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The Distance Between Us is a first-hand account of an undocumented immigrant’s journey from Mexico to the U.S. It describes the author’s life growing up in Mexico in two very different grandmothers’ homes and her eventual border crossing with her father and two siblings, followed by her life in America, “el otro lado.” Life wasn’t easy for Reyna in either country, but there was a stark contrast between the bamboo shack she lived in with her maternal grandmother and the comparatively spacious apartment her father and stepmother owned in California. When she goes back to Mexico for a visit after living on the other side of the border, she has a hard time believing she once lived there, that that was her daily reality. As an adult, she knows with frightening certainty how different her life would have been if she hadn’t come to the U.S.

This book doesn’t read like most memoirs—it’s very structured, for one, and fairly strict with chronology. The language is simple and straightforward, almost childlike. After reading an interview in which Grande explained that her goal was to tell the story through the eyes of the child she was, her chosen style made sense to me. Grande consciously chose not to impose her adult self into the narrative very often, which gives her impressions and reactions a very immediate feel as opposed to the distance created when memoirists analyze their experiences with the benefit of hindsight.

Favorite bits: I think what most impressed me was Grande’s determination. She has no time for negativity—she has too many things she wants to accomplish. I especially loved following her journey through school as she developed her writing. Even though she moved on to more highbrow literature later in life, it gave me a tickle that one of her favorite authors in high school was V.C. Andrews, as I also remember the eyebrow-raising thrill of discovering her books. And the time she spent with her paternal grandmother Evila (so perfectly named she could be a Disney villain!) was wrenching, but also…I couldn’t wait to see what she was going to pull next. The woman was creative in her cruelty.

Posted
AuthorTaryn Pierson
CategoriesRecommendations

Find it at your library!

The New Jim Crow has been on my to-read list forever. It’s a much-cited work about mass incarceration published back in 2010, and I’m so glad I finally read it because I think it’s a foundational text, and a lot of other books I’ve read build on the ideas Alexander presents.

Alexander acknowledges the difficulty inherent in promoting the rights of convicted criminals. Criminals, she points out, are the only caste of people that we’re all allowed to openly despise. It’s very easy to argue that if people, specifically black men, don’t want to be incarcerated, they simply shouldn’t commit crimes. Alexander dismantles that argument by showing all the factors that lead many black men to commit crimes and why they are more likely to be arrested for those crimes. She also drives home the point that white people commit drug crimes at equal or higher rates than black people do, but are far less often arrested and imprisoned. She rightly points out that we are all criminals; we have all broken the law at some point. That hit me especially hard, as I got a speeding ticket the same week I read those words.

I had already read about the War on Drugs from a policy standpoint in Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney-Lopez, but Alexander’s focus on the impact of that policy on individuals was enlightening in a whole new way. I had no idea of the costs of being branded a felon, how many rights are taken away, sometimes for the rest of people’s lives. I also hadn’t given much thought to the effect of denying convicted felons the ability to get affordable housing, quality employment, and government benefits. It seems patently unfair to release people from prison and expect them not to reoffend when we provide no support whatsoever to help them rebuild their lives. Also, if you’re not convinced mandatory minimum sentencing laws are terrible, read this book and learn just how draconian they can be.

This book dovetailed nicely with another of my recent books, Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo. The general points made by Alexander were illustrated on a personal level in Kuo’s experiences with her former student, who was imprisoned for murder. Both authors humanize people who commit crimes, showing the social and political forces that led to their incarceration and making a compelling case for clemency. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative would be another great pairing, as would White Rage by Carol Anderson.

One of the biggest questions this book leaves me with is: what can I do to help? Alexander admits that a full answer to that question is beyond the scope of her book, but she does discuss what a new civil rights movement will need to look like in order to be successful. She says the fight needs to go beyond the courtroom and isolated cases and become a grassroots movement of the people. I thought this was incredibly prescient, as the book was published well before the advent of Black Lives Matter, a movement that in many ways seems to be exactly what Alexander was envisioning. It makes me even more eager to read the recently published memoir of one of the movement’s founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, titled When They Call You a Terrorist.

Posted
AuthorTaryn Pierson
CategoriesRecommendations