Though Reyna’s narration throughout The Distance Between Us is rife with pain, confusion, and indeed resentment, it ultimately ends on a note of forgiveness. When Reyna finally forgives her dying Papi for all the pain he has inflicted on her and her siblings, it is because she recognizes that without him, she would not be who she is; as she holds his hand in hers and sees that they are the same shape, she recognizes herself in her father (and vice versa) and thus is able to make the emotional leap that allows her to offer forgiveness at last. The theme of forgiveness through recognition resounds several times throughout the book in different ways, and each time Reyna encounters the need to bestow her forgiveness on another, it comes through recognizing that she is not so different from those who would torment her. Grande ultimately argues that even when it seems like forgiveness is impossible, it can be found—and shared—through the simple act of recognizing oneself in another, and extending to that individual the same grace and patience one allots to oneself.
The story of Reyna’s youth in the United States is framed by a vignette that shows Reyna, Mago, and Carlos visiting their dying father in the hospital. As the narrative progresses and comes to its climax, Grande shows how all of the abuse, trauma, abandonment, and neglect she and her siblings suffered at their father’s hands ultimately gives way to forgiveness—a forgiveness reluctantly given but ultimately rooted in Reyna’s recognition that her struggles have been his struggles, and that their shared trauma and the bonds it created, however unhealthy, have made her into the person she is today. When Reyna first goes to live in Los Angeles with her father, he is not the man she’d imagined him to be all her life. The friendly, loving, passionate “Man Behind the Glass”—so named because the only image Reyna had of her father back in Mexico was a photo in a glass picture frame—did not exist. Reyna’s father is someone unrecognizable to her: a violent alcoholic whose desperate need for control over his children and his second wife, Mila, subsumes all else. As Papi’s alcoholism worsens and his attacks on all three children intensify, Reyna and her siblings’ resentment of the man grows. Mago and Carlos, the oldest, move out of the house, desperate to escape their father’s influence. Reyna stays behind out of a combination of obligation and lack of anywhere else to go, but as the beatings and slights against her pile up, her hatred of her father reaches a boiling point when he tells her that Mila has agreed to stay with him as long as he cuts off contact with his children. At this point in the narrative, it seems as if Reyna will never forgive her father for choosing Mila over her, after all he put her through. However, through the encouragement of her college boyfriend and the much-needed distance provided by her own journey to Santa Cruz, Reyna decides to gather her courage and “let go” of all the anger she’s been harboring towards her father for so long. During a walk along her new college campus, she conjures an image of herself holding her father’s hand, and then imagines herself literally letting go of his hand—his hand that is the same shape as hers. Reyna’s forgiveness of her father in this scene, as in the hospital scene, stems from realizing that as horrible as their relationship has been, she and her father are bound by a certain sameness: they come from the same place, have endured the same hardships, and are part of the same family. This recognition allows Reyna to see her father’s flaws in a new light, and at least partially forgive him.
The second major instance of forgiveness through recognition concerns Reyna’s cousin Élida, who is also under Abuela Evila’s care during the time Reyna, Mago, and Carlos live with her. Élida is pampered, spoiled, and given preferential treatment by their grandmother. Élida gets to serve herself the first and largest portion at each meal, while Reyna and her siblings are forced to eat table scraps. Evila brushes and conditions Élida’s long, beautiful hair, while forcing Reyna and her siblings to shave their heads in order to combat the recurring lice infestations they suffer from. Élida gets to sleep in Abuela Evila’s room on a soft bed, while Reyna, Mago, and Carlos sleep on the floor on a pile of hay and are frequently bitten by scorpions and kept up all hours of the night by noises from the window which looks down on the alleyway below. Reyna and her siblings come to resent Élida, who cruelly taunts them for being “orphans” whose parents will never return to them every chance she gets. The plump, healthy, long-haired Élida seems like she couldn’t be more different from her skeletal, lice-ridden cousins—but when Élida’s mother, who herself has gone to the United States for work, returns to Mexico for a visit, Élida is suddenly humanized in the eyes of Reyna and her siblings. When they see that Élida’s mother, Tía María Félix, has (like their own mother) had a child during her stay in the United States whom she prefers over Élida, they begin to recognize themselves in her, even as they’re forced to cook and clean in preparation for Élida’s upcoming quinceañera. After Élida’s mother leaves again for the United States, Reyna, Mago, and Carlos look at their distraught cousin and see that she has become “a weeping, lonely, heartbroken girl.” They see their own pain reflected, for the first time, in their cousin; through this recognition, they are able to begin to forgive Élida for her cruelty and even start wishing that things will improve for her, and that others—including, when he comes to visit, their own Papi—will show her the kindness they themselves have been denied for years.
Through these turns of recognition, both sudden and long-coming, Reyna and her siblings learn that though forgiveness often seems difficult—or, in some cases, impossible—all people are, deep down, just doing their best with the hand they’ve been dealt. In understanding that trauma, abuse, pain, and neglect are things that even those who’ve wronged her have faced, Reyna—and, to some degree, her siblings—begin to recognize their own struggles in the actions of their tormentors. They witness Élida’s loneliness, and are reminded of their own; they see their father’s weakness, and understand that it is a trait they all share. In recognizing themselves in others, Reyna and her siblings find a way, at last, towards forgiveness and understanding.
Forgiveness and Recognition ThemeTracker
Forgiveness and Recognition Quotes in The Distance Between Us
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.
"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.
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.
Papi was amazed. He asked me to play something. Mago rolled her eyes at me and left us alone. I took the sax from him and played the scale Mr. Adams had taught me, except I didn’t remember it that well. But Papi didn't criticize me for messing up. Instead he said, "You know, when I was in third grade, my teacher brought some drums to class and started to teach us how to play them. We couldn't take them home, but still, it was nice coming to school and having the chance to learn to play an instrument. I hoped to join the color guard when I got to sixth grade. But a few weeks later, when I turned nine, your grandfather said I was old enough to join him at the fields, and he pulled me out of school' I never got to play the drum again. And I've been working ever since."
Papi got up and headed to the refrigerator where he took out a Budweiser. Then he went into his room. I sat in the living room to practice my sax, but Mago and Carlos complained about the noise and sent me outside. I went to the yard and continued to practice, and I played with all my heart, for myself and for my papi, who never got another chance to play anything.
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.