One of the central themes in Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us is that of the distances both physical and emotional that separate people. As Grande relays the story of her difficult and fractured youth in Mexico and then in Los Angeles, she ultimately argues that even once seemingly insurmountable physical differences are breached and crossed, the emotional distances that have cropped up in their wake can sometimes prove impossible to bridge.
During the first half of the memoir, Reyna and her siblings are separated from their parents—who have gone to the United States to pursue better work for more money—by a distance that is primarily physical. The children are emotionally isolated from their parents, too, due to the sporadic communication they are able to have with them, but the primary “distance” is geographical. As the story progresses, this changes—and the distance between Reyna, her siblings, and their parents becomes an emotional one even after they are physically reunited. Reyna and her siblings are reunited with their mother Juana (whom they call Mami) upon her return to Mexico after she leaves their father, due to his threatening her with a gun when she announced that she was leaving with their fourth child, Betty, born in the United States. Though Reyna tries to deny it, she can’t help but admit to herself, after a few interactions with her recently returned mother, that “the emptiness and the yearning” she felt during Mami’s absence “[are] still there.” The woman who has come back “[isn’t] the same woman who had left.” Though the physical distance between Juana and her children has been closed, the emotional distance between them (caused in part by her broken promise—that she’d only be gone for a year when in reality she stayed away for several) has only widened. Juana is “bitter, heartbroken, and weighted down” by her children—she, too, feels a distance from her children that is emotional and psychological rather than physical. Mami embarks on affairs with men and keeps her children at arm’s length, always abandoning them to run off with a boyfriend or forcing them to undertake tasks as dangerous and menial as those they suffered under their Abuela Evila, whom they’d lived with in their parents’ absence. As the months go by, it becomes apparent to Reyna and her siblings that there is now an insurmountable distance between them and their mother. When the physical distance between Reyna, Mago, Carlos, and their mother is opened up once again, after they beg their father to take them with him to live in the United States, Mami once again closes the gap—by moving back to Los Angeles herself. Her relationship with her first three children, though, is never the same; she remarries, lives across town in a run-down, vermin-infested apartment, and makes a minimal effort to see Reyna, Carlos, and Mago. Though the physical distance between Mami and her children has been bridged time and time again, the scars of her abandonment remain, and the emotional distance between them is never truly overcome.
The Grande Rodriguez siblings’ separation from their Papi, too, is one first defined by physical distance and later defined by an intimidating and painful emotional distance borne of that separation. After Reyna, Carlos, and Mago arrive in the United States to live with their father in Los Angeles, the three of them are excited to finally live their dream of staying with their Papi in “El Otro Lado” (“The Other Side”)—but soon come to realize that their father is not the loving man they thought he was, but rather a remote, violent tyrant whose need to control his children prevents him from ever getting close to them. After closing the physical distance between him and his children—and rather reluctantly, only agreeing to take all three of them across the border after they begged and pleaded—Natalio Grande proceeds to treat his children hardly any better than their cruel Abuela treated them back in Iguala. He punishes Carlos physically for wetting the bed by throwing him in a cold bath; he repeatedly grabs Reyna and Mago by their hair and beats them when they defy him or bring home a bad grade; he drinks to the point of incoherence and neglects his children, holing up in his room for hours on end. All of this cruel behavior leaves Reyna and her siblings feeling as if the emotional distance between them and their father will never be surmounted. Even after Papi reveals to Reyna that the abuse he himself suffered in his youth—and the work he did as a cattle driver as a young boy, which forced him to whip cows the second they stepped out of line while dragging the blow—have contributed to his violent temperament and obsession with ensuring his children’s academic success while letting their emotional lives fall by the wayside, Reyna feels emotionally distant from her father and worries that she’ll never be able to get through to him. In the end, Reyna’s prediction is right—Mago, then Carlos, then Reyna herself one by one move out of their Papi’s household and sever their relationships with him. Though Reyna is able to extend to him a kind of unspoken forgiveness, it is clear that the physical distance that separated her and her siblings from their father for so many years exacerbated the emotional distances between their entire family. Had they known what their father was truly like, they would not have pinned their hopes on him, and had he been physically present for his children’s formative years, he might have been able to see them as full people rather than as conduits for his own failed dreams of achieving opportunity in “El Otro Lado.”
The memoir’s title, The Distance Between Us, ultimately refers not to the physical distances between Reyna, her siblings, and their parents, but the emotional distances that cleave their family into several broken and perhaps unfixable pieces. As Grande excavates her youth, it becomes clear that physical distance and emotional distance are inextricably intertwined, as during the times that families are separated physically, deep emotional rifts born out of resentment, confusion, and heartbreak often form. Once physically reconnected, it becomes difficult—sometimes even impossible—to leap these great chasms and repair the relationships that once were.
Physical and Emotional Distances ThemeTracker
Physical and Emotional Distances 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.
I wanted to make my father proud. It still bothered me—as it would for many years—that my father had not wanted to bring me at first, and because of that I had a desperate desire for him to one day say, "Chata, you've made me a proud father. I'm so glad I didn't leave you in Mexico and instead brought you here."
I felt as if I owed him something, as if there was a debt that needed to be repaid. The way I could pay it back was to make him proud of my accomplishments, because they would be his accomplishments, too. Even now there are times when I think back on that moment when I begged my father to bring me to this country and the knowledge that he could have said no still haunts me. What would my life have been like then? I know the answer all too well.
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.
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.
When my father beat me, and in his drunken stupor called me a pendeja and an hija de la chingada, I held on to the vision of the future he had given me during his sober moments. I thought about that vision when the blows came, because the father who beat me, the one who preferred to stay home and drink rather than to attend my band concerts or parent-teacher conferences, wasn't the same father who told me that one day I would be somebody in this country. That much I knew.
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.