Spanish Summer: Soborno (Bribery)

I resorted to bribery. I’m not proud of it, but it is working.

The kids Spanish comprehension has been increasing in leaps and bounds, but I want them to SPEAK fluently. The conversations were typical of 1st generation American kids, with them responding in English, even though they understood exactly what I said in Spanish.

I remember a kid in my Spanish class in middle school. He used to ask me for help on the assigned “páginas” in the workbook. (How we groaned when we heard that word!) That kid asking for my help was 100% Latino, with a Spanish first and last name, two Spanish speaking parents at home, and he got made fun of hard for stumbling over basic exercises like, “Me llamo Enrique y yo soy de los Estados Unidos.”

I asked him why he couldn’t speak Spanish. He said, “I UNDERSTAND it, I just can’t speak it. I can’t put the sentences together in my head on my own.” … This made absolutely no sense to me at the time, but now watching my kids heading down the same path, I realize this is a common problem.

Well, I don’t want my kids to be Enrique so I resorted to bribery. I bought a jumbo bag of jelly beans and poured them into a jar, their tempting colors on full display. I then got two other jars and marked my children’s name on them. I explained that every time they responded to me in Spanish instead of English, and every time I heard them speaking Spanish with each other, they would get to put a “frijol” in their jar.

The boys responded to this game even more enthusiastically than I expected. Soon I found myself saying “Un frijol para ti” a dozen times per hour. I’ve created monsters. My younger son had the idea to do workbook pages for frijoles. They have a few workbooks, a couple Silabarios and another one that has little tongue twisters which they copy into a journal and then read aloud to me. Here’s an example:

Mi nena me ama.
Nena ama a Papá.
Mamá mima a nene.
Nina ama a mi nomo.

When they first began trying to read Spanish, they would read words using English grammar rules. For example, they would pronounce “silla” (chair) as having an “L” sound in the middle rather than the “Y” sound required for the “ll” in Spanish. (For non-Spanish speakers “silla” is pronounced phonetically as “see-ya”.) … Now they are applying proper rules all on their own much of the time.

Here are mis niños reading one of these little tongue twisters, (and being silly as usual.)

As for the jelly beans, I think I’m going to have to switch to some other sort of currency or else my children will soon have cavities along with their fluency.

Madonnas of Echo Park

“We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.”

So begins Brando Skyhorse’s first novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park.

Echo Park, an ethnically Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles, is the setting for this story’s numerous characters as they independently and collectively embark on journeys of self discovery which intersect unpredictably like the branches of the jacaranda trees which thrive in abundance in their barrio. The diverse stories include those of girls obsessed with Madonna’s new MTV videos in the 1980’s, undocumented day laborers, a bus driver, a house keeper and a woman of questionable sanity who believes she speaks with La Virgencita.

I really loved this book. Skyhorse successfully finds the voice of such vastly different people and it is all brought together with lyrical beauty, even when he writes about the gritty side of life.

I have so many favorite passages in this book that I kept a pencil handy for underlining them. Here is one from the perspective of a gang member out on probation:

“Capitalism is the best revenge against a gringo. And gringos love that “opportunity on every corner” bullshit. Mexicans don’t understand that because they’re too busy thinking about everything they don’t have. Did you know that Mayans invented the number zero? Who else but Mexicans would know what it means to have nothing?”
– Brando Skyhorse/The Madonnas of Echo Park/pg. 107

Because I loved this book so much, when I was offered the opportunity to interview Brando, I jumped at the chance. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Latina-ish Interviews Brando Skyhorse, author of The Madonnas of Echo Park

Latina-ish: Madonnas of Echo Park has been compared to the movie Crash because of the way the characters’ lives intersect. If Madonnas of Echo Park were made into a movie and the casting director asked your opinion, are there any Latino/a actors/actresses you think would be perfect for any specific character/role?


You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to be asked this question!

America Ferrara would be perfect to play the book’s central character Aurora Esperanza though if you asked me to come up with a second name, it’d be tough. There aren’t a lot of young Latina actresses working in Hollywood at the moment though I believe that can change if better roles are written (and greenlit by studios) to accommodate them.

Salma Hayek would be excellent as Aurora’s mother Felicia and I think she could bring both a grace and tenaciousness necessary for the role.

Danny Trejo would be outstanding as the “retired” ex-gangbanger Manny Mendoza while Gael Garcia Bernal could play his patient and considerate son Juan. I’d love to see Benicio Del Toro as the ferocious bus driver Efren Mendoza though I have promised that role to my stepfather so they might have to duke it out to see who gets it.

