"I grew up in El Monte being half white and [half] brown, half happy, half sad, half in trouble half the time, and half searching, but always curious..." --Benita Bishop, from "Lost Girl from El Monte"
Having narrowly escaped death, what Benita had to say couldn't wait. The day she found her old journal in a taped-up box in her father's garage, she hurried home to type up the sweet, unfiltered diary of an El Monte high school girl.
Benita Morgan Bishop self-published "Lost Girl from El Monte," comprised of diary entries written between 1975 and 1977, just a few weeks after she walked out, unharmed, from a car wreck in 2003. At the same time, her father was in the hospital, dying from complications from a severe fall. In the midst of so much fear and loss, Benita worked on her first book knowing every day was precious.
Benita beautifully captures the raw innocence of her youth in the memoir and its follow up, "Escape from El Monte." The book covers feature juicy old English typeface, a surfer girl emerging from the ocean, and a photo of Benita as a 1970s pin-up girl in a Bob Mackie bathing suit, posing in front of a shuttered theater.
The storyteller of Benita's books is a girl with frizzy brown hair, an Anglo father, a Mexican mother, and a dozen potential boyfriends lurking around every Crunch bar. With uncut urgency, the stories in both books will make you laugh out loud at Benita's hijinks. She documents those endearing moments when she just doesn't understand why people are so mean and rude to a girl who's just trying to find true love. She has an indestructible hope and good nature that cushions various rejections. She personally deals out a few to handsy surfers and a fake cholo who draws her portrait (featured on the book cover). Even when people are jerks to her, Benita is sincere and earnest.
"Mr. Stewart told me that my braces looked good and that they should keep me out of trouble. What does he mean by that?"
Before other El Monte writers like Salvador Plascencia, Toni Margarita Plummer, and Michael Jaime-Becerra claimed their places in the publishing world, Benita was writing down stories about sneaking in to the Odyssey Disco in a Montgomery Ward dress. With an impetus that's hard to explain, Benita insisted on writing and sharing her childhood before it completely disappeared.
Driven by her moxie -- an effervescent spirit at heart -- she taught herself layout and design, and soon self-published her work online. This may seem like a normal thing for some writers, but unlike many, she did not agonize about whether people would judge her or her writing or if she needed an agent or a publishing house. Benita was moved to stay true to her young girl's spelling tendencies and obsessions: boys, clothes, school, and being accepted by concert choir. It's easy to cheer for her younger self.
Rejection is relatable -- and Benita was rejected from cheer squad, dismissed by her teachers as not smart enough, and turned away by a myriad of boys and girls. That is what makes Benita's writing so fascinating: she polishes the mundane moments of a suburban life with charm and innocence. She illustrates the libidinous desires that peaked for her generation in the late '70s; a young girl who hungered for hikers with muscles and soft lips.
Benita's El Monte is not a gritty snapshot from Luis Rodriguez's "Always Running."
In 1975, Benita was fourteen years old, the youngest girl of three sisters. Baptized by Monsignor Michael Hunt at Epiphany Church, a place of significance for many families like fellow writer Toni Plummer, Benita was raised on Farrell's Ice Cream and her mother's beans and rice. She was a girl from "The Tract," a middle-class neighborhood where each house was built with the same dimensions, one of the nicest and newest neighborhoods in the area in the 1950s.
Her father, Lee Morgan, was a civil engineer and her mother Josefina Gonzales-Morgan was a homemaker originally from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. They landed in El Monte after Benita's father was offered a job helping to design and build the Ten Freeway.
This was El Monte when the 7-Eleven on Santa Anita was the spot to see friends and buy an RC Cola. With favorite song lists that included the Bee-Gees and Donna Summer, Benita's books are more like Chicano Norman Rockwell paintings gone to the disco. Her stories are the missing link between Art Laboe's Legion Stadium dances and the backyard punk shows of Apolonio Morales.
