by Brando Skyhorse
As a child of So Cal, the Inland Empire to be precise, my relationship with Los Angeles has been tenuous at best. The proximity of the promise and potential for success that Hollywood offers seemed so close, but not quite near enough to satiate my pre-adolescent fantasies of stardom. Regardless, the L.A. of my youth was the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the exotic luscious smells of egg foo young at Grand Central Market, the emblematic L.A. skyline which heart-palpitatingly reminded me of The Wizard of Oz’s radiant Emerald City, and watching Fernando Valenzuela pitch another no hitter at Dodger Stadium. My Los Angeles mirrored Mike Davis’s theorized and fantastically Boosterized/propagandized land of sunshine, the place where it was possible that Lana Turner was discovered while sipping a Coke at Schwab’s Pharmacy. My naive mind’s eye was blinded to the blight on Hollywood Boulevard, the homelessness and economic tumult of downtown’s Skid Row, the hazardous smog. Little did I know that Dodger Stadium was built upon a stolen and buried Mexican past formerly known as Chavez Ravine. In other words, I didn’t see the noir side of Davis's proverbial sunshine/noir dichotomy. My L.A. was fanciful escapism and glamour for a San Bernardino barrio girl. It was most certainly not Echo Park. It was not Brando Skyhorse’s Los Angeles.
Skyhorse's debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, displays a Los Angeles pulsing with life, remorse, dance, nostalgia, death, violence, and loss. It's populated by the disavowed working class hustlers, maids, cholas, bus drivers, locos, bank tellers, day laborers, dishwashers, and busboys striving to survive and coexist while going unnoticed in an ever-changing urbanscape. Skyhorse's L.A. is Echo Park. Each of the eight short-story-like, loosely interwoven chapters recounts the experiences of a distinct Echo Park resident, each struggling to be made a visible and viable part of Los Angeles.
Echo Park, the small hilly community located between downtown L.A. and Hollywood, is not as renowned as other parts of Los Angeles. Any past luster Echo Park may have celebrated is quite often eclipsed by the notoriety of South Central or extravagance of Beverly Hills. Most don't know that Echo Park was Hollywood before Hollywood was Hollywood. Known as Edendale before the park was built, Echo Park was home to the first West Coast motion picture studio. Dozens of silent pictures were not only filmed on its streets, but the silent picture elites, such as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, lived in or near the Angelino Heights neighborhood. That it was the home of silent pictures does not go unnoticed by Skyhorse. In fact, he capitalizes on the rendered silent, dispossessed, and disenfranchised Mexicans that have lived in the neighborhood for generations.
The main strength of The Madonnas of Echo Park derives from the author's dramatic capturing, chronicling, and cataloguing of the ephemerality of the natural landscape and cultural topography of the neighborhood. Echo Park is described with disparate visages depending on the narrative lens. From the past “heart of a patchwork of hills blistered with junkyards and tin shacks made from leftover metal sheared off from the remains of disassembled World War II aircraft” to a present day neighborhood filled with ““funky” boutiques that sold just purses or just cell phone holsters, cafes with outdoor seating and Internet access, and bars that were written up in lifestyle magazines and served imported beer on tap,” Skyhorse’s Echo Park can never be taken for granted. There’s always a palpable and sometimes disconcerting move towards gentrification, with each new group pushing out the previous. “It’s seen the whites leave, the Mexicans come, the Mexicans go, and now the whites come back.” The move towards affluence is poignantly visible with the controversial arrival of Dodger Stadium as recounted in many chapters, culminating in Aurora Esperanza's lament in “La Luz y La Tierra” (Aurora was named after Aurora Salazar, an old woman that had to be dragged and carried by “her wrists and ankles” outside of her Chavez Ravine home before it was demolished). Aurora shares that Chavez Ravine was publicly deemed a ““shanty-town” where descendents of blood-lusting Aztecs squatted in piecemeal huts, drawn to these undeveloped dirt mounds the way flies are to horse dung” by William Randolph Hearst. As a result, Mexican “families were first told their homes were being torn down to build them brand-new public housing—townhomes with running water, washing machines, lush green lawns and playgrounds, shopping centers, and a “supermarket where you could buy Swanson TV dinners and bring them home to cook them in state-of-the-art ‘Dyna-Warm’ ovens, one in every new Then men in large machines came flying crisp white banners, conquistadors in hard hats bearing royal standards emblazoned with baseballs soaring over a large red treasure map X.” Progress in the name of the American Dream was indeed made, but the upward mobility is not reflected by the difficult lives of the Mexicans like Aurora left homeless or outpriced from their own neighborhoods.
The book tells of a palpable disconnect between “El Viejo Echo Park” and the one of gentrified today. This is humorously captured in a culinary moment in “Yo Soy el Army” by Manny Mendoza, an ex-Locos gang member, who longs for hibachi-cooked “thick steaks and ribs lathered with honeysweet barbecue sauce” as he’s sitting with his Army-bound son in Membo’s Coffee Shop on Sunset Boulevard (Membo’s used to be a Chinese food restaurant). While he’s eating a “grilled cheese and soy bacon sandwich, made on seven-grain bread with organic, grass-fed, raw-milk cheddar” with a side order of sprouts, he yearns for a past where he could not only eat what he wanted, but everything was familiar. “We used to own these streets,” he waxes poetic of his glory-filled gang days. But after the “most terrifying gang in East Los Angeles, the Department of Urban Reclamation for the City of Los Angeles” takes over, he realizes “turns out we didn’t own these streets at all. One by one, the houses on my block of Laveta Terrace sprouted For Sale signs on their front lawns like tombstones, each one taking away a friend or an enemy, but neighbors all, cashing out homes that had been in their families for decades for hundreds of thousands of dollars, taking with them veteranos and future veteranos alike.”
For all the novel’s strength in showcasing the metamorphosis of Echo Park, at times it appears too fantastically and fatalistically contrived. In a neighborhood where a former security-guard-turned-horror-film-extra is an actual killer in “Bienvenidos” and recently paroled Ruddy Blades is stomped on by a hipster he tries to swindle in “The Hustler,” violence and death become as ubiquitous as L.A. palm trees and shiny top-down convertibles. Not a single character escapes untouched or unmarred by some variance of aggression. What is disconcerting at first becomes overkill; one character is picking up a bouquet of yellow flowers and drops dead from a stroke, another is gouged in the jugular vein by a chola while working in bank, yet another is beat to death on a city bus. Those that are injured or killed are all young, somehow suggesting one must enter the perils of barrio life at their own risk. The novel flips quintessential L.A. novel Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust’s, “people come to California to die,” into people that live in Echo Park will die. However, the violence can be quite poignant, as in the drive-by shooting of three-year-old Alma Guerrero, the Baby Madonna. Her death is one of the novel’s unifying threads--every character is somehow touched, affected by, or aware of Alma's senseless death.
The heart of The Madonnas of Echo Park involves the actual Madonnas of Echo Park, a self-named group of Mexican women and their daughters (Alma Guerrero being one) that dance carefree on a “street corner in what was considered a dangerous part of town day or night” in front El Guanaco, a mercado that “sold rock-hard Twinkies, Colt 45s, and homemade tacos and burritos in the back.” Felicia, a maid to the L.A. elite, shares in “The Blossoms of Los Feliz,” that dancing erupted spontaneously on Friday nights after El Guanaco was featured in Madonna’s early 1980s video for her song Borderline. Chicana mothers and daughters would dress up in Madonna-inspired “acid-washed skirts, see-through mesh tank tops, traffic cone orange spandex tights, aquamarine ankle-high socks, tangerine pumps, shiny silver crucifixes, lace gloves, and black rubber bangle bracelets that were called ‘promise bracelets, because of the way the bangles were made to crisscross in the shape of heart across’” kick the “beer bottle shards... into the street by unsteady pairs of high heels” and reclaim a corner long denied them by the urban criminal environment. Tired of being victims, they would have “loud, sassy conversations,” no longer willing to remain in the shadows of their men and city.
The music video becomes a symbolic, although short-lived, signifier of validation and esteem-building for the Eastside neighborhood. “When the video came on,” Felicia narrates, “I saw El Guanaco and pointed it out to Ana. It was visible on-screen for a few seconds, but she was as delighted as I was to see a place we walked by every day on television. There was something magical about it, a place in our neighborhood worthy of being on TV, and not because someone had been shot or killed. We agreed it would be fun to bring our daughters there, like a free tourist attraction we didn't have to travel hours on the bus to see.” Felicia relishes in the mainstream affirmation of her home. That Echo Park is a mere minutes away from Hollywood, the place where stars are made, is what makes her joy pitiable.
