Early in her education in the U.S., Reyna Grande was ignored and even dismissed by a teacher because Grande spoke Spanish. The fifth-grader submitted a story for the class’s writing contest, only to have it rejected outright because it was written in Spanish. In spite of this rejection, she continued to write in Spanish, as she also learned English, to process her life experiences and thrive.
Years later, a college professor recognized Grande’s talents and suggested that she should pursue writing professionally.
Now the award-winning author of seven books, Grande continued to pay that encouragement forward in late May when she visited Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies. Seeing how students could connect strongly to Grande and her work, interpreter Stephanie Ongtooguk, teacher Isabel Azcárraga and counselor Jane Klassen coordinated the visit.
Students in Azcarraga’s Advanced Placement Spanish literature class read excerpts of Grande’s acclaimed memoir The Distance Between Us. The novel chronicles the young Grande and her family’s lives in Mexico and the United States. For much of her childhood, separate from their parents, Grande found a maternal figure in her older sister, Mago. The Distance Between Us, Grande said, is a love letter to Mago and an expression of gratitude.
The story resonated with Angelina, a sophomore. “I really like this book because I lived in Mexico, so it connects me with that, and it makes me remember my grandparents and my mother,” she said.
Her classmate Izel also found echoes of her own experiences. “The part I most relate to is where Reyna and Mago went to their cousin’s quinceañera party,” Izel said. “And the part where they are alone and Mago tells Reyna that she will always be able to count on her. That is what I most relate to, especially now that my parents are living in Mexico and I live with my siblings. So now, my sister is like my mom because she supports me in everything.”
Grande met with students, parents and staff members over the course of two days, sharing her experiences and offering encouragement. “It’s so nice to connect with young people. To think about the potential that they all have and try to motivate them, give them a glimmer of hope and get them excited about a career they can pursue and passions that they have and talents that they need to nurture,” she said.
At Fort, Grande shared that when she first met an author in person, the idea planted by her professor gained momentum. Grande recalled thinking of the author, “Oh, she’s real. And if she’s real, that means my dream is real.”
Fort students are also working to achieve their dreams. Izel is interested in entering the psychology field. Angelina would like to become a dentist. Hearing Grande’s powerful message was motivating, Angelina said. “It was so exciting to meet her!”