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The 2015 Commons Reading

The Madonnas of Echo Park 

Madonnas of Echo Park

The Madonnas of Echo Park  is a grand mural of a Los Angeles neighborhood and an intimate glimpse into the lives of the men and women who struggle to lose their ethnic identity in pursuit of the American dream. Felicia, a housekeeper, and her daughter, Aurora Esperanza, are caught in a gang shooting crossfire and struggle to find common ground in its aftermath. Aurora's estranged father, Hector, a day laborer, witnesses a murder and must choose between deportation and complicity. Aurora's former classmates Duchess and Angie, steeped in American culture, drift apart as they each look to fit in. Finally, Aurora journeys through her now gentrified childhood neighborhood, where she discovers her own history and her place in the land that all Mexican Americans dream of, "the land that belongs to us again."

The Madonnas of Echo Park  received  the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and  the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction  from the American Academy of Arts and  Letters. 

A Message from Brando Skyhorse

"I was in college when I decided I wanted to be a writer.  My adviser told me a writer's job was to 'observe the world then record and report your findings.'  Writing The Madonnas of Echo Park was a chance for me to observe the world I grew up in and tell stories about people we see every day but often ignore.  I'm thrilled that Madonnas is the first book Vanderbilt's incoming freshmen class will read as a group and I hope the book encourages them to see both the world and the people around them in a new way."

Reflections on the Reading

Susan Wente

Provost Susan Wente

"I am very pleased with the selection of  The Madonnas of Echo Park  as the  Commons Reading for the Class of 2019.  It was a great read over my winter holiday break — the challenges faced by the multiple different characters will offer distinct views for our student body to engage deeply with the questions of immigration, culture, and diverse perspectives." 

Abby Schachar

Former VUcept President Abby Shachar

"Through  its wonderfully gripping and poetic prose, and Brando Skyhorse's  Madonnas of Echo Park  bands together different people and different stories by telling the singular narrative of Echo Park. The novel captures the ways in which location often serves as the nurturing space for the collective. In this regard, the neighborhood of Echo Park models the atmosphere of The Ingram Commons, which transforms the multiplicity of 1600 students into a unified first-year community."

Alice Randall

Stambaugh House Faculty Head Alice Randall

"Madonnas of Echo Park is a portrait of a community created with a roving focus on characters who are, at once, at the center of the story and on the periphery. This novel explores both the obvious and subtle tugs one life makes on another when we are tethered by nothing more or less than geographical and architectural proximity. Though the green lawns of The Commons on the Vanderbilt campus are a continent away from gritty Echo Park I think the wisdom gained by a trip through the pages of Skyhorse's novel is worth the detour. Madonna's of Echo Park has much to teach about starring in your own story while playing a supportive role in the story of others."

Anna Silverstein

Writer-in Residence Anna Silverstein

"In  The Madonnas of Echo Park , Skyhorse weaves a series of interconnected vignettes, exploring the lives of a diverse set of characters who live in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. Many of these characters are people whose voices are not often given weight in either fiction or in life: day laborers, house cleaners, undocumented workers. He writes with deep empathy about the emotional lives of his characters. Throughout these brief windows into his characters’ lives, the neighborhood of Echo Park emerges as the novel’s most vivid character, a place rich with history, conflict, and social change. This novel will draw you into the lives of the characters as you come to learn about the neighborhood that has brought them together."

Gregory Melchor-Barz

North House Faculty Head Gregory

"The characters in The Madonnas of Echo Park perform as a full-blown operatic cast thrust on a large stage. At times, the author seems to work out his own complicated identity in public by weaving a libretto comprised of individual characters that stretch their stereotypical expectations, each a member of a village, the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Throughout the narrative, the neighborhood of Echo Park emerged for me as the most compelling character in this pastiche of absorbing stories."

Cindy GaddEast House Faculty Head Cindy Gadd

" A vivid and entertaining story woven together from a multitude of perspectives on the immigrant experience set against the changing landscape of Los Angeles. Both contemporary and historic, the novel takes a fresh look at issues of identity, relationships, gentrification, and more through interesting characters all trying to find their own way toward the American Dream."


Engage with
Brando Skyhorse

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The Commons Reading

Brando SkyhorseBrando Skyhorse has been awarded fellowships at Ucross and Can Serrat, Spain. Skyhorse is a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA Writers’ Workshop program at UC Irvine. He is the 2014 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-In-Washington at George Washington University.

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Why share a reading?

The Commons Reading is a book mailed to all rising first-year students to be read during the summer before they arrive on campus, and which will be discussed all over campus during their first days at Vanderbilt and throughout the year.  

Conversations, programs, and academic courses touching on the book's major themes will occur throughout the fall and spring semesters in Houses, Visions groups, and classes. 

Further Exploration

To explore an interactive map of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, click here.

The conversation surrounding the themes of The Madonnas of Echo Park extends beyond The Ingram Commons. Check out these courses, which will be offered during the fall 2015 semester.

Immigration Facts

 Every year, partners from across campus join the discussion. Please contact Assistant Dean Nina Warnke to get started!