"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.
Echo Park is like a river that cannot be stepped in the same way twice. As with so many corners of Los Angeles, the Mexicans in this part of town watch with dismay and denial as their own few blocks are steadily encroached upon by gentrification, racism, and the inevitable passage of time. Yet even as the world keeps turning, many of the residents are frozen in place, tied together by the common misfortune of poverty and the uncommon moment when a little girl rocking out to Madonna is killed in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.
The facts may be invented, but the total portrait of a shifting city is alarmingly realistic. Giving voice to the varied vignettes are eight different narrators who are all possessed of the characters' similar sorrows, awes, and outrages. Their stories can stand alone, but are much more deeply poignant when taken together. We have Aurora, who the bullet barely missed, and her mother, a maid in a house that is already clean. We have the crazy Coat Queen, who think she's seen the Virgin Mary, and the mysterious Jesus, who thinks he is The Lord. We have the illegal day laborer, who is asked to cover up one murder, and the citizen bus driver, who is asked to reveal another murder.
Throughout this remarkably astute observation of urban decay, the cacophony of voices piles up into a clear and singular tone of struggle. They struggle for their very lives; they struggle to find forgiveness for crimes long since past; they struggle to find meaning in the ever-changing storefronts and ever-shifting boundaries of a city divided by race and wealth. Each narrator in turn steps up to deliver the sad reports, the astonishing connections, and the overdue diatribes. The end result is a debut novel that manages to uncover some glints of optimism in its unflinching portrayal of Mexican life in The City of Angels. Megan Volpert
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