The Madonnas of Echo Park
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The Madonnas of Echo Park

3.5 42
by Brando Skyhorse

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Winner of the 2011 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award

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

With these words, spoken by an illegal Mexican day laborer, The Madonnas of Echo Park takes us into the unseen world of Los Angeles, following the men and women who cook the meals, clean the homes, and struggle to


Winner of the 2011 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award

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

With these words, spoken by an illegal Mexican day laborer, The Madonnas of Echo Park takes us into the unseen world of Los Angeles, following the men and women who cook the meals, clean the homes, and struggle to lose their ethnic identity in the pursuit of the American dream.

When a dozen or so girls and mothers gather on an Echo Park street corner to act out a scene from a Madonna music video, they find themselves caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. In the aftermath, Aurora Esperanza grows distant from her mother, Felicia, who as a housekeeper in the Hollywood Hills establishes a unique relationship with a detached housewife.

The Esperanzas’ shifting lives connect with those of various members of their neighborhood. A day laborer trolls the streets for work with men half his age and witnesses a murder that pits his morality against his illegal status; a religious hypocrite gets her comeuppance when she meets the Virgin Mary at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard; a typical bus route turns violent when cultures and egos collide in the night, with devastating results; and Aurora goes on a journey through her gentrified childhood neighborhood in a quest to discover her own history and her place in the land that all Mexican Americans dream of, "the land that belongs to us again."

Like the Academy Award–winning film Crash, The Madonnas of Echo Park follows the intersections of its characters and cultures in Los Angeles. In the footsteps of Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie, Brando Skyhorse in his debut novel gives voice to one neighborhood in Los Angeles with an astonishing— and unforgettable—lyrical power.

Editorial Reviews

In Skyhorse's world, there's Los Angeles, and there's Echo Park, and in his first novel, he describes his own (fictionalized) kingdom in 1980s East L.A., with all its sights, smells, and inhabitants. They'll tell you that their Mexican heritage doesn't define them — they're mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. With a fierce determination, they've run headlong into the American dream, slipping through the unfamiliar country to wash our clothes, cook our food, and cut our grass. Their lives hover in the narrow margin between intimacy and invisibility: the cleaning lady who witnesses multiple indiscretions, the transit worker whose life is changed by an altercation on his bus, the trajabadores waiting in a sweltering parking lot to be picked for a construction job. The American dream may be there for the taking, but the "illegal" residents of Echo Park can't be too picky about the kind of work they do.

The intersecting voices of these characters form a vibrant tapestry akin to that of Paul Auster's Brooklyn or Sandra Cisneros's San Antonio. In The Madonnas of Echo Park, Skyhorse immerses readers in a foreign world so deeply that it becomes instantly familiar. With poverty, despair, and loneliness as one side of a coin and the promise of America as the other, the men and women of Echo Park come to life in this wholly original novel from a singular talent.

Publishers Weekly
Skyhorse maps in his vivid debut the spirit of L.A.'s Echo Park, where Mexican-Americans define themselves either in alignment with or in opposition to their barrio. Each story-like chapter tells the tale of a character who has grown up in, moved to, or fled Echo Park, such as an itinerant construction worker hired to dispose of a murder weapon, a woman who converses with the Virgin Mary, and a hustler who swears he's going to stay out of prison this time. These lives coalesce around a random shooting that claims the life of a young girl. Family epics also emerge, notably the story of Aurora Esperanza, whose absent father narrates the opening story and whose mother was at the center of a tragedy. Aurora herself closes out the book, drawing together threads of homecoming that weave throughout the novel. Though a few of the narrators' voices aren't distinct enough, Skyhorse excels at building a vibrant community and presenting several perspectives on what it means to be Mexican in America, from those who wonder “how can you lose something that never belonged to you?” to those who miraculously find it. (June)
Library Journal
First-time novelist Skyhorse offers a poignant yet unsentimental homage to Echo Park, a working-class neighborhood in east Los Angeles where everyone struggles to blend in with American society but remains tied to the traditions of Mexico. Twenty-five years ago, a teenage Skyhorse tells Aurora Esperanza at a high school dance, "I can't dance with you…you're Mexican." Before he can apologize, she disappears. These eight linked stories—real voices, with details changed—are his apology. Hector, Aurora's father, is 40 years old with no job because the Hollywood restaurant where he worked closed. He picks up a construction job, but it isn't what he bargained for. Felicia, Hector's ex-wife and Aurora's mother, works for wealthy Mrs. Calhoun, to whom she is invisible. Efren Mendoza, a by-the-rules bus driver, is proud that he has escaped his family's gang associations, but after a terrible accident he breaks all the rules. Finally, Aurora's story is a lament to Echo Park. She is the last to move out, carried by force by the L.A. Sheriff's Department so Dodger Stadium can be built. VERDICT Essential for fans of Sherman Alexie or Sandra Cisneros but with universal appeal for readers who favor in-depth character-centered stories, this is enthusiastically recommended.—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa County P.L., Grand Junction, CO
The Los Angeles Times
"Skyhorse is at his best when exploring the changing world of Echo Park...His careful attention to detail, to a rich past of a place that served as home to Mexican Americans already once displaced from Chavez Ravine, is thoroughly researched and executed— no easy feat while juggling multiple characters and timeframes...the focus on Mexican American characters is admirable."
Chattanooga Times Free Press
"To embrace a community, to capture its fabric, to syncopate its rhythms, lives, views and experiences is a difficult feat. But Brando Skyhorse manages to do just that with his breathtaking and, at times, soul-churning novel...Skyhorse [finds] breadth and diversity in Echo Park...Stories zigzag through the book, introducing lives unique and full, bisecting one another at times, standing at solitary edges at others...we are carried away by this intricately crafted tale. Taken together, the tales spin around the axis of a few streets yet splinter off into infinite dimensions."
“A revelation…the summer’s most original read…extraordinary…The novel is richly detailed, offering varying perspectives that collide into a singular narrative from an evolving neighborhood in the shadow of downtown L.A. (Think Gabriel García Márquez fused with Junot Díaz.)…The immigrant experience may very well be the defining narrative of the United States in the 21st century. When juxtaposed against its literary rival, the self-confession, the results can be breathtaking as exhibited by Skyhorse’s startling author’s note at the start of the book…powerful.”
The Christian Science Monitor
"Rich and textured...As the intricate tale unwinds, we're offered glimpses of...eight residents, whose ordinary, working-class lives intersect under often extraordinary circumstances...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...Skyhorse uses elegant prose and vivid storytelling to tackle questions surrounding culture, belonging, and identity that haunt every immigrant community."
The Brooklyn Rail
"If timeliness and social relevance don't sell you on the book, then read it for its beautifully imperfect characters, the wise certainty of its prose, its satisfying emotional heft…Elegantly written...The book cleverly expresses the tangled nature of multicultural identity and the physical geography of off-the-grid Echo Park."
From the Publisher
Winnerof the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Blossoms of Los Feliz

