A Child's Experience of Immigration in The Distance Between Us

What Women Really Think
Aug. 28 2012 3:54 PM

A Child's Experience of Immigration in The Distance Between Us

We recommend this memoir.

I recently finished reading a new book that I keep thinking about. It is The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande, and it’s a devastating memoir about the rifts caused by immigration. Grande shows how children grieve for their missing parents, especially when they are out of reach, but not entirely gone. The sadness at the heart of her story is unrelenting; this is the opposite of a light summer read. But that’s OK, because summer is just about over, and this book should have a long shelf life. Grande is the kind of unsparing witness whose voice we don’t hear enough. She remembers her childhood with Maya Angelou-like immediacy, and she made me think about why parents leave their children, and what responsibility Americans bear for the temptation and pain of border crossings.

Grande’s father left his family in Mexico for "El Otro Lado," the United States, when she was 2. He was a bricklayer who wanted to make money to build his own house. He never really came back, and a few years later, he called for her mother to join him. For her this came as a relief: Many men crossed over, found new wives, and abandoned the women and children they’d left behind. But it also meant that the United States had become the super power in Grande’s life, the evil god that takes parents from their children.


The special torment Grande endured was that her parents never really came back to her and her brother and sisters, but they didn’t entirely leave, either. They split up before her father could build his dream house, and their separate involvement with their children was episodic and fitful. Grande’s real caretakers were her fierce older sister and her loving maternal grandmother (her other grandmother could be the witch in a fairy tale).

In a sense, the book is a testament to the capacity of siblings to look out for each other. It is Grande’s sister who insists that her indifferent grandmother take her to the doctor when she is bitten by a scorpion. But there are limits to the protection kids can give each other, of course. Later in the book, Grande and her siblings persuade their father to take them to California with him. Her brother Carlos starts playing soccer, but has no shin pads, because his father refuses to buy them. By now, the father is a landlord, so this isn’t about dire poverty; it’s about his rigid temperament. Carlos gets kicked in the shin and comes home in agony from the pain. Grande and her sister stay up with him all night while their father refuses to take his boy to the hospital. When he finally relents in the morning, it turns out that Carlos has two broken bones.

Like I said, hard. At the same time, Grande argues that this book, and her skill in writing to it, are a testament to her father’s high expectations for her. He told her she had to make good on his investment in bringing her to America, and she never stopped wanting to please him and to prove herself. It’s a perverse lesson to draw, and it’s not the norm: Grande tells us briefly that it didn’t work for her siblings. The way in which she is exceptional is worth unpacking. I wish she’d thought and written more about this, and also about her enduring loyalty to her father, and her ongoing relationship with her mother. Mostly, though, Grande trains her hard-earned acuity on her family’s failings with unusual authority and energy. She has, indeed, traveled a long distance.

Emily Bazelon was a Slate senior editor from 2005 to 2014. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
War Stories
Sept. 23 2014 4:04 PM The Right Target Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.