“In this poignant memoir about her childhood in Mexico, Reyna Grande skillfully depicts another side of the immigrant experience—the hardships and heartbreaks of the children who are left behind.” —Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of Enrique's Journey
Reyna Grande vividly brings to life her tumultuous early years in this “compelling . . . unvarnished, resonant” (BookPage) story of a childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries. As her parents make the dangerous trek across the Mexican border to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) in pursuit of the American dream, Reyna and her siblings are forced into the already overburdened household of their stern grandmother. When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to “El Otro Lado” to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father.
Funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical, The Distance Between Us poignantly captures the confusion and contradictions of childhood, reminding us that the joys and sorrows we experience are imprinted on the heart forever, calling out to us of those places we first called home.
Also available in Spanish as La distancia entre nosotros.
Reyna is two when her father leaves the family in Mexico and crosses the border into the United States, hoping to earn enough money to build a home in Mexico when he returns. When he sends for their mother, but leaves Reyna, Mago, and Carlos behind, the siblings suffer great hardship and poverty under the unforgiving hands of their father’s mother, Abuela Evila. Abandoned by both parents, the three endure but long for the return of their mother and a father for whom they have little memory. Their mother returns with a baby sister, Elizabeth, setting off a chain of on-again and off-again contact with her children. When their father returns after an eight-year absence and takes Reyna, Mago, and Carlos with him across the border, a new window of opportunity presents itself; however, Reyna, Mago, and Carlos must also deal with their father’s alcoholic rage. Recounted in astonishing detail, this memoir narrates one girl’s journey out of poverty and her infinite capacity to forgive and love.
Describe a time in which you felt abandoned or separated from a loved one. How did you resolve your feelings?
Questions for Discussion
1. Reyna is two years old when her father leaves Iguala for El Otro Lado (the other side). Why does he leave? Why do Reyna, her mother, and her two siblings—Mago and Carlos—stay behind?
2. When Reyna turns four, her father sends for her mother. Reyna, Mago, and Carlos are left to live with their father’s mother (Abuela Evila). Describe Reyna’s feelings regarding her mother’s leaving and her mother’s absence during these early years.
3. Who is “The Man Behind the Glass”? What does he symbolize?
4. Reyna wishes to stay with Abuelita Chinta instead of Abuela Evila. Compare and contrast the two grandmothers and their attitudes and behaviors toward their grandchildren. Are Reyna, Mago, and Carlos better off once they begin living with Abuelita Chinta? Why or why not? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
5. Who is Élida and why is she favored by Abuela Evila? Is her behavior toward Reyna, Mago, and Carlos justified? Why or why not?
6. In what way does Tía Emperatriz come to the aid of Reyna, Mago, and Carlos? Could she have done more for the three siblings? Why or why not?
7. Describe Reyna’s relationship with her sister Mago. Why does Mago feel responsible for Reyna?
8. Describe the hardships Reyna, Mago, and Carlos face growing up in Iguala.
9. What reactions do the three siblings have when they learn they have a younger sister, Elizabeth? Who seems the most impacted by this news and why?
10. Why does Reyna’s mother, Juana, return alone from the United States? How does life change for Reyna, Mago, and Carlos when she returns?
11. Who is Rey and why do Reyna, Mago, and Carlos not like him? What happens when he visits the family during the holidays?
12. Compare and contrast Mago’s and Reyna’s feelings toward their mother as time after time she chooses her own needs over those of her children. Does she love her children? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
13. As Carlos matures, he has a need for a father figure. Identify the male role models in his life and explain the influences they have on his development.
14. When Reyna’s father returns from the United States after an eight-year absence, Reyna is almost ten. How does she feel about his return? Why does he return and why does he offer to take Mago back to the United States with him? Why does he want to leave Reyna and Carlos behind?
15. How does Reyna feel about the possible separation from Mago? Why does their father decide to take all three children back with him? Describe their harrowing journey. Is life better for them once they reach the United States? Support your answer with evidence from the text.
16. Mila is Natalio’s second wife. What are Reyna’s earliest perceptions of her? What influence does Milo have on Reyna, Mago, and Carlos?
17. Reyna attends school in both Mexico and the United States. Compare and contrast her experiences in both places. What can readers learn about the challenges poor children have in negotiating school?
18. Reyna does not speak English when she enters school in the United States. How does she overcome this challenge? How is she received by her teachers? By her classmates? What accounts for her ability to succeed?
19. Reyna’s father believes in education and supports Mago and Carlos when they enroll in college. Why does he not help Reyna? How does his refusal impact Reyna?
20. To whom does Reyna owe thanks for her success? Why? Do you agree or disagree and why?
Questions for Further Discussion
1. What does Grande’s memoir tell us about the struggles of second language acquisition students in American schools?
2. The Distance Between Us is a memoir. What characteristics of a memoir can you identify in the story?
3. Compare and contrast Mago’s experiences as a student in Mexico and the United States. What drives her to succeed despite her challenges?
4. Despite her on-again off-again relationship with her father, Reyna yearns to make her father proud. In what ways did this desire serve her well? In what ways did it not? How is she able to release her guilt and anger toward her father? Identify and discuss a passage or scene in which she grows the most in her understanding of his capabilities.