Spring is here and it makes my joints ache. All those jacaranda blossoms on the walk outside to sweep up. Jacaranda trees thrive in Los Angeles, like blondes and Mexicans. There's no getting away from them, not even in my dreams. They've haunted me from childhood, when I believed a jacaranda tree would save me. Can you imagine such a thing, a tree saving a life? A silly girl thought so once. I'd been sent to my grandmother's home in Chavez Ravine by a mother whose face I didn't remember and whose cruelty Abuelita wouldn't let me forget. The dirt road outside my abuelita's house led to an outdoor mercado and was covered with an amethyst sea of pulpy jacaranda that felt like old skin and calico under your bare feet. I'd collect sprays of young jacaranda, then run down the road with them, petals raining from my arms.

When the white men came to build a baseball stadium for playing their games, they smoothed the land out like a sheet of paper to bring in their trucks and bulldozers that would destroy our homes. But there was a problem. The land was uncooperative and petty, swallowing contractors' flatbed trucks and, I prayed, the workers themselves into sinkholes and collapsing earth atop surveyors' flags.

The jacaranda trees gave them the most trouble. They felled the mightiest bulldozers, which couldn't tear them down without themselves being damaged. I thought that if I grew a jacaranda tree in my room, it would anchor our home to the land and we wouldn't have to leave.

I found a thin branch with several young sprays and set it in an old wooden batea. We had no running water, and the rainstorms that fled across the ravine didn't give the dry, cracked ground a chance to soak up what poured out of the sky, so at night I'd slip out of my window barefoot to steal water from a neighbor's well. I planted the batea in our swept-smooth dirt floor and waited for the spray to bear seeds whose roots would burrow deep into our ground. Two of the buds matured, plopping atop the water's surface before they could open, but the rest weren't growing fast enough and the sounds of the bulldozers kept getting closer and closer. I poured heavy gulps of water into the batea to get the other buds to bloom. I didn't want to hurt them. I wanted to give them more of what I thought they needed.

That night, a bad dream crept to my bed like a relative with filthy thoughts. I was a jacaranda blossom struggling to stay alive but whose violet color was dripping off my petals into a standing pool of water. But I was also me, laughing as I held the dying blossom by its bud under the water. I reached up with as much strength as I pushed my body down, drowning both my selves. There was the drop drop drop of running water, then a hard patter, then a shrieking roar, a scream pouring out of my mouth as I awoke coughing strands of spit on the side of the bed I shared with my abuelita. It was a vivid nightmare, one that revisits me, a persistent yet incurable sickness. Fumbling to the batea through the rough darkness, I saw that the other buds had shriveled up. Two jacaranda flowers were submerged underwater. I cradled them out of the vase to dry them, but their milk and seeds popped out as the flowers tore apart in my hands. My abuelita heard me crying and without asking where the water had come from told me that a drowning flower moves toward the water, not away from it. Its stem may be strong enough to stand on its own, but when its petals grow wet and heavy, they drag the flower back into the water and that causes it to die. Aurora Salazar, the last woman evicted from Chavez Ravine, learned this lesson when she was dragged by her wrists and ankles like a shackled butterfly off her land. And I would learn that lesson many years later working for Mrs. Calhoun. This is what women do, when they have an ocean of dreams but no water to put them in. Mrs. Calhoun lived in a large house on Avalon Street in Los Feliz with her husband, Rick, who had followed a story in the newspapers and on television about a drive-by shooting. In 1984, during my twelve-year-old daughter Aurora's spring break, she and I had been standing for a group photo (which all the papers published) on a street corner when a car opened fire near the crowd. Neither of us had been in any actual danger, but because of the attention, I lost my job cleaning the offices of a law firm where I'd worked for four years as a "temp."

