One of the most profound themes in Reyna Grande’s memoir is that of abandonment and betrayal. In painstaking detail, Grande recounts the feelings of isolation, betrayal, sadness, anger, and longing she and her siblings felt after their father—and, later, their mother—abandoned them for “El Otro Lado” as they pursued work in the United States. Over the course of the book, Grande focuses on the deep rifts sudden desertion or disappearance creates within families, ultimately arguing that the abandonments and betrayals children suffer in their youth can cause them to, as adults, linger in unhealthy or abusive familial or romantic situations far longer than they should—just because the idea of being left again is more traumatic than enduring the pain of proximity to a negative or harmful person.
The first abandonment and betrayal that Reyna and her sisters suffer in the timeline of the memoir is not the first they have suffered in their lives. In early 1980, when their Mami departs Iguala for the United States, their father has already been gone for years. As a result, Reyna and her siblings are clingy with their mother even when she goes out on short jaunts around the neighborhood, always fearful that she will leave them. Their fear is a consequence of their father’s abandonment, which is, at the start of the book, a bygone event that has nonetheless left its indelible imprint on Reyna and her family. Grande reaches back in time to access the painful feelings of betrayal and abandonment she and her siblings felt when they realized that their mother was truly leaving them behind in Mexico. Though they miss their mother deeply after she leaves, the miserable conditions they are forced to endure at their Abuela Evila’s house heighten their feelings of abandonment, and indeed their latent feelings of resentment towards their mother. The misery the children endure for years at the hands of the cruel Evila—a direct result of their mother’s abandonment—has unseen repercussions throughout the rest of their lives. Just as the abuse Reyna and her siblings face in the house of their father’s mother Evila reaches a breaking point, their mother returns home to Mexico—but she comes back with a new child in tow, a little girl named Betty, and her reappearance is too little, too late. Reyna and her siblings no longer trust their mother, having seen how she has changed in the years she’s been gone. When she continues to abandon them in small but hurtful ways—bringing new boyfriends home (or moving to other cities for boyfriends) and treating the men in her life better than she treats her own children, forcing Carlos to endure a miserable week outside, guarding a parcel of land that the government is rumored to be giving away to anyone who stakes their claim to it—the children’s feelings of betrayal intensify, and when their Papi returns to Mexico and offers to take them back to the United States, they jump at the opportunity to at last be the ones doing the leaving.
Once in Los Angeles with their father and his second wife, Mila, Reyna and her siblings face a new kind of betrayal: the betrayal of realizing that their father is not the man they thought he was. Papi is not kind and gentle and understanding, but rather vicious and violent, making cruel demands of his children and holding them to unreasonably high expectations in exchange for his having given them the opportunity to live in the United States. The children, though—scarred by memories of their mother’s abandonment and their grandmother’s cruelty, and fearful of being abandoned yet again—choose to stick it out with their father, even after their mother moves just across town with her new husband and their younger sister Betty. Reyna and her siblings, so paralyzed by their learned fear of abandonment, remain in a miserable situation with Papi until they each, separately, reach their breaking points. It is only after enduring years of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse that Mago—the eldest—is able to muster both the courage and the resources to get out from under her father’s thumb. Reyna, the last to leave, remains in her father’s house until he tells her she’s no longer welcome. This need to hang onto an abusive, traumatic relationship because the only alternative is feeling abandoned, discarded, and betrayed cements just how acutely Reyna and her siblings have learned to fear being left behind.
In The Distance Between Us, Reyna does more than catalog the numerous betrayals she and her siblings suffered throughout their childhoods—she galvanizes the pain and suffering they endured in order to show how children’s experiences of betrayal and abandonment can shape (and mar forever) their adult lives. In examining the specific effects of betrayal and abandonment alongside larger issues of poverty, abuse, and trauma, Grande demonstrates the cycles of desertion and neglect engendered by many immigrants’ attempts to flee the deep rural poverty and indigence south of the border.
Abandonment and Betrayal ThemeTracker
Abandonment and Betrayal Quotes in The Distance Between Us
"What did you see?" I asked her. "'Who was that in the alley?"
"It was a man, a man on a horse," Mago whispered. The clop-clopping of the hooves grew fainter and fainter.
"So?" Carlos said.
"But he was dragging something behind him in a sack!"
"You're lying," Carlos said.
"I'm not, I swear I'm not," Mago insisted. "I swear I saw him drag a person away."
"We don’t believe you," Carlos said again. "Right, Reyna?" I nodded, but none of us could fall back to sleep.
"That's the devil making his rounds," Abuela Evila said the next morning when we told her what Mago had seen. "He's looking for all the naughty children to take back to Hell with him. So you three better behave, or the devil is going to take you away."
Mago told us not to believe anything Abuela Evila said. But at night, we huddled together even closer when we heard a horse pass by our window the sound of its hooves sending chills up our spines. Who would protect us if the devil came to steal us and take us far away where we would never see our parents again? I wondered. Every night, I would bury my face in my pillow and hold on tight to my sister.
