Review of “Tales of an Inland Empire Girl,” by Juanita E. Mantz Pelaez 

Tales of an Inland Empire Girl is a beautifully written, edgy memoir by Juanita E. Mantz Pelaez

“Tales of an Inland Empire Girl” is a beautifully written, edgy memoir by Juanita E. Mantz Pelaez. It’s the story of good girl’s downward spiral, from a studious bookworm into an angry, drinking, trouble-making punk rock teen, and her redemption that follows. It’s the story of a working-class family, struggling to make ends meet. Of a Mexican-American mother, stressed-out and emotionally volatile, working two jobs to support her family. And an alcoholic father (el gringo boracho, as her mother’s family refers to him), disabled from years of demanding physical labor, with a head full of unfulfilled and broken dreams. It’s the story of Juanita’s life, unraveling as she and her two sisters navigate growing up amidst the trauma of their parents’ constant fighting, and their mother’s frightening outbursts.

The book opens with a scene of their father dying on the crapper. This after almost choking to death on fried fish that Juanita buys him on her way home from the airport. It sounds horrifying and sad, and it is. But she writes with so much humor, tenderness, and love, that I can’t stop reading. In fact, the only thing that keeps me from finishing the entire book in one sitting is my need to get some sleep before I have to proctor final exams to my high school students the next day.

Yes, this scene is an ending of sorts. But it’s also a masterful opening to Mantz’s story. She writes it from her perspective as an adult who is a successful lawyer in spite of her troubled childhood. It lets us know there’s a happy ending for the author. And it sets up perfectly the rest of the story, portrayed through her eyes as a child.

One of the things I love about this book is how, in spite of her parents constant fighting, she still sees their beauty. Like her mom’s bee hive hairdo, or her dad pulling out his false teeth to make the kids smile. And how, in spite of her mother’s explosive rage, she knows there is a “nice mom” in there who comes out from time to time.

I remember having feelings just like this from my own childhood. My fear of my father’s explosive rage. How, like with Mantz’s mom, it was like walking on eggshells trying to avoid the numerous triggers that could set him off. But also knowing that underneath it all there was a loving, sweet, nurturing parent who cared deeply for me. This comes out brilliantly when her mother rips the principal a new orifice for allowing one of her teachers to use corporal punishment on her. And it leads to my favorite line from the book. “I may not be the good girl anymore, but at least I’m the bad girl with a bad ass mom.”

The scene from the book that resonated most with me was when Juanita arrives at her Honors English class after a sleepless night listening to her parents fight with each other. She arrives too late to get a front row seat, like she prefers. She’s forced to sit in the back, with her poor vision and ratty back pack, and an illicit copy of Judy Blume to distract her.

So many times, as a high school teacher, I’ve had the quiet kid who hid in the back and tried to become invisible because the horrors at home were too overwhelming and they were too tired, stressed, and traumatized to be able to interact with me or their classmates. How many times I wondered what those horrors were. If there was something I could do to help. Or, if the most helpful and merciful thing I could do was to let that student continue to be invisible and at least have an hour of peace. Sadly, Mantz does not even get to enjoy peace in this scene, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

“Tales of an Inland Empire Girl” is about much more than growing up with an abusive parent. It’s also about sibling rivalries and jealousies. It’s about class, and race, from the point of view of kids, who feel it, even if they don’t have the precise words to describe it. Her youngest sister, Annie, for example, is light-skinned, with straight hair, like their dad. Strangers think she’s a white girl. And her parents treat her as if she is the “good” daughter. Juanita is dark-skinned and curly-haired, clearly Chicana, and she regularly feels the disdain and racism of neighbors, strangers, and even teachers. 

The book is also about Mantz’s close relationships with her twin sister, Jacky. I really enjoy how they always fist-bump and say “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” like Zan and Jayna, from the Hanna-Barbera television show, “The All-New Super Friends.” I had completely forgotten about this show until I read this book. It was filled with so much other nostalgia from my own 1970s-80s Southern California childhood. Shasta cola. The notorious D.J. Wolfman Jack. And the oh-so-trendy dittos pants the girls liked to wear in those days. Her close friendship with Jacky, and with her girlfriends, help her make it through the difficult times. So does reading. There are always piles of books on her floor, and constant references to her favorite childhood stories.

As she gets older, and finds herself spiraling into ever more rebellious and risky behavior, music becomes another savior. Her favorite bands are The Smiths and The Cure. And she writes beautifully of what they mean to her growing up.

I was fortunate enough to be able to share the stage with Mantz at the Punks With Books book-reading. This was at Avantpop Books in Las Vegas on Memorial Day Weekend this year. (Along with Michelle Cruz-Gonzales, James Tracy, Jason Lamb, Paul Prescott, and Billy Bragg). And I got to hang out with her at the Punk Rock Bowling music festival. I asked her why The Smiths were so popular among Mexican teens of our generation. She thought it was because Morrissey’s brooding ballads seem so familiar to them. Like Mexican corridos. A connection that makes perfect sense to me. But I doubt I would have been able to identify on my own.

I highly recommend “Tales of an Inland Empire Girl.” It is funny, clever, sad, and full of insight. And the poems at the end are really good, too. “Father O’ Mine” (parts I and II) and “Dad’s Eulogy” really struck a chord with me, in part because I lost my own father recently. But mostly because Mantz does such a great job portraying her father in this book. I really felt like I knew him, missed him, and needed the closure these poems provided.

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