Toni Plummer grew up with mixed heritage in South El Monte. This interview notes the impact of a childhood spent with Plummer’s divorced, Latina mother and the ways it shaped her concepts of ethnicity and culture. Plummer explores the ways her childhood in South El Monte have been written into her short stories. According to Plummer, a mixed heritage denied her the ability to feel fully in any one group, and desired to bring the mixed identities into the spotlight. This became clear only after translocation to New York brought new perspective. Adding to and correcting the archive in respect to the aspects of Latino/a and mixed experiences is a major theme of Plummer’s work, which is emphasized by anecdotes about the culture of South El Monte while she was growing up there.
Key Words: South El Monte, Mixed Heritage, Latina, Majority, Minority, Author, Short Stories, East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte
Toni Plummer’s Role as a Writer
I have a mixed heritage, I think that’s what I was trying to write about, my mom immigrated from mexico, and we still have relatives there, which we’ve seen a lot more of because they were closer by. My mom raised us, we got to see our dad, but we were really with our mother. My dad’s family is white, they are a mix of things like Irish, English and Cech. His family traveled all over the country and they ended up in California. We still had contact with his side of the family and with him, but a mixture of that is who my people are, identifying with both and sometimes one more than the other. My family is more diverse than some, less diverse than others, so I have always been interested in that and struggling with it, that is how it has changed my perspective.
I call myself Latina maybe because I look Latina, and I grew up in a Mexican-American Neighborhood; my sisters on the other hand do not look latina so they might have had a different experience. I think I can see the other side’s perspective, in a way, maybe someone who has only one type of background may not, they think of people as the other whereas I don't think that way so I think I try to do that in my work. I hear other people talking about “oh the white people” or “oh the Latinos” and I feel I cannot say that because I am of both worlds. I look at that as part of my role in writing to be that voice, that we are not separating one from the other, there are people like me where there is a marriage of cultures literally.
Sometimes you feel like you don't belong completely to one group because you do not feel the same way they do about something so you do feel in between sometimes, like you do not belong in any one place. My siblings and I went to Epiphany Catholic school in South El Monte; we lived about five blocks from the school. We all went there from first grade to eighth grade. Almost all of the students were Mexican-American, so my sisters really stood out because they were very fair-skinned and blonde so they got teased sometimes. That wouldn't happen to me because I blended in much better. They had this different experience because of the way they looked. I can remember once a kid asked me if I wished I had blue eyes like my sisters as if they were the lucky ones and I thought “No, why would you say that?” It was a weird envy or disdain for students who looked white that we got both ends of. We did not see each other as different, it did not affect my dynamic with my siblings. We treated each other as any other sisters would. How people see you shapes your life to an extent.
Interviewed by J.T.
Compiled by Romeo Guzman, Nicholas Negrete
0:00 to 0:35
Continuation of previous conversation about a river in South El Monte.
Keywords: South El Monte, “the river”
0:36 to 2:20
Question: “who are your people?” Mixed heritage, raised by mother who immigrated from Mexico. Irish, English, Czech from father’s side. He lives in LA. Identity is a mix leaning toward mothers side who were around more. Calls herself “Latina”
Question: how has that identity impacted you/affected development? She does not see people as others, she can’t say the white people or the Latinos because she is neither and both. Struggles with mixed identity and wants to show people the other side.
Keywords: Identity, others, both worlds
5:51 to 9:00
Siblings experiences varied as they looked different. She had brown eyes and looked more Latina than her Blonde haired and blue eyed sisters. Treated each other the same but other people saw them differently. Did not affect their bond too much.
Keywords: Latina, White, Siblings
9:01 to 15:10
South El Monte’s impact on Toni, especially how it clarified after moving away. Leaving made it a topic she wanted to explore. Writing about Latinas because she went from a majority to a minority and changed locations.
Studied fiction at USC, worked on the book. Thesis was going to be a 200 page novel, advisor was helpful. Took chapters apart and made individual stories. The stories reflect South El Monte by having small quiet moments that serve as snapshots.
Keywords: USC, Thesis, Novel, Short Stories
20:46 to 30:30 Characters were written based on synthesis of her life and people she knew. Characters that are not usually in literature, families that are new. Invoking voices not in the archive. Places nobody cares about in the spotlight. South El Monte is part of LA but obscure, going out to LA was a separate world. South El Monte has small town energy. New York you can still run into people you know. Burrows are neighborhoods.
Keywords: New Families, Archive, Voices
Places of significance in South El Monte. Palm Trees, views, home street. LA freeways familiarity. Visiting felt familiar but also showed how life went on without her. Writing a place set in a certain time depends on accurate memory.
40:16 to 49:20
Writing is affected by the editing process immensely. Marketing can influence the art. Places are connected by details. Legion Stadium, history in unexpected places.
49:21 to 56:40
High School just outside of South El Monte. Relationship between El Monte and South El Monte. El Monte as a “western town” white narrative.
56:40 to 1:02:35
Filling in gaps with fiction. She wants to mix the “American” narrative. Expanding narrative should include everyone in the audience.
1:02:36 to 1:06:00
New Projects, writing about New York. Short story from East LA and South El Monte. Writing for children.
1:06:01 to 1:17:00
Generative process of history. What writers or works influenced her as a writer. Hemmingway. Mark Twain, Jane Austin. Having stopping points and multiple projects. Writing/Revising strategies. Collaboration, planning execution takes shape. Broader sense of what literature is from publishing. The accuracy of memory and the emphasis on fact or perception. What makes it into the story?
Keywords: Memory, Accuracy
1:17:01 to 1:35:00
South El Monte memories. Metal shop Mural. Stores closed, houses were hubs. Families came over. Mexican food or Fast food mostly. Plummer’s work emphasizes the ordinary experience. Drive-Through Dairy. Drive-in Movie Theater. South El Monte (and small towns) have a sense of being outside of time, or snapshotting it.
1:35:01 to 1:40:13
Growing up there was no sense of pride for the place, but after contextualizing it, her story and connection to the story of El Monte clarified.