Before Rick found me, I was looking for work on a street corner, 5th and San Pedro, near the Midnight Mission. Back then, my English was terrible and Skid Row was where, if you were a woman, needed work, and didn't speak English, you'd gather in a group for the gabachos to come and hire you. We all had our own corners on Skid Row back then. 6th and Los Angeles, by the Greyhound station, was for junkies. 5th and San Julian was the park where whores would sell their time: twenty dollars for twenty minutes in a flophouse, or ten dollars for ten minutes in a Porta Potti the city put out for the homeless. And 5th and Pedro was where you went to hire day laborers and cleaning ladies.

The women came from everywhere south, some as far away as Uruguay, each with her own Spanish dialect. The men had their own corner, across the street from ours. They weren't there to defend us when we were harassed (or sometimes raped) by the bums who swarmed the area but to keep an eye on us while they drank, laughed, and wolf-whistled the gazelles, beanstalky white women in suits and sneakers who parked their cars in the cheap garages nearby. They turned those pendejos' heads like compass needles, as if those girls' tits and asses were magnetized. We had the dignity to wait in silence, yawning in the flat gray sharpness of dawn under a mist of milky amber streetlight. Standing in a straight line, arms folded across our chests like stop signs, we prepared ourselves for a long day of aching, mindless work by sharing a religious, rigorous, devotional quiet. When men want relief they hire a whore. When women want relief they hire a cleaning lady. And they did it the same way-first they examined our bodies. Could we reach the high shelves with the lead crystal without a stepladder? Were we able to fit into a crawl space and fish out their children's toys? Were our culos big enough to cushion an accidental fall? They never looked us in the eye because they could see us performing those disgusting chores no decent woman would dream of asking another woman to do. Then they tried to negotiate the stingiest hourly rate, or tossed out a flat fee that always seemed too good to be true, and was; at their houses, you were asked in a polite but insistent voice to do "just one more" messy, humiliating job (digging through moist, rotten garbage for a missing earring they "thought" might have fallen in, or fishing a tampon out of a clogged toilet) before you earned your day's freedom. The men were more direct, pulling up in large white windowless vans and snapping their fingers-"I need two plump, stocky ones and two that can squeeze into tight corners!"-like buying live chickens. I wasn't the only American-born woman on this corner who never learned English. In Los Angeles, you could rent an apartment, buy groceries, cash checks, and socialize, all in Spanish. I tried going to the movies to learn English; at the theaters Downtown, Mexicans could come only on certain days and were "restricted" to the balcony.

I snuck in whenever I could because I wanted to be more "American," and I thought these movies-"The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain!"-had the answer. Yet whatever English I pieced together dissolved when I walked into the harsh sunlight outside. When something really stumped me-paying taxes, for example- I asked for help. More Mexicans speak English than you imagine and understand it better than they let on. That's how I met Hector, in church; he could already speak English but never had time to teach me. (I should have known a man who could speak two languages could live two different lives with two different women.) How could I find time to learn English, when I left my house at dusk like a vampire, working in empty, haunted offices all night? And some vampire I was, frightened by all those ghostly sounds in an office, like copy machines that powered on for no reason or phones that rang endlessly. Before sunrise, I scurried out the service entrance with a horseshoe back, clenched shoulders, callused feet, and skin reeking of ammonia.

That's why Rick's letter arriving when it did gave me faith we were not destined to live our lives as victims. The papers painted Aurora and me as tragic near-martyrs, symbols of a community the city had forgotten. Aurora couldn't face her classmates because of this and some incident at school that she started telling me about, then stopped when she told me I'd gotten the details wrong (someone called her "a dirty Mexican"). After the shooting, she stopped telling me anything, became a sour and sullen stranger in my home. She changed schools and talked to me even less, but she was still my translator and my negotiator when I went to meet Rick. Cards and letters flooded our mailbox, but Rick had written on the most handsome stationery that he was looking for a cleaning lady (or better yet, a houseboy), and if I wasn't interested, would I inquire in the neighborhood in exchange for a "finder's fee"?

We rode the bus a half hour to Los Feliz and met Rick on his front drive under a gang of aging palm trees. He led us around the grounds, which included a shady grotto and swimming pool carved out of a hillside shielded beneath a canopied jacaranda tree that had thin green sprouts and young, tender, but still unripe ivory buds peeking out from its branches.

"You have a swimming pool!" Aurora said.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" Rick asked her.

"Maybe." Aurora smiled a confident, gap-toothed grin that meant she was lying.