Benita's stories are filled with El Monte High School students, Mexican-American boys wearing creased Dickies, Anglo and Chicano theater kids hamming it up for musical auditions, Korean and Vietnamese students newly arrived and keeping to themselves, and school girls of all backgrounds failing at cheer leading tryouts. Benita was a "knobby-kneed, frizzy-haired, buck-toothed kid" that, when read in her books, will guide you through the complicated art of growing up in the multi-racial, working class neighborhoods of El Monte. After you read her books, you'll know what to look for in a good (and bad) ditching party, how to find a band or school club to sing with, and how to get into discos when you're still under age. Perhaps most importantly, Benita's books tell you how to love El Monte even when you're trying to get away.
Everyone she grew up with it seemed, as the title of her second book warns, had escaped from El Monte. Eventually, in 1985, her family sold their house with two palm trees, roses, and succulents. The El Monte in her books was the kind of place where, despite the burgeoning poverty and proliferation of drugs in the 1970s, some families like Benita's grew up unharmed by those problems. She wondered out loud in "Lost Girl from El Monte":
"... [A] lot of my old friends are out there partying, getting pregnant, getting in trouble, and having a rough life. What has kept me away from all that hardship? It must be Jesus."
She cites her time at a Pentecostal church, in particular, for helping her stay away from drugs and promiscuity that got her friends in trouble. Her first love, Mickey, invited her to attend that church with him and his family, and did so even after they had broken up, after he had cheated on her with summer camp loves and random girls from the movie theater. That love and heartbreak is the real bleeding center of Benita's books.
Benita in the books witnessed the growing problems that drugs and poverty caused around her. While she didn't suffer through them, it was one of the things that made El Monte the kind of place that many need to leave -- even if it's only to return.
And Benita, now 55 years old, does return. She visits every month for high school reunions at Ignacio's Grill or El Sombrero. If it wasn't fun to chum around with her old friends, Benita wouldn't go. Her barometer for life these days is how much fun she's having (just look at her blog!). If El Monte wasn't fun, full of friends and laughter, she wouldn't be here.
"There's nothing wrong with this place. But not everything is in El Monte," she says.
Recently, visiting her old home for the first time in years, Benita runs into an old friend from the Tract. She's a neighbor, the woman whom Benita named Tomgirl in her books. Tomgirl, a woman now adorned with a line of elegant handwriting on her forearm and a tight fade, ran with a different crowd, and lived a somewhat different version of El Monte.
"There was a lot of PCP," says Tomgirl. Our eyebrows go right up.
"There was?" asks Benita. "My parents were so strict. I never saw any of that. But at the ditching parties, I did see people sniffing paint."
"That was the homeboys who did that," says Tomgirl.
The Benita in the books and in real life, were sheltered, but always hopeful, taking her naiveté in stride.
Tomgirl, who also grew up in the Tract, shares some of Benita's fond memories, though she testifies to how much the neighborhood has changed since Benita's family moved out of El Monte. "Everyone used to come outside and talk to their neighbors," recalls Tomgirl. "You could leave the house unlocked and go to the grocery store, and everything would be okay. Now, I hardly know any of my neighbors." Her Vietnamese neighbors keep to themselves. Her garage parties playing oldies are long gone.
In the years since she's left El Monte, Benita has also changed, expanding in all areas of her interests and inclinations that had only started to germinate in the days depicted in her books. Today, at work on her third book, Benita does it all: actor, hiker, singer, writer, blogger, Avon lady, and new grandparent. When she isn't singing back-up or taking care of her aging mother, she's hiking and camping, something her ex-boyfriend Mickey had taught her to do. He may be gone but what he taught her remained: don't trust a boy who's still hung up on his ex.
And yet, in many deep-seated ways that are particular to Benita, she remains quite the same. After a visit to her old neighborhood, she drives around the corner to the same 7-Eleven of her childhood. She has a sudden craving for a Crunch Bar. You can take the girl out of El Monte, but El Monte definitely has a way of staying in its people.
Maybe it's something in the water, or chocolate bars, but here is to hoping that El Monte inspires its young people to write back to the world, to document it as they see it -- that they may show us everything they have to offer and about their journeys on the Ten Freeway driving toward their futures.