I was three years old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother’s house atop a crooked hill on Portia Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Teresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full-blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery who my mother met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full-blooded “squaw” who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones.
My mother was mesmerizing and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good, or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands, our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school vice principal, even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name: “Brando Skyhorse? That’s beautiful.”
My biological father, Candido Ulloa (oooh-YO-ahh), was replaced by a chain of boyfriends and five fathers—one new dad about every three years. Along with Paul, whom I first met while he was in prison, there was Robert, a restless, habitual Aleutian Indian thief; Pat, a restaurant chef with a penchant for disappearing; Rudy, a man who answered a singles ad from a homeless shelter; and Frank, a Mexican-American office “straight” (what Maria called men who worked actual jobs) who wanted a son but could not marry my mother. The only way to keep them straight was to imagine what actors would play them in a movie made from my life:
Paul Skyhorse Johnson: Will Sampson, the American Indian “Chief” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Robert: Esai Morales. A “hot” Esai Morales. La Bamba Esai Morales.
Pat: Roseanne-era John Goodman.
Rudy: Present day Robin Williams. Plus thirty pounds.
Frank: I’ve known him the longest so I can’t imagine him in caricature. If he were asked, he’d say Chris Noth from Law & Order or Michael Nouri from the movie Flashdance. In that order.
These men were never simply my mother’s “boyfriends” or “partners.” They weren’t “surrogate dads” or “stepfathers.” I couldn’t call them by their first names, nor was I allowed to speak about any past father in the presence of a new one. My mother made it clear that these men, trying to be men, were my fathers, absorbed instantly into our tiny clan of mother, grandmother, and me, so we could be, or pose as, a family. Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.
Then they left.
“Some boys don’t have any father in their life,” my mother would say, bucking me up. “You’ve had five. Plenty for one boy.”
I was father rich but family poor. Our house shook as if it were filled with people—brothers, sisters, a chorus of screaming children—but really belonged to just two angry women who were five foot and change tall. We shopped at the Smart & Final warehouse for commissary-sized Shake ’N Bake and restaurant-style cartons of frozen burgers, purchasing family-size packs in gross for a family that could fit in a hatchback.
We were a triangle trying to fill a circle.
When I grew out of that circle, I tried searching for the true ends of my mother’s stories; ends I thought explained who my father was. Who I was. Each father took a piece of me when he left, leaving a hole that got bigger as I got older. I wanted those pieces back. I wanted that hole filled.
My mother would say, “I can’t tell you what really happened,” as if she were protecting someone else’s truth and not her own exaggerated version of it. Her stories had ominous detours and switchbacks, contradicting prior layers of her own facts. When cornered, my mother hissed, sizzled, and exploded like fireworks, and then offered, by way of explanation or apology, five words I’d come to know by heart.
I found out I was Mexican when I was around twelve or thirteen. My mother forbade me from telling anyone our story. I kept our secret long after I needed to because my mother’s lie had become my whole truth.
It would be thirty-three years from the time he left before I tried to find my biological father, Candido Ulloa, in earnest. By then I’d had so many fathers that even the idea of a father—the very word father—seemed absurd, like a joke whose punch line had to be explained to me. I’d grown proud of my wounded independence—I stand here as my own man—because I’d built it myself from the wreckage each father left behind, shred by abandoned shred. I didn’t believe that understanding my biological father’s abandonment and vanishing could offer me anything except explanations I claimed I no longer needed or a reconciliation I bragged I wasn’t interested in. Daddies were for children, not grown men. All I had of Candido were some pictures and the Mexican surname he’d left behind. (My mother had much less from her own Mexican biological father; she was raised by her Filipino stepfather, Emilio.) Years of speculation and misdirection led me to imagine every sort of fantastical reason for Candido’s disappearance: amnesia, murder, abduction back to Mexico. I knew he’d stay lost if I didn’t search for him, and I suspected already how little of my father there’d be left for me if I did find him. I’d been prepped by books and movies for how long and impossible a search for an estranged father was.
It took Google about ten minutes to find my father. There he was one winter night in 2010 on WhitePages.com. His home was a half-hour drive from the neighborhood where I was born and raised.
I’d found him. What now?
I’m a writer. I write to understand what I don’t know. So I wrote my father a letter. And I started to write this book.
My letter was unremarkable and efficient, accompanied with a Spanish translation, and signed with my current legally changed name. (The name my father gave me was in a parenthetical.) Attached were five scanned photographs from my childhood that had miraculously survived my mother’s habitual purging of the past; the idea of that, I think, was to make it easier for her to carry only the truths she wanted into the future. I also included a recent photograph of me as an adult. I imagined this picture might have resembled the kind of man my father was at my age, though I had no photos of him after 1976. He had been twenty-six years old when he left our family for good. I was thirty-six when I sent him my letter.
I chose these pictures to rend heartstrings and appeal to a conscience that my mother, and thirty-three years of silence, had led me to expect didn’t exist. There’d been no letters, birthday phone calls, Christmas cards, or a penny in child support. How could my father be anything but a coward and a monster? Yet there he is in a photograph spoon-feeding me in an outdoor café on Olvera Street, cradling my infant head. Or carting me like a chubby pillow to a sleepover while my mother, in a goofy wool cap, vine-clings to his arm with a flirtatious daddy’s girl smile. Another photo is from my third birthday party, and it’s the last picture my father and I took together. My cake has Indians and a teepee on it, which I’m sure my mother picked out. The camera cuts off most of my father. He leans in from the side, holding me at arm’s length so I won’t follow him out of the frame. Later my mother would caption this picture on its back, “Brando Skyhorse Johnson and Uncle Candy.”
I’d spent my whole life trying to follow Candido out of that photograph, through lies, misdirections, and detours in other men. I was searching for a father and for who I was. When you’re a child, you think your family works in a straight line. Then you get older and find out where the curves are. What I found was a lesson about how a broken home can make a whole family but not until I was willing to listen to the whole story. Patience helps you put the pieces together. Sifting through my mother’s lies, I discovered she’d told me one real thing over and over again—five true words—if only I’d paid attention:
“At least it’s never boring.”
My grandmother’s breath. Racing across my baby shoulders like western clouds. I’m propped against the sofa between my grandmother’s thick varicose calves dressed just in toddler shorts, like an oversized stuffed bear. A phalanx of whirring plastic fans don’t cool the soupy air as much as shuffle it in a circle around us.
“Shhh,” Grandma says, and blows on my hot neck, rustling the pouty tips of my shoulder-length hair off my back. Some days my grandmother’s breath blots out the violent heat. Some days it blows the storms ashore.
My mother’s voice forms over our mountain range of a couch. It could shower a loving rain, tickle me with a sing-along for the summer ants crawling up my legs, or change the air above into a “run home to Mama” sky like a russet storm.
“Where’s my Pappas?” Mom asks, shoveling me into her arms and blowing a raspberry on my tummy. Pappas means “potatoes” in Spanish.
“Shhh, be quiet,” my grandmother says. “And hold him like a mother.”
My grandmother’s breath. My mother’s voice. My whole world. My every happiness.
• • •
I was born and raised in Echo Park, California, with my mother, grandmother June, and my Filipino step-grandfather Emilio. I can see my old neighborhood like an iris-in movie shot, a pinprick of Southern California light so bright it’d crease your corneas, opening up into a fragile tapestry of shaggy green lawns and sunbaked terra-cotta roof tiles. White flight transformed Echo Park by the 1970s into a Latino oasis with sizable Vietnamese and Filipino enclaves, but its history was awash in silver nitrate. Mack Sennett built Keystone Pictures Studios here in 1912, and many of its early Keystone Cops comedy shorts were shot in Echo Park’s loping emerald green hills and valleys. Its silent era stars migrated west (wealth always moves west in California, to the ocean), but the land stayed behind, its colors bleeding into a grainy seventies movie patina of tall, open fields of weeds bleached to a white wine finish and palm trees, their fronds beckoning with a campfire sizzle in the strong Santa Ana winds. In a documentary about the legendary Sunset Boulevard, the beginnings of which run through the neighborhood, Echo Park was pronounced “the most beautiful ghetto in America.”
We lived midway up Portia Street, mispronounced to rhyme with tortilla by neighbors and impatient bus drivers. Like its Shakespearian counterpart, our Portia offered a choice of three distinct directions, connecting at one end with Sunset Boulevard, which snaked into Hollywood and Beverly Hills and ended at the coast in Pacific Palisades, a town as wealthy as it sounds; Scott Avenue at the other end, a short cut-slash-escape route from Dodger Stadium to the freeways that led to the season ticket holders’ suburban homes in the San Fernando Valley; and Galveston, a slug of a street that jutted up at a 30-degree angle toward the hills and oozed its way through gang territory, where each street seemed to be its own treacherous canyon. Two or three times a week, shots rang out and police helicopters rumbled overhead, slicing the night open with powerful search beams, scouring the area my grandmother called “the Steps,” an outdoor staircase by Laveta Terrace that, when the cops came, cholos used as a getaway slide down to Sunset.
I’d be tempted to call this God’s country except that my grandmother didn’t rent out to God. We lived in her house. It squatted atop a steep, exhausting hill accessible by a crooked winding staircase: slabs of uneven concrete blocks spiraling down to the street like a row of dominoes. Emilio bought June the single-family house in 1952 for twelve thousand dollars. Built in 1921, it was a one-story, 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath Mediterranean-style home. When my grandparents moved in, a neighbor asked June to sign a petition to remove a black mailman from their route. My grandmother, a lightish mix of Mexican, Spanish, and Swiss, refused. In retaliation, the neighbor set a crank-style Victrola record player in a side window abutting our shared fence and put on at a high volume, “The Band Played On,” a waltz she played again and again, on, and on, and on.
“If I hear about that ‘strawberry blonde’ bitch once more,” my grandmother said, “I’m gonna smash that record to pieces. I don’t want her ‘white’ music in my house.”
