The Other Side of the American Dream


Robert Leleux

A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

Many of us find it difficult to practice diplomacy with our relatives. But when typical family squabbles are complicated by national borders—as they are in Reyna Grande’s excellent new memoir, The Distance Between Us—the stakes are raised far higher than “Who’s cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year?”

Grande’s story begins in 1980 in Guerrero, Mexico, when her mother, a headstrong romantic, leaves her three small children with their thorny abuela and illegally crosses the border into “El Otro Lado” (which translates, evocatively, into “the other side”). She’s in hot pursuit of her husband, who has been in Los Angeles for two years; but really, she’s following that faithless old “American Dream.” Given the context of the family’s squalid, backbreaking Mexican poverty—rife with scorpions, lice and parasites—adult readers may sympathize with a mother temporarily leaving her kids in hopes of providing them with a better life. But for a child of 4 (Grande’s age at the time of her mother’s departure), the eventual prospect of middle-class comfort can’t compare with someone to tuck her in at night. To the children of the Mexican underclass, Grande writes, America is often a spirit more dreadful than La Llorona, the banshee who roams the earth kidnapping disobedient youngsters. The United States is “a power” that overlooks children, but “takes away parents.”

After their mother’s migration, the lives of Grande and her siblings, de facto orphans, are characterized by loss; for years, their days are spent awaiting their parents’ return. When their mother and father do return, they’ve been transformed by their North American experience. Moreover, everyday life—betrayal, adultery, child custody disputes—has sullied these sadder-but-wiser adults. After several tries, Grande’s father succeeds in bringing his children to Los Angeles, but by then, this “dream come true” has been warped by the knowledge that reality rarely measures up to expectations.

In Los Angeles, Reyna Grande slowly begins to shine—as a student, award-winning author, and ESL teacher of immigrant children. In the latter role, she learns that “one in five children in U.S. schools have spent time away from a parent in the process of migration,” she writes, a staggering statistic that helps fuel her writing, and her political awareness. In the end, Grande’s life is incomparable to those of her parents’, and yet her own American Dream has been realized because of their “vision of the future.”