Salvador Plascencia: A Love Letter for “a city named for the hills it did not have”

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German-language 2009 edition of The People of Paper. Courtesy of publisher Nautilus. Cover designed by Maja Bechert.

by: Daniela Gutiérrez

To find Salvador Plascencia requires more than a quick Facebook search. Twitter and Instagram? You won’t find him there either. All the usual suspects of social media present empty searches with occasional YouTube videos of loyal fans passionately reading passages of his work. A quick peek at Google will provide you with articles containing duplicated information about the author’s literary inspirations and accolades. Where you will find the persona of Plascencia is in the delicate sentence structures that spread across his published works, including The People of Paper (2005) and most recently “El Paraiso” (2020). He’s located in between meticulous descriptions of sadness, in the delicacies of love letters, and in darkened geometric shapes. What can we learn about a writer whose work is often described as magical and surreal? To learn about Salvador Plascencia requires knowledge about the constructs of space and time and how their reliance on one another often produces the experience of an author who understands how the mundane is purely fantastical.

Born in the metropolis of Guadalajara, Mexico in 1976 and crossing the border into the United States, Plascencia and his mother would welcome El Monte as their new home. At the time of their arrival it was considered the  poorest city in the San Gabriel Valley and about half of its residents were newly arrived immigrants.[1]  It is in this neighborhood, speckled with Asian and Mexican aromas that his father awaited them.[2] The author describes his father’s life in the United States as a land where he consumed “leathery thaws of meat and stale bread from plastic bags and … water thinned by bleach and tanged by rusted plumbing.”[3]  A child of migrant farm workers, the author experienced the mysterious complexities and beauty of language, as El Monte provided a foundation for a Spanish-speaking household and an English-speaking culture that permeated his academic and social education. Humiliated by his inability to read at a sixth-grade level, Plascencia consumed every book he could read, cementing this experience as an influential moment towards becoming a writer. [4] His childhood is decorated with the devouring of comic books from Circle K and Mexican sitcom shows such as Chespirito, two fixtures that demonstrated the possibilities of fantasy and reality coinciding within arm’s reach. These transnational experiences unfold in his narratives, where the act of eating pozole is juxtaposed with oral histories of homesick Jaliscienses.[5] In his short story titled, “El Paraiso”, the author oscillates between memories of being in Jalisco and romantic scenarios were he to return. These reoccurring daydreams of provide a glimpse into the psyche of an immigrant, at once at home in El Monte but with a past and future that are cyclically tied to the land of Mexico. The city of El Monte provides for the author a location to continuously reimagine these potential narratives, surrounded among people who are “haunted by the ghosts of tiny pueblos”.[6]

Therefore, when attempting to develop a portrait of Salvador Plascencia’s life, it is quintessential to understand the city of El Monte, a “city named after the hills it did not have”. [7]  Located approximately 12 miles east of Los Angeles, it has always been situated in the periphery of the silver screen, housing the laborers, both human and lion that fed the mechanical production of the Classical Hollywood era. Perhaps overshadowed by the flicking of bright lights onto celluloid, El Monte was distinctly producing its own revolutionary history. While Charlie Chaplin was creating World War I pro-propaganda films in Hollywood, Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón were feverishly organizing with the inhabitants of El Monte. The 1930s saw the widespread use of voice and sound in film, but it was in the agricultural fields of El Monte where migrant laborers were organizing one of the largest labor strikes that California would ever witness. El Monte is also the location of Salvador Plascencia’s first published novel, The People of Paper. A love letter to a city where its citizens exist beyond the quotidian and are rooted in the epicenter of fantastical creation. [8]  A location described by the author as a space where “curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches” have “pushed north, settling among the flowers and the sprinkler systems.”[9]

The El Monte of Plascencia’s youth of the mid 1980s and 1990s was framed by the aesthetic of cholo culture, tattoos, gang tags and “other homeboy rituals.”[10]  The stigmatization of such activities were reinforced by the attitude the United States held in the early 90s towards Mexicans. Ballots such as California Proposition 187 (1994), which attempted to deny undocumented immigrants access to public health and social services as well as access to public education, was targeted directly at Latinx migrants and youth.[11]  The passage of the Proposition reflected the residents’ discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. This criminalization extended rampantly into Hispanic gang culture which was reaching peak levels in the 1990s. This severe position is most clearly demonstrated in the prosecution of graffiti artist Daniel Ramos, known also as “Chaka.” The graffiti tags of Chaka, an artist who was at once praised and problematized in media, proclaimed his existence throughout California utilizing and crafting the entire state into a conceptual “ready-made art object.”[12]  As Ivor L. Miller, author of Aerosol Kingdom, argued, graffiti works on the premise of “constructing an identity in opposition to the state and the consumer culture” and promotes a resistance to mainstream cultural production.  The graffiti and gang-signs that proliferate, People of Paper, demonstrate the embodiment of cultural identity while simultaneously archiving collective perseverance. The prolific graffiti works of writers such as Chaka, inherently created an alternative system of public communication. Distanced from academic decrees, their writings were painted directly onto the same city walls that rendered them invisible.[13]  This liberatory experimentation with writing, ephemera and location has led Plascencia to claim Chaka as the most important Chicano writer of the past twenty years.[14] Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Chaka’s graffiti is his unapologetic ability to claim visual representation.  And as the author has suggested, being young and Mexican at this time, cradled your identity into strict categories that ranged from: “the timid child whom housekeepers dragged along as a translator; the muscle-shirted Mario Lopez, who played A.C. Slater on Saved by the Bell; or a steering column and screwdriver away from grand theft.”[15]  While this provided limited opportunities for visibility, the act of writing could reclaim the power to declare space and identity. Perhaps under these conditions, it is not difficult to image how liberatory the act of writing could have been for a young Salvador Plascencia. From small scribbles onto stiff surfaces of ochre colored Pee-Chee folders, onto bathroom walls and eventually overlapping onto the city itself. This of course, is a conjecture.

A swift exploration of the LA Times archives provides a narrative of the city of El Monte that illustrates the once fertile ground as “overrun” by the El Monte Flores gang (EMF), a group organized in the late 1960s and continues to initiate members to this day.[16] Brimming with stories of incriminating behavior and uncensored violence, many articles fail to elucidate the functionality of gangs. By definition, they consist of groups of people who share a common culture and have overlapping ideologies, especially those that emphasize cooperation and mutual assistance.[17] But the El Monte that has been carefully constructed through billboards, helicopter footage and court cases, creates a place where “you go buy your Toyotas” and “police officers kick [] a surrounded and spread-eagle EMF gangster in the head and then high fiving.” [18] As their representation in the media has been sensationalized and their graffiti considered a disruption of suburban values, it is their hierarchical reversal in Plascencia’s novel, that illuminates the viewer closer to the author. Armed only with carnations and flower cutters, the EMF members represented in the novel are intertwined with the astronomical and the human condition in a cosmic battle of life and death.[19] As their shared motive is to defend the city from the menace of commodification of sadness, their presence in the novel portrays them as inhabitants striving to survive the heavy weight of mundane life that is burdened with heartbreak and fragility. Therefore, their inclusion by the author alludes to a humanization and to an active construction of a new visuality that confronts the imaginative constructs of El Monte.