Out front a virile jacaranda tree made a lifelong enemy of my grandmother, shedding pulpy blossoms that stained the staircase black. Armed with a push broom, a transistor radio, and a Dodgers cap, she’d sweep through thick lavender rainstorms twice a week. There was also a lemon tree in back, honey-colored kitchen cabinets, and exterior stucco walls painted cornbread yellow.
“All this damn yellow,” my grandmother said. “Looks like cowards live here.”
• • •
My grandmother was “the man of the house.” She was overseer of chores, washer and clothesline hanger of garments, food shopper (with a personal two-wheeled basket trolley she pulled up the stairs), head chef and dishwasher, payer of utilities, trimmer of hedges, sweeper of our front staircase, and controller of the single television in the living room complete with a cable hookup and an oversized recliner that Emilio had originally bought for him and June to share. Well into his midsixties, Emilio dressed for work in a suit jacket, tie, and fedora. He rode the bus almost an hour to and from his job as a line cook in a Glendale delicatessen and came home exhausted. After feeding our dogs fermented chicken and liver dinner leftovers from a greasy paper bag, he wanted nothing more than to watch television in a comfortable chair. Instead, Emilio floated like a ghost across my grandmother’s line of television sight without a kiss or a greeting to his own separate bedroom. (My mother, grandmother, and grandfather each took the three small bedrooms in our house; I shared my grandmother’s bed until I was sixteen because my mother wanted to save her bed for husbands.) No matter how late he came home or tired he was, out of respect, Emilio never sat in that recliner. That was his wife’s chair.
June’s beat started with a predawn coffee. On Sundays before church at La Placita on Olvera Street, she’d splash in some Kahlúa. “I know God is bullshit, but it makes me feel better for an hour,” she’d say, sipping from an oversized mug.
A pink, smog-tinged sunrise melted atop an endless field of marzipan streetlight while she readied me like a mother for school. My mother, Maria, was elsewhere, getting herself ready for work. She hated mothering me.
“Don’t run too fast on the playground,” Grandma said while tying my shoes, “because you still can’t tie your laces. Make sure you have your lunch tickets with the right date on them,” she said, and patted down my pockets, “or else you won’t eat.” I “blech”-ed out my tongue, imagining my government-sponsored school lunch choices: sloppy joe paste on spongy hamburger buns, shellacked pizza toast, and fruit that tasted like old toothpaste.
“Don’t be spoiled,” my grandmother said. “And don’t untuck your shirt like a cholo,” she said, slipping a Le Tigre shirt over me. “Make friends with them. They know how to fight. Now take my hand,” she said, “and walk on the outside, near the street. So men won’t think I’m a whore.”
I pulled my hand away from hers in fourth grade and then at her escort to the bus stop in seventh grade; after that, she settled on her crow’s nest of a front porch. The vantage point was wide enough that she could watch me walk down the entire length of Portia Street to the corner, where I’d wave good-bye from the front of Little Joy Jr.
“It’s a gay bar,” my grandmother said. “Go inside if any pervert follows you. It’s the safest place in the neighborhood.”
When I was off to school, it was time to start her day.
If every ghetto has a hierarchy, my grandmother June was the unofficial mayor of Echo Park. She collected our neighborhood stories and bartered them with everyone, whatever their language. She could float with uncommon ease among Echo Park’s different worlds and ethnicities, telling dirty jokes to the blood-cloaked Mexican butchers at Roy’s Market who’d pull me chicharrones (fried pork rinds) from heaven; the beautiful azure-smocked Latina cashiers at Pioneer Market (my first crush was a black-haired Pioneer cashier named Felicia); the Korean-run video stores in the 1980s that smelled of boiled cabbage whose owners called her Grandma; the Italians at Capra’s Deli who made the mistake of putting an underwhelming Snoopy fondant on my birthday cake: “I don’t know what the hell that thing on my grandson’s cake is, but that ain’t Snoopy!”; and the Jewish owners of Gerry’s Department Store, one of several local businesses that extended our family in-store credit for years of loyal patronage despite, sometimes, periods of absence punctuated by a grotesque fight, like the one with the store’s matriarch, Shauna, over ten dollars.
“Now I knew why Hitler shoved all the Jews into ovens,” my grandmother said, clutching my hand tight, “and it’s a shame he missed you, too!”
“Grandma!” I said outside the store. “I don’t think you should have said that.”
“Oh, I was just making her day interesting,” my grandmother said. “Stop taking everything I say so goddamn seriously.” No apologies later, in a month or two we were back there shopping like nothing had happened.
When the “politicians downtown” refused to put up a stoplight on Sunset after a child died crossing the boulevard, June rounded up my mother and a friend in a three-woman protest and began randomly stepping out into traffic disruptively until a light was installed.
This was how the mayor did business.