And while we’re at it, can we get Los Lobos on the phone to do the soundtrack?

Latina-ish: The story, including the “fake” Author’s Note at the front of the book, is so well written that I kept having to remind myself that it was a work of fiction. One thing that wasn’t fictional though was the fact that you thought you were Native American and didn’t learn that you were actually Mexican until you were about 12 years old. As someone living in an adopted culture and relating to the “weirdness” of reality not matching what one feels on the inside, I find that fascinating. Please, tell me more about it.


Gracias. I’m glad you read the “author’s note” in the spirit it was meant to be received. I took the liberty of checking out your own posted “author’s note” and see that you too have traveled between different identities – the one people tell you to live in vs. the one you feel most comfortable living in yourself.

My mother raised me as a Native American in a scatter shot way. The easy part was changing my name, hiding any history of a father I had no memory of, and searching for American Indian father figure pen pals through various magazine classified sections. What was harder was dealing with an absence of community with other Indians and a total lack of inherited cultural traditions.

On the flip side, my grandmother (who never interfered with my mother’s “re-ethnification” plans) spoke fluent Spanish and educated me about Mexican-American history in Los Angeles once I figured out around the sixth grade that I was Mexican. She told me about the Zoot Suit riots (Zoot Suit was one of her favorite films) and Dodger Stadium’s past as Chavez Ravine. Still, there was this great reluctance to accept my Mexican-ness so I found myself trying to reconcile an Indian heritage I didn’t really have with a Mexican heritage I had no clue about. That struggle is something I’ll explore in greater detail in my next book (see below).

Latina-ish: A good portion of the story is set during the 1980’s. I was a child of the 80’s, so I loved that. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed that 1980’s fashion is back in style today and what you think about that?


Children of the eighties unite! I confess the eighties fashion wave hasn’t made it out to Jersey City yet. It may still be stuck in Brooklyn and unable to locate the right water taxi here. I’ll keep an eye out though for neon legwarmers.

Latina-ish: Who are your favorite authors and/or books, and what do you love about them?


This is a list that evolves and changes each time someone asks me about it. There are a few consistent entries though – my all time favorite novel remains Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! because it opened me up to the storytelling possibilities of the novel.

Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is astonishing for its breadth of vision and the staggering leaps it asks its reader to make.

Annie Proulx’s Close Range is a bible for anyone who wants to know how to write great fiction. Her stories emanate warmth and sincerity (both important qualities for me) and her prose is both lyrical and as taut as a horizon line. I’ve read her words out loud to people just to hear how they strike the air.

I also read a lot of non-fiction. Rory Stewart’s memoir about walking across Afghanistan. The Places in Between, may be my favorite non-fiction book published in the last ten years. I’ve bought several copies as I keep loaning them out and they keep, well, walking away from me.

Latina-ish: Do you have any projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?


The next book is a project that likewise has evolved over time and one I’ve been thinking about writing for ten years. It’s a memoir whose working title is Things My Fathers Taught Me and is about my having had five stepfathers in the wake of being abandoned by my Mexican father when I was three or four years old.

There have been a number of developments in my life since I first thought about writing this book, most important of which was finding my biological father a couple months ago (March 2010) along with his new family, all of whom have been open and receptive to me being a part of their lives. That kind of discovery changed on a practical level what the book’s arc will be and on an emotional level changed what I will find out about myself as I write this book. To find things out about yourself is as good a reason I can think of to write memoir and I’m grateful my publishing company’s giving me an opportunity to do just that.

Latina-ish: Thank you, Brando, for taking the time to answer these questions and for being so candid. I’m very much looking forward to reading more from you and I wish you continued success! Felicidades on a fantastic book.

Disclosure: The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse was provided for review by Free Press Publicity. All opinions are my own.

All paths lead to fútbol

Surrounded by Christmas presents including my first soccer ball. 1979.

My father played soccer before I was born. The dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement and a few faded sepia-tinted photographs were all I knew of it. I don’t remember my father ever watching soccer while I was growing up and though I was given a soccer ball for my first Christmas, the game was only played casually in our yard, just another ball that was part of our collection of toys, piled in a box along with cob-webbed baseball bats, tennis rackets, and flat basketballs.

