Reyna Grande — Mexican Past, American Present
Updated May 11 — Author Reyna Grande looks off into the middle distance while she thinks about an interviewer’s question. She is mentally traveling in familiar but painful territory, and she seems to want to make sure she picks the correct words. She is in no hurry to answer.
Grande, who was at the Autry for a book talk on April 17, writes eloquently about the loneliness of the immigrant experience, because she has lived it. As a child growing up in Guerrero, Mexico, her parents joined the
migrant worker circuit that brought thousands of undocumented laborers to the United States, leaving her and her siblings behind with their grandmother.
“When you’re a kid, you identify yourself through your parents, and who they are, and how they treat you,” she said. “Now, as an adult, I understand that they left because they wanted something better for us. But at the time you don’t think about that. You just think that they’re not there with you and it’s probably because they don’t love you.”
When their father returned for them almost eight years later, Grande and her siblings made the perilous journey North without papers and endured wrenching changes.
“When I saw my dad I was almost ten,” Grande said. “I had no memories of him at all, so it was like meeting a stranger.”
They naturalized in 1990, thanks to a Congress-approved amnesty program. Grande would go on to graduate from high school and then college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in creative writing from Antioch University. Her first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (2006), about two women whose stories intersect on the U.S.-Mexico border, won an American Book Award and a Prémio Aztlán Literary Award. Her second, Dancing With Butterflies (2009), about
four lives that revolve around folklórico dance, won a Latino Book Award in 2010.
Grande feels no need to filter her memories through a nostalgic lens. The separation was destructive. It was no fun in Mexico being among the few children at the school Mother’s Day potluck who were there without their parents, or having to endure the resentment of a grandmother who never accepted Grande’s parents’ marriage.
“The money that my parents would send for our food and our clothes, she would just spend it on other stuff,” she said. “So we never felt that we were better off having parents here because we were the same as other kids. We didn’t have any shoes or clothes, we didn’t have enough to eat.”
Even after she came to live in the United States, Grande says learning a new language and adjusting to a new country were complicated by the fact that her parents were no longer together and had met other people. She lived with her father, his new wife and her children, and she remembers tension and distance in that home: not being allowed to eat supper with the rest of the new family, her father locking his bedroom door and the phone with padlocks before going off to work, her stepmother not allowing kisses or endearments from her for fear of her own children’s jealousy.
But Grande credits her resiliency to those difficulties.
“My whole family just kind of was broken up, basically,” she said. “But I think part of that experience, it really made me toughen up, because I felt like if I really wanted to get ahead and to succeed I had to learn how to deal with all of that stuff.”
All those memories also became the flaws that make the characters in her fiction genuine: Juana, the forlorn young
Mexican woman in search of her migrant worker father; Adelina, the seemingly practical Californian crossing the border southward for her man; Yesenia, the middle-aged folklórico dancer at war with her body; Soledad, the stoic, undocumented seamstress who makes beauty with her hands; Elena, the grief-wracked housewife who shuts out those around her; and Adriana, the feisty, self-destructive sister clamoring for her father’s notice.
Grande comes to Olvera Street often, because she feels comfortable among the market stalls, strolling mariachi and Mexican food restaurants. She sometimes gets misty-eyed remembering her native Mexico and worries that her children don’t speak Spanish well or have much of a connection with their roots. Not long ago, after the family moved to Whittier from South Central Los Angeles, her son asked if they moved because there were “too many Mexicans” in their old neighborhood.
“It’s so painful to hear your own child say that to you,” Grande said, “when you know, well, you’re ‘that Mexican.’ It’s just a painful thing.’”
So Grande has tried some small, deliberate remedies. She put her son in folklórico dance classes, which he loves, and plays Mexican pop music in the car while he sings along, even though he does not know the meaning of the words.
“That’s my way of trying to keep that connection,” she said. “Those are my little victories, I guess.”
The search for an identity and a home, and the feeling of a divided existence, are themes that continue to haunt Grande’s life and work.She is currently working on a memoir, and it also has that bifurcated quality: the first half, about Mexico, focuses on her relationship with her mother. The second half, about the U.S., details her relationship with her father.
But in the end, Grande resolves all of that by turning to those she loves.
“I’ve made my own home,” she says. “I’ve got my husband, my kids, that’s my home.”