"You can have a pool party with your boyfriend anytime. If he has an older brother, he can come and bring his friends, too," he said. When I asked her how much the job paid, she began a back-andforth conversation until I agreed on a schedule of three times a week, six hours each day. Aurora negotiated thirty dollars per cleaning day, with Rick providing the cleaning supplies.

"My wife will keep everything fully stocked," Rick said. "She's inside."

In a living room that could fit my entire childhood Chavez Ravine home, Rick's wife sat curled on a fancy corduroy couch (a couch I'd come to know very well), her head draped over a glossy magazine. I couldn't tell whether she was asleep or awake. There was a booming, echoed silence, what you'd hear in a cathedral. Aurora dove onto the couch. Startled, his wife jerked up, and Rick motioned stiffly for her to shake my hand.

"Hello, Mrs. Calhoun," I said.

She dragged her legs off the couch, adjusted her silk blouse, then pinched the waist of her trim, creased slacks. "This is Felicia, the woman from the newspaper," Rick said.

"Hello, Felicia," she said, standing the same height as me in stocking feet. "Hola. Buenos dias and hola, Felicia." She hugged me at an angle, like she was using tongs.

"My wife was the one who spotted that photo in the paper," Rick said. She looked surprised to hear this.

"Oh, the photo. The one with your friends. Amigos. Amigas? I'm sorry my Spanish isn't better," she said.

I understood this, and said, in English, "It's okay. My English should be better. It's America, your country."

"Oh, I thought you were born here," she said.

"I was. But it's your country."

She showed Aurora and me out, saying she was running late for a medical appointment. We descended the sharp incline back to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. There were no benches-only Mexicans rode the bus around here-so Aurora and I squatted on the curb, massaging our calves and keeping our feet at what we hoped was a safe distance from the sports cars and new "minivans" speeding down the boulevard. We waited under the shadows of manicured wall hedges and palm treetops whose dry, spiny fronds crackled in the breeze like a brushfire.

"I want a house like his," Aurora said. "I want to live here." "It's very expensive," I said. "You need to stay in school." "You don't need to go to school to be rich anymore. I want to have a pool party here," Aurora said.

"My job is to work here," I said. "Your job is to go to school." "Rick said I could come and swim," she said. "You can't decide for both of us."

"That wasn't an invite to swim," I said. "Era una invitaci?n a trabajar." Cleaners must arrive early, before their bosses have had their morning coffee, newspaper, and can mess up their houses any further. To get to work on time, I walked to the bus stop when the moon was still out. No one was around except the borrachos swaggering back home to their wives' cold beds when the bars closed, or the crazy bag lady who wore winter coats year-round, prayed at my bus stop bench as if it were a pew, and talked about her "friend," the Virgin Mary, as if Our Lady of Guadalupe was going to show up on the Line 200 bus at five in the morning. I hated rising early then, so I learned the driver's name and acted friendly; in a few weeks, he'd wait an extra minute or two for me at my stop if I was running late, though I had to listen to his endless bragging about how he kept to his schedule and always followed the rules. Don't know what page of the rule book chatting up women passengers was on, but I knew what his game was. Women can see through a man in a way men will never realize. That's because men never change-they'll slow time down trying to get under your dress, then speed it up once they've done it. I was still recovering from Hector, my one attempt at true love. He turned out to be a yo-yo lover, a man who stings you more coming back than going away.

There were many cleaning ladies and maids riding that bus every morning, fanning out across Los Feliz. Working on traffic islands or mountainous front lawns were armies of gardeners who came in their own pickup trucks, their turtle-shell backs inching across unruly grass they sharpened into crisp right angles.

You could hear us coming by the sound of our plastic buckets, knocking what we carried inside them around: spray bottles with homemade cleaning solutions, collapsible mop handles and scouring pads, dried out sponges and boxes of rubber gloves (many owners of these houses, mine included, didn't supply their own cleaning supplies as promised; we'd eat the cost along with our complaints), and a symphony of jangling house keys. If you weren't trusted with keys, you'd better get used to the curb.

It took me a while during those first weeks to learn a different rhythm of doing my job. At the law firm, I had to let others know I was there. Figuring out the best ways to be heard but not seen is a crucial skill for a cleaning lady so I wouldn't surprise anyone staying late, or walk in on lawyers having sex or touching themselves. Turning on the vacuum cleaner when I didn't need to or making a lot of noise arranging my cleaning supplies were the best ways. One lawyer's hands dipped below his waist whenever I cleaned his office, so one night I whipped the vacuum cord at his crotch like a lion tamer. He kept his hands on his papers after that. In Los Feliz, I needed to be invisible and inaudible. Mrs. Calhoun and I managed to communicate without ever saying a word to each other's face. The massive double front doors made a loud, drawbridge sound when I unlocked them, letting her know I'd arrived. I'd shout "Good morning" in English until Mrs. Calhoun responded with an echoed "Good morning," often from one of the bathrooms. That was my sign to start at the opposite side of the house. When I finished a room, Mrs. Calhoun stepped inside and read a magazine until I finished the next room. Like the arms on a clock, we moved together through six bathrooms, five bedrooms, the split kitchen, two "recreation" rooms (a name that confused me; I didn't have a room to create things in, let alone "re"-create them), and a living room as big as Aurora's school cafeteria. We could spend the day inches apart and never see each other.