Notably, the active construction of an alternative narrative was produced at a personal cost, which is felt most intensely as we explore the author’s repeated flashbacks and undeliverable love letters. Throughout The People of Paper, the character of Saturn, a ubiquitous voyeur, is at once novelizing the lives of the inhabitants of El Monte while describing his own emotional decay: “the shingles loosen, the calcium in my bones depletes, my clothes begin to unstitch.”[20] However, in the most surprising fashion, the planet reveals himself to be the author of the novel: Salvador Plascencia. Postcards that are sent to Saturn are addressed to the author and the two figures are linked throughout the rest of the novel. This revelation also allows us to learn that Don Victoriano is Plascencia’s great-grandfather, and his father is Antonio. But more importantly, the vendida Rita Hayworth, who is at once glorified and then vilified is connected to the persona of Liz, the woman who is eventually eliminated from the dedication page. [21] The characters in the novel respond angrily to their inclusion and eventually wage battle over the exploitation of their stories, or what Federico de la Fe calls, “the war on an omniscient narrator.”[22] The appropriation of their stories allows for the author to profit over their sadness, their unbridled faith and physically painful existence. They persecute the author for his sins of greed and vanity, profiting from the stories of loved ones in the name of literary recognition. This disclosure in the novel, exposes the author’s emotional dilemma over the production of creative writing.  In a single publication he cultivated a mythical narrative that centered the universe around El Monte, made possible only through the exposé of his deeply felt lovesickness and the personal histories of friends and family.[23]

Readers exploring the collection of stories by Plascencia will identify a lingering theme of melancholy, which crosses the lips of each main character and present in every memory deciphered.  A type of sadness that permeates every single cell and each written word.  It is through these interactions with the human condition, that we see sadness manifested, from the mending of papercuts to heartbreak or from the sharp aches produced from an existential crisis. When we are introduced to the character of Federico de la Fe, we soon learn that his humiliation and anguish are paused momentarily through the infliction of self-mutilation. As the novel progresses, the inhabitants of El Monte discover ways to hinder their loss through harm. At one point in the novel, the land that encloses the city is also mutilated as a last attempt to escape from the watchful gaze of Saturn. This concept of escapism is repeated throughout the writings of Plascencia. Just as Federico de la Fe and Froggy attempt to evade their losses through pain, the author also provides us with an alternative remedy to temporary ward off all maladies: soccer. After the death of his mother and the demands of graduate school, the short story of “El Paraiso” introduces us to Plascencia’s coping mechanism:

Soccer is a form of forgetfulness. Your mother, face down on sheets sewn from three swaths of cloth. The stack of theory your professor saddled you with: xeroxes of corroded and speckled sentences instructing you in how to read a novel. The fact that the world buys the trifold wallets of Shepard Fairey- a RISD-trained plagiarizer, offspring of a doctor and a realtor, and owner of a Sunset gallery- and meanwhile Chaka lives in a Bakersfield flophouse. Your father’s beard clippings in the kitchen sink. The sulking but aimless lovesickness you feel. All those things that vex you- petty and of the marrow- vanish in the singular task of chasing a ball. [24]

This earthly delight grounds the author away from the cosmos and into the playing fields of the San Gabriel Valley. He reminds readers of the healing qualities of sport. Like the act of reading and writing, playing soccer brings together people of different backgrounds and encourages reconciliation and understanding to create a sense of solidarity. Playing itself requires active visualization of the future, present and past. While the physical contact and the endorphins released while playing provide a momentary escape from the conflict of everyday tribulations.  And this same phenomenon is encountered within the works of the author. The creative constructs of Plascencia’s writing, famously structured in paralleled columns, reflects the author’s literary influences such as the 18th century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. [25]  However, it also highlights his ability to game-read. That is, an athlete’s ability to comprehend and integrate moving information while anticipating what will happen next.[26]  This cognitive ability allows Plascencia to engulf readers into multiple narratives simultaneously all while blurring the boundaries of time and space. Although often fantastical in nature, his work speaks on the universality of human struggles and our innate hope for the future.

What we can learn from Plascencia’s life, and his writings is to allow ourselves to construct alternative experiences and testimonies that go against established narratives about the communities we inhabit. As with The People of Paper, our direct contact and processing of the materiality allows us to place ourselves directly in touch with these radicalized experiences. As environmental psychologist Harold M. Proshanksy has demonstrated, our own personal selves can be understood through the concept of place identity. It is through our interactions with our physical locations that we construct meaning and significance, and it is through our inhabitation of these spaces that contribute to the conceptualization of the self.[27]  This concept is portrayed continuously in the work of Plascencia. From his descriptions of Durfee Avenue to the soccer fields that host generations of family members cheering on “Rorschachs of bleached-stained shirts and shorts”, we can begin to understand Salvador Plascencia, the person. [28]  Above all else, the author is a chronicler of intimate lives, a weaver of transnational experiences and a recipient of local histories that are often overshadowed. Through his fictional works, the author reimagines the possibilities of existence and representation.

