Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us, recently spoke about her experiences as a young undocumented immigrant and becoming an American at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster.
Her story is relevant in light of the government stalemate on a new immigration bill and media coverage of undocumented children coming to the United States.
Reyna was nine when she came to the U.S. from Mexico, crossing the border with her parents and brother and sister. She was undocumented and not able to speak English when she started school in California.
Like generations of immigrants before them, her parents chased the American dream and wanted a better life for their children. They and their children worked hard to obtain that better life.
Only four years old when her father left, she had a picture of him but to her, he was just a face behind the glass. The children’s situation and life without her parents was more difficult for her older sister, who tried to take care of the younger children, she said. Her sister and brother helped with the book, sharing their memories.
Dr. Bryn Upton, a professor at McDaniel College, led the Question and Answer period. He asked Reyna about life “in the shadows” and to describe her early life as an undocumented immigrant. She said that taking ESL classes and being able to speak English increased her confidence in school. Then President George W. Bush’s amnesty bill allowed her to get her green card at 13. That helped bring her out of the shadows.
After attending Pasadena City College for two years, she went to the University of California, Santa Cruz and graduated with a B.A in creative writing and film and video. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Later she received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch College. Now she teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension.
She couldn’t write this book when she was 22. It still was not easy at this stage of life, but it has been a catharsis, she said. The writing was cleansing. It was therapy.
A professor told her what she was writing at first was an autobiography. She was writing about too much of her life A memoir covers a limited amount of time.
Reyna realized she had to stop looking at her parents as a daughter and look at them through the viewpoint of an author. She began to look at them as characters in a story. As characters, their good points as well as their bad points were revealed, as well as the history that affected them, that made them who they were. She saw her parents were products of their own upbringing.
Before writing this memoir she had written two novels. She received an American Book Award in 2007 for Across a Hundred Mountains. In 2009, Dancing with Butterflies was published.
In her novels, portions of her life are revealed. Worry about a father not returning, came from fear when she was younger that he wouldn’t return for her.
Thoughts about writing were scattered throughout her speech and during the question and answer period.
She said, “Whenever I listen to another writer speak, I am inspired and motivated.” I also think new ideas or changes to an existing work while listening to other writers, just as I did during Reyna’s talk.
“These ‘ghosts inside’ were demanding attention,” she said. “I also am reminded about the basics: good characterization and setting.”
It bothers her that so many people look at immigration as numbers, not as people. Individuals lose their identity. She included only one statistic in the book: that 80 percent of children in ESL classes come from families split by immigration, and hopes teachers keep in mind the hurdles they are facing.
All Americans are immigrants, but the younger generations tend to forget where their ancestors came from. All had difficulties when they first came to their new country.
I wish I had written this blog right away instead of just jotting down notes. I feel I’ve lost a lot of the impact of the evening. It was interesting and enlightening to share some of this writer’s life and thoughts. If you have a chance to attend one of the events featuring Reyna Grande I definitely would recommend you go.
Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, United Hands of Carroll County, McDaniel College and the Carroll Library Partnership for sponsoring this program.