Wise words on immigration
Mexican-American author Reyna Grande believes wholeheartedly that immigrants should be treated with tolerance and compassion, documented or not.
She was once an illegal immigrant herself.
“People forced to immigrate, deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion,” the 44-year-old said.
In her 2012 memoir, The Distance Between Us, she chronicles her life growing up in Iguala, Guerrero, one of the poorest parts of northern Mexico.
When she was two, her father skipped the border to work in the United States, and her mother followed two years later, leaving her and her two siblings to be raised by their grandmother, for years.
Her grandmother's one room shack had no running water, and her grandmother struggled to feed and clothe them.
Eventually, their father returned to run them over the border into the United States. When she was 11 years old, Ms Grande and her family were some of the three million undocumented people, granted citizenship in a special amnesty programme created by President Ronald Reagan in November 1986.
She now tours schools extensively to talk about her life and work. She will be in Bermuda to speak at Somersfield Academy on September 5. “Depending on the demographics of who I am speaking to, I try to get students to open their eyes a little bit more in terms of the push factors that create these kinds of situations,” she said.
“I want them to have more empathy towards these people forced to leave their homes. I try to get them to think a lot about their own parts in what is going on in the world.
“Especially, here in the US, I really try to push that further because I know here in the US, consumerism really leads to a lot of exploitation of people in poor countries. We don't seem to really acknowledge our part in creating migration.”
She wrote the book during the Obama Administration, but she said even then families who attempted to cross the border illegally were being separated, and children detained in prisons.
“Now it is worse,” she said. “Trump is trying to create all this chaos and anti-immigrant sentiment. Trump is really good at dividing communities. For me, having Trump around has made me even more determined to keep writing about this issue and experience. He is trying so hard to vilify the immigrant community and stir up so much hatred and so much racism and discrimination.
As a writer, I feel an even bigger responsibility to push against that. I have to keep writing our story to help people understand these experiences. Ultimately, illegal immigrants are just victims of circumstance and policies of government.”
The Distance Between Us is her third book. When she published her first book, a novel, Dancing with Butterflies in 2009, she was working as a middle schoolteacher. Now she devotes herself full time to writing and speaking, and teaching at writers' retreats.
“This will be my first visit to Bermuda,” she said. “I have never been there before. I am really looking forward to it. Somersfield contacted me and told me they were using my book this summer. They asked me if I would be willing to come out and meet the students and the community.”
She was happy to say yes, and is bringing her 11-year-old daughter, Eva.
Last November, she spoke at high schools in Mexico for the first time, a different experience for her.
“My book came out there in Spanish and the schools were using it,” she said. “The students there really connected to it.
“It was interesting because it was my first time visiting high schools in my native country. It was also different because here in the US when I visit a school with Mexican students, a lot of them are immigrants or children of immigrants, but in Mexico they are not, although they might have a parent in the United States.
“Once, it was really sad because one of the students raised her hand and said her father was in the US, and then she started crying. She said she hadn't seen him in a long time.” Then the student asked Ms Grande a question: is it worth it?
“I said your father is making a big sacrifice for you,” she said. “He is trying to do his best to provide for you, and that meant he had to leave. I said, ultimately, you have to make sure you are doing the best you can to stay focused on your goals and make the best of what your father can give you right now. It is a really sad situation when children are separated like that from their parents.”
When The Distance Between Us was first published, it was aimed at older students and adults. But when her publishers found that many younger children were reading it in schools, they released a child's edition three years ago.
Today, she said, some parts of Mexico are doing better than when she grew up there in the 1980s, but not Iguala.
“The salaries are horrendous,” she said. “The way of life is really difficult. In 2014, 43 teaching students had disappeared in my home town.”
She didn't know any of the students, but the incident happened down the road from where her family live.
“Five years later we still don't know what happened to them,” she said. “The Government has sabotaged the investigation. There is just so much corruption. I feel that things have gone from bad to worse in my home town.”
Last Christmas, her aunt asked her not to visit; things were just too dangerous at that time.
“So, I understand how people can be forced to leave, and how the situation in their communities can be so unstable they don't have a lot of choices,” she said.
Her own daughter, Eva, enjoyed reading the book.
“I think she gets tired of me comparing my childhood to her cushy, middle-class childhood,” Ms Grande said. “She does go back with me to Mexico. It is a challenge to keep the culture alive for my children, because they hear the Mexican community being demeaned all the time. It doesn't encourage them to want to celebrate it.”
Ms Grande released her fourth book A Dream Called Home last year, and is currently working on a novel about the Mexican-American War in the 1840s.
She will give a public lecture on September 5 at 6pm in the Somersfield Academy gymnasium. Entry is free for students and $12 for adults. Tickets are available at www.ptix.bm.
For more information, contact Somersfield Academy on 236-9797.