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Plastic Spoons in the Inland Empire

by Joe Lopez

part of LibroMobile's Tiny Review series


“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, the pink kind you get at Dairy Queen,” Juanita Mantz wryly admits, an example of the colorful duality she uses to paint her child and adolescent struggles in a vitriolic home environment during the 1970’s and 80’s in Upland, Ontario, and Pomona, California. Mantz's new memoir, Tales of an Inland Empire Girl, came out last January. Known as Jenny all her life, Juanita does confess she’s partial to her nickname, although admitting her preference to being called Lynda, as in Lynda Carter for being “half white and half Mexican just like” her.


What opens with the tragic death of her dad in the prologue continues with a sequence of vignettes about how young Juanita coped with her parents’ abuse and neglect throughout her adolescence. Despite bleak circumstances, she eventually graduated from USC Law and later became a deputy public defender for the City of Riverside. To characterize the author’s life as the cliché rags to riches sequence would be too simplistic: despite dropping out of high school, dealing with an emotionally traumatic home life, and taking the unconventional junior college route, Jenny finds her way through a tough childhood by devoting her career to defending people who would otherwise have no advocate. In doing so, she acknowledges that her parents’ character flaws and shortcomings influenced Jenny and her siblings’ socio-emotional health and economic conditions.


At the same time, Ms. Mantz still manages to show compassion for circumstances revolving around John’s alcohol abuse and Judy’s lack of social emotional health. Throughout the novel, forced to confront the pitfalls of her mother’s carelessness, Mantz recalls the time, care, and attention Judy did invest in her.


Revealing Jenny’s dichotomous identity regarding her mixed culture and internal conflict to boot, she shows a need to escape the perpetual “civil war” happening at home by burrowing into classic novels such as Gone with the Wind. Her plans to leave the catastrophic environment parallels Scarlett O’Hara’s yearning for better days. But despite her emotionally tenuous family support, Jenny’s courage, honesty, and authenticity is a direct result of her family’s culture. She writes it as vividly as she lived it, making sure the reader is seeing, feeling, tasting, and hearing the violence and verbal abuse in her home.


Now, as chaotic and unsettling as Jenny’s narrative may be, one theme throughout the novel is coming of age. Successfully embracing the opportunity with panache, Mantz uses chapter heads such as Trading Places, The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Stay Gold, and Under the Big Black Sun, references to 80’s pop and punk culture, submerging the audience in the narrator’s sequence of what life was like in the days of Joan Jet, Morrisey, and Monkey Boots.


Juanita Mantz delivers a new take on the “coming of age” structure used by most memoirs by using pop cultural iconography that unequivocally sets her audience in 70’s and 80’s Southern California and points at major influences on the author’s actions and impressions. While her straightforward, unabashed style illustrates what her punk rock life was like in the Inland Empire, Tales of an Inland Empire Girl illustrates a journey of self care, compassion, forgiveness, and discovery.


Joe Armando Lopez was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Having earned his Bachelor of Arts from Long Beach State and his Masters of Education from Cal State Fullerton, he is now a tenured English Language Arts Teacher for Paramount High School in South Los Angeles.


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