• • •
My grandmother loved the movies. She’d switch on cable in the morning like she was checking with a good friend on the day’s gossip. If nothing good was playing, she’d take the bus downtown to dilapidated one-dollar-a-ticket movie palaces that’d become makeshift homeless hotels, staving off bums with her house keys in the bathrooms. Her favorite memories were of watching movies in those same theaters with her mother, Lucille. She died in 1941, but my grandmother spoke of her daily, as if she’d just gotten off the phone with her. Lucille often needed “time away” from being a mother, and she’d send June, whom she nicknamed Eek for her inability to speak in a clear voice, to a series of convents and reform schools, including the Ventura School for Girls. They’d celebrate June’s releases by going to the movies. When she was eleven, Lucille took June to the premiere of City Lights, standing outside the Los Angeles theater downtown as part of a teeming mass of twenty-five thousand fans lining Broadway, tiptoeing and flamingo-necking for a glimpse of Charlie Chaplin. When the churning crowd almost crushed June, her mother beat her with a belt for being clumsy. Once, June was released to the custody of a family friend who accompanied her to Long Beach, where her mother was living. She arrived on the day of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake that killed over one hundred people. Lucille said, “You brought the damn earthquake with you, Eek!”
Gone With the Wind was the last film she and her mother saw together. When Clark Gable said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” there was a collective audience gasp.
Lucille stood up and shouted, “You tell her, Rhett!”
My grandmother valued the dead. On her always-on TV, June catalogued the opening credits of black-and-whites with a Hollywood Babylon encyclopedic knowledge of every deceased actor’s sordid backstory: “Gable, he’s dead. Womanizer. Monroe, she OD’d; beautiful but no talent. Montgomery Clift, he died a drunk. My God, they’re all dead! Clift was such a gorgeous man but liked to swing both ways.” (Confused look from a six-year-old me.) “You know, he liked women and men!”
Like many of the women in my family, my grandmother rooted for the bad girls in movies. Every month, cable played the same twelve movies multiple times a week; an endless loop of my grandmother’s favorite roles. Shirley MacLaine tearing up her “ungrateful” daughter Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, my grandmother shouting in unison with Joan from her oversized recliner, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” Susan Hayward played Barbara Graham in one of my grandmother’s favorites, the “based on a true story” potboiler I Want to Live! My grandmother told me again and again that Graham lived behind our property for a few months before she was arrested in 1953 for pistol whipping an elderly woman to death in a botched robbery and sent to die in San Quentin State Prison’s gas chamber.
“What a woman!” my grandmother said.
I’d walk up to the thicket of trees and bushes that separated our backyard from Graham’s former house to see what ghosts this pretty murderess had left behind. What I found were swarms of cats the house’s current owner hosted, fed, and watered. When he died, the cats mewed for days as they succumbed to malnutrition. By the time the stragglers crawled through the chain-link fence to our yard looking for food and water, most of the cats had died. Solemn, I rattled kibble in pie tins for the survivors but my grandmother said it was hopeless.
“It’s the Graham curse,” she said. (John Waters would have loved my grandmother.)
Floating above them all in my grandmother’s canon was Saint Bette Davis. When Davis’s daughter wrote My Mother’s Keeper in 1985, a Mommie Dearest–style memoir, my grandmother was as indignant as if the book had been written about her.
“What a disgraceful, ungrateful child, telling all her family’s secrets for money,” she said (writing this sentence, I nod uncomfortably) and was moved enough to write Davis a fan letter pledging her support through this difficult time.
You could also find my grandmother burrowing into a stack of murder mysteries from her Book-of-the-Month Club along with True Crime or Official Detective magazines she purchased at the local news stand. The magazines, printed on a ground stock paper with a buxom woman falling out of her tube top on the cover, were anthologies of murders or burglaries committed across the country, most of which involved rapes or bludgeonings from jealous lovers. When the Night Stalker serial killer crimes gripped Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, my grandmother ordered a small pistol that shot mini tear gas cartridges from one of the companies that advertised in the magazine. She kept it under her pillow next to a crucifix.
Years later, when it came time to sort through my grandmother’s possessions, in her “valuables” drawer was the gun (never fired), a tub of talcum dusting powder calcified into a brittle chalk, and a crisp thank-you note with the letters BD in a royal blue art deco font, a handwritten expression of gratitude from Bette Davis for my grandmother’s fan letter. To me now, these things are my grandmother.
• • •
If my Grandma June was a factory steam whistle calling me to work and my grandfather Emilio a whisper to be ignored, my mother was a siren whose songs were her stories.
“You almost weren’t born,” my mother says. I’m watching her, wide-eyed, expectant, an eight-year-old perched on her bed mouthing words I know by heart.
“You were on a date?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says.
“And then you got in a fight with the guy who brought you to a park in his car?”
“It was a lovers’ lane,” she says.
“It’s where men take women to talk them into something. I didn’t want to talk that night.”
“And then you left the car and another guy showed up?”
“He was very handsome,” my mother says. “He pulled alongside me and asked if I was okay. ‘Let me drive you home,’ he said. He seemed like a gentleman.”
“You got in?” I ask.
“He was a real fox,” my mother says. “Really hot for a white guy.”
“Then what happened?”
“He drove further into the woods. Deeper and deeper, like he was looking for something. All he told me was his name. ‘I’m Ted,’ he said.”
“And then?” I ask.