Many cleaning ladies would be thrilled not to have someone's eyes raking your spine, correcting your every move, but I felt it was bad luck to spend a day in the same house with someone you never saw or talked to. Sometimes I'd ask Mrs. Calhoun a question but would get no reply. Later, I'd find a note on a large glass table by a pair of sliding doors overlooking the grotto, a place Mrs. Calhoun stared out at most of the day. With the help of an English-Spanish dictionary Rick gave me on my first day, I learned how to translate her replies. "Don't clean the green back bedroom today" meant she'd be shut in there, curtains drawn, for the six hours I was cleaning. "Please clean the oven" meant the charred remains of some grisly attempt at a meal would be lying in wait for me. "Out this afternoon" meant Rick would come in right before I left smelling of chewing gum and alcohol, bobbing and weaving across the freshly waxed floors.

If a dozen people lived there, all coming and going, six hours wouldn't have been enough time to clean the whole house. But these two people didn't really need a cleaning lady, which led me to wonder why they hired me to begin with. I dusted the tables, made the (his and hers) beds, wrestled with the impossible-to-clean reversible pleather/corduroy cushions on their couch, and packed away Styrofoam to-go cartons and pizza boxes into large garbage bags. In the kitchen, foil take-out pans and doggie bags were arranged like an eager student's piles of books in a library. Some stacks were scattered across a cutting block; others were crammed into a refrigerator the size of a bank vault until they went bad. Again, we communicated by note. Food boxes were color-coded with tiny "sticky" notes, telling me what to pack away and what to dispose of, uneaten, untouched. Unused dishes, glasses, copper pans, and silverware were cleaned and polished twice a week. Three of the five beds were never slept in, but I stripped and remade every one of them. The six bathrooms were the most trouble. Each had dried stalactites of vomit and blood around the rims and on the bases of the toilets. To get these clean you need to scrub and scratch with your fingertips while the rest of your body's crouched in a runner's starting hunch, motionless above.

When I finished my assigned chores, there was an hour or two left over that I didn't want to cheat the Calhouns out of. I sorted the stacks of unopened mail and the towers of unread, outdated magazines and catalogs stuffed into overflowing wicker baskets, arranged the dozens of small trinket boxes on shelves, dusted the unused candlesticks and china, and swept dust bunnies off the cool marble floors. It was one of these extra jobs that led to our first conversation. It had been eight-maybe nine?-months since I started cleaning their house. It may have been as long as a year. I can't be sure, because when you spend your life waiting, time no me importa. (I know this word waiting has two meanings in English, and I mean it both ways. Either I am waiting on someone, serving them, or I am waiting for someone, to answer a question, to give me freedom, to love me.) Mrs. Calhoun came into the kitchen holding a magazine. "Did you," she said and clenched the magazine into a rolled-up wand. "The magazines," she said, "some of them are . . . did you . . ." "I don't understand," I said.

She slapped the flattened magazine in front of me. She pointed at it and grunted "Uh-huh." Then she pointed at the trash can and grunted "Uh-uh."

"Magazines, yes," she said, clutching it to her chest. "Trash, no. Understand?"

"Magazines yes, trash no?" I asked.

"Yes. Magazines, yes, trash no," she shouted.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Calhoun. I thought you finish them."

"Oh, you, you understand," she stammered. "You knew what I was . . . I'm, I'm sorry." She tossed the magazine on the ground and ran out of the kitchen. I went through the rest of my cleaning routine on tiptoe until the day was over.

I wanted to apologize before going home, but I couldn't find Mrs. Calhoun. Then I heard a low whirring sound coming from a rear unused bedroom near the three-car garage. Mrs. Calhoun was lying in bed wearing a knee-length lavender bathrobe, open down the middle, with a large white baton between her legs. She moved her arm in broad circles, tossing her head back and flicking her blond hair against the headboard, the sound it made like rain lashing a window. This wasn't shocking to me; I'd done this many times since Hector left, with ribbed corncob holders, candles, and a special, hand-carved "happy stick" a curandera sold me, but never with anything mechanical. I was ashamed because I was stealing pleasure away from her, the pleasure she got from being alone. I backed out of the room but jerked the door too fast, slamming it shut. Halfway down the hall, I heard the noise stop and her bedroom door open. Her bathrobe was tied tight, her face flushed, her hair stringy and frazzled. She had balled her fists up as if to fight someone, but there was a weird, crooked smile on her face, ready to collapse into laughter at the silliness of two women being ashamed at sharing the secret of how unnecessary men are.

