Avila’s Truman Lecture features Latina author Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande writes about the undocumented, adults and children. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — As the lights of Avila University’s Goppert Theatre dimmed Oct. 18, and chitchat quieted, a dark-haired woman walked on stage and approached the podium. Reyna Grande, award winning author and memoirist, was brought to this country illegally at the age of nine. She knows the fears, the challenges and the desperation felt by men, women and children crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S., in hopes of a better life. She was the featured speaker of the 2017 Harry S. Truman Distinguished Lecture Series, an Avila tradition since 1971.

In 2012, Grande’s memoir, The Distance Between Us, was published. The memoir recounts the story of her childhood and the journey to America with her father and siblings.

Grande was born to a poor family in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico in 1975. There were few opportunities available to the poor, and when the little girl was two years old, her father left his wife and three children, and walked to the border at Tijuana. He hoped to earn enough money in a few years in America to return and build a home in Mexico. He returned when Grande was 4½, but not to stay. Instead he and the children’s mother, walked away while the children watched. They were left in the care of their paternal grandmother, who was furious at her son’s leaving and took it out on his children. They suffered great hardship under her hands.

A common situation in Mexico, Grande said, which creates a bad dynamic within a family. The separation causes long-term effects on those left behind.

Over the years, there were a few letters, some phone calls, occasional presents, but what they longed for was their parents’ presence. Finally, when Grande was going on 10, their father came back, and took the children with him to Tijuana and into California.

Grande, her sister and brother had traumatic experiences before their father came to get them, at the border, where it took them three days to get across, and even after arriving in America.

Her parents became legal aliens under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed by President Ronald Reagan Nov. 6, 1986. Opportunities began to open up for the 11-year-old girl, and when she was 15, she received her green card. Now she could work and go to school and she lost her fears. “I crossed the border at age nine, I can cross any borders!” she said.

The fear left but the aftereffects of being abandoned by both parents for most of her childhood, left with an unforgiving, harsh grandparent for almost five years, and then trekking from southern Mexico to the border at Tijuana and struggling to cross stayed with her.

She was the first in her family to graduate from college, with a B.A. in creative writing, film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She later received a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from Antioch University. Grande became a U.S. citizen when she was 26. And still she struggled to come to grips with the resentments and pain of the past.

It wasn’t until she began writing The Distance Between Us, and researching, talking to her parents, her sister and brother, and relatives still living in Mexico, that she stopped resenting her parents. “I learned a lot about who they were and why they did what they did.” That didn’t resolve the disconnect between them.

Her father died an alcoholic, and Grande admits that her relationship with her mother is not close, but writing the book fulfilled a two-fold purpose: on a personal level, it helped her to heal, understand and come to terms with her past; secondly, on a political level, she wanted to write the story of the undocumented youth, the Dreamers, who arrived in the U.S. as children and grew up in this country.

“I was a different person,” she said, “by the time I finished writing it. Through writing it, I managed to turn loss and heartbreak into something positive. I remembered some sweet moments of my childhood. Like when we were struggling to cross the border, unseen, I kept stumbling. Finally, my father picked me up and gave me my very first piggyback ride, across the border. My mom was the most surprised when she read it; it allowed her to see through my eyes what I went through, what all three children went through while she was gone. It was big price to pay for the American Dream. The heartbreak and dreams of America are universal.”

Today Grande considers herself “a global citizen. There is a distinct advantage to being bi-cultural, bi-lingual and bi-national. I can step back, see the best and worst of both cultures and take the best.”

She said there are three types of readers of the book. The first is the immigrant who says I wrote their story. The second is the children of immigrants who say they learn more about their parents and what they went through to get here. The third type is the reader who thinks about his/her ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries and wants to reconnect with those long ago family members.

Shortly before Reyna Grande was due to take the stage, a panel of four speakers discussed immigration issues and peaceful solutions to problems. Kathleen Irish, JD, an attorney specializing in immigration law; Sofia Khan, M.D., a medical doctor, mother of 5, community activist and founder of KC Refugees; Maura Orpin, Executive Director of Don Bosco Centers, and Miguel Salazar, Director of Hispanic Ministry of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

During the discussion, students and faculty members in the audience asked questions.

Miguel Salazar later told The Key that he felt the panel generated a reflective atmosphere that day. The members weren’t academics, they were grassroots, neighborhoods and communities people.

“Reyna’s a hero to a lot of folks, her books speak to many in the Latino community,” Salazar said. “There are 90,000 Latinos in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and 200,000 in Greater Kansas City.”

He is the child of an immigrant, his mother was born in Kentucky and his father arrived in the U.S. when he was seven, brought by his parents. Salazar’s parents later divorced, but reading The Distance Between Us helped Miguel understand his father better.

Salazar repeated a phrase of panel member Kathleen Irish, “by invitation only.” He added, “Although legal immigration is by invitation only at this point, Americans should consider the causes of migration. We should all, immigrants and U.S. citizens, recognize the gift of being here in this country, strengthen the brotherhood of mankind and build bridges as Christ did, rather than walls.”

The Distance Between Us is Grande’s third book. Her other books include Across One Hundred Mountains and Dancing With Butterflies. The Distance Between Us has also been adapted to young readers. She is working on a novel of Irish immigration, especially during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. She is married with two children.

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Saturday
November 18, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph