Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Madonnas of Echo Park includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Brando Skyhorse. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Madonnas of Echo Park follows the lives of Mexican Americans in the shifting landscape of Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood, highlighting the intersections and collisions of American and Mexican culture. Felicia, a housekeeper, and her daughter Aurora weave in and out of each others’ lives, struggling to find a common ground on which to relate. Aurora’s estranged father Hector finds himself a witness to a murder, and must choose between deportation and complicity. Aurora’s former classmates Duchess and Angie, steeped in American culture, drift apart as they choose different paths in life, each looking for a place to fit in. Felicia’s aging mother Beatriz, who gave Felicia up as a baby, is torn between guilt and nostalgia, and her own driving self-interest. As their lives tangle together and bounce apart, each is given the opportunity to decide what is truly important to them.
Questions for Discussion
1. The first chapter of The Madonnas of Echo Park is actually a fictional Author’s Note, telling the story of the real Aurora Esperanza and the inspiration for the novel. Did you read the Author’s Note before starting the novel? Did you realize it was fictional? Do you prefer to know an author’s thoughts about their book before you start, or formulate your own thoughts about it first?
2. The reporters that cover the drive-by shooting raise questions about the positioning that saved Aurora and placed Alma Guerrero in the path of the bullet. Felicia seems doubtful herself about what actually happened during the shooting. Was it just a mother-daughter spat, or did survival instincts kick in and shape the incident?
3. “Tall poppy syndrome” or “crab mentality” is often pointed out by observers of minority cultures, when a member of the community achieves, or has goals, outside of the average and is dragged down or derided by others. Do you see this at work in any of the characters’ lives?
4. The incident on Efren Mendoza’s bus highlights the racial tensions simmering below the surface of everyday L.A. Was the bus driver trying to manage an unmanageable situation, or acting out of his own prejudices?
5. Aurora, speaking of her obsession with Morrissey, says, “You can’t help who, or what, you love.” Is she speaking solely about music, or is there a broader context for her statement? Do you agree with her?
6. Felicia works for wealthy white people cleaning their homes; Hector and Diego do construction work off the books. Are these genuine opportunities, or examples of immigrants being taken advantage of?
7. Beatriz (Felicia’s mother, Aurora’s grandmother) believes she has been visited by Our Lady of Guadalupe at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard. Do you believe in religious visions, or is this simply a hallucination brought on by age and guilt?
8. Juan’s father, Manny, is an ex-gangster. What purpose do gangs serve for their neighborhoods? Are they the only option available for many teens, or an actual choice on the part of their members? Can people truly change, after being involved in that kind of violence?
9. Felicia knows her employers as Rick and Mrs. Calhoun, despite the fact that she becomes much closer to Mrs. Calhoun than Rick. Is the way she refers to them indicative of their relationships? Why doesn’t it change with the changing circumstances?
10. Are the Calhouns camouflaging their dysfunction with charitable acts, or are they genuinely sympathetic to Felicia? Is this an accurate portrait of their society/demographic? Are the Calhouns’ dark secrets the exception or the rule?
11. Which character was your favorite, and which was your least favorite? Which did you identify with the most?
12. The Madonnas of Echo Park has many points of view and many connections that are often revealed slowly. Did the structure of the novel enhance or detract from the reading experience? Would you change it? If so, how?
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Madonnas of Echo Park is inspired by a childhood incident that the author can’t let go, as told in the Author’s Note. Consider it from the real Aurora’s perspective, and ask members to share a formative moment from their own childhood, in which they were refused something because of who they were or how they were perceived.
2. Several of the characters mention favorite musicians from their teen years—Aurora was obsessed with Morrissey, Angie loved Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, and Alma enjoyed Madonna. Ask members to pick an artist who was essential to their teen years and bring their favorite song by that musician to the meeting.
3. Immigration reform is a perennial topic in American politics, with many calling for more aggressive laws while others believe that more leeway should be allowed. Have members vote anonymously on immigration reform—stricter or more relaxed—and discuss the results.
4. Have a book club movie night: watch A Day Without a Mexican, in which the entire Hispanic population of California disappears. How does the portrayal of Angelinos, both white and Hispanic, compare with The Madonnas of Echo Park?
5. Ask each member to select their own Echo Park, a real place that they would write about, to discuss with the group.
A Conversation with Brando Skyhorse
1. The Madonnas of Echo Park opens with a fictional Author’s Note, recounting an invented childhood incident that is the inspiration for the novel, and is a story in itself. Why did you choose to open with a fictionalized Author’s Note?
I’m fascinated by books where the author inserts himself into the narrative. Less fascinating, though, are the results, which often reduce the potential of an intriguing idea down to something that seems artificial. What’s missing in many of these attempts is a sense of urgency or actual risk. Why is the author putting themselves into their own book? What do they gain as a writer, and what do we gain as readers from the experience?
For years I lived a life in which I unknowingly – then knowingly – denied my Mexican heritage. When I was writing the book, I assumed there would be questions about why someone named Brando Skyhorse would write about Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles. They were questions I had myself and part of the reason my next book is a memoir. The risk, then, was to acknowledge that part of my life in this book in some way. The best place to do that was, it turned out, in a fictional author’s note. The author’s note is often considered the one unshakable pillar of truth in a book and has been used in recent years as a venue for full-length disclaimers for memoirs that may stray too deep into fiction. What better place, then, to create a fictionalized reality for my experiences, and what better signature to attach to such a piece than B.S.?
2. Who are your influences as an author?
During my early apprenticeship learning to write, I overdosed on William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom! is my favorite novel), Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell. I then wrote many poor imitations of each. Over time, I learned how to glean important writing lessons from a variety of books. On that instructional bookshelf: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Stephen King’s The Stand, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and many others. And that’s just the fiction collection!
I think writers can pull influences from everywhere. I’m a huge fan of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts strips. They’re probably the first thing I remember reading and savoring. When I had enough pocket money, I’d buy as many used collections of his strips at garage sales as I could find. I’m sure I pulled some subconscious writing lessons from there as well. At least I hope I did, as the strip from 1950 – 1970 were brilliant examples of economic yet heart-wrenching storytelling. And while we’re talking about illustrated storytelling, might I add that Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of my all-time favorite books?
3. Madonnas has an ensemble cast of characters, all connected to each other in a tangled web. Did this complicate the writing process? How did you decide on the structure of the novel and keep track of the intersecting storylines?
The idea for Madonnas came quickly in an outline form of about fifteen to twenty vignettes all connected by one word, Amexicans, which was the book’s original title. Each vignette had a character dealing with a central conflict and as I wrote them, some grew in importance while other vignettes didn’t prove strong enough to be anything more than an idea or a few sentences in an abandoned Word file. I knew the characters all inhabited the same area, Echo Park, and were living in the same time period (from the nineteen eighties to today), but their connections only surfaced as I wrote my way through the book. It did take some figuring out on scratch paper which characters were connected to whom but no longer than it takes me to figure out a tip in a restaurant (that is to say, a very long time).
4. In some ways Madonnas resembles a collection of short stories. Which character did you start with? Which was the most difficult to write? The easiest?
I didn’t worry too much about the form of what I was writing because I wanted to get everything down on paper first. I’d already written a long novel that had some sections that I enjoyed but was a disaster in every other way and didn’t find publication for good reason. (Of course I can laugh about it now!). An early draft of Madonnas did indeed resemble a story collection but like mercury, the chapters kept congealing to each other and the characters kept revealing connections between themselves so I decided to pursue them.
Aurora revealed herself to be a central character early on and I knew that the entire book would pivot around her journey, whatever it turned out to be. Her beginnings were humble – she was chasing a dog around Echo Park. That was all I knew. Yet the more time I spent with her, the more she became her own woman with her own energy, vivaciousness, and passions. At a certain point, I stopped trying to lead her and just followed along, which proved to be a wise move as she led me to a majority of the book’s other characters.
Her connection with Felicia, though, was where I had the greatest challenge, and in a sense they are related much more than just being mother and daughter. Felicia was just as headstrong as Aurora and her chapter The Blossoms of Los Feliz was an enormous challenge in that I wanted to make Felicia’s voice and experiences as honest as possible. My editor Amber Qureshi was crucial in helping me work my way through the several drafts of Felicia’s story and in fleshing out the various connections between the other characters.
It’s true that you remember the most difficult characters but you also remember the characters that have a lot to say and a seemingly effortless way of saying them. Efren Mendoza, the bus driver, was probably the easiest character to write because his anger and obsession with rules and regulations gave me a built-in conflict that I simply had to write towards. He represents that fierce, aggressive side each of us are capable of expressing – in an email, driving on the freeway, waiting in line at the supermarket – but says things in such a pure and true way, it’s hard not to be seduced by his voice, even though you may disagree with what he’s saying.
5. The geography of Los Angeles, specifically the Echo Park neighborhood, is intrinsic to the storyline. Was it a challenge to stay faithful to the geography, and did you worry about making mistakes? Do you think you could have told the same story in a place that resembles, but isn’t, Echo Park?
I wrote about the landscape in Madonnas from memory. I haven’t been to Echo Park in twelve years. Yet what amazes me most is that seeing the neighborhood depicted in movies, or getting reports from friends who have just visited the area, and also using Google maps, I can tell that the geography is almost unchanged. One of my former stepfathers told me in an email that when he recently visited Echo Park after being away for many years, “the people have changed but the place is still a dump.”
There were minor geographic tweaks I made to facilitate connecting the various characters but the book makes a faithful effort to render it just as I remembered it. Like my stepfather noted, some of the people have changed, and I made an effort to represent that oncoming feeling of a neighborhood that’s in the process of gentrification, but what you read is, I hope, what you get.
I couldn’t have told this story anywhere but in Echo Park and it had to be the Echo Park I remembered from my youth to address the various things I wanted to say in the book. It wouldn’t have worked where I live now, in New Jersey, because the way a transplant looks at a place is invariably different than the way someone who was born and raised looks at it. My memoir will likewise be set in Echo Park but Book #3 (of which I have a vague idea for now) is telling me it’s time to explore other territory and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to do that when the memoir is done.
6. Music is important to your characters—from Madonna to Morrissey, many have a musician that is essential to their lives. Who is your essential musician? What did you listen to during the writing process?
Anyone taking a cursory glance through the book will see that I wear my eighties childhood on my rayon print shirt sleeves. Looking through my CD (yep, still have those) collection, it’s astonishing how many eighties artists there are and how many albums & singles (remember those?) I bought from certain bands. I tend to play songs on repeat when I’m writing because it helps me zone into the work but much like the character “Rob” from High Fidelity I can’t give you one essential musician because I couldn’t limit myself to just naming one. The characters themselves, though, do a good job of explaining what I was listening to throughout the book’s writing. “Cool Kids” required a steady diet of Gwen Stefani solo/No Doubt. Aurora would only let me listen to The Smiths, Morrissey, Depeche Mode, and the occasional eighties one hit wonder song. (Also note that her story is the book’s longest). “The Hustler” came alive when I played Los Lobos, while Felicia was a big eighties era Madonna fan. And surprisingly, the bus driver in “Rules of the Road” thrived when I played Kanye West.
7. In L.A., Mexican and American cultures meet—sometimes they mingle, sometimes they clash. Just in the span of Madonnas, Echo Park undergoes a cultural shift. What do you believe is the future of the neighborhood? Of the city?
