The Madonnas of Echo Park

This debut novel about the intersecting lives of Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles deftly tackles questions of culture, belonging, and identity.

The Madonnas of Echo Park By Brando Skyhorse Free Press 224 pp., $23

“We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.”

This is the line that opens Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park. Like the rest of Skyhorse’s rich and textured story, it comes from the unlikeliest of sources: a middle-aged undocumented Mexican day laborer named Hector, who must compete with workers half his age for a spot on a construction crew each morning.

As the intricate tale unwinds, we’re offered glimpses of the “land” that Hector speaks of – Echo Park, a Mexican neighborhood in East Los Angeles – from the points of view of eight residents, whose ordinary, working-class lives intersect under often extraordinary circumstances.

We get to know Hector’s wife, Felicia, who leaves Hector shortly after he begins an affair with a beautiful grocery store clerk. She loses a steady night job cleaning deserted downtown office buildings after a much-publicized drive-by shooting, (which leaves a 3-year-old dead) and the authorities questioning whether Felicia nearly pushed her own daughter into the line of fire.

We meet her daughter, Aurora, a sullen teen, at the scene of the crime – a weekly afternoon Madonna dance party hosted by a group of local moms and their young daughters that Felicia forced Aurora to attend in an effort to bond with her.

The shooting, a tragedy that suddenly – albeit temporarily – focuses the city’s attention on the neighborhood, sets off a series of events that knits together the lives of the novel’s characters in a haphazard pattern that engulfs the whole of Echo Park.

After Felicia is fired, she receives a mysterious call from a wealthy couple outside Echo Park looking for a housekeeper. In that giant house – a bus ride and a world away from Echo Park – Felicia develops an unusual friendship with the woman of the house, the lonely and depressed Mrs. Calhoun. After months of painfully awkward exchanges, Mrs. Calhoun helps Felicia learn English and, eventually, build a network of wealthy clients to augment her small income.

The relationship, like many of the interactions in Skyhorse’s novel, is fleeting, but has a deeper meaning and broader implications.

The bus driver who brings Felicia to the house each morning, for instance, has chosen to pursue honest work over the gangbanger lives that his father and brother live. But a racially charged fight on his bus one evening leaves him branded a criminal and a racist instead.

His estranged nephew, Juan, chooses a different path as well, joining the Army instead of the gangs that battle in the streets. But the choices he makes in his personal life show the influence of his strong-willed Mexican-American mother. He leaves the woman who is likely the love of his young life, Tran, because she is Chinese.

Each romance, friendship, and chance encounter in the novel reveals something about the characters who struggle to achieve success in a country where being labeled a Mexican often guarantees anything but. And at the same time, they must learn to inhabit two cultures at once, embracing America without abandoning their Mexicanness.

As the laborers, gangbangers, cleaning ladies, bus drivers, and teenagers in Skyhorse’s Echo Park evolve and grow over the three generations that the book spans, so does their neighborhood. That living, breathing organism that shapes their lives just as they shape it – the one constant throughout each person’s story – is almost unrecognizable by the end of the novel, when we see the world through Aurora’s eyes, as she returns to the neighborhood, now an adult.

Chic coffeehouses have replaced taco joints, and young, white professionals outnumber cholos in today’s Echo Park. Still, Aurora is able to unearth deeply hidden truths about her identity and roots from her gentrifying childhood home in a dramatic final search that skillfully brings together the story’s loose strings.

“The Madonnas of Echo Park” is a quick read at 200 pages. By having each chapter introduce a fresh story and a new perspective, Skyhorse propels the reader through the novel at a breakneck pace. And in each section, readers are rewarded with a deeper layer, and a new connection, that enriches the plot.

While the novel pivots around Mexican-Americans in L.A., Skyhorse uses elegant prose and vivid storytelling to tackle questions surrounding culture, belonging, and identity that haunt every immigrant community.

Alissa Figueroa is a Monitor correspondent.

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