Each week, the My America blog series will introduce you to one of the writers featured in our exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Today, we’re pleased to introduce you to Reyna Grande, an award-winning writer of novels, memoirs, and other writings that deal with “immigration, family separation, language trauma, the price of the American Dream,” and more.
When we interviewed Reyna Grande, and all the My America writers, we asked her to bring an item that connected her to her heritage and was uniquely hers. She brought a dress, but not just any dress. “It’s a dress that reminds me of where I come from because I come from a very poor family in Mexico, and we were so poor that we didn’t have anything to wear. And my grandmother, when times were really hard, had a dress made out of tablecloth. And I still own this dress.”
Grande’s family comes from the state of Guerrero in Mexico, the second poorest state in Mexico where 70% of the population lives in poverty. Specifically, Grande hails from the town of Iguala, which made international headlines in 2014 when 43 college students disappeared. “Iguala is a very poor place. It’s a very unstable place. And it’s the kind of place where 43 college students can disappear and nobody knows what happened to them.” It’s so dangerous in fact, that last year Grande’s aunt asked her not to visit them, though she usually makes regular visits. It was too unsafe for Grande to go to her hometown and be with her family.
At the age of nine, Grande crossed the border into the United States where she would eventually go on to become the first person in her family to attend college, establish a successful writing career, and raise a family of her own. But it wasn’t easy. “I was suffering from being born into poverty, from crossing the border when I was nine years old, from living here as an undocumented immigrant, from being afraid of being deported. I was suffering from language trauma also because I was forced to learn English at the expense of my Spanish. And I was just dealing with how to become an American, and how to hold onto my cultural roots, even though I was constantly demeaned and made to feel ashamed of being Mexican.”
Writing saved her. Grande started writing at the age of 13 and found that it helped her deal with her trauma and make sense of the world. “For me, writing was an act of survival because it got me through all those difficult years of trying to figure out where I belonged. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I learned how to express all my feelings through stories.” Today, you can hear Grande discuss her life story and its impact on her writing more in-depth in our My America exhibit. Plan your visit today!
Selected Quotes from My America
On Literary Inspirations
“I was very fortunate that when I got to college my English teacher, Diana Savas, asked me one day, ‘Reyna, have you ever considered pursuing a career as a writer?’ And I said, ‘No, because Latinos don’t write books.’ I didn’t grow up reading Latino literature, so it never crossed my mind that I could actually become a professional writer. But my professor started to introduce me to Latina writers like Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, and she would give me their books and she would say, ‘If they can do it you can do it.'”
On Writing Home
“My writing is the place where I feel most at home because I am able to write about Mexico and about the U.S., and I am able to claim them in a way that I cannot claim them in real life…I’m constantly navigating that space, you know, where do I belong? Because when I go to Mexico, I’m not treated like I’m a real Mexican anymore. Everybody says, ‘Well, you’re an American now,’ and they treat me like an outsider, like a foreigner. But then living [in the U.S.], even though I’ve been here for 34 years now, I’m still treated like a foreigner. So then it’s in my writing when I feel most at home.”
On Dual Identity
“One of the things I do like about having this dual identity is that it allows me to see the world differently…When I hear ignorant remarks about my culture, I see that it’s because people have not left their place of comfort. They haven’t been able to go and see how other people might live. A lot of the remarks come from that not knowing, and it makes me grateful that I am able to see things a little bit differently because I have learned how to navigate those spaces, and how to rotate in and out of both cultures and both countries.”
On Writing to Heal
“Writing really helped me to transform all of these negative feelings into something positive. And I really felt also, that if I didn’t write down everything that I was feeling, all the experiences I was going through, that those things were gonna transform me in a bad way. So instead of letting my trauma transform me, I transformed it into works of art.”
On Trying to Connect with Your Children
“I’m constantly in these spaces at home where I need to reconcile my poverty-stricken childhood and [my children’s] childhood of abundance…In one sense it makes me feel really proud as a parent that I’m able to provide these things for my kids in a way that my parents were never able to provide for me and my siblings. But then at the same time I do worry about how my children are not able to connect with me in the way that I wish they could because they don’t know my experiences, that my life is so unfamiliar to them.”