By Oscar Villalon
Poverty isn't great at building character. It doesn't naturally make us thoughtful or even compassionate. The sacrifices required escaping a life of want could take a crippling toll on a person's humanity.
In her generous and humble new memoir, "The Distance Between Us," novelist Reyna Grande tells the story of how she and her older siblings subsisted in Mexico while her mother and father lived apart from them in the United States, toiling to create a future for them all. Eventually, Grande and her sister, Mago, and her brother, Carlos, relocate to Los Angeles, where a whole new set of grief and upheaval awaits them.
In the first half of the book, Grande evocatively recounts a life of wretchedness set among what she terms the "broken beauty" of Iguala, Guerrero, the birthplace of Mexico's flag and home to scenic rivers and mountains. There are hovels made of dirt floors, coated cardboard and metal sheets. Children bathe in bracken water. Food is scarce, jobs are even scarcer, and a treatable illness can be costly beyond measure.
Grande pines for a father she only knows through a photograph, and weathers the cruelty or indifference of her relatives, people made hard by a life that doesn't afford any margin for error. Hopes for an eventual family reunion die when her mother returns from the U.S. alone. Their father has left her for another woman, and the bitterness and humiliation of it has changed her for good. She leaves her children again, and will fail to ever take a real interest in Grande and her siblings again.
The rest of the book is a reckoning of that critical time apart. Their father finally returns for his despairing children and smuggles all of them across the border to his home, a one-bedroom apartment in Highland Park. Living with their abusive, alcoholic father, trying to assimilate as Americans, to say nothing of facing the usual angst of growing up, Grande and Mago and Carlos further drift from their parents, even each other.
It's not giving anything away to tell you "The Distance Between Us" ends on a hopeful note. The book is meant to hearten others facing the same sort of obstacles Grande and her family did as they tried to secure a life of dignity and optimism. To that end, there are unexpected moments of tenderness here and moving acts of goodness and love. In the end, their lives are better than they would have been back in Mexico.
But what predominates Grande's narrative, and what stays with the reader, is her recounting of the deprivation that would drive parents to leave their toddlers and small children behind for long stretches. Equally hard to forget is her unsentimental examination of the consequences of these separations, which manifest themselves as cruel irony. In their desperate attempt to save their families, mothers and fathers unwittingly undo them.
A solid piece of storytelling, "The Distance Between Us" doesn't sully itself by telling us outright that demonizing undocumented immigrants is wrong, adding further woe to the lives of besieged children immoral. What it does do is make palpable a human dilemma and dares us to dismiss it.