" (See Gloria Anzaldua) and either side of the border as "El Otro Lado."

The Distance Between Us is divided to two parts, and our excerpts are drawn from chapters 19 and 20 from "Book One: Mi Mama Me Ama" ["My Mom Loves Me"], which describes the children's lives until Papi and hired coyotes smuggle them across the border to Los Angeles.

"Book Two: The Man Behind the Glass" describes the children's experience growing up in the Los Angeles apartment Papi shares with Mila, who has left her own children from a previous marriage to live with Papi. That second book concludes when Reyna becomes the first member of her family to graduate from college, in this case the University of California at Santa Clara.

Each chapter of The Distance Between Us is headed by a photograph of the family—examples at right.

Carlos, Reyna, & Mago with Aunt

Memoir style as creative nonfiction

The style, tone, and content of the excerpts in Immigrant Voices are representative of Grande's entire memoir. Except for a few flash-forwards to her adult life, Grande tells the story of her life largely from a perspective suitable to the age she is during the events described. As with any child, for example, she often cannot comprehend her parents' motives or actions, and instead of explaining them from the perspective of an adult, she re-creates the pain and confusion typical of childhood.

Therefore her style and perspective are typical of the genre of creative nonfiction, which relates factual events in the representational style of fiction, i.e. narration and dialogue with little editorial commentary or analysis like one finds in other nonfiction genres like essays,

This intimate semi-fictional style makes the factual excerpts in our anthology emotionally compelling. Any reader empathizes with a child who is treated unfairly and unjustly.

Another quality that encourages a reader to identify with Reyna as a character and narrator is her love for other characters in her story, who seem to be represented with fairness, dignity, and sympathy. Especially her big sister Mago grows into an interesting personality in her own right—one who is often braver than Reyna herself, and who by the memoir's end has largely assimilated to a local Americanized culture, rejecting any identification with her Mexican background, moving out of the family home, changing her name to Maggie, and naming her son Aidan,

Mami & Papi early in marriage

Issues for American Immigrant Literature in The Distance Between Us, particularly the family in traditional and esp. Hispanic cultures

Reyna tells her life-story almost exclusively from a child-like or adolescent point of view, with little commentary or analysis beyond her thinking at the time. Her long separations from her parents makes much of her commentary concentrate on stresses on her and other families—particularly the separation of children from their parents—that result from family members crossing the Mexican-USA border.

Narratives about growing up—sometimes called "initiation stories" or, in specialized cases, bildungsroman—are common to all literatures, but they prevail to an unusual degree in Mexican American literature, e.g. The House on Mango Street, Hunger of Memory: the Education of Richard Rodriguez, Bless Me, Ultima, and many more.

Possible reasons for this emphasis include

adolescent psychology of separation, maturation

second-generation immigrant caught between two cultures or languages

proximity of Mexico and USA intensifies conflict between cultures (though they may also blend )

differing citizenship status and language abilities of family members may limit non-citizens to barrio or home while citizens are free to assimilate.

  intensity of extended family values for Mexican Americans as historical Catholics, compared to North American Protestants.

(North American Protestants also value family, but Protestantism encourages individualism, so that Protestants may sacrifice family connections for continuing migrations, professional progress, etc.)

The Distance Between Us constantly features Reyna's desire for a supportive family even as her family's dysfunctionality is heightened by the stresses of illegal immigration. Mami and Betty later return to Los Angeles, but Mago, Carlos, and Reyna become aware of their mother's proximity only by accident. Mami never learns English and remains unassimilated and mostly limited to the barrio, while Mila, separated from her own children in order to live with Papi, knows English, has office skills, and interacts with the dominant culture. Mila helps Papi's children but remains emotionally distant. Papi does not assimilate beyond what is necessary to keep his job, retreats into alcoholism, and keeps the children sheltered in his and Mila's apartment. Yet he maintains faith in the American Dream and encourages his children to pursue their education for the sake of economic security.

Reyna's elder sister Mago acts as a surrogate mother, refusing to join Papi in crossing the border without her little sister and, later in Los Angeles, financing and organizing a quinceanera for her little sister.

Mago becomes the first member of her family to graduate from high school and finds employment as an office worker. She buys a car, moves out of the family apartment, spends her evening dancing with friends, goes into debt, drops out of college, and has a son whose father never appears. Carlos drops out of Los Angeles Community College to marry; after he and his wife have a son, Carlos separates from her and has a second son by another woman. Reyna's conflicted relation with her father affects her relations with young men, so that she avoids premarital, unprotected sex until late in the memoir.

A different path from traditional-but-dysfunctional family values and gender roles appears after Reyna graduates from high school and atteds Pasadena City College, where she becomes friendly with Diana Savas, a young, single Greek-American English teacher. Reyna marvels that Diana has a happy life despite having no relatives in Los Angeles, and eventually she moves in with Diana at her apartment, where she finally gains a stress-free environment where she can study and write. (No sexual relationship is implied.)

Under Diana's guidance, Reyna gives up reading Anglo popular literature like Sweet Valley High and discovers Latino / Latina literature, especially Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.

Diana encourages Reyna to accept a scholarship at the University of California-Santa Cruz, 350 miles north. Reyna is conflicted over leaving her family but does so, becoming the first member of her family to complete a college degree. When she and 20 other Latino students win college scholarships, she is the only scholarship-winner who leaves to study beyond the local area where their families live.

After her college graduation, the memoir hurries to a close. Only the epilogue briefly mentions her married life in the suburbs with two children.

Because the memoir reports these facts about her family straightforwardly without comment or analysis, a reader is left wondering about Reyna Grande's mature attitude toward her family, of whom she always speaks lovingly and respectfully.

A historically or sociologically minded reader has to wonder whether family values prepare immigrants for modern American professional life, or whether traditional or ethnic family values imprison family members in a dysfunctional world of traditional gender roles, early child-bearing, limited education, and family breakdown.

Evolutionary biology and future reproductive technology make this question increasingly important for sustainable human life on earth. Until the past two centuries, very few humans lived in large cities populated by unrelated strangers. Instead, throughout our natural history, most humans have lived in small, local communities where each individual was related to others genetically or by extended family relations. (See Wilson, Human Nature,pp. 82-3,)

Over many generations family values maintained support-networks in these small traditional societies, but how well do family values and traditional gender roles equip humans a modern existence marked by mobility, mega-cities full of strangers, trans-national migration, and social relations determined more by job than family? Reyna ultimately has more in common with her teacher Diana than with her family, just as many modern professional people leave their family networks behind to live among others with shared interests and livelihoods.

Because evolution has programmed family values so deeply into human nature, everyone is sensitive and resistant to any challenges, and people justifiably wonder what will or can replace family. However, the structure and nature of family change throughout history. The rise of social insurance, old-age homes, and child-care is already replacing traditional extended-family functions, and changes in reproductive technology and genetic manipulation will transfigure families further.

All this bears on American Immigrant Literature's Objective 5. To observe and analyze the effects of immigration and assimilation on cultural units or identities:

o family: In traditional Old World, extended families prevail. In modern New World, assimilated people live in nuclear families (often divorced) or increasingly by themselves.

o gender: Old World gender identities tend to be traditional, with clear divisions of power, labor, and expression. In the New World, gender may be de-emphasized in favor of equality, merit, and other gender-neutral concepts.

The question for individual Americans and their families is how much to resist such changes versus how much to study, accept, and guide them? 


Thanks to Daily Beast 2012 interview w/ Grande at

Terms  referred to in The Distance Between Us

cholo, chola: [<Cholollán, now Cholula, a district of Mexico] here a gangster, but across Spanish America the word has variable meanings, starting with mestizo (a person of mixed European and Indigenous descent), "gangster" (Mexico), "person who dresses in the manner of a certain subculture" (United States), or as a grievous insult (some South American countries) [i.e. a lower-class or mixed-race person]

churro: fried dough

colonia: neighborhoods in Mexican cities, which have no jurisdictional autonomy or representation

epazote: [Nahuatl "skunk sweat"] perennial plant used as a leaf vegetable, herb, or herbal tea for its pungent flavor.

ganas: desire, urge

jicama: Mexican yam bean or Mexican turnip

La Llorona, trans. "The Weeping Woman": legendary ghost in Mexican folklore, with many regional variations. In most, La Llorona is a grieving mother seeking her lost children who drowned in a river. In some, she herself drowned her children. As with the bogeyman, La Llorona may appear as a threat to kidnap or snatch children away from their families. (Wikipedia on La Llorona)

El Otro Lado: "the other side," i.e. the USA on the other side of the border with Mexico

el mercado: market, store

pocho, pocha: [<Spanish: discolored, faded, pale] adjective or noun applied to Mexicans or Mexican Americans who have assimilated to the American dominant culture and no longer speak Spanish or uphold traditional Mexican culture.

