“Immigrants are the biggest dreamers and it takes a lot of faith to hold onto and believe in a dream. It takes a lot of tenacity and perseverance,” said Reyna Grande, the award-winning author who was the special guest at a Centro Hispano fundraiser July 12 titled “An Evening of Dreaming.”
Grande spoke about her experience as an immigrant from Mexico in the United States and read passages from her widely acclaimed memoir, The Distance Between Us, from a few years ago. She was introduced by Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller, who was excited to be hosting her fellow southern Californian.
“I see a lot of new faces out here today and that is really refreshing because as an agency that has been here in Madison for 33 years, we strive to create community,” Menendez Coller said. “I’ve been at Centro Hispano for about three years and there have been significant changes in which our Latino families and our neighbors have grown and established themselves. But our past is still pretty much the same.
“We continue to focus on programs that strengthen youth, that strengthen adults, and that strengthen neighborhoods because our job has yet to be finished,” she added. “I think a lot of rhetoric that we hear out there points to that – there’s a need to strengthen our families and have events like this where we bring the conversation to those in the community that, perhaps, don’t know enough about us.”
Menendez Coller said that she was honored to have Grande at the event because she is such a wonderful voice in the Latino community. “I feel like I have a connection to her and her story,” said Menendez Coller.
Grande is an award-winning novelist and memoirist and 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.
Grande joked that her name in English means “Big Queen.” “As you can see, I’m only five feet tall,” she laughed. “I don’t know what my mother was thinking [when I was born]. But just let me say: I’m very, very honored to be here tonight. I want to thank Centro for allowing me to be here tonight to share my story with you. As an immigrant and as a writer, it’s such a privilege to be asked to share my story.”
“Ultimately, my dream for all of us is for all of our voices to be heard and telling our stories are important,” she added.
Born in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico (where 43 college students disappeared in 2014), Grande 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 Grande 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.
“I contribute my stories to American literature to remind people that Latinos are part of the American story and we need to be part of our literature,” Grande said. “So those of us who have made it, we have a responsibility to keep the dream alive for others. That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.
“As [First Lady] Michelle Obama once said in speech, ‘We shouldn’t close the door once we go through it.’ We should leave it open for the people who come after us and that’s what I try to do with my work,” she added. “Especially with our families … and that’s something that Centro Hispano is doing really well … keeping the door open for families and helping them to fight for their dreams.”
Grande said that we need to do some serious soul searching as a country and as a world. “I see that powerful countries have a history of denying – or failing to recognize that their acts and their policies create instability in other countries,” she said. “What I see is that first we create the catalyst for immigration and then we punish people for immigrating. We need to really start asking ourselves: What are we doing and how can we change things?”
There has to be a place for immigrants in our country and in our literature, she said.
“This country was founded by immigrants and fueled by immigrants,” Grande said. “It began as a dream and it was founded by dreamers and it will be dreamers that continue to work to make this country great. Let us begin today.”