Felicia believes Borderline to be “a little movie about a Mexican woman not forgetting where she came from.” In the video Madonna is an inner-city homegirl discovered by a photographer-turned-seducer while dancing with her “girlfriends dressed in retro chola girl outfits complete with drape coats, baggy pants, and hairnet caps.” After her stint at modeling stardom (she’s tossed aside after she spray-paints the photographer’s sports car) Madonna’s character gladly returns to her welcoming Echo Park barrio and Latino boyfriend. However, any lauding of ghetto-chic or female empowerment the video may have inspired is fleeting as young Alma becomes a victim while dancing outside the real life El Guanaco. While the mothers and daughters are posing for a photo (“who would come to a tourist spot without one?”) gunfire erupts, scattering the Madonnas. Soon after, “Alma was lying on the ground. We all thought she’d fallen and scraped her knee, or was playing dead the way little children do all the time in the barrio. When her mother turned her on her side, blood poured out a small hole in the front of her neck, collecting on the Madonna T-shirt draped across her limp body. She knelt beside her daughter and tried to revive her by breathing into her mouth. Bubbles fizzled out of the wound. Alma's mother ripped off the bottom half of Alma’s shirt with Madonna’s face and wrapped it around her neck to stop the bleeding.” The photographic moment right before Alma’s spinal chord was severed by the bullet is immortalized and printed in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner under the headline “Baby Madonna Murdered By Heartless Thugs.” Here, Madonna’s Borderline video takes on multiple significances. Aside that a “barrio girl” is actually discovered dancing on the street, the video represents the inherent chasm between Echo Park and Hollywood. It serves as a reminder that Los Angeles Chicanos are constantly straddling a borderline between not only two cultures (Mexican and American) and the new and old Echo Park, but of the Hollywood image versus their Echo Park reality. Alma’s subsequent canonization and stardom by local and Westside girls and politicians (among many others) because of her death is a pitiful reminder of such disjunction and discordance in the city that is often swept aside when tragedy occurs.
The Baby Madonna’s victimization furthermore points to an overall weakness in Skyhorse’s novel, his characterization. He paints a broad picture of Echo Park Mexicans as victims, hustlers, maids, cholas, bus drivers, locos, ex-bangers, etc. In fact, I approached the novel with slight trepidation after reading the book jacket’s claim, “like Academy Award-winning film Crash, The Madonnas of Echo Park follows the intersections of its characters and cultures in Los Angeles.” Much like Paul Haggis’s Crash, the novel fails to present full-fledged complex characters because it falls back on cultural stereotypes (in the film, anyone not Black or White is painted in fairly narrow strokes). In an attempt to present barrio life, we have men that are mostly philanderers, abusers, machistas, and homophobes, while the women are mostly accepting of the philandering, abuse, sexism, and homophobia (some even exhibiting the same qualities). In a colorful Echo Park where the Virgin Mary, dressed in a polyester pantsuit, sits at a Sunset Boulevard bus stop and “the Lord” sits watching telenovelas in a shack before doling out bits of wisdom, I expected more.
Ironically, my favorite part of The Madonnas of Echo Park is not even part of its narrative world. Even though I felt in my youth that Los Angeles was a million miles away from me, Skyhorse’s “Author's Note” presents an L.A. barrio existence closely linked to my own. It speaks of a 1980s childhood, informed by popular culture, made up of Michael Jackson videos and Garbage Pail Kid cards. I was also a sheltered barrio kid that ingested as many books and hours of MTV as possible because it was too dangerous to play outside my home. With a propensity for the dramatic I would stack my promise bracelets proudly up my arms as I danced to Madonna’s Borderline video while dreaming of becoming a Hollywood pop-star. Skyhorse suggests his novel is an apology for an adolescent transgression he made towards a young Chicana named Aurora. Aurora brought Madonna’s Borderline album to a class dance party where a pubescent Skyhorse slighted her, refusing to dance with her because she was Mexican. “‘You’re a Mexican.’ It was a moment I’d rehearsed with my mother, but the word Mexican caught on the roof of my mouth like a stutter. It was the hard x—the same consonant that degrades the word sex.” Not able to express a crush on Aurora, Skyhorse resorted to insult and self-denial (in that he was Mexican himself). After that day Aurora never came back to school. Aurora could very well have been me. I would have felt the burn of rejection. But I like to think that after reading Brando Skyhorse breathing life into my marginalized barrio, in essence taking it momentarily out of the shadows of the downtown L.A., in the end all dance-floor sins will be forgiven.
Valarie Zapata lives in Los Angeles and teaches English and film studies at Moreno Valley College.