A handwritten note on the dining room table was waiting for me on my next cleaning day. It was too long to make sense of it on my own, so I asked Aurora to translate. She read the unsigned note in a slow, halting voice:

Felicia, I am uncomfortable with having to say "good morning" every day when you arrive. I feel I can't start my morning routine until I say "good morning" to you in return. My morning schedule works on a very specific timetable. I use an electric toothbrush, and it's set on a two-minute timer. I'll be brushing my teeth, and my mouth will be full of toothpaste, and I can't say anything to you when you say "good morning" because there's toothpaste in my mouth, but you keep saying "good morning" until I respond. If I interrupt that process, the toothbrush doesn't reset for another two minutes, and that wastes time. I don't need to know you're here. Just start working. "What are you doing over there?" Aurora asked. "Walking around and bothering Rick's wife like you do me?" When I arrived the following cleaning day, Mrs. Calhoun was lying on a chaise that had been moved inside and set next to the sliding glass doors that looked out on the grotto. Jacaranda trees sprouting white, unripened buds shaded the water. I unfolded the sheet of paper I'd begged Aurora to write out for me and tried to remember how she pronounced the words, which she refused to do more than a couple times because she said I'd never learn otherwise. "Mrs. Calhoun," I said, "this is my answer to your letter," though answer was the wrong word, because Mrs. Calhoun hadn't asked me a question. She didn't want a back-and-forth conversation. I used the slow, dramatic "give me one last chance" voice Hector used whenever he begged me to take him back.

"I'm sorry I walked in on you during your ?happy time,'" I said with difficulty, eyes focused on the paper. "I won't say ?good morning' to you anymore, but please no more lies about your teeth brushing. My daughter read your note, and I don't want her to think her mother isn't doing her job."

The words didn't sound angry like they would have in Spanish, didn't poke through the air with the same fire or conviction. I stood there, having emptied my paper but not my thoughts, shuddering with anger at being humiliated in front of my daughter and fearful that what I'd said sounded much worse to Mrs. Calhoun's ears than to mine.

When neither of us said anything, I started cleaning the kitchen, banging pots and slamming cabinets, working twice my normal speed throughout the house, expecting Mrs. Calhoun to march over at any moment and fire me. By the time I had stuffed the vacuum cleaner in the closet without wrapping up its cord, I couldn't tell whether she was even at home. When I grabbed my purse to dig out my bus pass, I found a slip of notepaper inside. Written in large letters, the words were easy for me to understand: "Would you have lunch with me?"

With uncharacteristic patience, Aurora prepped me for our lunch. She told me what questions she thought Mrs. Calhoun would ask, and what answers I should give in reply. "Whatever she asks," Aurora said, "lie. If she asks you how you're feeling, it's always ?I'm feeling great.' Americans are never honest at lunch or in the bedroom. I learned that on Dynasty," she said, a TV show about rich, catfighting white women she loved to memorize quotes from.

With a change of clothes on a wire hanger in a plastic bag, I came in the Calhouns' home without saying "good morning." It felt wrong to enter a house this way, como una ladrona. Is this how criminals and cheating men feel when they invade a home? Is this how Hector felt? The sound of running water was coming from the bathroom next to the kitchen. Steam and heat poured out the door, and every surface was damp with condensation. The water was hitting something in the tub. Behind the shower curtain near the drain was a large mound of bright pink and yellow flesh the size of a baby, frothing under a stream of hot water.

What I remember next is a firm hand patting my face and rubbing my cheeks. The water had been turned off. Mrs. Calhoun was kneeling by my side, panic-breathing as she tried to revive me. "What happened?" I asked.

"You saw the turkey and passed out," she said.


"I'm so embarrassed," she said and lifted me up onto the toilet seat. "I bought a big frozen turkey. A turkey," she repeated louder, pointing to the tub. Americans always think you will understand them if they talk loud enough. Through the curtains I saw the pale, wrinkled yellow skin, smelled the undercooked meat.

"I put it in the fridge to thaw it out. But it didn't thaw. I thought if I ran the turkey under hot water, it would thaw out. This was supposed to be our lunch," she said.

"For us?" I asked. "Big, too big, Mrs. Calhoun. This is for ten people, not two."

"I ruined all this food," she cried. "What do I do?"

"I can cook," I said. "I will make the food."

"No, you can't cook," she said.

Offended, I said, "I'm a good cook, Mrs. Calhoun."

"I mean you can't cook when I invited you to lunch," she said.

"There may be some leftovers," I said. "In your boxes, in the kitchen."

"I can't serve you leftovers. But we could order something in," she said, dabbing at her eyes. "Order in? You know, delivery? We call," she said, motioning with her fingers on an imaginary phone, "and they bring the food to us. I have menus. Lots and lots of menus." Mrs. Calhoun leapt to her feet and ran to the kitchen. She rummaged through a utensil drawer and spread out on the counter dozens of glossy, colorful take-out menus. "Whatever meal you want," she said, "we can get it here. Thai, Greek, Mexican . . . um, maybe not Mexican."

She pointed to the menus and suggested different dishes, most of whose names I didn't understand. I nodded when she said "pizza," and she circled a couple of items from a yellow-and-black checkerboard menu.

"My address is on the back," she said. "Their number's at the top of the menu."

"Number?" I asked.

"Yes, to call, to order. Order?" she said and made the same dialing motion with her hand.

"Oh, no, I make a mistake," I said.

"It's easy," she said. "I circled what we're going to eat. Say your name, the address, and give them the numbers. It's easy." "You should call," I said. "I make a mistake."

