The author of The Madonnas of Echo Park traces his turbulent childhood under the shadow of his dynamic mother and five stepfathers, describing how his mother reinvented their pasts in ways that challenged the author's efforts to reconnect with his biological father.
I was three years old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother's house atop a crooked hill on Portia Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Teresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full-blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery who my mother met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full-blooded "squaw" who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones.
My mother was mesmerizing and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good, or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands, our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school vice principal, even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name: "Brando Skyhorse? That's beautiful."
My biological father, Candido Ulloa (oooh-YO-ahh), was replaced by a chain of boyfriends and five fathers—one new dad about every three years. Along with Paul, whom I first met while he was in prison, there was Robert, a restless, habitual Aleutian Indian thief; Pat, a restaurant chef with a penchant for disappearing; Rudy, a man who answered a singles ad from a homeless shelter; and Frank, a Mexican-American office "straight" (what Maria called men who worked actual jobs) who wanted a son but could not marry my mother. The only way to keep them straight was to imagine what actors would play them in a movie made from my life:
Paul Skyhorse Johnson: Will Sampson, the American Indian "Chief" from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Robert: Esai Morales. A "hot" Esai Morales. La Bamba Esai Morales.
Pat: Roseanne-era John Goodman.
Rudy: Present day Robin Williams. Plus thirty pounds.
Frank: I've known him the longest so I can't imagine him in caricature. If he were asked, he'd say Chris Noth from Law & Order or Michael Nouri from the movie Flashdance. In that order.
These men were never simply my mother's "boyfriends" or "partners." They weren't "surrogate dads" or "stepfathers." I couldn't call them by their first names, nor was I allowed to speak about any past father in the presence of a new one. My mother made it clear that these men, trying to be men, were my fathers, absorbed instantly into our tiny clan of mother, grandmother, and me, so we could be, or pose as, a family. Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.
Then they left.
"Some boys don't have any father in their life," my mother would say, bucking me up. "You've had five. Plenty for one boy."
I was father rich but family poor. Our house shook as if it were filled with people—brothers, sisters, a chorus of screaming children—but really belonged to just two angry women who were five foot and change tall. We shopped at the Smart & Final warehouse for commissary-sized Shake 'N Bake and restaurant-style cartons of frozen burgers, purchasing family-size packs in gross for a family that could fit in a hatchback.
We were a triangle trying to fill a circle.
When I grew out of that circle, I tried searching for the true ends of my mother's stories; ends I thought explained who my father was. Who I was. Each father took a piece of me when he left, leaving a hole that got bigger as I got older. I wanted those pieces back. I wanted that hole filled.
My mother would say, "I can't tell you what really happened," as if she were protecting someone else's truth and not her own exaggerated version of it. Her stories had ominous detours and switchbacks, contradicting prior layers of her own facts. When cornered, my mother hissed, sizzled, and exploded like fireworks, and then offered, by way of explanation or apology, five words I'd come to know by heart.
I found out I was Mexican when I was around twelve or thirteen. My mother forbade me from telling anyone our story. I kept our secret long after I needed to because my mother's lie had become my whole truth.
It would be thirty-three years from the time he left before I tried to find my biological father, Candido Ulloa, in earnest. By then I'd had so many fathers that even the idea of a father—the very word father—seemed absurd, like a joke whose punch line had to be explained to me. I'd grown proud of my wounded independence—I stand here as my own man—because I'd built it myself from the wreckage each father left behind, shred by abandoned shred. I didn't believe that understanding my biological father's abandonment and vanishing could offer me anything except explanations I claimed I no longer needed or a reconciliation I bragged I wasn't interested in. Daddies were for children, not grown men. All I had of Candido were some pictures and the Mexican surname he'd left behind. (My mother had much less from her own Mexican biological father; she was raised by her Filipino stepfather, Emilio.) Years of speculation and misdirection led me to imagine every sort of fantastical reason for Candido's disappearance: amnesia, murder, abduction back to Mexico. I knew he'd stay lost if I didn't search for him, and I suspected already how little of my father there'd be left for me if I did find him. I'd been prepped by books and movies for how long and impossible a search for an estranged father was.
It took Google about ten minutes to find my father. There he was one winter night in 2010 on WhitePages.com. His home was a half-hour drive from the neighborhood where I was born and raised.
I'd found him. What now?
I'm a writer. I write to understand what I don't know. So I wrote my father a letter. And I started to write this book.
My letter was unremarkable and efficient, accompanied with a Spanish translation, and signed with my current legally changed name. (The name my father gave me was in a parenthetical.) Attached were five scanned photographs from my childhood that had miraculously survived my mother's habitual purging of the past; the idea of that, I think, was to make it easier for her to carry only the truths she wanted into the future. I also included a recent photograph of me as an adult. I imagined this picture might have resembled the kind of man my father was at my age, though I had no photos of him after 1976. He had been twenty-six years old when he left our family for good. I was thirty-six when I sent him my letter.
I chose these pictures to rend heartstrings and appeal to a conscience that my mother, and thirty-three years of silence, had led me to expect didn't exist. There'd been no letters, birthday phone calls, Christmas cards, or a penny in child support. How could my father be anything but a coward and a monster? Yet there he is in a photograph spoon-feeding me in an outdoor café on Olvera Street, cradling my infant head. Or carting me like a chubby pillow to a sleepover while my mother, in a goofy wool cap, vine-clings to his arm with a flirtatious daddy's girl smile. Another photo is from my third birthday party, and it's the last picture my father and I took together. My cake has Indians and a teepee on it, which I'm sure my mother picked out. The camera cuts off most of my father. He leans in from the side, holding me at arm's length so I won't follow him out of the frame. Later my mother would caption this picture on its back, "Brando Skyhorse Johnson and Uncle Candy."
I'd spent my whole life trying to follow Candido out of that photograph, through lies, misdirections, and detours in other men. I was searching for a father and for who I was. When you're a child, you think your family works in a straight line. Then you get older and find out where the curves are. What I found was a lesson about how a broken home can make a whole family but not until I was willing to listen to the whole story. Patience helps you put the pieces together. Sifting through my mother's lies, I discovered she'd told me one real thing over and over again—five true words—if only I'd paid attention: