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A conversation with author Reyna Grande on illegal border crossings and today's DREAMERS

Author Reyna Grande.
Author Reyna Grande.
Courtesy Reyna Grande

A conversation with author Reyna Grande on crossing the border as a 10-year-old, getting dumped into the reject pile, and today’s DREAMERS

During Tuesday night’s Presidential debate President Obama and Governor Romney touched on immigration reform and lay out their plans for immigrant students.  Both candidates advocated for a pathway toward legal residency for undocumented “young people” who were brought to the United States as children.

That’s a topic author Reyna Grande knows a lot about.

Grande is a Mexican-American writer who lived in silence and shadows as an undocumented child in Southern California. Her latest book, a memoir called “The Distance Between Us” chronicles the LA-based writer’s journey from Mexico - left behind by her parents, living in poverty - to the US, and her coming of age in Highland Park.

I had a chance to speak with her on Wednesday. Here's a snippet of our lengthy conversation.  

Q: The book starts with you and your siblings (older sister and brother) living with your paternal grandmother in Mexico while both of your parents were working illegally in the US.  How did that happen?

A: When I was two years old, my father came here to the US to look for work and he wasn’t planning on staying here permanently. But things didn’t work out that way for him so in 1980 he decided for my mother to come here and help him. During the time that my parents were gone, we were left in a household where we were not wanted. And I think for the most part my childhood was defined by my parents’ absence. By feeling that I was not loved enough, and the fear of not knowing if they would come back for me or if they would forget about me.

So one of the things I write about in my book is how immigration and the distance affected my family. That’s the title of the book, “The Distance Between Us.” So the first part [of the book] is about the physical distance which was 2,000 miles but eventually, when my parents came back, one by one, that distance was more emotional.

Q: After two failed attempts, you and your family finally managed to cross the border with the help of a “coyote.” How old were you and what do you remember about the trek?

A: I was 10 years old and we had already been caught twice. So on the third time my father warned us that it was going to be our last try and that if we got caught again, he was just going to send us back to Mexico. So I think it was that threat of getting sent back that made me run as fast as I could. And what I remember most about the third crossing was a helicopter that came by with a searchlight. We scrambled to try to find a place to hide. We ended up crawling underneath some bushes and a little sliver of light fell on my tennis shoe and I was praying so hard for the people in that cockpit to not see me. And luckily they didn’t so that’s how we ended up getting across.

Q: Shortly after you arrived in California you started school at Aldama Elementary School in Highland Park. How did you deal with being in school without speaking English?

A:  The moment that I realized I needed to learn English as fast as possible was when I was half way through the school year in 5th grade. We had to write a story for a writing competition. And at the end of the week the teacher collected all our stories and she sat at her desk looking through our stories, and one pile was getting bigger and bigger and that was the reject pile and the other pile stayed small. And when she got to my story, she glanced at it and saw it was in Spanish, which she couldn’t read, so she put it in the reject pile. And it was that moment for me that I realized that I had to learn English quickly because I didn’t want to keep getting rejected just because someone couldn’t understand me. I wanted to be rejected on the same terms as everybody else.

Q: But you did eventually become a legal citizen. How did that happen?

A: I got really lucky because my father had worked as a farm worker in the Central Valley in the 1970s and the rest of us got here in 1985. So it was just a year after we got here that the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986 happened. I remember our green cards came in the mail and when my father got home he opened up the letters and said, “This is it kids. I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you.”

But up until then, I lived in fear and I was warned not to tell anybody how I got here. And I think that’s something that’s still the same for today’s DREAMERS.  You just don’t tell people about your status. But when you get to college that’s when you really start to feel that difference between the people who have papers and are able to talk about their plans after college and the careers they want to have and the jobs they want to apply for, and the students that don’t have documentation. What can they say?

Reyna Grande is Pasadena City College's first writer-in-residence. She’s the author of Across a Hundred Mountains, Dancing with Butterflies and her latest memoir, The Distance Between Us.