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'The Madonnas Of Echo Park': Residents, Reinvented

An iconic mural on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, L.A. -- a hilly, diverse, gentrifying neighborhood that was once a backlot for silent movies.
Mandalit del Barco
An iconic mural on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, L.A. -- a hilly, diverse, gentrifying neighborhood that was once a backlot for silent movies.

In the 1920s, the hilly Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known as the home of silent film. But that was before the film industry moved to nearby Hollywood and "white flight" forever changed the face of Echo Park. Writer Brando Skyhorse, 36, grew up there mostly with Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants in the 1970s and '80s when Echo Park was better known for its drive-by shootings than its cinematic history. He has channeled his memories of the neighborhood into a new novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park.

Skyhorse says he always felt like an outsider in the neighborhood. "I was definitely the nerdy kid with the book bag, with the glasses and the whole thing," Skyhorse says. "I didn't hang out with gangs, or anything. I don't even think I even considered it an option because I wasn't cool enough for that. I wasn't even worthy enough to be hassled by them. I was just totally invisible."

Brando Skyhorse is now writing a memoir called <em>Things My Fathers Taught Me.</em>
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
Brando Skyhorse is now writing a memoir called Things My Fathers Taught Me.

His name, he explains, "was my mother's idea. She named me Brando because of Marlon Brando's involvement in Native American activities in the early 70s -- you know, he turned down the Academy Award. She decided to name me Brando as sort of an homage to him and I realize now that she was just a really big fan of The Godfather."

Skyhorse says his late mother was very involved in the American Indian movement of the 1970s. He says his mom identified as Native American even though she'd been born Mexican American.

"She got in contact with a man who was incarcerated, and his last name was Skyhorse and I became Brando Skyhorse," he said. "My mother changed her name as well, and she became Running Deer Skyhorse."

A 'Weird Cast Of Characters'

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

"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," he recalled. "I mean ... who wants to read about someone who cleans houses all day? Well, that's, you know, interesting to me."

In The Madonnas of Echo Park, Skyhorse draws from his childhood memories to tell the story of Echo Park as he knew it.

"There was this sort of weird cast of characters just kind of around the neighborhood," he says. "There was this one elderly lady who used to wear a turban and this lime green coat, and she would walk up and down the neighborhood. For some reason, she always stopped at our house… because I guess my grandmother was very chatty… and she'd stop at 1 in the morning, pound on the door and say, 'This is the police, open up!'"

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

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

'Interested In Reinvention'

Other characters include an undocumented day laborer, a recently paroled hustler and a little girl named Alma. He says he calls them all "Madonnas," because -- like the performer -- "every single character is interested in reinvention: becoming more than what you have been told you can become, becoming more than what you think you're capable of being."

But there's a more visible connection between Madonna and Echo Park than that. You need only look to the artist's early music videos for songs like "Borderline" which were shot in Echo Park and in which Madonna looks like a chola, a homegirl from around the way.

"There was this discussion that there was this young attractive Mexican girl and she was a pop star. Why is she singing in English?" he remembered. "And, of course, we later found out she wasn't [from here]. But I don't think people in the neighborhood cared. It didn't matter. That was their initial impression, and there was nothing that was going to change them or dissuade them from thinking otherwise."

Skyhorse says that memory sparked his interest in revisiting the neighborhood so long after he had left it.

'Proud To Live In Echo Park'

Judging from the neighborhood's reaction, it looks like Skyhorse's novel has hit home. Sixteen-year-olds Brenda Marones, Yesenia Pum, Ana Rivas and Michelle De Leon -- all writers at the writing group 826LA -- are Echo Park residents who say Skyhorse has painted a realistic portrait of their home.

"He's trying to show the Latino story of Echo Park," Marones says.

When they're asked if they consider themselves Madonnas of Echo Park, they giggle but they all agree.

"Of course, it finally feels good to be the story," De Leon says.

Rivas adds, "It kinda makes me proud to live in Echo Park."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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