'The Madonnas Of Echo Park': Residents, Reinvented There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood was known for silent films -- not drive-by shootings. In The Madonnas of Echo Park, debut novelist Brando Skyhorse revisits his old neighborhood -- and residents who still live there say his words hit home.
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'The Madonnas Of Echo Park': Residents, Reinvented

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'The Madonnas Of Echo Park': Residents, Reinvented

'The Madonnas Of Echo Park': Residents, Reinvented

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NPR's Mandalit Del Barco spent an afternoon with Skyhorse, visiting his old haunts. They're the setting for his book "The Madonnas of Echo Park."


MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Well, let's start with your name, Brando.

BRANDO SKYHORSE: Yeah, that was my mother's idea. She named me Brando because of Marlon Brando's involvements in Native American activities in the early '70s. You know, he turned down the Academy Award, you know, she decided she was going to name me Brando as sort of an homage to him. And I realized she was just a really big fan of "The Godfather."

DEL BARCO: Brando says his late mother was very involved in the American Indian movement in the 1970s. Even though she'd been born Mexican American, he says his mom identified as Native American.

SKYHORSE: She got in contact with a man, who's incarcerated, and his last name was Skyhorse. And I became Brando Skyhorse. My mother changed her name as well, and she became Running Deer Skyhorse.

DEL BARCO: It wasn't until later that he learned his biological father had abandoned the family when Brando was three. Paul Skyhorse was just one in a series of stepfathers. Brando's true identity was just one of the enigmas that set him apart in Echo Park, a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood; a working-class area that was once a backdrop for many silent movies.

SKYHORSE: The Keystone Cops used to film their fist shorts, you know, here in Echo Park. Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, you know, they had these fantastic mansions up in Angelino Heights.

DEL BARCO: When the film industry moved on to nearby Hollywood, Echo Park eventually changed. There was White Flight. Then in 1970s and '80s, Skyhorse grew up here surrounded by Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants. At the time, Echo Park was known for drive-by shootings.

SKYHORSE: I was definitely the nerdy kid with the book bag, with the glasses and the whole thing. I didn't hang out with gangs or anything like that. I don't think I even considered it an option, because, like I just wasn't cool enough for that. I wasn't even worthy enough to like have be hassled by them. I was just totally invisible.

DEL BARCO: But Skyhorse's outsider status helped him develop an observer's eye for the people he, his grandmother and his mother encountered.

SKYHORSE: You know, I think what I was exposed to was the working class element of Echo Park that you don't see in books or movies, because it's not as glamorous. I mean, okay, who wants to read a book about somebody going to clean houses all day? Well, that's, you know, interesting to me.

DEL BARCO: So in his novel, one of Skyhorse's protagonists is a housekeeper who works in the Hollywood Hills. She and other characters are based on some of the people Skyhorse met while growing up in Echo Park.

SKYHORSE: There were all these sort like, you know, weird cast of characters just kind of around the neighborhood. And there was this one elderly lady who used to wear a turban and this lime green coat, walking up and down the neighborhood. For some reason, she always, like, stopped at our house, 'cause I guess my grandmother was very chatty. And she always stopped by at, like, you know, one in the morning, pound on the door and say like, you know: This is the police, open up.

DEL BARCO: In Skyhorse's novel, she becomes a woman who wears many coats and in one scene, she encounters the Virgin Mary at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard.

SKYHORSE: It's left up to you to decide whether what she's doing is actually having a hallucination, or whether she's crazy, or whether she's actually experiencing a miracle that people just are ignoring.

DEL BARCO: Among others who populate Skyhorse's book are an undocumented day laborer, a recently paroled hustler and a little girl named Alma. He calls them all Madonnas.

SKYHORSE: Because every single character is interested in reinvention; becoming more than what you have been told you can become, being more than what you think you're capable of being.

DEL BARCO: I met some real life girls from Echo Park; 16-year-olds Brenda Marones, Yesenia Pum, Ana Rivas and Michelle De Leon. They're writers with the group 826LA. I asked them to read aloud the central themes from "The Madonnas of Echo Park."

BRENDA MARONES: (Reading) Alma used to dance with her mother outside El Guanaco, a mercado near Angelino Heights that sold rock-hard Twinkies, Colt 45s, and homemade tacos and burritos in the back. She and a half dozen other girls and their mothers gathered there on the corner, spontaneously, then every Friday afternoon, when I recognized El Guanaco in Madonna's music video for "Borderline."


YESENIA PUM: Madonna (Singer): Borderline, feels like I'm going to lose my mind. You just keep on...


PUM: (Reading) A short distance away we heard the sounds of sirens and gunfire.

ANA RIVAS: (Reading) Five loud gunshots in quick succession, not firecrackers or popping corn, but deep hammer thrusts, cut the fleshy air.

MICHELLE DE LEON: (Reading) 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.

MARONES: (Reading) The next day, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran a front-page picture of Alma in a torn Madonna T-shirt with the banner headline: Baby Madonna Murdered By Heartless Thugs.

DEL BARCO: Brando Skyhorse says this is the sort of scenario that used to happen all the time when he was growing up.

SKYHORSE: You know, there would be a young little girl, she'd be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, you know, she'd be killed. And there would be this public outcry and they'd look for the killer. And the killer was never found.

DEL BARCO: And Skyhorse says he remembers some of the early Madonna videos were shot in the area, the ones where she still looked like a chola, a home girl from around the way.

SKYHORSE: There was this discussion that like there's this young attractive Mexican girl who was like, you know, a pop star. And then like, you know, why is she singing in English? And, of course, later it came out that she wasn't, but I don't think people in my neighborhood, at least, cared. It didn't matter. It was like that was the initial impression, and there was not going to be anything that like changed them or dissuaded them from thinking otherwise.

DEL BARCO: The real life Echo Park girls say he painted a realistic portrait of their hood.

MARONES: He's trying to show the Latino story of Echo Park.

DEL BARCO: Would you consider yourselves the Madonnas of Echo Park?

RIVAS: Of course.

DE LEON: Yeah.



DE LEON: It felt real good to, you know, to be like the story.

RIVAS: It kind of makes feel proud to live in Echo Park.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.


LOUISE KELLY: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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