Toni Margarita Plummer: Writing Her Way Home in The Bolero of Andi Rowe

With hardly any traffic, she was soon at the Santa Anita exit. She drove over the bridge bordered by chain-link fences, the signs of the Ramada, Mobil, and Burger King growing from their stems, until the car reached the crest, and she eased her foot off the gas pedal, coasting into the outstretched street.

—“All the Sex Is West,” The Bolero of Andi Rowe by Toni Margarita Plummer

Thousands of books and movies have been set in the Los Angeles landscape, but only a handful of works—including those of Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra—take place in El Monte. The Bolero of Andi Rowe, a collection of interconnected short stories by Toni Margarita Plummer, is another example, but it zooms in even closer to South El Monte, less than a third of the square mileage of El Monte, incorporated nearly 50 years later in 1958.

South El Monte: A Crossroads of People and Places

The Bolero of Andi Rowe opens with a story that never leaves the front yard of a house in South El Monte – it’s a story of a Mexican American college girl, Andi, questioning whether she will return home after graduating. During most of the story, she is talking with her neighbor Rosa—an older woman—who has been there as long as she can remember. But Rosa will soon be moving away, and Andi realizes that her hometown has changed as much as she has changed.

Throughout the book, Plummer’s stories traverse South El Monte, San Gabriel Valley, the greater Los Angeles area and even Mexico.  By the time you finish the first tale and move on to the second story, you’ve travelled back in time; the story now told from Andi’s mother’s point of view as a young girl. As the book continues, Andi’s story weaves through memories conveyed by family, friends, and neighbors.

But no matter who is telling the story, if you grew up in South El Monte – or even the San Gabriel Valley – the stories become your own, whether you still live there, or you left long ago. With references to the Rose Parade, the pool hall behind the Jack in the Box on Durfee, the Easter Passion play (in Spanish, of course) at the equestrian center in Industry Hills, Greenleaf Avenue in Uptown Whittier, the Quiet Cannon in Montebello, and King Taco on Garvey, you can’t help feeling like you’re right there, too.

Illustration by Greta L. Bilek

Toni says that she sees South El Monte as a very suburban type of place, and that’s what she was trying to capture through the stories. Although it’s often lumped into the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, only a thirteen-mile drive from the heart of downtown L.A., it’s a sleepier, less exciting place. While it may not appear to be the white-picket fence suburbia of Leave It To Beaver, it’s not quite urban either. To Plummer, they seemed like very separate worlds.

“It’s where families live,” she says. “There’s not a lot to do at night. So you just hang around in people’s yards, and you go to McDonald’s. Or Golfland, when it was open.”

One of the stories, “Forces” takes place in the pool hall behind the Jack in the Box on Durfee—The Golden Cue. Although it was a run down place, playing pool was a cheap thing to do, and it was the perfect place for Plummer and her friends to hang out in real life—they went there very frequently.

In the fictional version, Andi describes the pool hall as an “old hangout.” In the story, Andi reunites with several of her friends there after having been away in New York. She tells them about going to a pool hall once in New York, but that “it wasn’t like this”—it was stylish place where young people mingled.

There was nothing stylish about the real life or fictional version of The Golden Cue —it was frequented by middle-aged to elderly drunk Mexican men, and the walls were mostly bare. But to Andi, it was a familiar and comfortable place. Or at least, it used to be. By the end of the story, she finds herself trying to hang on to her old memory of the place, where the owner would call her a sweetheart. Now, it was slipping away, with friends moving on to new lives without her.

The Real Life “Andi Rowe”

Toni Margarita Plummer grew up in South El Monte and lived in the same house her entire life until she left for college. Her mom still lives in that house, five blocks away from Epiphany Catholic School where she went to school from first through eighth grade. Plummer and her two younger sisters, Shelley and Michelle, walked home after school every day.

It’s no coincidence that the main character throughout the book is Andi Rowe – not a guy, but a girl. Andi, like Toni, has a boy-like name and a Spanish middle name “Lourdes” (Toni’s middle name is “Margarita”), and she looks more like her Mexican, dark-haired mother than her fair-skinned Irish father. She has a younger sister who is blonde-haired and blue-eyed (of the same parents).

“Sometimes you’d hear some comments [in school],” says Plummer. “But for us, it was very natural, we all grew up together, and we would visit both sides of the family. So it was just normal for us—when it appeared to other people to be kind of odd. But that wasn’t too intrusive. I felt pretty much like I fit in and belonged. We basically got along and went to school, and nothing [out of the ordinary] happened.”

