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JUN 23, 2011


The silent, overlooked residents of Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood play the starring role in author Brando Skyhorse’s debut, The Madonnas of Echo Park. The novel, really more of a collection of short stories, each narrated by a different character, presents to the reader different facets of both the Mexican and Mexican-American experience in multicultural Los Angeles. Skyhorse, winner of the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award for this novel, was born and raised in Echo Park. An Author’s Note sets the story (it should be noted, though, that the author calls it a fictionalized account). The sixth-grade Skyhorse, unaware of his Mexican heritage—he’d been told he was American Indian—inadvertently insulted a classmate, a girl named Aurora Esperanza. This novel, then, is his apology to her, his attempt to share with the public the world of Echo Park.

“Bienvenidos,” narrated by Aurora’s father Hector, starts the novel in a highly readable, compelling fashion. Hector, while born in Mexico, has been living in the U.S. his entire life and has no memory of Mexico. Without citizenship or papers, however, work options are limited, and when the restaurant he worked at for eighteen years closes, day labor is all he can find. While on a job, Hector witnesses a crime and faces a moral dilemma: help justice be served by reporting the crime, which will require him to reveal his own illegal immigrant status, or remain silent and thus avoid deportation. The conflict is sharp, affecting, and, like so many of the stories, packs an emotional punch.

One of Skyhorse’s greatest skills, besides writing stellar prose, is the ability to write convincingly from the perspective of a wide variety of characters. Ex-convicts, gang members, estranged mothers, rebellious, hopeful teens all ring true. In “Los Feliz,” we are in the head of Felicia, Hector’s ex-wife, who cleans houses while struggling to raise a teen daughter and assimilate into the wealthier culture that provides her income. Felicia shares her story without a trace of self-pity, while observing the clear dichotomy between her world and that of her clients.

“In Los Feliz, I needed to be invisible and inaudible. Mrs. Calhoun and I managed to communicate without ever saying a word to each other’s face. The massive double front doors made a loud, drawbridge sound when I unlocked them, letting her know I’d arrived. I’d shout “Good morning” in English until Mrs. Calhoun responded with an echoed “Good morning,” often from one of the bathrooms. That was my sign to start at the opposite side of the house. When I finished a room, Mrs. Calhoun stepped inside and read a magazine until I finished the next room. Like the arms on a clock, we moved together through six bathrooms, five bedrooms, the split kitchen, two “recreation” rooms (a name that confused me; I didn’t have a room to create things in, let alone “re”-create them), and a living room as big as Aurora’s school cafeteria. We could spend the day inches apart and never see each other.”

Skyhorse does not vilify the wealthy in any way, and the conflict remains clear, blameless, in the subtle tension behind Felicia’s interactions, or lack thereof, with her client. Less convincing, however, is the friendship that blossoms between Felicia and Mrs. Calhoun after a year of strained formality. Mrs. Calhoun suffers from an emotional malaise that never quite gets pinned down. Depression? Ennui? Fear of being left alone? Agoraphobia? Marital strife? As a reader closer to Mrs. Calhoun’s description than Felicia’s, I found it annoyingly murky. For all the marvelous work Skyhorse has done in bringing the Mexican-American characters and their friends to life, this segment of the population, the wealthy white woman, struck me as a shallow, half-finished depiction. Which, given the story’s intent, still manages to be appropriate. Felicia’s English is self-admittedly poor, so it would be difficult to imagine her fully understanding what made Mrs. Calhoun tick. A special friendship? Harder to buy.

Petty gripes aside, this is a very important chapter and story, as the reader learns the full backstory of who the “Madonnas” of Echo Park were. Felicia and her daughter Aurora were among a group of mothers and daughters who liked to dress up like the singer Madonna and dance to her music in the street. Tragically, at one such event, the group gets caught in gang crossfire, in which a three-year-old girl is killed. This pivotal scene has long term repercussions and is the link that ties together so many of the novel’s stories, in startling and sad ways.

One of the most outstanding stories in the collection is “Rules of the Road.” Bus driver Efren Mendoza has been marvelously rendered, so achingly real and human, I feel like I know the man, and I respect him, even as I don’t wholly like him. Having left home at fourteen in order to evade membership in the gang both his brother and father belong to, he has fought to earn a respectable place in society, even at the risk of becoming hardened, unsympathetic.

“My salary of $21.27 an hour relies on my punctuality (I carry a back-up watch; you are penalized if you are one minute late for your shift). It’s a fair wage, one we had to go on several strikes—five during my time—to protect. Those socialist Che-worshiping Reconquistadoras complained these strikes hurt poor Mexican workers who cannot afford a car the most. You’re a Mexican, they say, trying to bond with me by speaking Spanish. How can you turn against your own kind? they say. But they aren’t my kind. They’re not Americans. They’re illegals, and the benefits to law-abiding Americans like me outweigh whatever inconveniences these people face breaking our laws.”

When things go wrong on one of Efren’s shifts, the reader feels it all: the shock, the frustration that this is not how things in his world are supposed to go, his moral and professional dilemma, the troubling but very real conclusion. Great stuff. I will never forget this story.

The Madonnas of Echo Park is a vivid, intricately woven story of eight disparate voices that come together to portray a once-invisible neighborhood steeped in cultural identity, violence, incidental beauty, now caught in the grips of change brought by time and gentrification. Spanning thirty years and stories from three generations, filled with emotional heft and bittersweet truths, along with a dollop of magical realism, Skyhorse’s debut serves up satisfying fare indeed.

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