Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2013, as part of a multicultural roundup, there is….

From the time he was four until he was fourteen-years-old, Francisco Jimenez lived in constant fear. It all started in 1940, when his parents moved the family from Mexico to California, with the hope of leaving their life of poverty behind. At the border, the family dug a hole underneath the wire wall and thereby illegally entered the United States. Although Francisco’s father always hoped to return to Mexico, Francisco liked getting an education. If the family returned, he’d lose this because there wasn’t any school in their village. And so naturally his fear of being deported grew daily. Then in eighth grade, it happened. The first chapter in Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez is about how the family comes to the United States, is forced to return to Mexico, but then re-enters legally with visas. The rest of this autobiographical book, told from the viewpoint of Francisco, is about how the Jimenez adjust to their American life.

What stood out most to me about Breaking Through is how eagerly Francisco tries to learn the ways of his new country. To fit in with his peers, he pays attention to what his peers talk about and do. This leads him to take an interest in music and dances. Many of the songs such as Rock Around the Clock and Venus in Blue Jeans he doesn’t initially understand: “I tried to make sense of them and picture them in my mind. Why would a rock circle a clock? Why would the planet Venus dress in jeans?” He convinces his brother for the two of them to teach each other to dance, because this will help them meet new girls and make new friends. When invited out to a restaurant, he watches for social cues on how to behave. For example, this is how he learns the proper place for a napkin is not on table or floor but on one’s lap. Not everything is about being socially accepted; Francisco also tries to excel in school. When he finds an old Doctor Doolittle book in the dump, he reads a few pages every night to help him learn English. He also watches movies to improve his English. Typing is one of the classes he needs to take to get into college. When he finds an old one, he types every night to improve his accuracy and speed. Last, he copies notes from school onto cards that he studies while on the job.

Breaking Through is largely about being poor. The Jimenez family first moves to the United States from Mexico to escape a life of poverty. For a long time, it seems as if those dreams aren’t going to be fruitful. The father and the children work in the fields, sometimes even during school hours. Despite their multiple jobs, the family isn’t regularly able to pay their rent on time or even put food on the table. Countless times, the family has to find things they need such as sneakers for gym class by rummaging through garbage. This leads to Francisco’s father feeling depressed and to some of the family arguments. Just like Finding Paris is partly a picture of being part of foster care, so Breaking Through is partly a picture of being caught in poverty.

Yet Breaking Through is also about being Mexican. There are references to Mexican foods, music, and heroes. Sadly, there are also run-ins with prejudice. When Francisco’s mom rubs garlic on him to cure him of ringworm, Francisco is called “stinky Mexican”. The two eldest boys have their hearts broken, when girls break up with them after finding out that the Jimenez family is from Mexico. Last, some employers even advise them, “Don’t tell people you’re American. You could easily pass for Americans.”

Happily, in the midst of their struggles are many supportive adults. When Francisco informs his school counselor that he wants to be a teacher, Mr. Kinkade tells him that he’ll need to go college and that this will be expensive but that there are scholarships available. He also looks at Francisco’s schedule and makes substitutions of classes more suitable for college. Later, Francisco’s English teacher also tries to help by writing comments on his papers about how to improve. She encourages him to read for fun to improve his English, but there is no time for newspapers or books. Yet when she gives him Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to read, Francisco is finally able to identify with a novel. The last example I’ll give you is from an assembly. After reading about how valiantly Francisco tried to become American, I wondered if he would ever have a chance to share from his Mexican culture. One day in assembly he does.

Other than a Scholastic interview, I found little information about Francisco Jimenez. In that interview, he shares how he wrote Breaking Through. Besides relying on memory, he interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, obtained his junior high and high school records, and visited some of the places where the family lived in migrant-labor camps.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


Imagine creating a garden out of one’s unruly hair. With a warm color palette and whimsical writing style, Laura Lacamara creates a gorgeous and magical reading experience in Dalia’s Wondrous Hair. Further enticing the story is the appearance of flowers and animals specific to Cuba.

Each page of Dalia’s Wondrous Hair is a treat. The full-color illustrations of mixed media burst from the page and instantly tantalize one’s eyes. At the same time, the delightful mix of rich oranges, yellows, reds, and greens are soft and pleasing to one’s heart. Then there is the rich language with its subtle alliteration, descriptive adjectives, captivating verbs, and unique similes and metaphors, each of which I’ve given examples of below.
• mama’s cool silken sheet
• cool squishy mud
• idea sprouted inside her
• tall and thick as a Cuban royal palm tree

More than eye candy, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair is also a fantastically imaginative story. Lacamara sets the playful tone in the very first line, wherein she writes: “…. Her hair was unfolding and growing.” From this seemingly innocent phrase, Lacamara weaves a story which rivals any fairy tale for Dalia decides to create something big befitting her tower of hair. She adorns her hair with flora and keeps the flowers in place with mud, an action which her mother reluctantly allows and which suggests something unusual is afoot. The neighbors call Dalia’s hair a mess, and want to hack it with a machete, another idea which lends to the weirdness of the tale. In private, Dalia’s mother hands Dalia a bottle of her moonflower shampoo and suggests it’s time, but Dalia senses “something stirring and unfolding in her hair. By the time the rooster crowed….”

