Cycles of poverty, abuse, and trauma permeate the narrative of The Distance Between Us. From Abuela Evila’s cruel disregard of her grandchildren’s well-being to Mami’s frequent abandonments to Papi’s alcohol-fueled rages and beatings, Reyna and her siblings Mago and Carlos are subjected to an endless stream of neglect and abuse, the emotional and logistical aspects of which are defined by the extreme poverty they live in in Mexico and the urban whirlwind they find once they arrive in “El Otro Lado” (the United States). Over the course of the book, Grande argues that conditions of extreme poverty breed desperation and resentment, and that these feelings can lead to cycles of abuse and trauma that filter their way through families for generations.
Reyna, Mago, and Carlos’s early years are marked by poverty, but little abuse or trauma; once their mother leaves for El Otro Lado, however, and the three siblings are forced to go live with their cruel paternal grandmother, Abuela Evila, the intersection of poverty, abuse, and trauma begins to rear its head. Because things are financially so difficult in the impoverished town of Iguala—which, in 1980, is at the center of a recession paralyzing most of Mexico—Abuela Evila demands payment for raising her own grandchildren. Though she is one of the better-off people in town—she owns a larger amount of property than most, and where many houses are made from cardboard and straw, hers is brick and mortar—Evila uses money as a way of leveraging control over her son and her grandchildren. Her many physical, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuses extend even to the financial when she refuses to use the wages being sent by Reyna’s parents to buy the children clothes or food. Despite their parents’ tithe, Reyna, Mago, and Carlos are still forced to eat scraps, endure roundworm and lice infections, and sleep in dangerous quarters that result in Reyna being bitten by scorpions and Carlos bearing witness to sex and violence taking place in the alleyway just outside. Evila could mitigate somewhat the suffering her grandchildren are forced to endure—indeed, she lavishes both attention and riches on her elder granddaughter Élida, Reyna and her siblings’ cousin. Her decision to keep them entrapped in poverty, however, shows how poverty can be used as a tool of abuse, and a mechanism in an endless cycle of trauma and misery.
When Reyna, Mago, and Carlos finally travel with their father to El Otro Lado, they believe they are about to live a blessed life in a land of prosperity and opportunity. They receive a rude awakening, however, when they find themselves subject to a new kind of abuse at the hands of their father—an alcoholic who tries to leverage a different kind of blackmail (in this case his willingness to bring his children to the U.S. to provide them with education and opportunity) against Reyna and her siblings in order to control them. Papi, having been raised himself by Abuela Evila, has no doubt been subjected to his mother’s tactics of abuse and manipulation. Though the narrative does not go into extreme detail—since the story is told from Reyna’s perspective, she does not delve into much family history other than what her relatives directly tell her—it becomes clear, once Reyna is a little bit older, that Papi himself has been a victim of the kind of trauma borne of a life lived in poverty. Forced to work on a farm at an early age and tasked with whipping cattle viciously if they strayed from their plows’ paths, Papi now uses the physical abuse (as well as the financial hardship and hard labor) he endured as a child to justify his violent, cruel treatment of his own children. As Reyna listens to her father’s story, she feels deep sadness—she realizes that she, her father, and her siblings are trapped in a cycle of abuse related to poverty, and trauma related to abuse, that must stop. At the end of the memoir, Reyna chooses to forgive her father for all the pain and suffering he has caused her, signaling that she—the first in her family to graduate college and the first to pursue a career as a writer—may be the one to break the chain.
Reyna Grande intimately understands human nature and the inherited cycles of trauma that motivate good people to do terrible things. In charting her own escape from rural poverty, she demonstrates how her parents’ escape came too late—the effects of the abuses and horrors they witnessed as young people shaped their violent and irresponsible instincts over the entirety of their lives. As Grande examines the lineage of abuse and trauma that has impacted her own life path, she doesn’t blame the hardships she’s faced on any one person; rather, she acknowledges the difficult circumstances under which she came into the world, the difficult circumstances under which her parents, grandparents, and ancestors came into the world, and argues implicitly that to change these dark inheritances, the very fabric of global society must change, to eradicate the dangerous and traumatizing conditions that allow abuse and violence to thrive as a means of control or coping.
Poverty, Abuse, and Trauma ThemeTracker
Poverty, Abuse, and Trauma 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.
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.
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.