An aspect of Mexican and Hispanic genealogy that I am frequently asked about is how to research undocumented immigrant ancestors. Undocumented entry is not new; it has been going on since the U.S. started controlling entry along the Mexican border in the early 1900s. There have just been particular time periods since then when the issue became more prevalent.
Regardless of your views on this issue (Warning: I will delete any political or insensitive Comments on this post.), we now have at least a few generations of U.S. citizens who descend from ancestors who did not legally enter the country, and who want to try to trace those ancestors.
The Distance Between Us does not shed light on how to trace those ancestors, but it does play another important role for those of us researching our Mexican family history. This book provides context; context to anyone whose Mexican ancestors came to the U.S. in the 20th or 21st centuries — whether documented or undocumented.
If you do not have 20th or 21st century Mexican ancestors and family, I still encourage you to read this book. This powerful work sheds light on an important issue, tells a powerful inspiring immigrant story, and is capable of teaching us a valuable lesson…empathy.
NOTE: This book was the focus last month for the One Book, One Michiana program that brought me out to South Bend, Indiana to give two genealogy lectures for the St. Joseph County Public Library (SJCPL). I am so very glad that this program put this important book on my radar.
Title: The Distance Between Us: A Memoir
Author: Reyna Grande
Year Published: 2012
Available Formats: Hardcover, paperback, Kindle, audiobook
About the Author
Reyna Grande is an award-winning novelist and memoirist. She has received an American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the International Latino Book Award. In 2012, she was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards, and in 2015 she was honored with a Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. Her works have been published internationally in Norway, South Korea, and Mexico.1
About the Book
Born in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico (where 43 college students disappeared in 2014), Reyna was two years old when her father left for the U.S. to find work. Her mother followed her father north two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. In 1985, when Reyna was going on ten, she left Iguala to make her own journey north. She entered the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, and later went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college.2
The experiences, settings, life events, and emotions described in this work provide important context and insight into the lives of our Mexican immigrant families, particularly A) those who immigrated in the 20th and 21st centuries, B) those who immigrated as children, and C) those whose families were undocumented.
- Mexican Customs: holidays and celebrations; social roles, classes, and expectations; gender roles and expectations; padrinos; generational conflicts.
- Life in a Poor Mexican Community: poverty; economic hardships; displaced jobs; illness; education; infrastructure; abandonment.
- The Immigrant Experience: Being torn between the way of life in the old and new countries; trying to assimilate and fit in to the new country; adapting to new customs; families separated across borders; the spouses and/or children left behind; conflicted feelings between those left (or are born in) the old country and those who come to (or are born in) the new country.
- The Undocumented Immigrant Experience: dangerous crossings; families separated across borders; risks of visiting family in Mexico; continued risks in the U.S.; complexities of trying to obtain legal status in the U.S.
On adapting to new customs in the U.S.:
He had us introduce ourselves and asked me to go first. “Me llamo Reyna Grande Rodríguez,” I said. He glanced at his roster and then looked at me. “Here in this country, we only use one last name. See here,” he said, showing me the roster. “You’re enrolled as Reyna Grande.” “But I’m Rodríguez, too,” I said. “It’s my mami’s last name.”3
On no longer feeling a sense of acceptance in Mexico:
As I walked away from Meche’s house, I realized there was something else I had lost the day I left my hometown. Even though my umbilical cord was buried in Iguala, I was no longer considered Mexican enough. To the people there, who had seen me grow up, I was no longer one of them.4
On the emotional and physical separation among families split by the border:
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.5
Have you read a book that chronicles another Mexican immigration story? I would love to hear about that book! Please share the title and author in the Comments below.
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