Mago and I sat on the dirt floor, and she told me about the day I was born exactly the way Mami used to tell it. She pointed to the circle of rocks and a pile of ash and told me that during my birth, a fire had been on while Mami had squatted on the ground, over a straw mat, grabbing the rope hanging from the ceiling. When I was born, the midwife put me into my mother's arms. She turned to face the fire so that the heat would keep me warm. As I listened to Mago, I closed my eyes and felt the heat of the flames, and I heard Mami's heart beating against my ear.
Mago pointed to a spot on the dirt floor and reminded me that my umbilical cord was buried there. That way, Mami told the midwife, no matter where life takes her, she won't ever forget where she came from.
But then Mago touched my belly button and added something to the story my mother had never told me. She said that my umbilical cord was like a ribbon that connected me to Mami. She said, "It doesn’t matter that there's a distance between us now. That cord is there forever." I touched my belly button and thought about what my sister had said. I had Papi's photo to keep me connected to him. I had no photo of my mother, but now my sister had given me something to remember her by.
Don Bartolo took my grandmother's coin from his pocket and handed it to me. "Don't ever think that your parents don't love you," he said. "It is because they love you very much that they have left."
As I walked home with the needle for my grandmother, I told myself that maybe Don Bartolo was right. I had to keep on believing my parents left me because they loved me too much and not because they didn't love me enough.
[Tía María Félix] left in the afternoon with little Javier. She promised Élida that one day soon she would send for her, and although she did eventually keep her promise, Élida had to stay behind for now and watch a taxicab take her mother away. Abuela Evila put her arm around Elida and held her while she cried. Elida buried her face in Abuela Evila's arms. It was so strange to see her crying. The ever-present mocking gaze was gone. The Élida that made fun of us, that laughed at us, that called us Los Huerfanitos, had been replaced by a weeping, lonely, heartbroken girl.
Mago grabbed our hands and took us to the backyard to give Élida privacy. "Los quiero mucho," she said, pulling us close to her. Then I realized how lucky Mago, Carlos, and I were. We at least had each other. Élida was on her own.
Part of me was desperate to wear those shoes. They were new. They had been sent to us by our parents. They were from El Otro Lado! But then I thought about my parents, and the fact that they didn't even know what size shoe I wore made me want to throw them in the trash.
If they don't even know something as basic as the size of our shoes and clothes, what else don't they know about us? And what don't we know about them?
The question was there, but neither Carlos, Mago, nor I was courageous enough to ponder on it for long. As the oldest, it was clearer to Mago, more than to Carlos and me, that the distance between us and our parents was destroying our relationship more than any of us could have imagined.
"Do you miss her?" I asked.
Mago glanced at the mountain one more time and then jumped off the track-changer. "Who, Mami? But she's back," she said. “And why were you crying?"
I started crying again. I didn't know why I still felt that familiar emptiness inside when I looked at the Mountain That Has a Headache even though my mother was back.
Carlos came over to us, smiling and pointing toward the house. "Can you believe she's here?" He took a deep breath and said, “Finally, everything is going to go back to how it was before she left."
Mami stood at the door and told us to come inside. As I looked at her in the doorway, beckoning us to come in, I knew why the emptiness and the yearning were still there. Carlos was wrong.
The woman standing there wasn't the same woman who had left.
Out of all of us, Mago was the only one who harbored any hope that Papi would not forsake us. My mother's broken promise—that she'd be gone only a year—had caused a rift between them, so Mago's loyalty to my father remained strong. He had been gone for so long that in his absence he had become bigger than life in Mago's eyes. But regardless of how much she had changed, I was too happy to have my mother back to cling to the hope of seeing my father again. And I was angry at him. I didn't have a single memory of him and Mami together—of all of us together—and I felt cheated out of the family I yearned to have. Why did he have to go and fall in love with someone else? I wanted to know. Hadn't Mami always done what he had asked of her? Hadn't it been enough that she had followed him to El Otro Lado and left us behind?
They hung Catalina by her feet so that the river would drain out of her. We all kneeled and prayed, and not once did I take my eyes off my cousin's bloated body, and I shuddered at seeing her like that, hanging by her feet, like the chickens at the meat section in el mercado, just as cold and lifeless. I was gripped with a fear so great, it made my stomach churn. What if something happened to me, Mago, Carlos, or Betty? What if, by the time Papi finishes his dream house, there’s no one left for him to keep safe? Or what if he never finishes it, what if he never returns, and we are left here to face the wolf all on our own?
"Go say hello to your father." Tía Emperatriz came up from behind us and pushed us toward him. I didn't want to go. All I wanted was to run away, run back to Abuelita Chinta's house, far away from him. I didn't want to see that look on his face. All those years staring at his photo, wishing that his eyes were not looking to the left but instead were looking at me. All those years wishing to be seen by him. And here he was, looking at me, but not really seeing me. He couldn't see past the tangled hair, the dirt on my face, my tattered clothes. He couldn't see the girl who had longed so much for this moment, to finally meet her father.