The third feature worthy of note is how Lacamara perfectly blends in her Cuban heritage to enrich a tale which is already enchanting in every regard. For example, Dalia decorates her hair with wild tamarind as well as violet and coontie leaves. On her way home from a marsh, she passes her neighbors who work in a sugar cane field. Bonus features to this bilingual picture book include a guide to creating a garden akin to the one Dalia grows in her hair, as well as a bilingual glossary of select plant and animal species native to the island of Cuba.

Yesterday while visiting with me, a friend of mine picked up Dalia’s Wondrous Hair. Not once did she put the book down. Moreover, oftentimes she broadly smiled at the story. Afterwards, we even chatted about it with glowing praise. Whatever your age, I predict that will be your experience with Dalia’s Wondrous Hair too.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

How would you rate this book?

LauraLacamaraCuban-born Laura Lacámara is the award-winning author and illustrator of Dalia’s Wondrous Hair / El cabello maravilloso de Dalia, a bilingual picture book about a girl who transforms her unruly hair into a vibrant garden. Bonus features include a guide to creating a butterfly garden, as well as a bilingual glossary of select plant and animal species native to the island of Cuba. I’ll review this picture book tomorrow. Save the date: September 25!

Lacámara earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting at California State University. After studying printmaking at Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles, she began exhibiting and selling her work.

When a fellow artist suggested Lacámara’s images would be ideal for picture books, she signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design. Lacámara instantly fell in love with both writing and illustrating for children, with the result that she drafted her first book Floating on Mama’s Song, which was inspired by her mother who was an opera singer.

Since that publication, Lacámara has become a popular presenter at schools, book festivals, and conferences. She lives in Southern California with her husband, their daughter, and a lovable mutt.


ALLISON: You grew up in Puerto Rico. What could you see and hear outside your bedroom window?

LAURA: I lived in Puerto Rico for one year, from ages 5 to 6 years old. I remember hearing the neighbor’s noisy rooster every morning and seeing lots of leafy green trees and plants from my window.

ALLISON: In school, you disliked attending an ELL class. Why? What encouragement might you offer to students today in the same situation?

LAURA: The thing I objected to about ELL (or ESL) was the isolation I felt because I was singled out of my class and removed for part of the day. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I don’t know what I would tell students who are in the same situation today. Kids hate to feel different, it’s a universal theme. Obviously, I survived it (so they can, too!), and I’m glad I learned English, of course!

ALLISON: In a guest post for Mami Talks your wrote, “Only now, instead of boxes and furniture, I put up invisible barriers, blocking out anything cynical or negative from coming my way. I need to protect the part of me that feels hope–because that’s the place I create from. And, that’s the place where I want to live.” What is most negative experience you’d had? How did you overcome it?

LAURA: The negative experiences I’ve had are too numerous to name, but luckily, so are the positive and inspiring ones!

ALLISON: You wrote a book inspired by your mother. What is your most special memory you of her?

LAURA:My mother and I are still very close–in fact, our relationship is better than ever. I do remember that as a child my mother took me with her to see a ballet once, and that was very special for me. I’ve never forgotten it.

ALLISON:In your twenties, whenever you struggled with art, you turned to your dad who knew how to draw anything. What is your most special memory of him?

LAURA: When I was a child, I loved going to my dad’s office and sit at his grown up drafting table and draw and make little books. He would let me use his professional art supplies. For a break, we would walk down to the corner store together and get a Pepsi.


ALLISON:You once feared never being able to do any art on your own. What fears do you have when you first started to write books?

LAURA: My big fear, after the first book that I wrote came out (Floating on Mama’s Song), was that I wouldn’t have any other stories worth telling and that I would turn out to be a “one trick pony.” It took a few years to prove to myself that I had more stories in me, and that the first book wasn’t just a fluke!

ALLISON: What inspired the idea for your Dalia’s Wonderful Hair? Do you actually like to garden?

LAURA: The idea for Dalia’s Wondrous Hair was inspired by my childhood experience of being the only Latina girl in the 2nd grade class that I attended in white-suburban Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. I kid you not, all the other girls had blond or light hair, and mine was dark brown. It was bad enough that I barely spoke English, and that I brought different food in my lunch than the other kids. Back then, I just wanted to look like everyone else and fit in. That’s what gave me the idea for writing the story about Dalia–a girl whose hair is completely different from everyone else’s. You’ll have to read the book to find out just what is so Wondrous about Dalia’s hair!

I love nature, and I love gardening, in theory, but I don’t actually do it. Right now I’m still too busy growing a child (my daughter Annalisa, who just turned 10), to try and keep any plants alive!

ALLISON:Your book includes the bonus feature of a bilingual glossary of select plant and animal species native to the island of Cuba. What is your favorite Cuban plant? Animal?

LAURA: I don’t have a favorite Cuban plant or animal necessarily… I love tropical anything and my favorite animal of all time is the domesticated dog. I usually show a picture of my little dog, Gigi, at the end of my slide presentations at the schools I visit. The kids eat it up!

ALLISON: One guest post that you write talks about your wanting to include your Latino identity in what you write. What is one unique part of being Latino?

LAURA: I’m hot and passionate, of course… just kidding! That’s what everyone expects a Latina woman to be. Well, OK, so it’s not that far off the mark. I’m excitable and can get fired up about things easily. But, I can also be calm and introverted – I enjoy spending time alone.

ALLISON: How do you think that schools should become more multicultural?

LAURA: Inviting more authors and illustrators like me to present bilingual books would be a great start!


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