Las Posadas: nine days of religious observance beginning 16 December and ending 24 December. The Aztec celebration on 12 December of Tonantzin Guadalupe (the non-Christian prototype of the Virgin of Guadalupe) blended with Christian celebrations of the days leading to Christ's birth on Dec. 25. Posado means "inn," as when Mary and Joseph were denied hospitality at the crowded inn of Bethlehem.

quinceanera: celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday

El Santo ("The Saint"), famous Mexican masked wrestler of 20th century; Lucha Libre ("free fight"), comparable to American professional "freestyle" wrestling, but featuring masks and, often, three-man tag teams (called trios)

el zocalo: plinth, baseboard 

El Santo









Instructor's notes from The Distance Between Us

112 Mago as character, dreams of tech school

"little mother

+ mother's dream: secretary

cf. 133 x-little mother; 12/2 (growing up fast) x-extended childhood

113 Abuelita Chinta a healter > cleansing

113-14 quit school, get job, food on table

dream = house

131 the one who came and went

133 13 years later

135 los posados

144 Mila as dom cult / assimilation

Chapters 19 & 20 > IV2; ends Book 1

Mex Ams as border people

158 Mago reached out

159 Mami and I had switched places + title

159 umbilical cord buried

166 Papi cf. Model Minority

167 tV x-imagination

169 public education x-devil nonsense

stepmother fluently bilingual

170 school = strangers x Iguala

father drinking

172 students: brown skin, eyes, hair + English <<<<<<<

173 debt


174 x-freedom, neighborhood; x-outside to play

174 streets empty except for cars

nostalgic for Iguala [independence]

175 Where do I belong?--tearing in half

176 Halloween, Rainbow Brite

177 cf. Day of the Dead

178 retirement home: Kingsley Manor

179 < Mila

180 first husband; shunned by family > court

181 cf. Haloween and los posados but offerings endless!

abundance only found in El Otro Lado

182 toothaches x-dental insurance

183 Papi x-English, < tools, silence

empathy for Cindy

183-4 flash-forward "Now that I'm a mother"

184 turkey + Pilgrim's hat

skin lighter

186-7 Mila's advantages: English, U S citizen, woman, + education

193-4 Barbie

194 liquor store + Koreans

197 Santa scam

201 favorite x Negra

227 Papi: the future

228 home owners, retirement

228 no papers > job? dream

228-9 Reagan amnesty

229 Mago to high school, first in family

232 music--in Mexico, nothing free in school

233 Papi to fields at 9, working ever since

234 Papi x-cholos (gang members)

236 Papi adult school, English job

237 Papi's desire for a better life . . . contagious

238 his dreams, my dreams

239 Papi's betrayal by family

240 completed ESL, become senorita

240 addicted to reading x making friends

241 reading Sweet Valley, glimpse of world I wished to belong to

242 short story competition

accent x sax, reading, writing

243 first place

245 Luis Gomez, El Salvador < Phuong

246 Mago x ESL

"Look Asian"

x-stripped of my Mexicanness

250 Mago history: High School diploma

251 green cards, legal residents

252 "whatever"

255 Papi abused by parents, only way he knows

267 relation with father > other men

268 Mago >- mami, papi

269 music from Les Mis

house & techno

Mago debt

270 Mago drops out

cf. Anne of Green Gables

271 Carlos at Los Angeles City College

273 marries, drops out, son, divorces

282 Mago x-Mex, English no accent

283 Anne of Green Gables on Disney Channel

283 "We can leave here and finally be in a aplace where we can be happy."

284 Johovah's Witness

286 UC Irvine acceptance

287 restaurant murals, songs, perfect little village

289 a room . . . now only minte (ct. Woolf)

void inside me

Carlos's wife and Mago expecting

297 the other Reyan, the one who still believed in that bright future my father had once said I could have

298 Papi: child rearing cf. oxen

wanted to understand

299 English teacher a Greek American

groups outside of family

300 Latino literature

302 Papi arrested

304 drop one class . . . how it starts

think about school x that situation

Diana no family in LA

I didn't know then . . . resemblance

305 Mila drops charges, disappointed, different kind of woman

house with books

Cisneros, Mango Street

306 Chicano / Latino lit

308 restraining order

309 Carlos second son, new partner

UC Santa Cruz, fresh start

311 Mago's little boy Aidan

Mami didn't care

[maybe uneducated country people need community to enforce morality, police behavior]

312 wall had come down

312 court hearing

respectful of  adults

313 English tutoring job at Pasadena City College


214 How oculd I leave now . . .

Diana: out of comfort zone

315 once again, we were orphans

cf. border . . . caught between two worlds

318 dreams reality

319 first college graduate in family

320 taught immigrant children

my story wasn't unique

80% of Latin American children separated from parent

2002 citizen

Mex Am: from both places . . . they coexist with in me

writing the bridge

13 grandchildren