Papi went back into his room with his beer, and while Mago helped me clean up in the bathroom, Mila made me scrambled eggs, even though I told her I wasn't hungry. Now I would have to eat the eggs because Papi would beat me for sure if I didn't eat Mila's food for the second time that night. As I showered, I cried and thought about my sweet grandmother. She would never have dumped a plate of food on my head. And I wouldn't have had to tell her why I couldn't eat the spaghetti. She would have known why right away. I thought about the Man Behind the Glass. He, too, wouldn't have dumped the spaghetti on my head because he was with me all those years, and he had listened to me tell him about my fears and my dreams. But the father in this house didn't know me. He didn't know me at all.
And I didn't know him.
Back then we hadn't known where in Los Angeles Tía María Félix lived, and even if we had known, we probably wouldn't have gone to visit Élida. We just didn't have that kind of relationship with our cousin. My father wasn't close to his sister, either, and he never talked about visiting Tía María Félix, and for years we knew nothing about her. It wasn’t until he was in stage four of his cancer that he and Tía María Félix were finally reunited. My aunt would visit him daily, and they would spend hours reminiscing about times gone by and lamenting their broken relationships with their children. While my siblings and I had been struggling to overcome the gap that was created between us and our father when he'd left us behind, Élida had been doing the same thing with her mother. And like us, they had also failed to repair their relationship.
Immigration took a toll on us all.
Tía Güera had decided to leave her no-good husband and try her luck in this country. Mami was taking that as an opportunity to bring Betty here. So Tia Güera and Betty would both be making the long journey north together. The only thing was, Tia Güera said, that she would have to leave her own daughter behind with Abuelita Chinta. It made me sad to think of my cousin Lupita, of how now she was the one being abandoned, and I hoped that one day the cycle of leaving children behind would end.
We understood what Papi must have gone through because we knew what Abuela Evila and Abuelo Augurio were like. But that didn't make us feel better. If Papi knew what it felt like to be abused by his parents, then shouldn't he understand how we felt? Shouldn't he try to be a better father? Also, it wasn't our fault that his own family had turned their backs on him, even going as far as stealing the house he worked so hard to build. So why take it out on us? Why take out all his frustrations and disappointments on us?
"I came back for you, didn't I?" he said to us sometimes when we would speak up.
Then we would shut up and lower our heads, and we would continue to take his beatings. Even the time he punched me in the nose so hard it broke, as I watched the drops of blood landing on my tennis shoe, I told myself that maybe he was right. We shouldn't expect anything better from him. He didn't forget us, after all. We were here because of him. I was in this country because of him. I begged him to bring me. I got what I wanted, after all. How could I complain now, simply because things weren't all that we had hoped for?
I didn't know why I was so angry at my sister. How could she just sever the ties that bind us to this place, to these childhood friends of ours who weren’t able to escape this poverty like we did? I was so angry at her for quitting college and ruining her chances for a successful life. Now I realized that we owed it to them, our cousins, our friends, to do something with our lives. If not for us, then for them, because they would never be able to. I understood so clearly now why Papi said there were so many people who would die to have the opportunities we had, who would kill to get their hands on a green card. Mago's and Carlos's refusal to see that angered me more than anything.
When [Papi] came home, I didn’t hide in my bedroom. Instead, I went out to the kitchen and said, "Tomorrow I'm going to Pasadena City College to enroll." I waited for him to say no. I was ready for a fight. Bur my father looked at me, and whatever he saw in my eyes made him keep quiet. I turned around, and as I headed back to my room, he started to talk.
"You know, Chata, when my father took me to the fields to work, my job was to guide the oxen in a straight line. My father gave me a rod and said that if the oxen didn't listen to me, to hit them as hard as I could. I was nine years old, Chata. Do you understand?"
I took a deep breath, unable to say anything. I wanted to say something. I was still too angry to forgive all that he had done to me, but I wanted to understand what he was trying to tell me. But too soon, he had turned away from me. Too soon, he was opening the refrigerator door, taking out a Budweiser, and I knew that the father who had spoken just a minute ago was gone.
Carlos and Mago were furious about what our father had done.
Carlos said, "I spent all that time helping him with the lawyer, defending him from Mila and her restraining orders, for what? So that he could just betray us like this?"
"I'm never speaking to him again," Mago said. "He used us. He just wanted us around because he was lonely and depressed, and now that he has her back he doesn’t need us!" Once again, we were orphans.
I thought about the border that separates the United States and Mexico. I wondered if during their crossing, both my father and mother had lost themselves in that no-man's-land. I wondered if my real parents were still there, caught between two worlds. I imagined them trying to make their way back to us. I truly hoped that one day they would.