It wasn’t until I started working at a little Italian restaurant that fútbol fever took over. The owner was from Italy, and as any good Italian should, he loved soccer, (“calcio” in Italian.) Business was often slow and he was infamous for working us hard, always reminding us in his thick accent, “If you can’t find something to do, I will find something for you. I am not paying you for nothing.” But during the World Cup, he allowed us to sit with him at the wobbly uneven-legged tables in the dinning room once in awhile to watch the games play on the little TV up in the corner, (though we had to re-fill ketchup bottles and salt shakers while we watched.) Sometimes he even forgot to complain that we were taking advantage of his generous “unlimited fountain drinks for employees” benefit.

It was during this time that I really fell in love with the game, and not just because it offered a momentary respite from scrubbing floor tiles with a toothbrush. The actual game itself is beautiful; there is beauty in the skill in which the men move the ball down the field, but also in the ball itself. Such a humble object, so humble that people have been known to create them out of trash in the most dire circumstances. There is beauty in the fact that the game is accessible to all, and that no matter our differences, for a brief time, it can bring the world together in a common love.

One of the few photos of his childhood. My husband and his father (lower right), with the team. 1978.

My husband’s love of fútbol is a very different story, (as is almost every story which directly compares our childhoods.) Growing up in El Salvador during a bloody civil war, with the sounds of helicopters and gunfire as background noise, he still ran out to kick the ball around with his friends. His father was the coach of a second division team, and my husband was the team mascot. Sometimes they would go to the crowded stadium to watch games, which could often times be dangerous as it was common for passionate, (and sometimes intoxicated) fans, to become violent. The Football War, (La guerra del fútbol), between El Salvador and Honduras happened before my husband’s time, but that just goes to show the passion they have for the game.

Though my husband has told me he wasn’t given toys as a child, and his Christmas present was usually a pair of shoes, (purposefully bought a few sizes too big so they would last), somehow he remembers having the official FIFA World Cup sticker albums. While I collected puffy, sparkly, and scratch-and-sniff stickers like most American children of the 1980’s, my husband collected stickers of futbolistas and it’s one of very few fond childhood memories he has.

So this year, as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa fast approaches, I encouraged my husband to buy the sticker album. He was at first reluctant, saying that there was no one to trade stickers with, but after I found out some friends would be buying the albums, he agreed. It didn’t take long for my husband’s enthusiasm to be re-ignited. When we bought the album at one of the local Latino markets, we bought a few of the sticker packets with it. The next day, he came home from work with more packets in hand, having stopped at the store on the way. Watching him open the packets and sort through them gives me a glimpse of the little boy he used to be.

We began brainwashing our niños at an early age. Our oldest son. 1998.

We also like sharing this experience with our boys. At first it was just to force our love of fútbol on them, but it turns out, the album provides a great opportunity for practicing Spanish. The pages are multi-lingual, listing the names of the countries and other vocabulary in a dozen or so languages.

As for the stickers, so far we’ve got three doubles. We’ve got an extra Sebastian Abreu (Uruguay/Sticker #86.), Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina/Sticker #117), and Hendry Thomas (Honduras/Sticker #612). Who wants to trade? :)

Latino Books Month (Giveaway!)


Congratulations, Benita!

The winner was selected using

Hachette Book Group is always so generous with these giveaways that they allow me to host. I usually do them on my book review blog, but I thought my readers here at Latina-ish would especially enjoy this one.

In honor of Latino Books Month, Hachette will allow one winner to choose ANY THREE of the books below:

Try to Remember By Iris Gomez
Hot (broke) Messes By Nancy Trejos
Waking Up in the Land of Glitter By Kathy Cano-Murillo
Little Nuggets of Wisdom By Chuy Bravo, Tom Brunelle
Lone Star Legend By Gwendolyn Zepeda
Into the Beautiful North By Luis Alberto Urrea
Amigoland By Oscar Casares

I’ve personally read a few of these and they’re great! (Into the Beautiful North is one of my all time favorites.)

Here’s how to win:

1. Leave a comment on this blog post telling me which 3 books you would choose from the above selections if you win.

2. Make sure you leave a valid E-mail address in the E-mail address field so you can be contacted if you’re the winner.

3. Contest closes May 28th at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be chosen randomly using The winner will then be announced here and contacted via E-mail on May 29th.

4. When contacted, please provide your shipping information so Hachette can send your prize. U.S. and Canada only. No PO Boxes, please.

¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

Disclosure: Just in case you’re wondering, no compensation, monetary or otherwise, was received in return for this post.