"Felicia," she said, and her mood blackened in an instant. "If we are going to have lunch, you are going to have to call. You have to learn how to ask for what you want in English, too." She left me in the kitchen to dial the phone in private.

An annoyed woman took my order and told me how much the meal would cost (twenty dollars for two people-an incredible expense). I changed into my lunch outfit-a simple long-sleeve blouse with an ankle-length skirt-and went to help Mrs. Calhoun set the table.

"You're dressed for church!" She laughed. "This wasn't going to be anything fancy."

"I see. I can change back."

"No, I mean you didn't have to go to any trouble. God, no wonder I hate talking." She finished setting the paper plates and utensils on a rectangular white dining room table next to the sliding glass doors overlooking the grotto. "Let's have a drink while we wait for the food." She poured white wine into two etched glasses from the china cabinet and handed me one.

"Isn't Los Angeles beautiful?" she asked, pointing outside, from behind the glass.

"Yes," I said. "Maybe we eat outside? It's a warm day, very beautiful outside."

"Too hot," she said. "I don't enjoy going out there. Better indoors with the air conditioner. Keeps us cool," she said, rubbing her forearms. "What about your pool?" I asked.

"No, no," she murmured. "If I got in that pool, I'd never want to come out of it." She paused. "How was calling in the order?" she asked, dialing her imaginary phone. "Yes, easy," I said. "Too expensive,

though, too expensive. I am fine with a sandwich."

"How about a turkey sandwich? We have a lot of that," she said, and we laughed. "See how easy that call was?" she asked.

"I like to speak English," I said. "But it's hard to learn."

"We have the opposite problems. I hate to talk, no matter what the language is. I can get you English lessons on cassette tape," she said and sipped her wine, a big gulp. "You can learn English while you clean."

"That would be very nice," I said and figured it was okay to sip my wine, too. The drink made my cheeks flushed, and I felt hot. There was a pause in our conversation, and we both glanced at each other and the pool many times, while I waited for her to speak. "You need a Walkman. You have Walkman?" she asked, putting her hands over her ears and bobbing her head up and down. "Oh yes, my daughter, she has Walkman."

"How old is your daughter?" she asked. "Twelve," I said. "Straight A student, speaks English very good. Too good. She forgets her Spanish. Her English is much better than mine. But she doesn't help me practice."

"Why not?"

"We do not talk a lot."

"Well, she's at that age. Isn't she? Don't girls go through a ?phase'?" "We used to talk, like friends."

"I don't think I ever left that phase. Talking's overrated. Silence is better. Silence can bring people together."

"Silence with my daughter is good?"

Mrs. Calhoun stared out at the grotto. "What you don't say can mean more than what you do say. Look at us. You have a hard time with English and I don't know any Spanish. But we get along great. Appreciate the silence between you and your daughter. She's angry, but in time . . ."

"She has no reason," I said. "No reason to be angry."

"Maybe she's upset over that shooting. It sounded like a terrifying moment," Mrs. Calhoun said. "That poor girl who was killed."

"My daughter was never in danger. Never."

"How about you?" Mrs. Calhoun asked. "How did you feel about what happened?"

"How did I feel?"

"Yes, how do you feel now?"

I remembered what Aurora told me. "I'm feeling great."

Mrs. Calhoun had a strange, confused grimace on her face, and I wasn't sure if I'd communicated what I meant to say. The doorbell rang, and she slid over two twenty-dollar bills. "One for the meal, one for the tip."

"Twenty-dollar tip? No, too much."

"It's fine, Felicia. Answer the door," she said and gazed back out at the grotto. The jacaranda tree's blossoms were almost in bloom, and a breeze was swaying its branches over the water. When I returned with two small pizza boxes, Mrs. Calhoun hadn't moved. Inside each box was a pizza the size of a flour tortilla. How did white people get away with charging so much for so little? I slid the pizzas from their cardboard boxes to paper plates and sat across from Mrs. Calhoun. I don't remember how much time passed or how much more wine I sipped before I asked, "Mrs. Calhoun, why do you not like to talk?"

We sat by the sliding glass windows in silence, watching the dangling white baby bell blossoms shudder on the boughs of the tree. The next cleaning day, a Walkman and a box of Ingles Ahora! tapes were on the dining room table along with an open invitation to lunch. My routine gave me time to listen and memorize the tapes; the lunches, time to practice. My improving English led to longer and more interesting conversations, but they didn't grow more personal. I was no better able to ask about her troubles, or share troubles of my own. Our chats were mirages, appearing to offer a kind of connection or friendship if I answered things correctly, then yanked away as she ran to another part of the house to retch behind a closed door or curl up on a bed and not move for hours or retreat to a bedroom when the doorbell rang.

