Author Interviews


Brando Skyhorse was raised as a Native American, the son of a chief. He was raised that way, but it was a lie. Both his parents are Mexican. Brando didn't know the truth until he was practically an adolescent. And he didn't really begin to unravel all the lies that surrounded his past until he began work on his new memoir "Take This Man."

BRANDO SKYHORSE: A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles. For every starlet who changes her name or her breast size, there are a hundred undocumented workers who assimilate there way into the city, unnoticed, to construct their own versions of the American Dream. In my mother's dream, she saw no reason that just because we were born Mexican, we'd need to live as Mexicans.

I was three years old, when my life as Brando Kelly Ulloa, the son of a, quote, "good for nothing wetback" ended. My life as Brando Skyhorse, the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist, had just begun.

RATH: Brando Skyhorse joined us from our bureau in New York where I asked him about the man who was his fake father.

SKYHORSE: There was a real Paul Skyhorse Johnson. He was incarcerated in Illinois for armed robbery. His being was actually, when I checked the prison records, Paul Martin Henry Johnson. So I believe, through some series of letters or communications, my mother not only convince this man to adopt me as his son, but also convinced him to adopt a sort of American Indian name himself - the middle name Skyhorse. He was actually an American Indian. But when he got out of jail, he became Paul Skyhorse Johnson.

RATH: You've met him. Talk about that.

SKYHORSE: Yeah, I met Paul Skyhorse Johnson for the first time when I was five years old in prison. My mom had taken there and said, you know, we're going to meet your father. And we went on this train trip. And, you know, there he was in all of his, you know, Indian glory. He looked literally like the part of a stereotypical American Indian Brave. He was tall. He had long hair. He was an extraordinary figure. And I thought, oh, good God, like this is my dad? This looks great.

So it was very easy for me to believe the deception, in part, because my mother's features also looked very American Indian. She wore long hair. She had very sharp cheekbone features. She was mistaken for American Indian all of the time. So it seemed rather believable that we were this family of American Indians living in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. As opposed to the reality of it, which was we were Mexicans living in Echo Park, California.

RATH: Talk about when you found out the truth. You were not even out of elementary school.

SKYHORSE: No, I was around 12 or 13. I don't have the exact day when I found out. It was more like a series of really small revelations because when you're a child it's like, oh, you have all of this sort of desire, and especially because I had father figures that were coming and going, it was so important for me to get the details. Like when did you first meet? And, you know, what was your first kiss like? And where'd you go on your first date? Without thinking, oh, well, this guy was like, you know, a great political activist in the '70s. Maybe they didn't go to McDonald's or something. Maybe they met on a reservation. And my mom's answers always kept changing and shifting, which is - when you're younger, you don't really keep track of those things. But finally, by the time I was 12 or 13, I realized that all of these answers couldn't possibly be correct. And it just sort of came out. It basically - it was an acknowledgment that, oh, yes, you know, this person wasn't your father. This person, Candido Garcia Ulloa, this Mexican that I had married. He was your biological father. But he took off. And that's not important to you. And we'll never speak of it again. So it became clear, even once I had that information, that A, I couldn't use it and B, it could've been another one of my mother's lies.

RATH: Your mother almost has a sense of contempt about why would you want to be a Mexican? What was it about being Mexican, in the '70s, that was so distasteful that made her want to create this alternate reality?

SKYHORSE: That is the $64,000 question, isn't it? And I wish that I could've gotten around to asking her. And she probably would've given two completely different answers and meant them both. I think a part of her would've said, well, you know, I relate more with American Indian culture. You know, I love American Indian - you know, just everything about it just really appealed to her, in a really basic and primal level. And I think that the idea that she had been abandoned by a Mexican man really wounded her and really wounded her pride. And I think it confirmed a lot of the negative stereotypes that she probably had about what it means to be a Mexican in a place like Echo Park, Los Angeles.

I think she felt that maybe being Mexican was limiting for her. That no one would be interested in her or her stories if she simply said, oh, you know, I'm just a simple Mexican girl from Echo Park, California. I think, she believed that if she told people, yes, I'm an American Indian, yes, my son's, you know, the offspring of an American Indian Chief, yes, I am really the most thing and fantastic person you will meet today, that people would love her. And that people would want to talk to her. And that people would want to friends with her. That's another one of those sad ironies because my mother was so mesmerizing, such a wonderful and charming personality, that she didn't need to invent anything. People would've gravitated towards her, regardless.

RATH: That's Brando Skyhorse. His new book is called "Take This Man." It's out now. Brando, thank you.

SKYHORSE: Thank you so much.

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