A Tale of Two Countries at the Library

by Bill Peak

Once, years ago, Melissa and I went on a long train ride down through Chihuahua toward Mexico City. It was our first great adventure together. I remember passing through villages unchanged by time—adobe houses, dirt roads, stone granaries, no cars. Old men wearing straw sombreros with tall, pointy crowns sat in the shade and watched us go by. People travelled by burro or on foot. Instead of trees, there were tall cactuses with branches that ended in strange club-like appendages. Whenever the train stopped in a village, children and adults would climb aboard to sell baked goods and soft drinks.

All of this struck us as quaint and picturesque. We were young and in love and the world seemed to stand up and sing for us. Then, near sundown, we came upon a somewhat larger town, a place maybe the size of Trappe. As our train, shuffling great gouts of steam, huffed into the station, we noticed several old freight cars sitting on an abandoned siding at the far end of the yard. You can imagine our surprise when people began to pour from these cars and run toward us, each bearing a basket or bucket of goods to sell. Then we noticed the lines of laundry strung out between the cars like strands of faded prayer flags. These people lived here. Each of them called a rusting freight car without running water or electricity home. The smell of the place was appalling. The look was worse. Yet each of the women and children that clambered onto our train that evening smiled at us without a hint of shame or embarrassment. They looked hopeful. They looked determined. They persevered.

I was reminded of that long-ago train ride by this year's One Maryland One Book: “The Distance Between Us.” One Maryland One Book is the program of the Maryland Humanities Council in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. “The Distance Between Us” is Reyna Grande's memoir of growing up in both Mexico and the U.S.; it is a book divided, as our countries are, between two monstrously different existences: the one dirt-poor and wretched, the other—so close, yet so far away—seemingly perfect, ideal. The children growing up in Reyna Grande's native Iguala believe that on el otro lado (the other side) money literally grows on trees.

But “The Distance Between Us” is more than just a tale of two countries and the divide that exists between them, it is also an exploration of the ties that bind us one to another—human to human, parent to child, husband to wife. It is a strong and powerful story simply told. And Reyna Grande is a great heroine. Her determination to succeed against impossible odds will remind you of other immigrant stories, may, indeed, remind you of your own family's. Her grit is quintessentially American; it is what has made our country great. On Monday, September 8, in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, September 11, in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of Reyna Grande's memoir. She is a lady you will not soon forget. She will make you proud. But she will also make you nervous. How do we reconcile the contradictions inherent in her existence and our own? What do we do with all the Reyna Grandes still out there, still standing on the wrong side of that imaginary line?