Yet, as much as Plummer felt a strong connection to her roots in South El Monte, she still had a desire to experience life in other places.

“I did have this idea I would go far away for college and get out of California,” explains Plummer. “And I’d go somewhere where it snows, and I’d have a whole different experience, and that’s what I did. I went to Indiana, to Notre Dame.”

Becoming a Writer

For Plummer, becoming a writer wasn’t a conscious decision. It was something that came naturally to her – something she was propelled to do.  Her first memory of writing is around the end of middle school, beginning of junior high. At Epiphany Catholic School, which was a first through eighth-grade school, which would have been the end of sixth grade and beginning of seventh grade.

“I would have an idea for a poem, so I’d spend a few hours working on it, and I would share it with some friends, and that was it,” says Plummer. “I also remember filling up a journal with some kind of novel about girls and their cats, and I just wrote until the journal was filled up, and then that was the end of that story.”

Plummer and her two younger sisters also had a lot of pen pals – in other states and other countries, and this was before the era of email. At the time, letter writing was a more intimate form of art, and Plummer and her pen pals got to know each other. Some connections were stronger than others, and she ended up visiting one of them in Ohio several times, going to the pen pal’s family’s place for Thanksgiving. So the “writers” that Toni knew were far outside of South El Monte.

In high school, Plummer started writing poetry, mostly as a way to share experiences with her friends. It wasn’t until college that she got into fiction. She enrolled in a creative writing class and wrote her first “official” short story.

At Notre Dame, Plummer majored in philosophy but didn’t want to continue studying it by the time she graduated. Although she didn’t seriously consider writing as a career, she knew she wanted to write a book and be published.

“Going away to college to a place where there were a limited number of Latinos—and [an even more] limited number of Mexican Americans from California—I started to appreciate South El Monte more,” says Plummer.

After leaving Notre Dame, Plummer was accepted into to the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern California (USC).  She returned to live at home with her mother in South El Monte during her graduate studies. As part of the program, Plummer had to write a thesis, which consisted of either a novel or a collection of short stories.

Her thesis began as a novel, but she explains that it never really worked out that way. As her piece developed, it became fragmented. Her short story collection, The Bolero of Andi Rowe, which was published in 2011, evolved from that graduate thesis. Even though the genre of her work transformed, she was determined about the subject matter from the beginning.

“It was very important that it be about this place [South El Monte] and these characters, because I wanted to convey that to everyone, because to me it was very special,” says Plummer.

“What I wanted to do with the book was to share the idea that there are these Mexican American young people, and they’re not necessarily who you would expect them to be,” she adds. “They’re very immersed in American culture, but there’s also this Mexican influence. So I wanted to convey that. There are these people who exist here, who are very much a part of the U.S.”

Many writers who write about their childhood homes usually put time or distance—and sometimes both—between themselves and their subject matter. But Plummer was living in the middle of the place she had been writing about, and she was in the process of refining her thesis into a book, while in graduate school.

“It was two years of just focusing on writing, which is pretty amazing, and just hanging out in South El Monte with my friends,” says Plummer. “I probably took it too far a few times—trying to write down exactly what my friends were saying, how they would talk, to copy their speech. Some of my friends have this very colorful way of speaking that I liked. It was very tempting to just write that down.”

Plummer graduated from the USC program in creative writing in 2003, but it would be another eight years before her book was published. She felt that part of the reason for the delay was that her stories were so much based on her life. During that time, she revised and reworked her book a great deal.

“It was so personal, I think I was overwhelmed by trying to deal with it, and I worried about what people would think,” says Plummer. “When I was finally able to break away and fictionalize more, I felt better about it and more excited about it. It’s wonderfully freeing when you can get past that, and just think about the story, and telling the best story.”

In 2008, Plummer won the Miguel Marmol prize, for a first work of fiction by a Latino author, from the renowned independent publisher Curbstone Press. But plans for its publication were delayed after the death of Curbstone’s director, Sandy Taylor. Curbstone was then acquired by Northwestern University Press in 2009, and The Bolero of Andi Rowe was finally published in 2011.

bolero of andi rowe cover

The Latino/a Identity

“I never heard from anyone that it was a problem that my name was Plummer,” explains Toni. “I did make the decision to use my middle name because I wanted it to be clear that I was a woman. I also wanted to have the Spanish in there. And that is my full, legal name. And I thought it sounded prettier, more lyrical.”

But Plummer says that she did see herself as a Latina author – and that’s definitely what a big part of her book is about: the Mexican American Catholic culture.

