Friday, October 21, 2016

Award-winning author Brando Skyhorse, stays true to his Echo Park roots

Brando Skyhorse, Madonnas of Echo Park

Brando Skyhorse grew up on Portia Street in Echo Park | Eric van den Brulle (c)

By Cecilia Padilla Brill

ECHO PARK — You can take Brando Skyhorse out of Echo Park but you can’t take Echo Park out of Brando Skyhorse.

The author of the 2010 fictional novel, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” sets his new book once again in the vibrant Eastside community. The  memoir, “Take This Man,”  is a story about his turbulent childhood growing up with five stepfathers and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth. “My memories of the neighborhood are inextricable from what I write,” Skyhorse said.

brandobookFond memories growing up in Echo Park serve as centerpiece of his stories. He fed the ducks, sat near the lotus beds and rode the paddle boats at Echo Park Lake. He enjoyed eating the carnitas platter from the now closed Barragan’s Restaurant and shared a patty melt with his grandmother at Patra’s, the burger stand that served her favorite dish. He and his grandmother shopped on Saturdays at local businesses, such as Crown Shoes and the old Pioneer Market, which was replaced by Walgreen’s, on the corner of Echo Park and Sunset. He accompanied his grandmother to neighborhood Mexican restaurants while she enjoyed a Bohemia and played Spanish songs on the jukebox. All of these memories still hold a special place in his heart.

“Without a childhood spent in Echo Park, I wouldn’t be a writer. Simple as that,” Skyhorse said.

Skyhorse’s connection to Echo Park is rooted in his long history living in the area. His family lived in Echo Park for about 50 years. He was born at the French Hospital in Chinatown in 1973. He grew up on Portia Street with his mother, grandmother and five step-fathers.

“My mother, a Mexican American, reinvented herself and I as American Indians in a neighborhood that was predominantly Latino and Vietnamese,” he said. “She and my grandmother subsequently raised me with the help (or lack thereof) of five different stepfathers.”

Hence his memoir, “Take This Man,” which he wrote “to understand how my chaotic family situation came to be and why my mother made the choices she made,” said Skyhorse, a 2011 Pen-Hemmingway winner.

Skyhorse’s grandmother walked him to Logan Street Elementary School, where his mother had also attended. He was bused to Porter Junior High School in Granada Hills and walked himself to Downtown Business High School, now known as Downtown Magnets High School. In 1991, he left home to study at Stanford University and returned for the summer. In 1995, Skyhorse returned to Echo Park and received his master’s in fine arts from the Writer’s Workshop Program at the University of California Irvine.

After his mother and grandmother passed away 18 months apart from each other, Skyhorse sold the family home and left left Echo Park in 1999.

“With both my ‘parents’ having passed away, there were too many painful memories to deal with. It felt better to leave though as it turned out I’ve never really stopped thinking about Echo Park. I’ve thought about returning but there’s no way I could afford to live there today. Thankfully, my memories of Echo Park are free.”

Skyhorse is now a professor at New York University’s creative writing program. He visits Echo Park once a year and has witnessed its transformation.

“The neighborhood has undergone significant changes since I left but that brilliant, vibrant energy that’s on the streets and in the people in the neighborhood is just as I remember. Maybe that’s because whenever I return that’s the Echo Park I choose to see? I can’t say but Echo Park will always be my home,” he said.

Skyhorse does not have any public appearances scheduled in Echo Park but he will will host a reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz tonight, June 25, at 7:30 p.m. and at Vroman’s in Pasadena on June 27 at 7 p.m.

Cecilia Padilla Brill is a communications writer and journalist. She writes news, health, education and feature stories. Cecilia is currently working on her first novel. She has lived in Echo Park since 1999.

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  1. I loved this piece…I often think after my 10 years in Echo Park that I live in a special place. I work in Beverly hills and just feel so much happier once I get back home to the eastside.

  2. judith markoff hansen

    Thanks for this background to a writer I admire. What can be better than reading about childhood places from a new vantage point? I was born in EP in the early forties, part of a cluster of families living there whose politics gave the name to the current Red Hill restaurant.
    The Lake was our fishing grounds and getaway, boating place and duck watching venue. There was no freeway separating the Rec. Center from what is now the tennis courts that replaced a Carnegie Library setback on the corner of Temple.. There were no cart sellers on the lake, and no graffiti, and the Boathouse I remember with a great popcorn popper.
    But the Lake never looked as beautiful as it does now.
    It’s thrilling to see a City project so well done.
    I came back to EP a few times, the last time in the late 70s and built a new house on Vestal, behind a dilapidated 1890s bungalow on the lot. Getting financing was a big problem as “comparables” were all so low. Our family lived in the EP through the 80s and we worried perhaps most about “gentrification” as again, more and more neighbors were moved out by high rents and remodels. Mattresses dotted the sidewalks. Looking back, this has always been going on in EP. Change.

    I remember EP so warmly but a telling moment came while sitting at a booth EPIA was operating at a Lotus Festival, perhaps 10-12 years ago. We were touting the greatness of the neighborhood, the Park and the lotus and all the wonderful things we in the hills experienced.
    That day three unrelated young adults stopped by at different times at our booth, kids who had grown up in EP’s struggling families, mostly in the EP flats. All three were kids from those families that had left, .and we talked. One had moved to the Valley, another to O.C., one to Culver City. All said, in different ways, they were “glad” to be out of EP, it was “ugly” and “mean” and “filled with dopers” and “gangsters”.
    That was their EP.

    It’s always so interesting to see what your neighbors see and experience, and then to compare memories. Skyhorse lets us in to another neighborhood house, and he makes his world we only partially shared all so vivid.
    I’m so glad he too feels connected forever with the good, bad, and ugly.
    I too will forever be an Echo Parker but as I look back, I learn more about things I missed, even though it was My Hood.

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