When I was growing up, I remember watching a documentary about Sunset Boulevard, which runs right through the neighborhood, and the narrator said, “Echo Park is the most beautiful ghetto in America.” It didn’t start out that way. It was once a secluded enclave for Hollywood’s silent-film-era movie stars. Charlie Chaplin lived in a large Victorian mansion that overlooked Echo Park Lake; Tom Mix helped form the first Los Angeles movie studio there. Nearby is Dodger Stadium which was built upon an old Mexican neighborhood called Chavez Ravine that was demolished by the city in order to lure the Dodgers from Brooklyn. Today, Latinos (largely Mexican), Vietnamese, and an influx of young urban gentrifiers live together in an area that is a mix of different cultures and identities, something that for me, feels unique in a city like Los Angeles where so many neighborhoods have stricter ethnic boundaries. I can’t predict what’s next for Echo Park or Los Angeles but I do know that transition comes in waves. Whatever that next wave is, Echo Park will maintain that aura of imperviousness to time that makes it so special for me.
8. There are several single mothers in the book—Felicia, Christina, and Angie—as well as many strong female characters. Are they reflections of women in your own life? What was it like to write from the female point of view?
Writing this book would have been lopsided and incomplete without the womens’ stories of Echo Park. Along with a rotating cast of stepfathers, I was raised by my mother and grandmother, two strong, opinionated women. Growing up in that environment made me more attuned and probably more sympathetic to a woman’s outlook on life and the various trials they face in a day. Whenever I write, the female characters often have a stronger and more assertive sense of who they are and where they want to go, two things that as a writer you always want your characters to have, and as a result I tend to enjoy writing from a woman’s perspective more. I didn’t plan for Madonnas’ two central characters (Aurora and Felicia) to be women but looking at the finished result, I don’t see any other way the book could have been structured.
9. How long did Madonnas take to write? What was the hardest part? The easiest, or your favorite?
Writing the book took about nine months. Thinking beforehand about writing the book, and revising what I’d written after, took another three years. What I write evolves every day because the way I look at my work is different today from the way I looked at it yesterday. It’s having different perspectives on a piece of writing that allows the most beneficial work – revision – to take place. Revision is both the hardest and my most favorite part of the process, depending on the results I have to read at the end of the day.
10. In the Author’s Note, you state that in the early 1980s, you didn’t know you were Mexican. This is actually true. How did writing the fictional Author’s Note compare to writing your next book, which is a memoir about growing up with five stepfathers and being raised as a Native American? Do you identify yourself as Mexican now? How has your awareness of your heritage shifted over the years?
In memoir, the risk for a writer comes in daring not to lapse into lying or exaggeration to tell a more exciting story. The temptation is great when your facts may not adhere to a neat, fictional symmetry and memories can be as fleeting as vapor. The goal in my writing a memoir is not to exaggerate or sensationalize my experiences but to uncover as many truths as I can about my upbringing. What actions led to my having five stepfathers? Was it my mother’s intent to have such a disordered personal life? You must understand that for a number of years, many of my mother’s closest friends (and ex-boyfriends) had no idea she was Mexican and believed her when she said she was Native American. Also, can a reader who may have had their own dysfunctional home life find some solace or encouragement in reading about my own experiences? I want to write an engaging and entertaining book but not at the expense of discovering my own truths. To do otherwise would put me in the position of selling out my own creation and I have no interest in doing that.
When I was three years old, my Mexican father abandoned me. My mother decided to raise me as the biological son of another boyfriend/husband, an Indian in prison named Paul Skyhorse. As for “Brando,” my mother liked to joke that she was so enamored with the movie The Godfather she decided to name her unborn child Brando or Pacino. Pacino Skyhorse? I think she made the right call.
For many years, I didn't know the truth about my past. I was raised as an Indian and was introduced to Indians who were part of the American Indian Movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s. My mother told people she was Indian even though she was Mexican. Then when I did know the truth, I lied about it because my mother felt it wasn’t anyone’s business. After she died, I kept up the lie because it was easier than a long winded explanation of what the truth was. Now I embrace both Mexican and Indian identities as if I were an immigrant, someone who moves between the worlds of Indian & Mexican culture, but into the “American” world, too.