In the story, “Happy Hour,” the character Maura explains how her sister, Andi, looks Mexican, a lot like their mother, while she somewhat resembles her father.

“I didn’t really look like anybody, but I had blond hair and blue eyes,” says Maura. “It was always the people I liked most who could see similarities between us. In our expressions and our voices.”

Maura says that the only indication of anything Spanish about her is her middle name, Guadalupe. “I think I’II think I’ll be Lupe when I go to South America for a semester next year,” she says.

In another of the stories, “The Bolero of Andi Rowe,” the main character Pete Villegas talks about taking his girlfriend Beth, with a fair complexion, to a ranchera club in Pico Rivera. The reader assumes that Beth is not Mexican, but she seems to comfortably weave in and out of Pete’s world of mariachi music and eccentric Mexican uncles.

The Catholic religion is a recurring theme throughout the stories in the book, especially in “The Body,” “To Visit the Cemetery,” and “What Would Mary Do: A Christmas Story.” Catholicism is a strong element in Mexican American culture, and Epiphany Catholic parish is a central part of the community in South El Monte, where almost everyone at one point has likely volunteered to help out with a mass or participated in a posada or Easter play.

“There’s actually a funny story about the cover,” she admits.  “I wanted a contemporary picture of a girl playing off the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I wanted the virgin’s image evoked in a subtle, playful way. So they send me the cover, and there’s Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Plummer wasn’t happy at first because she felt that was the obvious thing to do—to just put Our Lady of Guadalupe on the cover as a stamp saying: this is a book for Latinos. She felt the cover didn’t reflect the nuances in her contemporary stories set in the United States. Although there was an Irish American culture in the background of her main character, Plummer admits she heavily focuses on the Mexican American culture.

“But it’s a pretty cover, and I reconciled with that,” says Plummer. “I was not expecting that, even though it’s probably what I should have been expecting.”

Ultimately, the Latino stamp on her book has turned out to be a good thing. She has been able to sell her book to a Latina audience who seeks out stories like the ones she tells. In the end, it makes it easier for her potential readers to connect with her book—they can immediately relate. That connection isn’t necessarily there for non-Latinos/as.

Beyond the First Book

Plummer recently got married and now goes by the name of Toni M. Kirkpatrick. She has been living in New York since she moved there after finishing her graduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC). She works at St. Martin’s Press, where she has been an editor for the last nine years.

Even though Plummer feels very settled in New York, and she has no plans to move back, her connection to South El Monte remains strong. After publishing The Bolero of Andi Rowe, she did an event at La Historia Society Museum.

“It’s still a base for me,” says Plummer. “I go back and visit. My mom has mentioned possibly one day selling the house, but I say, don’t sell the house—because I think of it is as my childhood home, and I like going back there.”

Although a small group of people, Plummer is part of what is known as the South El Monte/El Monte diaspora, people who left for one reason or another. But there is just something about such a place—that was once the home of a lion farm, that inspired Frank Zappa to write a song, that is historically known as the end of the Santa Fe trail—that never leaves your heart.

The Author

Alexandra M. Landeros was born in East Los Angeles and spent most of her childhood in South El Monte, with frequent time spent in Aguascalientes, Mexico. In 1994, she left Southern California to attend college at Carnegie Mellon University. Instead of returning home, she moved to Austin, Texas, where she has been living since 1998. In 2004 she graduated from Texas State University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently works as a freelance writer and local food activist.

East of East Series

1. SEMAP, “Making Place: Mapping South El Monte and El Monte”

2. Yesenia Barragan and Mark Bray, “Ricardo Flores Magón & the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California”

3. Nick Juravich, “‘City of Achievement’: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976″

4. Vickie Vertiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra”

5. Michael Jaime-Becerra, “1181 Durfee Avenue: 1983 to 1986″

6. Jude Webre, “I’d Know Where to Find You: Art Laboe’s Charmed Life On Air”

7. Maria John, “Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape”

8. Jennifer Renteria, “The Starlite Swap Meet”

9. Wendy Cheng, “A Brief History (and Geography) of the San Gabriel Valley”

10. Alexandra M. Landeros, “Toni Margarita Plummer: Writing Her Way Home in  The Bolero of Andi Rowe”

Further Reading
  1. The Bolero of Andi Rowe by Toni Margarita Plummer, Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press, 2011
  2. Jaime-Becerra’s book?
  3. Plascencia’s book?
  4. Wise Latinas, ed. By Jennifer De Leon, University of Nebraska Press, 2014