Arts and Culture

Author Reyna Grande shares defining life experiences from both sides of the border

“It doesn’t matter where you came from. What matters is where you end up.”
-Reyna Grande

By Bessy ReynaCTLatinoNews.com@BessyReyna

Reyna Grandeone of the most important voices in Chicano/Latino literature in the USA will be the featured speaker at the program Beyond Words, the annual fundraising event of the Hartford Public Library.

From 2006 to 2017, her books for children and adults, have received eleven awards. In 2012, her memoir The Distance Between Us was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and in 2017, a recipient of the Literacy Association Children’s Book Award. “The Distance Between Us” has been selected for numerous “Common Reads Programs” from California to Michigan, to Georgia and many other places across the country.

In 2019, she traveled from Oregon to Arizona and many other places, to present lectures in Schools, Colleges and to be the Keynote at many Conferences.

I have yet to meet Reyna Grande, but I feel as if I’ve known her for many years. In 2009, after I received an award from the Hispanics Association for Higher Education, I was surprised and pleased to find a note from Reyna congratulating me. Since then we started calling each other “primas” cousins because my last name and her first name are the same.

Anyone reading her extraordinary story of survival and resilience will be as impressed, as I have always been, to learn about her generosity, courage and indomitable spirit, and to always remember never to give up on our dreams.

Her struggles and her failures and triumphs as an adult are captured in her new memoir “A Dream Called Home” (Atria Books, 2018).


BR: In your memoir “The Distance Between Us” you wrote about the extremely painful childhood experiences you endured, starting when you were four years old, as soon as both your parents left Mexico. You, your brother Carlos and sister Mago, were mistreated, denied food and punished almost on a daily basis by your grandmother Evila, where you lived.  However, what is so remarkable upon reading your story is how the three of you found ways to support each other and survive an ordeal which lasted until you were almost ten-years-old. How did that experience shape who you are today?

RG: There are good things and bad things that came out of those painful experiences. I think my siblings and I formed a very strong, beautiful bond with one another. I wouldn’t have survived my childhood without them, and I’m especially grateful to my older sister for the support and love she gave me. Those experiences taught me a lot about resilience, about holding on to even the tiniest sliver of hope, to not give in to despair. That endurance and perseverance have carried me all the way to where I am now.

 But trauma is trauma. To this day, I still deal with it, and it affects me in different ways, such as being a mother. I’m actually writing an essay about it now—how my childhood poverty and suffering hinders my ability to relate to my two coddled upper-middle-class American children.

I am still haunted by those experiences. 

BR: You convinced your father to bring you with him when he went back to get your siblings. You were almost ten-years-old and had to cross at night, in very rugged terrain, three different occasions until you finally made it. That must have been a harrowing and painful experience. Was “el otro lado” (the other side) what you had imagined once you got here?

RG: The second half of The Distance Between Us goes into detail about what the U.S. was like versus what I had imagined it to be. In one of the chapters, I call the U.S. a “place of broken beauty.” Yes, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I imagined it, but its beauty was broken because of the hardships we encountered here. The thing is that when I finally crossed the border I thought there would be no more borders to overcome, but I arrived in California only to be faced with even more borders—language, cultural, legal borders, etc. Then, of course, there was the consequence of our family separation to be reckoned with. After not seeing my father for 8 years, he was a complete stranger to me. The dynamics at home were complicated by our separation but also by his alcoholism and abusive personality.

No, life wasn’t perfect and the U.S. was no paradise. But, the beauty that I found in this country was the beauty of possibility. Here, it didn’t matter where I came from, what mattered was where I ended up. I made sure I ended up in a good place.

BR: You wrote that you started learning English by reading books in your school’s library. Since then, libraries have had an important place in your life. Do you have a favorite library you go back to?

RG: My local library here in Woodland, CA, is very important in the community because there are no bookstores in town. I have done a few readings there. I also just recently taught a writing class there for VONA [Voices of Our Nation Artists]. Tonight, in fact, I am going there to participate in the career fair they are offering for the local teens. I confess I don’t borrow many books from the library because I buy all the books I want to read. It gets expensive, but as a writer who knows how important book sales are—I buy books to support other writers. If I want people to buy my book, then I have to be a book buyer, too.

But speaking of libraries—I was at the Library of Congress last month for the National Book Festival. There was an author gala hosted at the library, which is one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve even been to, with its beautiful marble floors, columns, and staircases. I kept pinching myself that night and asking myself, how did I get here? What did I do to deserve this?—to be one of the guest authors, mingling with so many writers I admire, like Barbara Kingsolver and Joyce Carol Oates. There was a part of me that felt that maybe I didn’t belong there. The library’s beauty was so overwhelming to me. So untouchable. But then, the food was served, and of all the things the library staff could have served that night to all those distinguished writers—they chose tacos! So I told myself if tacos belong here at the Library of Congress, then so do I.

BR: In your new memoir “A Dream Called Home” you share your new struggles as a young woman, still living under very oppressive circumstances and with both your parents’ betrayals and abandonment. What is so striking about you, and is so honestly stated in this book, is that you never gave up your “dream” to liberate yourself from your family, and to pursue your studies no matter what, even if it meant leaving everything behind.

RG: I always told myself that I wanted my future to be better than my past. I clung to that dream more than anything. As someone who came from extreme poverty, a broken abusive home, and who had all the wrong labels—low income, immigrant, English Language Learner, first-gen college student—I had to work very hard to overcome the hand I had been dealt. But what I wanted, more than anything, was to get to a place where I had control over my life, where I got to live it the way I wanted to live it, where I felt that I had reached my full potential, that I was giving the best of myself. I don’t want to be defined by the worst things that ever happened to me, or the labels that society gave me.

College helped me achieve the success I wanted to have. My university degree opened doors that had never been opened to anyone in my family. I come from a family that had no educational opportunities. My father went to 3rd grade, my mother 6th grade, and my maternal grandfather was illiterate. When I arrived in this country, I learned very quickly that the key to the American dream was higher education. So that is what I focused on.

I became the first person in my family to get a college degree because I wanted to break the cycle of poverty and lack of education that has plagued my family for generations. Now, at this very moment in my family, we have six children in college. The cycle is broken!

BR: Going to the University of California at Santa Cruz, was another difficult experience, you really had no idea about the culture you would encounter. It took a while before you found other Latino students and felt less isolated.

RG: Yeah, at UCSC I experienced the worst culture shock ever, but it was a necessary experience for me. The thing is that in Los Angeles, I didn’t have a whole lot of culture shock. I did have some culture shock, but not like in Santa Cruz. In Los Angeles, the shock I experienced was that I came to live in a mostly Latino neighborhood, so everyone looked like me and I looked like them—the difference was that I was a child immigrant and the brown kids at my school were the children of immigrants. There is a difference. And though we were all brown Latino kids, they never let me forget that they spoke English and I didn’t. That they had that precious U.S. birth certificate that gave them a legitimate claim to this country and I did not.

Later, when my English was perfect and I had a green card, I didn’t have any more problems with my Latino peers. But then I went to UCSC, and the university was only 13% Latino at the time so that is when I experienced culture shock in a major way. I didn’t look like most of the students, and my immigrant experiences hadn’t prepared me for the different way of life there. It was in Santa Cruz where I met my first vegan and vegetarian friends, for example. The first time I had split pea soup and alfalfa sprouts, tofu, and soy milk.

I grew a lot in Santa Cruz. If I had stayed in L.A., in my comfort zone, in my Latino neighborhood, I wouldn’t have learned how to adapt to places and situations that make me uncomfortable—where I feel like a fish out of water. Learning to adapt quickly to my environment has helped me in this business I’m in—being a writer.

I have had to give presentations to a room full of white people, brown people, and everything else in between. I’ve had to speak to young and old, from 9-year-olds to 90-year-olds. I have spoken in elementary schools, middle-schools, highs schools, colleges and universities, a military academy. and even a retirement home. I’ve spoken in classrooms, auditoriums, gyms, basketball courts, patios, parks, restaurants, you name it. Being in new environments is hard, but I’ve learned how to navigate unfamiliar places.

BR: At a time where you had no place to live, it was your teacher Diana Savas, who came to your rescue, offering you not only a home but the emotional support you had never had before. She was also the one who first encouraged you to read books by Latina writers. In The Distance Between Us, you wrote:  “Reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street was a revelation because you didn’t know until then that Chicano literature existed.”

RG: Yes, my professor Diana introduced me to several Chicana/Latina authors, even thou she herself is Greek-American. But she loves my culture, and in addition to Greek and English, she can also speak Spanish. She went above and beyond what any teacher had ever done for me, including taking me into her home.

