A Conversation with
Q: When did you decide to
write a memoir, and why?
A: I started to write the memoir in 1997, when I was a junior at
UC Santa Cruz. By then, I had discovered that writing could be
very healing. I wanted to exorcise the demons that haunted me. I
wanted to unload the burden I carried—the memories that left me
scarred. But I couldn’t do it. The pain was too raw. And I
couldn’t bear the thought of having to go back there and live
everything all over again. So I turned my story into a novel,
and that is how Across a Hundred Mountains was born. By
fictionalizing my story, I was able to put some distance between
myself and my emotions. But I never gave up the idea of someday
writing the real story.
When I graduated from UC Santa Cruz I became a middle school
teacher. I taught ESL to immigrant children. Most of them had
gone through a similar experience as I had. Before, I hadn’t
given much thought to my experience of being left behind in the
context of “the big picture.” Then I realized that it was an
experience that was all too common. Yet it wasn’t an experience
that was talked about in conversations about immigration.
Once I became a published author, and I began to do
presentations at middle schools, high schools, and colleges, I
found myself becoming an advocate for higher education. In my
talks I always made sure to encourage those young kids to never
give up on their dreams, and I would share with them my personal
story—a story that ultimately ends in triumph, despite all the
odds against me. So in 2009, when I finished my second novel and
was thinking about my next project, I finally decided to go back
to the memoir. I wanted people to know that there is another
side to the immigrant experience—of those who get left behind. I
also wanted to give all those young people I have met at my
presentations a story that would inspire them to pursue higher
education and to fight for their own dreams.
Q: You write about your experience in being left behind by
your parents in Mexico and how it affected you during your
formative years. Do you believe this experience helped or
hindered you to become the person you are today?
A: It did both. My experience of being left behind helped me
because it made me strong. I learned to be independent and
self-reliant. It taught me to be a survivor. But it also
hindered me because it left me emotionally scarred. My childhood
was dominated by my parents’ absence. As a child I felt unloved.
I felt abandoned. That, coupled by the abuse I suffered at the
hands of my father later in life, gave me a very low
self-esteem. For a long time I didn’t have a sense of
self-worth, and it took me a long time to finally start to love
myself and stop worrying about whether my parents loved me or
not. But this experience also affected my ability to love. I
loved my parents unconditionally, and yet the way they
constantly failed me affected my relationships with others.
Q: As you wrote your memoir, did your thoughts about your
parents change? Did your feelings toward them become more
positive or negative?
A: Writing the memoir helped me to understand my parents better.
For a long time, I only saw my experience through my eyes. But I
hardly ever thought about their own experiences, and the
circumstances they found themselves in. The first draft of the
memoir was very angry in tone, accusatory even. Both my parents
came across as one-dimensional. I gave this first draft to a
former teacher, and what he said to me was this. “Reyna, this
memoir is one big grudge against your parents.” And he was
The challenge for me was to remove all of the negative emotions
that were coming across. I had to take a step back, look at my
parents as “characters” in my book, and get to know them from
the inside out. Just as I handled my fictional characters, where
I knew everything about them—their fears, their aspirations,
their past, their goals, etc.—that is how I needed to know my
parents. I needed to give them their humanity. When I finished
the memoir, I felt that at some level, I could finally
understand my parents—and forgive them—and that was very healing
Q: Were you concerned about what your family would say or
react to you writing this memoir?
A: I knew my siblings would be okay with it. But I was actually
terrified about what my parents would think, especially my
father. There were many moments when I felt that I couldn’t
publish it. That I shouldn’t publish it. Sometimes I felt like
calling my agent and telling her to pull the plug. But then I
would remind myself of why I was writing this story—I was doing
it for those young people I wanted to inspire—and I would keep
writing. Then my father passed away halfway through my writing
of the memoir, and in his death I tried harder to make sure that
the reader understood my father. That they knew, as I did, that
he wasn’t a bad man. He was a man with good intentions, but with
too many demons haunting him.
Q: Writing a memoir is considered difficult in that it’s a
balance between getting your own personal experience on paper,
yet ensuring that essential writing techniques and skill are
used. How did you manage to turn your life into a book?
A: My former writing teacher, whom I mentioned earlier, told me
that even though I was writing about my life, I was still
writing a book—which is a work of art. I was making art. I found
that idea to be daunting. But I was lucky to have two published
novels under my belt. It took me at least three drafts before I
was able to move past my emotions and break away from my
“personal” self to start looking at the memoir through a
writer’s eyes. I began to look at the “material” and thought
about the narrative arc for each chapter and for the overall
book. At first, the memoir felt like a bunch of memories that
didn’t connect, so I worked hard to imbue each memory with
meaning. I looked at my family as “characters” and worked on
their development and making them three dimensional, the way I
would have done if I were writing a novel. I interviewed my
sisters, my brother, my parents the way I would have
‘interviewed’ my fictional characters to get to know them. As I
got closer to finishing the book, I began to look at the themes
in the book, the symbolisms, the metaphors, and I gave them more
weight. At first, it was extremely difficult to write the
memoir. It was too personal. Too raw. But when I put on my
writer’s hat, I was able to move beyond the emotions and focus
on what I was creating—literature. Art.
Q: How is the storytelling process different in writing one's
memoir versus writing a work of fiction?
A: At first it was difficult for me to get a “handle” on writing
nonfiction. I felt limited by the fact that I had to tell the
truth and restrain my imagination. But then I discovered that it
really isn’t that much different to write a memoir than to write
a novel. Both novels and memoirs need the same thing—developed
characters, a narrative arc, conflict, themes, setting,
dialogue, etc. The only difference is that one is a product of
your imagination and the other is a rendering of real events.
Then the challenge for me was how to look at the material (my
life) and select the events that would tell a concise story with
a narrative arc. I was covering about sixteen years of my life
in 350 pages, so I had to work very hard on what to keep and
what to leave out. It isn’t like that when I write novels. For
the most part I create the plot points that are absolutely
necessary for the story. But because I was writing about my own
life, sixteen years of it to be exact, that was a lot of
“footage” I had to look at and select.
Q: What did you enjoy the most about writing The Distance
A: What I loved about writing this memoir is that I got to spend
time with my older sister, Mago. It allowed me the opportunity
to return to my childhood and to once again be her “Nena,” her
baby. My sister and I aren’t as close as we used to be. We grew
up. When I left for Santa Cruz to study, that was the point when
our lives took different paths. I love my sister very much, and
as I wrote the memoir, I was able to reconnect with her once
again. At remembering everything that she did for me, how she
nurtured me, took care of me, stood by me for all those years, I
was able to look at our lives now and realize that even though
we aren’t as close as we used to be, there will always be a
special bond that connects us.
Q: How do you see the relative role of poverty in the lives
of immigrants? Do you see it as a motivation for advancing
oneself and reaching for opportunities, or as a limitation to
success? Or both?
A: I think it’s both. Living in poverty is a great test of
endurance. For some people it is a motivating factor to look for
opportunities to better oneself. But there are costs, too. My
father left Mexico to pursue a better life for himself and his
family, and look what it did to us--it broke up my family. But
something good came of it, too. I wouldn’t be where I am today
if he hadn’t made that choice. We paid the price, but I think I
was able to make those sacrifices worthwhile. To me, all of my
accomplishments give meaning to all that we lost.
Q: How did discovering literature and writing give you a
direction and a sense of identity in your new life in America?
A: When I discovered books, I felt that I had been saved. My
childhood was full of things that were beyond my control. Books
gave me an escape. I was able to hide in the pages of those
books and for a moment get away from all the chaos around me.
Once I discovered Latino Literature when I was in college, the
books I read helped me to define myself. I was Mexican and
American. I could celebrate my Mexican culture while at the same
time also feel at ease in the American culture. They helped me
not to feel torn between the two.
Q: Your memoir is very topical, especially given the
political climate surrounding issues of immigration and the
undocumented, in particular the young people in this country
today facing the same issues you did as an undocumented
immigrant. How do you see your role in relation to them?
A: I do particularly feel a connection to the DREAMers, those
young undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. by their
parents when they were children. That was my own experience. I
was brought here by my father when I was nine years old. Like
me, many of the DREAMers were left behind by their parents in
their native countries. Studies show that 80% of Latin American
children in U.S. schools have been separated from a parent
during the process of migration.
Just like the DREAMers, by coming to this country as a child, I
speak English better than I speak my native tongue. All of my
writing is done in English. I know my way in this American
society more than I will ever know how to navigate myself in
The only difference between me and the DREAMers is that I was
able to legalize my status when I was 13 years old, whereas they
have not been given that chance. If their story is anything like
my story, I believe they have suffered enough to also continue
to struggle because of their lack of legal status. I deeply
believe it is time to end their suffering and for them to be
allowed the chance that I was given—to give back to society and
repay everything it has done for me.
Q: Many would say that you are in a sense living the American
Dream and that your story is, at its heart, an American story.
Do you see it this way?
A: I do see it that way. The American story is a story of
triumph against all odds. I was born in a shack made of bamboo
sticks and cardboard, on a dirt floor, delivered by a midwife. I
was born into extreme poverty. The odds were not in my favor.
Yet I have come a long way from my humble beginnings. The beauty
of this country is that dreams can come true here. The journey
is not all easy. But through hard work and dedication, and yes,
also with luck and help from others, one can accomplish one’s
dreams. This is what America stands for—the land of opportunity.
To some it is a cliché. But I deeply believe in what one can
accomplish in this country with a lot of work and plenty of ‘ganas.’
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