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Author Reyna Grande discusses struggles of crossing US border

Reyna Grande, a visiting author, gave a lecture Thursday evening in Wilson Library about Hispanic Heritage month.
Reyna Grande, a visiting author, gave a lecture Thursday evening in Wilson Library about Hispanic Heritage month.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story was unclear in regards to the genre of Grande's third book, "The Distance Between Us." The book is a memoir. The story has been updated to reflect this change.

Reyna Grande shared her story of the many physical and metaphorical borders she has crossed in her life — including the US/Mexico border. 

Grande, an award winning memoirist and international novelist, visited UNC Thursday to give a keynote lecture, titled “Crossing Borders” in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Grande grew up in poverty stricken Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. Her parents illegally crossed the US-Mexican border without her before she was five-years-old.

“My childhood was defined by the absence of my parents,” Grande said.

At nine-years-old, Grande crossed the border with the help of a smuggler. She was caught twice, but finally made it to Los Angeles, California, on her third attempt.

Grande said the absence of her parents prompted her need to cross the border. 

“If I don’t cross, if I don’t succeed, I’ll never see my father,” Grande said.

Even though Grande believed her border-crossing days were over, she faced a new set of borders when she was in school in Los Angeles. She went to a school that didn’t have immigrant accommodations or any English as a Second Language classes, but was 50 percent Latino.

“That was my culture shock — to look like everybody, but still not be like them,” Grande said.

Her love for writing began early in school, but when she wrote a paper in Spanish that later got rejected for not being written in English, she felt her voice and story were being suppressed.

“As an immigrant, I felt my story didn’t matter,” Grande said. “When you don’t see yourself, you start to believe you don’t exist.”

As Grande grew older, her passion for reading and writing developed further and it was in college when a professor introduced her to Latino books. 

“There were no Latino books that were mirrors of what I am,” Grande said. “I still kept yearning for my own experiences to be reflected.”

In college, her professors would always comment on her “melodramatic” writing style and her “wild imagination.” However, Grande would explain to them that these were her own personal experiences.

“I couldn’t find my story anywhere. It made me feel invisible and that I didn’t matter,” she said.

Grande said she received advice telling her she would have to write the book she wanted to read.

“Why am I trying to be a writer when my stories don’t matter?’,” Grande said. “It took me ten years to reach my dream of being a published writer, but I finally did it.”

Grande has written two novels — "Across a Hundred Mountains" and "Dancing with Butterflies" — and a memoir — "The Distance Between Us." 

Ariana Vigil, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, said she has her students read Grande’s books in her classes.

“I thought Reyna touching on the publishing industry is really important because my students don’t necessarily see a side of it,” Vigil said. “Why is one book published instead of another?”

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Grande went to one of Vigil's classes to have a discussion about her novels.  

Junior Rachel Maguire, a student of Vigil’s, came to see the talk as an extension of that discussion.

“I’m really excited to hear about her new novel,” Maguire said. “I loved that she is out here advocating for Latina and Latino authors.”

Grande’s talk was one of many hosted by the UNC Latina/o Studies Program to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. She hopes to see increased recognition for Latino/a works in popular culture. She ended her talk by giving advice to her audience to celebrate other cultures and to learn from one another.

“Instead of putting up borders, we should be building bridges,” Grande said.