“Ted found some kind of clearing, stopped the car, turned off the headlights, got out, and opened the trunk. I looked behind me and saw he was holding something. Silver, like a pipe. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Then what happened?”
“These bikers—Hells Angels—roared up and shouted, ‘What’s going on?’ He ran off into the woods, and one of the bikers gave me a ride back home. They saved my life.”
“And then?” I ask, edging up on my mother’s bed like a puppy. She smiles, cocking her eyebrows as if she’d forgotten we were talking at all.
“And then?” I ask, about to explode.
“Then I saw his face on TV. His name was Ted Bundy.”
“Wow!” I’d say. “Ted Bundy!”
“They won’t execute him until he loses his looks,” she says. “Bundy’s adaptable; he’s a Sagittarius. Not a strong Aries, like me. Or Hitler. But if Ted Bundy had killed me that night,” my mother says, “I’d have never been able to meet your father and have you.”
What a story! Delusion requires charity, which I, like many people who loved her, was more than happy to offer. There was something about my mother that made you not only want to follow her off a cliff but also to cushion her blow when you both hit the ground. She didn’t perform chores or cook any meals; when my mother made dinner—and I loved her dishes—it was a tub of cottage cheese sprinkled with Lawry’s seasoned salt, or a pound of ground beef mashed into tiny pebbles and either fried to crispy burnt scabs or snacked on raw. My mother nourished me with words.
She started me off young, teaching me to read at two, when, she said, I plopped a book in her lap.
“Teach me,” I said. (The book, in her later retellings, morphed into a dictionary.) My mother enrolled me briefly at a Montessori preschool. I spoke out of turn and was punished with an hour of sitting on a green felt mat in the center of the classroom.
“If that’s how you punish talking, my son’s already smarter than you,” she told my teacher. I didn’t finish out the week. Later there was a Christian school with a no-hair-below-the-collar policy. My “Indian” hair was to my shoulders.
“Jesus had long hair,” I said, and was gone the same day.
My mother bought me phonics workbooks by the stack and checked my answers each night after work. If I did well, as a reward she’d let me brush her long, cherished hair, guiding my hands with a heavy brush across her scalp and down to her waist in a slow, languorous rhythm that was like sipping hot tea.
I graduated to learning, and participating in, my mother’s narratives. I couldn’t hear the lies in her stories. Their frequency was too low for my young ears. Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way every time she spoke them. Every one of her stories had at their core one seedling of truth that allowed her, like a jazz musician, to improvise its telling depending on her audience. I loved being her “rhythm section”—sharing our secret language of winks, nods, smiles, and interjections that corroborated her stories as they evolved on the spot in their multiple retellings. In some versions, her embellishments ran over her cup’s edges like hot foam; in others, she’d carve out the bottoms of her multiple truths to fit whatever awkward conversational moment she’d stumbled into, like when she met someone eager to hear more about her Indian knowledge and ways. Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe. My mother didn’t enjoy movies like my grandmother; those were other people’s stories. She wanted to be the story and live her life through these stories. In her stories, though, death, like angry smoke, always found a way in.
“I won’t see you grow old,” my mother said. “I’m going to die young.”
“No!” I said. “You can’t die!” Every day, she told me I was wrong.
“I won’t live past forty,” she said.
Forty came and went. Then: “I won’t see you graduate from high school.” That passed, too. Finally, bored with years of death scares, I said, “You’re not going to die, Mom.”
“You’re wrong, Brando,” she said. “When I was little, I lied to Death. Death doesn’t forget.”
When my mother was four, my grandmother moved to Lompoc, California, for a brief time to get away from Los Angeles and Emilio. June and Emilio had dated off and on for several years before June had my mother. “Learn how to take money from men you don’t want to marry,” June’s mother, Lucille, told her. “He’s a chango, a monkey man with a tail between his legs, like all Filipinos.” June took Emilio’s gifts and rejected his marriage proposals. Then June met my biological grandfather, Tomás, at a bar in the Grand Central Market downtown. He taught her how to drink beer the right way, cerveza mexicana, he said, with a lemon wedge she sucked on and a dash of salt she licked off the rim of his glass. She shared many cervezas mexicanas with Tomás until he learned she was pregnant.
“I can’t be tied down to a woman,” Tomás said, and left. My grandmother wasn’t surprised. Her own biological father, Steven Scolari, had long since vanished, sending her every couple years from Europe treasured penny postcards with sailboats on them. The women that raised me were themselves raised by stepfathers. They believed men left simply because that’s what men did. To expect more from a man meant you’d better find yourself a woman.
While in Lompoc, little Maria stepped on a splinter that infected her foot and led to blood poisoning that almost ended her life. Death appeared at the foot of her bed and beckoned her to a tree outside her window. She agreed to go but changed her mind and hid under the covers. My mother didn’t follow Death that long night and survived. The scare brought June and Maria back to Los Angeles. Only then did June agree to be Emilio’s wife, bearing him his own son, Oscar, who moved away as a young man and was never close to his mother or half sister.
A pudgy, well-behaved child with pigtails, Maria won good citizenship awards in school seven years running. She was a good girl at home, too, and couldn’t understand why her mother would sometimes, while combing Maria’s long, tangled hair, lose her patience and strike her back with a wooden brush. Maria turned to her collection of ceramic statues of Catholic saints for answers, but they kept quiet. When June threatened to kick my teenage mother out of the house, Maria smashed her saints to pieces and tossed them into a garbage bag. It would not be the last time my mother cleaned up her past this way and erased any trace of something to which she’d been so devoted.
Maria stopped being a good girl at Belmont High School. She had either on a dare or through intimidation joined a street gang and became a chola.
“They’re a teenybopper gang,” June scoffed. “They don’t even use knives!”
The experience was scary enough, though, to get June and Emilio to transfer my mother to Hollywood Professional, an all-grades private school on Hollywood Boulevard that, in 1963, cost three hundred dollars a semester. A half-hour bus ride from Echo Park, the school was for kids who needed classes arranged around a budding musician’s or actor’s schedule. At Hollywood Professional, Maria was free to wear her long, dyed, blood red hair beehive high. She showed off her dark skin in tight black dresses and spoke what little Spanish June had taught her to attract the white boys. She wanted to be new, dangerous, and sexy, everything she had never been and could never be in Echo Park. Here my mother would come to understand the power of being exotic; the power of being “the other.”
She refused a small role in Spartacus offered by a casting agent who hung out at the school. She met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, high on coke and drunk all the time, doing his best to transform his drug-addled palsy into charm as he played with her hair during study period, called her “Baby,” and said he’d ask his brother Brian to write a song for her. She hung out with James Mason’s daughter, Portland, and earned a bevy of female admirers and friends by throwing a young, bratty Charlene Tilton (future jezebel of TV’s prime-time soap opera Dallas) down a flight of stairs. She was voted Duchess of the Harvest Ball, 1963, and made rich friends who encouraged her to live with the kind of reckless, self-destructive abandon only money and privilege can afford. Her best friend was a spoiled Bel Air Jewish princess named Betty. They drank, drugged, and partied together until the early nineteen seventies, when Betty married an Asian man, moved to Florida, had a child, and in a fit of depression and rage bashed her baby girl’s head in with a hammer and was sent to death row.
After Hollywood Professional, my mother had fallen in love with a sandy-haired blond named Mike and gave birth to two children before me, both of whom had befallen their own separate inconceivable tragedies. A son named Shane, who in his black-and-white photograph looked like a porcelain doll with onyx marbles for eyes, had a congenital heart defect. A hole in his heart, which my mother instinctively knew was there but that an unsympathetic hospital staff ignored, claimed his life at three. My mother’s snow-white, blue-eyed, blonde daughter, Janaine Deborah Patterson, had been kidnapped, also at three, by a jealous babysitter and disappeared. The police scoffed at my mother’s claims to the Caucasian baby, letting crucial time lapse after Janaine’s abduction. In a grainy color photograph taken in our house’s backyard in the 1970s, my mother holds Janaine, dressed in a pink jumper, high in her arms—the one piece of evidence that my mother had given birth to a beautiful girl that nobody believed was hers.
What else didn’t people believe? I mean, how much of this was true?
Spartacus had been in theaters for three years when my mother transferred to Hollywood Professional. Dennis Wilson never went there, though his younger, shyer brother, Carl Wilson did, to escape ravenous fans at Hawthorne High. Portland Mason and Charlene Tilton, who went to Hollywood High School several years later, aren’t noted among Hollywood Professional’s illustrious alumni. There were no women on Florida’s death row at the time my mother claimed that Betty was there.
Shane and Janaine both exist in photographs, Shane’s in my memory, Janaine’s in my possession. While I maybe saw a trace of my mother in Shane’s face, I realize now there’s no possible way a woman with my mother’s features and skin color gave birth to a blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned girl. Years later, I noticed a tiny time stamp on the trim of Janaine’s photo that says August 1977, which meant that Janaine would have been my younger, and not older, fake sister. Yet for years these children were resurrected whenever I misbehaved, a make-believe sister and brother to go with my make-believe father and ethnicity, who met horrible make-believe ends. My mother had so much pain to share that she had to invent people to hurt.
Yet in every lie she told, she always made sure to give something back to you. It could be a Weight Watchers meeting where she claimed a ribbon for losing fifty pounds after submitting a falsified weight loss card. Then she’d hit another meeting at another Weight Watchers branch later in the week, claiming the same weight loss ribbon twice.
“She lost all that weight in six weeks?” someone whispered. “She looks great!”
“If I can do it,” she told a rapt group of hopeful women, “you can do it too.”
It could be the Overeaters Anonymous group where she ran into John DeLorean, the disgraced auto executive who had beaten government drug trafficking charges and was at OA because he’d “started eating lots of junk food during his trial” and needed to find “a self-empowering Christian way to lose weight.” He told his fellow OA’ers not to lose faith and gave my mother his business card.
“Come work for me,” he said. (My mother never found his card, no matter how often I asked.)
It could be leading a group of wide-eyed “Pilgrims”—my mother’s term for whites—around a jewelry store rubbing “southwestern” squash blossom necklaces and sterling silver bracelets between her fingers. Using a just-for-white-people “Indian” voice—a taffy pull on her slight Latina accent—she’d pronounce whether a piece of turquoise had been crafted by a real “on the rez Skin.”
Of course, my mother had no idea which pieces were authentic, but if her details didn’t line up—or connect at all—you still wanted to believe her. Why? You felt privileged that someone with such an extraordinary story would choose to confide in, of all people, you. You’d forget meeting a hundred people, but you’d remember meeting my mother. Her story became your story.
“I can’t wait to tell my friends I met an Indian!” one of my mother’s Pilgrims told her in a sincere embrace. She rattled with the jewelry my mother helped her buy. “Thank you.”
Hey, she’d say, at least it’s never boring.
• • •
Maria met Candido Ulloa when she was twenty-five at a Mexican LA nightclub in the summer of 1972. He drove a big American car with a velvet burgundy interior and wore checkerboard polyester shirts with flashy jewelry—all those tempting accessories that make you forget you’re poor. His mustache and wavy shoulder-length hair made him a ringer for the soon-to-be-famous Chico and the Man star Freddie Prinze. My mother’s blood red hair from high school was now an inky Morticia Addams black that didn’t drape so much as slide down her body, accentuating the svelte curves she would later spend years and thousands of dollars on worthless exercise videos and equipment trying to get back.
My mother did most of the talking with Candido. Though she had been born to Mexican parents, she spoke—and would learn—nothing beyond fast-food Spanish. It’s not my language, Maria told Candido. Her mother, June, was, in fact, a Plains Indian from Oklahoma, making Maria half Indian.
“And your father, Emilio,” Candido asked, “is Filipino?”
“He’s my papa,” she said. “But he’s not my real father.”
“What was he?” Candido asked.
“He doesn’t count,” my mother said, “like most men.”
Born in Yahualica, Mexico, to a family of five brothers and three sisters, Candido spoke just a handful of English words. He had left school in the fourth grade to work picking onions in Ensenada. When he came to Los Angeles, his first job was at a car wash working for a black man who called him amigo because he never learned his name. Then he went to work at a Love’s Bar-B-Que, where, as someone without a car, he was popular both with the waitresses eager to give him lifts home and the gay cruisers driving on the boulevard. He took English classes at night and, eventually, so he could have weekends free for partying and the clubs, left the restaurant to work at a furniture factory.
When Maria got pregnant a few months later with what she told Candido was her first child, he became her husband and a temporary legal resident. They posed for a grim picture outside the city courthouse, a fresh marriage license in my father’s hand. He wrote to June, “We dedicate this photo to you with all affection from your daughter and son so that you can keep it as a souvenir.” Young, pretty, and stone faced, they both embrace like two precarious towers forced together by a high wind.
Watching American Indian Sacheen Littlefeather (who, like my mother, was born with a stereotypical Mexican name, Marie Cruz) refuse Marlon Brando’s Oscar to protest Hollywood’s depiction of American Indians convinced Maria that, if their baby was a boy, Brando would be a great name to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage.
“If you don’t like that,” my mother said, “how about Pacino?”
(Pacino Ulloa? Pacino Skyhorse? As it was, my first name was misspelled Brandon on my birth certificate, and, in a weird precursor to a life filled with shifting identities, a change-of-name form was filed when I was three months old.)
Their marriage was a Napoleon complex, short and furious. Candido worked six days a week and took English classes at night. That was his life. Maria was angry that her life as Candido’s wife was so fucking boring and always ended a fight by kicking him out of June’s house, where they lived.
“I don’t want a deadbeat around my son!” she screamed when Candido came home late from work.
“Why haven’t you learned English already?” she said when Candido came home late from school.
He didn’t know the English or Spanish words to calm down Maria. One time they took the bus to Disneyland, parking their car in a lot downtown. They had a wonderful time, but when they returned, the car battery was dead. Maria cursed out Candido, took the bus home, and told my grandmother to change the locks.
He was kicked out, moved back in, kicked out again—over and over during the next three years. Once, when they were separated, she told Candido she’d been raped by a black man.
“Did you go to the police?” he asked.
“Why would I go to the pigs?” she shouted “Don’t you fucking care about what happens to me? What kind of husband are you? I’m seeing a real man now.”
“Who is he?”
“His name is Paul Skyhorse,” she said. “He’s an Indian. He’s in jail,” she said proudly.
“How do you see a man that is in jail?”
“Have you always been this dumb?” my mother asked.
• • •
I don’t remember the day my father left. I was three years old. What I’d be told, long after I found out that Candido was my father, came in slivers, the last of which I’d collect when I was in my midthirties.
It was pouring rain. My mother and Candido went shopping for toddler furniture. When Candido opened the trunk to put the furniture inside, it filled with water. Their boxes soaked in puddles. Maria was angry that their shopping was ruined and wouldn’t calm down at home.
“I want you out of this house!” she screamed.
This time Candido said, “If you want me out, I will go, but I will not come back. Is that what you want?”