Perhaps, we can end our circuitous effort to profile Salvador Plascencia the person and Salvador Plascencia the author with some mundane, but important facts. Salvador Plascencia holds a B.A. in English from Whitter College and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from Syracuse University. His book, People of Paper, has been translated in over a dozen languages and was named the Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco ChronicleLos Angeles Times, and Financial Times.  He is the recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize and a Moseley Fellowship and is currently an associate professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

[1] Denise Hamilton, “A Patchwork of Ethnicity: Decade Sees Large Increase in Foreign-Born Population in Many Cities,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1992.

[2] Ben Ehrenreich, “Flower Power,” LA Weekly, July 14, 2005. .

[3] Salvador Plascencia, “El Paraiso,” in McSweeney’s 61 Vol. LXI, ed. Dave Eggers et al. (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 2020), 94.

[4] Jane Ganahl, “His Darkly Magical First Novel Takes Nervous Young Writer on a Wild Ride.” SFGATE. San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 2012.

[5] (From or related to Jalisco) of Jalisco, Mexico.

[6] Plascencia, El Paraiso, 107.

[7] Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2005), 33.

[8] “An Interview with Salvador Plascencia.” Nashville Review. Vanderbilt University, April 1, 2010.

[9] Plascencia, People of Paper, 34.

[10] Max Benavidez, “Salvador Plascencia.” BOMB Magazine, January 1, 2007.

[11] Shaun Bowler, Stephen P. Nicholson, and Gary M. Segura. “Earthquakes and Aftershocks: Race, Direct Democracy, and Partisan Change.” American Journal of Political Science 50, no 1 (2006):149,

[12] Plascencia, El Paraiso, 105.

[13]  Jeff Ferrell, “Urban Graffiti: Control, Resistance, and Alternative Arrangements,” in America under Construction: Boundaries and Identities in Popular Culture, ed. Krisi S. Long and Matthew Nadelhaft (New York: Garland Publications, 1997), 80.

[14] Plascencia, El Paraiso, 105.

[15] Ibid., 83.

[16] United States Congress House Committee on Education and Labor. Subcommittee on Human Resources. 1993. Congressional Oversight Hearing on Local Gang Diversion Programs: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, Hearing Held in El Monte, Ca, June 4, 1993. Washington: U.S. G.P.O, 102.

[17] Irving A. Spergel, The Youth Gang Problem: A Community Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 23.

[18] “An Interview with Salvador Plascencia,” NR.

[19] “Salvador Plascencia,” BOMB

[20] Plascencia, People of Paper, 117.

[21] Spanish vernacular for “sell-out”, a person a who betrays a cause, organization, or the like.

[22] Plascencia, People of Paper, 218.

[23]  Institute for Latino Studies- University of Notre Dame, “Salvador Plascencia Oral History Interview,” November 25, 2013, YouTube, 36:21,

[24] Plascencia, El Paraiso, 88.

[25] Reed Johnson, “Two Writers Draw from Their Experiences in a Town That is Constantly in Transition.” The Eagle Tribune, May 9, 2010,

[26] Den Hartigh, Ruud J. R. et al. “Differences in Game Reading Between Selected and Non-Selected Youth Soccer Players”. Journal of Sports Sciences 36, no 4 (2018): 422-428, doi: 10.1080/02640414.2017.1313442

[27] Harold M. Proshanky, “The City and Self-Identity.” Environment and Behavior 10, no. 2 (1978): 147–69. .

[28] Plascencia, El Paraiso, 84.

Salvador Plascencia: A Love Letter for “a city named for the hills it did not have”