What we did best together was share space. While I scoured the counters or washed windows, she'd sit nearby, often on that corduroy couch dressed in nothing more than her lavender bathrobe, and watch MTV with the sound off. Sometimes I'd watch along with her while I cleaned and saw music videos with ladies wearing nothing but underwear. These videos also had unbelievable stories to explain why the ladies were in their underwear. I laughed at most of them but would stop and watch whenever they played the video for a song called "Borderline" by Madonna. I didn't understand what the words in the song meant, but the video was a little movie about a Mexican woman not forgetting where she came from. I liked that. Mrs. Calhoun seemed afraid to be alone. And I think I felt all this silence wasn't healthy for her. Rick was never around, and whenever I tried talking to Mrs. Calhoun to break her silences, I'd be left standing there flushed and aggravated, unable to find the words I needed to have a real conversation with her. It was life with my ex-husband again, where silence was as close to honesty as you got. Mrs. Calhoun was in the bedroom with a direct view of the grotto when I came in to practice another conversation with her. She was sitting on the bed in a stiff, upright Barbie doll pose, staring out the window.


Meet the Author

Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, won the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Skyhorse is a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA Writers’ Workshop program at UC Irvine. He is the 2014 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-In-Washington at George Washington University.

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The Madonnas of Echo Park 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A book to be read and reread! Haunting and gorgeous.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book a couple of days ago. My teacher recomended it for me because I grew up in echo park. It's been almost 3 years since I left and I left for almost the same reason everybody esle in the book left. My older brother died and my mom couldnt pay the house anymore and she lost her job beacuse a white woman bpught the place where she worked. I used to be like Aurora. I also went to work with my mom when I was little. The uncle that was a cholo is also another thing I can relate to beacuse I have lot of family in gangs.I like brando skyhorse beacuse I like how brndo sky horse describes the characters. It was confusing at first when its a different character in every chapter and you visualize what they say from each of the characters point of view. Duchess, Aurora, and Juans dad were my favorite characters. Duchess was really named Maria. Maria's mom belonged to a gang and was named Duchess, people that didnt really know Duchess all assumed she was a chola and the same thing has happened to me. Duchess reminds me of myself . Aurora always ignored her mom and followed her to herr work when she was younger and so did I. I didnt really like the bus driver beacuse he was talking bad about Mexicans hinking he was better than the rest. All mexicans were different but he was wrong to think he was better than the rest. Juans mother was like my mother she always told me to be proud of were I came from and to always represent "La Raza" just like juans mom. Cristinas boyfriend was one of my favortie characters beacuse he said stupid things and gave advice that sounded dumb but he was always right. -Sarahi
ubi_sunt More than 1 year ago
The Madonnas of Park had me from page one. An intriguing epigraphical poem by Jeff G. Lytle ushers in Skyhorse's fictional author's note, a piece of writing that showcases an effortless style (complete with lots of fun eighties-culture references), a knack for storytelling, and a deep knowledge of both his characters and the world they live in. I fell in love with Skyhorse in his author's note and experienced a whole other range of emotions as I progressed through the chapters: shock, grief, amusement, admiration, hope. His widely varied cast of characters offers many views of a culture within a neighborhood, all of them humanitarian and revelatory. I particularly liked how each chapter was told from a different perspective (all of the voices eerily convincing), with Aurora's and Felicia's stories laced throughout to serve as a backbone for the book. His sweeping descriptions reminded me of Steinbeck, and his subtle, plentiful details were reminiscent of the texture in Wes Anderson's film "The Royal Tenenbaums" and Baz Luhrmann's film "Moulin Rouge"--films you can watch a hundred times and still pick up on things you'd missed in previous viewings. Skyhorse has a memoir coming out next year. Needless to say, I'll be first in line to buy it.
CharmaineBaquiran More than 1 year ago
I really found this book very entertaining to read because of how the story line was told. I like how each of the chapters told a different perspective of a character. I found myself attracted to this book because it was based in the areas of Los Angeles where I'm very familiar with such as Echo Park, Glendale and Los Feliz. Many of my friends actually read this book as well and it's just one of those books that you can discuss about and feel connected with. If I could describe this book I would say it's intense. Basically it's about a family who struggles to survive in the Los Angeles culture back then. One quotation I really like is on page 57, "I have come to understand that God is the fear that motivates you to protect yourself from evil. God cannot be everywhere at once, and it is up to each of us to use our own faith in Him to protect ourselves." I really like this quote because it's true. As a born again Christian, I could relate to this quote. Fearing God doesn't mean running away from him, it's the opposite. It actually means being afraid of what could happen if you hurt him so therefore please the Lord, follow his commandments. There were some parts in the book where I felt sad due to the deaths of some of the characters and I think that's why I got so attached to this book. I do have some questions though for those who have read it such as if the book didn't start of with Aurora, would it make a difference of the book? Do you think it could've ended differently to have a better ending/closure? East eats West is somewhat similar to this novel because of the different perspectives that we see from each chapters but before I don't think I came across a book like this where you see how each chapter connects to a scene. I was very shocked and actually uncomfortable in one part of the book where Felicia was working as a housekeeper for a rich woman who was always home alone. My favorite chapter of the book was chapter 4 “Rules of the Road” because there was a part where I didn't stop reading because it was getting intense. I found it pretty cool when I found out the bus that the Character drove is the same one that I rode through Echo park before. 
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Brando Skyhorse is an amazingly poetic author. He takes the lives of each of his charactors and puts them in the hands of love. It' struck me that the use of short stories that interlace around each other was true magic. I loved the book and can't wait to read more!
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