When people ask me why I succeeded when others in my situation wouldn’t have, I always say, “Because I had Diana.”  Diana worked very hard to convince me to pursue a writing career because at the time I didn’t know that Chicanas/Latinas wrote books so I couldn’t imagine a career as a writer. I thought it was just a silly dream. When Diana gave me The House on Mango Street, all of that changed for me. It was real. I had proof in my hands. If Cisneros was real, that meant the dream was real.

BR: It was Maria Amparo, another teacher who, in 2003, encouraged you to apply for a fellowship for the “Emerging Voices” program for new writers. She told you the program would change your life. Did it?

RG: Absolutely! I always found that time to be magical. I met María Amparo at a time when I had almost given up on writing. I didn’t know anyone in the writing community. I had no idea how to turn my dream into a reality. So I stopped writing for about three years while I was too caught up trying to survive in the adult world. Then one day I realized my dream was dying. In a last attempt to save my dream, I signed up for a weekend writing class with María Amparo. She suggested I apply to the Emerging Voices fellowship program, even though the deadline was at the end of the week. I applied, I got in, I finished my novel and found an agent—all within the year after I met María Amparo. Then, finally, my first book was published and the rest is history.

BR: One of the most striking things for me as I was reading “A Dream Called Home” was your honesty about your relationships with men, and how, while being a single mother you never lost sight of your goal to continue your studies, and finishing your ESL teaching certificate so you could get a better job. It must have been a very difficult time in your life. But, once again, you found the strength not to give up on your dream.

RG: A question young people ask me a lot at my events is: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self? My response: “Forget the men. Stop chasing after them. Learn to love yourself more.” That is what I wish I could tell my younger self. Alas, I cannot, but I do say it to the young women I encounter. When I wrote A Dream Called Home, it was hard for me to revisit those times in my life when I cared too much about being loved by men. I realized though that it was a response to my disappointing relationship with my father. He gave me the wrong idea of what love was. My father was emotionally unavailable. He could never say he loved me, that he was proud of me, no matter how hard I worked to “earn” his love, he hardly ever showed affection. So I developed the dumb idea that love had to be earned.  Since I couldn’t get my father to love me I went out to look for someone who would. I put too much value in that because for all of my life I had a missing father. First, by his physical absence, then his emotional absence. I had a hole in my heart in the shape of my father, and back then I didn’t know how to self-soothe.

BR: It took that same resilience for you not to give up being a writer. Your book “Distance” was rejected by 27 different editors, until one understood how immensely important it was. Did that little girl in the town of Iguala ever see herself as the successful woman you have become today?

RG: In Mexico, the only dream I ever had was to have a mother and a father again. Sometimes, there are moments when I think this life I have is not real. When I go back to Mexico now as a published author, I feel like a soldier returning from a long great battle—triumphant, alive!

BR: After your graduation and success as a writer, you and Ben Leeds Carson, Provost of Kresge College, the residential college where you lived as an undergrad, have established a scholarship for Chicano/Latino work. How is that program implemented?

RG: The Reyna Grande Scholarship is open to any student who is working on a creative project that is intended to advance the standing and visibility of Latinx culture and history. In the winter quarter, we send out a call for applications, then a committee, made up of faculty and staff at UCSC, select the recipient. Besides my donation and Dr. Carson’s donation, I actively encourage my friends and family to donate to the scholarship as well so that I can support more students. If anyone is interested in contributing they can go to http://www.bit.ly/reynagrandescholarship and donate!

BR: You now have two children: Nathaniel and Eva Alana, and Cory, your husband –who proposed to you after hiding the ring in a bag of letters for the Scrabble game you often played together–and a home. However, when I visit your Facebook page I notice that when you’re home, you always seem to be doing something: from creating a garden to painting the living room, or sewing Halloween costumes. Do you ever rest?

RG: My husband and children will tell you that I do not know how to rest. I need to always be doing something, especially creative stuff. I keep fantasizing about my retirement, daydreaming of the day when I can just sew, and garden, and read, and play Scrabble, and make jewelry, all day long, without having to go to work. But then I realize that writers don’t get to retire.

BR: Which message do you want people to get when they read your books?

RG: It doesn’t matter where you came from. What matters is where you end up. 


This interview is made available through a collaboration between CTLatinoNews.com  and the Hartford Public Library.


For more information about how to obtain tickets to Beyond Words, call 860-695-6296 or write to groncari@hplbeyondwords.com. The program will take place November 20, from 6:00 to 9:00pm at the Hartford Marriott Downtown, 200 Columbus Boulevard, Hartford.

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