5. How do Reyna’s perceptions of her mother evolve with time? Use examples from the text to support your response.
6. How might this story be different if it were written from another character’s point of view (e.g.: Mago, Carlos, either parent, or either grandparent)?
7. When Reyna returns to Iguala to visit her family, how does she reflect on your youth living in Mexico? How do her attitudes differ from those of her sister Mago? What accounts for their differences?
8. Compare and contrast the ways in which Reyna, Mago, and Carlos deal with the on-again off-again relationships with their parents? What accounts for their different responses?
9. As Reyna matures into a young woman, how does she resolve her feelings of being abandoned by both her mother and father? Does she view one parent as having been the better parent? Why or why not?
10. How does The Distance Between Us contribute to a growing body of literature about emigration to the United States? About the challenges facing children for whom English is a second language?
Guide written by Pam B. Cole, Professor of English Education & Literacy Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading club use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
This guide was written to align with the Common Core State Standards (www.corestandards.org).
Reyna Grande is an award-winning author, motivational speaker, and writing teacher. As a girl, she crossed the US–Mexico border to join her family in Los Angeles, a harrowing journey chronicled in The Distance Between Us, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist that has been adopted as the common read selection by over twenty schools and colleges and fourteen cities across the country. Her other books include the novels Across a Hundred Mountains, winner of a 2007 American Book Award, and Dancing with Butterflies, and The Distance Between Us, Young Reader’s Version. She lives in Woodland, CA with her husband and two children. Visit ReynaGrande.com.
“In this poignant memoir about her childhood in Mexico, Reyna Grande skillfully depicts another side of the immigrant experience—the hardships and heartbreaks of the children who are left behind. Through her brutally honest firsthand account of growing up in Mexico without her parents, Grande sheds light on the often overlooked consequence of immigration—the disintegration of a family.”
– Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of Enrique's Journey
Award-winning novelist (Across a Hundred Mountains) Grande captivates and inspires in her memoir. Raised in Mexico in brutal poverty during the 1980s, four-year-old Grande and her two siblings lived with their cruel grandmother after both parents departed for the U.S. in search of work. Grande deftly evokes the searing sense of heartache and confusion created by their parents’ departure. Eight years later her father returned and reluctantly agreed to take his children to the States. Yet life on the other side of the border was not what Grande imagined: her father’s new girlfriend’s indifference to the three children becomes more than apparent. Though Grande’s father continually stressed the importance of his children obtaining an education, his drinking resulted in violence, abuse, and family chaos. Surrounded by family turmoil, Grande discovered a love of writing and found solace in library books, and she eventually graduated from high school and went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. Tracing the complex and tattered relationships binding the family together, especially the bond she shared with her older sister, the author intimately probes her family’s history for clues to its disintegration. Recounting her story without self-pity, she gracefully chronicles the painful results of a family shattered by repeated separations and traumas (Aug.)
– Publishers Weekly: Starred Review
“A brutally honest book…akin to being the “Angela’s Ashes” of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.”
– LA Times
“Reyna Grande is a fierce, smart, shimmering light of a writer with an important story to tell.”
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
“I’ve been waiting for this book for decades. The American story of the new millennium is the story of the Latino immigrant, yet how often has the story been told by the immigrant herself? What makes Grande’s beautiful memoir all the more extraordinary is that, through this hero’s journey, she speaks for millions of immigrants whose voices have gone unheard.”
– Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“The sadness at the heart of Grande’s story is unrelenting; this is the opposite of a light summer read. But that’s OK, because . . . this book should have a long shelf life.”
“A timely and a vivid example of how poverty and immigration can destroy a family.”
– The Daily Beast
“Grande consistently displays a fierce willingness to ask tough questions, accept startling answers, and candidly render emotional and physical violence.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“The poignant yet triumphant tale Grande tells of her childhood andeventual illegal immigration puts a face on issues that stir vehement debate.”
– San Antonio Express News
“Eloquent, honest storytelling. This book would be fabulous required reading for college freshmen or, even better, for freshman members of Congress,”
– Washington Independent Review of Books
“An important piece of America’s immigrant history.”
“Accomplishes one of the great things books can do: make an abstract idea real.”
– Christian Science Monitor
“Heart-warming. . . . Even with the challenges of learning English, earning good grades and fighting her way through turbulent adolescence, Grande emerged as a successful writer whose prose has the potential to touch the generation of youth whose story is so reminiscent of her own.”
– NBC Latino
“Generous and humble. . . . Makes palpable a human dilemma and dares us to dismiss it.”
– The California Report
“Many of us find it difficult to practice diplomacy with our relatives. But when typical family squabbles are complicated by national borders—as they are in Reyna Grande’s excellent new memoir—the stakes are raised far higher than ‘Who’s cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year?’”
– Texas Observer
“Grande never flinches in describing her surroundings and feelings, while her resilience and ability to empathize allow her to look back with a compassion that makes this story one that everyone should read.”
– School Library Journal
“A deeply personal coming-of-age story that extols the power of self-reliance and the love of books.”