“Yes! You’re a good-for-nothing wetback! I want you out for good!”
He packed quickly while Maria complained to my grandmother, “What kind of man leaves his wife and son?” My mother went to the kitchen and found a knife. Then she blocked the front door.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” my mother said. “If you leave, I’ll call la migra on you!” Then she came at Candido with the knife.
My grandmother stood in front of him and faced my mother. “If you want to hurt this good man who goes to work every day and tries to make you happy, you’ll have to get through me. You’ll have to kill me first.”
“You’ve always been on his side!” my mother screamed. She put the knife on a table and then grabbed me. She picked me up and shook me, hard.
“Don’t do that to Brando!” Candido said “You’re going to hurt him!”
My mother said, “I’ll kill Brando if I want to! He’s my child!” Then she threw me onto the couch and reached for the knife again.
“Go! Go!” my grandmother told Candido.
My father ran out of the house to a friend’s apartment, stayed there for a few months, and then found a place of his own in East Los Angeles. That’s where he’d forget who he and his family were and start his life again.
• • •
A parent who disappears, if he’s spoken of at all, is at the mercy of the one who stays behind and of a child’s wishy-washy memory. Birthday parties, trips to the park, walks to the grocery store, hugs, kisses—nothing with Candido in it stuck.
My father’s forgetting was more specific, more deliberate. Candido hadn’t been married to my mother long enough to earn a green card. He was terrified of the power she had to potentially destroy his life. His fear was so great it made a Mexican illegal risk deportation and convinced a proud man to abandon his only son.
My mother wanted to forget Candido. There was a massive photo purge, but she kept a handful of documents and pictures she could have easily thrown away. She doctored the backs of these surviving pictures poorly with false captions, such as “My friend Candy” or “Uncle Candy,” and then waited for the day when her lies wouldn’t satisfy my questions anymore. I was twelve or thirteen when she told me at last who he was—who I was—and concocted fantastical stories of his disappearance and whereabouts aimed at definitively killing him off. He’d returned to Mexico, joined the Mexican Mafia, or had permanent amnesia triggered by a brick my mother landed on his head during his “getaway.”
My imagination tried making him a flesh-and-blood person with a feel, a scent, a voice, a laugh. (In my imagination, my father’s laugh is generous and honeyed.) That man never rose from my animating table. Candido dissolved into blank, empty space, like a desert sky drained of its intense blues and pinks, or an ocean horizon stripped of water. My father was like God: an unseen life-giving entity whose existence I had to accept on faith.
My mother wasn’t interested in believing in things you couldn’t see, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t eager to see if others would believe in what they couldn’t see. A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles. For every starlet who changes her name or her breast size, there are a hundred undocumented workers who assimilate their way into the city, unnoticed, to construct their own versions of the American Dream. In my mother’s dream, she saw no reason that just because we were born Mexican we’d need to live as Mexicans.
I was three years old when my life as Brando Kelly Ulloa, the son of a “good-for-nothing wetback,” ended. My life as Brando Skyhorse, the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist, had just begun.
Take This Man
One of NBC News’s 10 Best Latino Books of 2014
From PEN/Hemingway award winner Brando Skyhorse comes this stunning, heartfelt memoir in the vein of The Glass Castle or The Tender Bar, the true story of a boy’s turbulent childhood growing up with five stepfathers and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth.
When he was three years old, Brando Kelly Ulloa was abandoned by his Mexican father. His mother, Maria, dreaming of a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live his life as a Mexican just because he started out as one. The life of “Brando Skyhorse,” the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist, was about to begin.
Through a series of letters to Paul Skyhorse Johnson, a stranger in prison for armed robbery, Maria reinvents herself and her young son as American Indians in the colorful Mexican-American neighborhood of Echo Park, California. There Brando and his mother live with his acerbic grandmother and a rotating cast of surrogate fathers. It will be over thirty years before Brando begins to untangle the truth of his own past, when a surprise discovery online leads him to his biological father at last.
From an acclaimed, prize-winning novelist celebrated for his “indelible storytelling” (O, The Oprah Magazine), this extraordinary literary memoir captures a son’s single-minded search for a father wherever he can find one, and is destined to become a classic.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9781439170878 |
- June 2014
Growing Up a Native American Imposter: A Boy's Search for Identity
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
In this riveting, heartfelt memoir, Brando Skyhorse shares the story of his turbulent childhood in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with a rotating cast of surrogate fathers and a Mexican mother who refashioned herself and her son as Native Americans. With poignant honesty, he recalls his struggle to reconcile his dual cultural identities, reconnecting with his biological father after more than three decades, and how he finally untangled the truth of his past.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Share your thoughts about Maria as a person and as a mother. Were you sympathetic toward her at all? Why or why not? What were her maternal strengths and weaknesses?
2. What motivated Maria to fabricate a Native American identity for herself and Brando? How did the phrase she repeated (“At least it’s never boring”) shed light on her extreme, often outrageous behavior? Why was Maria able to get away with the lies and stories she told?
3. Discuss the cultural identity issues see more
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