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Brando Skyhorse's The Madonnas of Echo Park, eight characters tell their interconnected stories: an illegal worker in the construction industry; a young mother who cleans the houses of the wealthy; an old woman, lonely, religious, hypocritical; a self-loathing bus driver with a fixation about 'following the rules'; a former gang member with a son about to join the army; a small-time thief and conman just out of prison; a young woman with a troubled past and a difficult relationship with her mother. Eight characters, eight stories, eight Mexican voices from the Los Angeles district of Echo Park -- very different voices, each speaking of an Echo Park that is distinctively their own, just as each person's story is distinctively their own, yet forms part of one shared story.
Uniting each story and each character to a greater or lesser degree is the central event around which the novel is constructed: the death, in a drive-by shooting, of Alma Guerrero, a young child. Tragic, violent and wasteful as this terrible event is, in remarkable ways it serves as a key, opening doors to events that are beautiful and even miraculous. Alma's death proves, as the novel unfolds, to have its place in the greater scheme of evolving and transforming human relationships, demonstrating that there is no such thing as an event without meaning. Everything, from a child's death to a lost dog, a near-miss on the boulevard to the decision to wear a particular coat, plays its part in the ever-changing kaleidoscopic pattern of existence.
The central figure of these pages and the person who is their origin and their explanation is Aurora Esperanza. 'This is the story of Aurora Esperanza and why she disappeared, told through the people of Echo Park who ultimately led me back to her', explains the author at the beginning of the book. We do not hear her story from her own lips until we reach 'La Luz y la Tierra' at the end of the novel, but she flickers in and out of the earlier stories, sometimes near, sometimes far, sometimes heard to speak and define herself, more often defined through the words of others, and through her relationships: with family, friends and community. The ambiguities and tensions of her Mexican identity and her relationship with Echo Park -- 'How many times had I left Echo Park only to end up back here?' -- are refracted most sharply through her relationship with her mother, Felicia. Felicia, in turn, has her own story, told in 'The Blossoms of La Feliz': she is a cleaning woman, one of the thousands who keep the homes and offices of the city clean and bright, coming and going late at night and in the early dawn. The awkward but strangely intense relationship Felicia establishes with a lonely Anglo housewife is one of the most poignant and moving episodes in the book. It is through Felicia that we learn of the tragic shooting in Echo Park, its traumatic aftermath and true significance; and we learn, too, who the 'Madonnas of Echo Park' really are.
Felicia's story and Aurora's story connect with the first story of the novel, 'Bienvenidos', narrated by the illegal worker, Hector, who finds his sense of moral self-worth constantly eroded by the endless degradations and incidents of disregard and disrespect that mark his life. His story is one of strange redemption, as his dormant and eroded moral code demands that he reveal a crime has been committed, at the cost of revealing his own 'crime' -- his illegal status. Hector is regarded with contempt not only by the whites for whom he works but also by his own daughter, Aurora. She despises him for betraying his own people by colluding in his lowly status, and betraying her mother, Felicia, by having an affair with another woman. Felicia herself articulates her own bitter condemnation of Hector: when working a dead-end job as a bus-boy in an upmarket restaurant, he tells her that he has cleared away the Martini of former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. 'A real Mexican would have spit in it', is Felicia's response.
But what is 'a real Mexican'? For Metro bus driver Efren Mendoza in 'Rules of the Road', nationality is defined negatively -- it is to do with what he is not. The distinction for him is between 'us legitimate Mexicans, who had to learn the rules and suffer the slings of becoming Americans', and the 'wetbacks', 'country hicks, mojados who've made no effort to assimilate'. Efren's principles are important to him, but he only asserts himself when he is up against the weak: 'whatever satisfaction I get from this job would be earned through a series of small victories', he boasts -- and those victories are always won over the powerless. His narrowly self-centered, rule-bound mentality leads him, in one evening of shocking violence, to multiple acts of betrayal that bring his career to ruin: but which, by a strange twist of fate, end a separation within his family that has lasted two decades. We learn more about that separation in the story told by Efren's father, a man whose life has been entirely distorted by his membership of a street gang in his youth, in 'Yo soy el Army'. Through that story we are able to probe a little deeper into the dark mystery of that tragic shooting in Echo Park.
The Madonnas of Echo Park is a superbly-written book, intricately complex yet effortlessly fluent. The writer's range and control of his material are breathtakingly accomplished, as he presents multiple viewpoints and spans generations and decades, creating characters who inhabit their time and place with total believability, situations that engross and bewitch, and places that come alive on the page with their colors, smells and atmospheres. It is a work of great depth, in which many layers of narrative and meaning intersect. The 'Madonnas' of the title are thus not only the group of mothers and children who gathered on a street corner in the early 1980s to dance along to Madonna tracks on a beatbox; they are also the women of Echo Park across the generations, so much stronger than their men, who give the community its strength and rootedness; and they are the holy Madonnas who are implored in prayer and casually cited in speech, and sometimes chose to appear in miraculous but demanding visions. The Madonna, 'Our Lady of the Angels', the woman after whom Los Angeles is named, recurs again and again, echoing through the stories of Echo Park. Other images constantly recur, seen from different viewpoints and across the changing perspectives of time: the blossoms of the Jacaranda tree, the clearing of Chavez Ravine, the smog-veiled California sun.
This is a work imbued with history, but history of a fluid, contested kind. The categories which are used to define societies and the people within them -- national, cultural, socio-economic, linguistic -- are here recognized for the mutable, fluid things they are. History, both personal and collective, is a matter of prices paid, bargains struck, betrayals and dispossessions ('I measure the land not by what I have, but by what I have lost', says Hector, 'because the more you lose, the more American you become'), but The Madonnas of Echo Park reminds us that it is in the end a matter of humanity, and the ways in which human beings connect with one another. Brando Skyhorse has written a rich, profound, satisfying, and above all a generous and humane book.
© 2011 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://harringtonmiscellany.wordpress.com/