“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.