Martin City Telegraph

She crossed the border illegally as a child. Author recounts her journey at Avila speaker series.

Author recalls childhood immigration experience at Avila’s Speaker Series

By Jill Draper

Heartache and confusion are what Reyna Grande remembers most as a young child when her parents abandoned her and two siblings in Mexico to seek better jobs in the United States. Six years later in the mid-1980s her father returned to bring them across the border illegally, but her new life was full of continued family chaos and hardship.  

Grande, an award-winning novelist, talks about this journey in her memoir, “The Distance Between Us,” when she delivers the 2017 Harry S. Truman Distinguished Lecture at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at Avila University. Her talk is preceded by a panel  discussion on immigration issues at 3:30 p.m. and a public reception at 4:30 p.m.

Surrounded by turmoil fueled in part by her father’s drinking and an indifferent stepmother, Grande found solace in library books and began writing when she was 13. She never considered it might become a career until college, when her English teacher introduced her to Latino authors like Sandra Cisneros and Isabel Allende. “If they can do it, you can do it,” her teacher declared.

Grande says she wrote her memoir out of frustration with the way young immigrants are treated. “Again and again the DREAM Act has failed to pass, and part of writing my story was to show what it’s like to be a child immigrant—the pain and sorrow, the heartbreak and sacrifice. I also wanted to show how fortunate I was to get a green card when I was 15 years old, and how that green card became the key that opened the door to success.”

Young immigrants need a real and permanent solution, something that tells them, yes, you belong, we want you here, Grande says. She thinks the current talk on immigration leans too much toward labeling immigrants as a burden to society.

“I want to see more recognition of what we contribute. This country wouldn’t be what it is without the work ethic, the talent, the skills, the knowledge and the drive that immigrants have.”

Grande identifies another topic missing from the conversation—the way that U.S. foreign policies and trade agreements adversely impact areas outside our borders. “Let’s say it. The meddling of the U.S. in other countries sometimes creates catalysts for migration. First we make immigrants and then we punish them for migrating.”

The first in her family to graduate from college, Grande is now a frequent speaker at colleges and universities throughout the nation, and her memoir has been selected as a Common Reading Experience book for many freshman classes. It also has been republished for young readers ages 10 to 14. Her earlier books are “Across a Hundred Mountains” and “Dancing with Butterflies.” In 2012 she was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards, and in 2015 she was honored with a Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature.

“I’ve accomplished every goal I set for myself…and have been very fortunate that my story has been so well received,” Grande says. “As an immigrant I was used to being ‘silenced.’ Now, after I wrote this story, I get handed a microphone and people want me to tell them more. That is an incredible honor. I use the microphone to speak up on behalf of my immigrant community.”

Grande is planning a sequel to “The Distance Between Us,” and she’s hopeful that her writing will continue to help build bridges and tear down walls. “I am giving back 100 percent and doing my part to keep this country great. I want all immigrants to have that opportunity as well,” she says.

The Harry S. Truman Distinguished Lecture will be held in the university’s Goppert Theatre at 11901 Wornall Rd. and is open to the public. Reservations can be made at avila.edu/Truman. A book signing in the lobby will follow the talk.