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The United States (US) is widely perceived as a melting pot, a place where people of various races and ethnicities live together and mix their cultures. A range of challenges occurs when they have to live in one neighborhood. In particular, Mexicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and African-Americans are considered the minorities that experience the problems associated with their race and identification. This paper will discuss the inversion of race norms based on two books: the Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse and Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories by Russell Charles Leong.
Overview of Books
The Madonnas of Echo Park presents eight stories that are told from the perspective of several people living in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. The book portrays feelings, lives, and thoughts of characters that are integrated by living in a barrio, the area of the city with primarily a Spanish-speaking population. The lives of all the heroes are inextricably linked, and their behaviors and personalities are affected by this area.
Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories is also a collection of 14 stories that depict Asians and Asian Americans living in California. The issues of immigration, identity, the inability to accept gay children and AIDS, prostitution, and other subjects are covered in this book. It should be stressed that the characters such as Buddhism priests, street people, and hustlers struggle in finding their place in life. There are three parts of the book called Leaving, Samsara, and Paradise, which are reflective of one’s the development and life journey.
Attitudes of Racial Minorities to their Background
Since both identified books contain a lot of stories and themes, it seems to be appropriate to focus only on some of them to analyze them in detail. Such an approach will also be useful to answer the key question of how race norms are inversed in the US. Thus, the first story about Terence will be targeted in Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories and chapters 4-5 in The Madonnas of Echo Park.
In both books, the protagonists are racial minorities in the context of the US, and they try to understand their race and how it affects other people’s views. The first part of Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories focuses on Terence, a Chinese-American person who attempts to provide vows to become a monk (Leong 5). However, one of the vows, namely, the one associated with giving up sexual intercourse makes him stop and reconsider his views.
The narration of Terence shows that he identifies himself as gay, while his parents rejected them because of that. The family of the main character is described as traditionalist immigrants with a Chinese conservative perspective on relationships (Leong 24). The dilemma between Terence and his family becomes evident, and it seems that he is frustrated and afflicted by this situation. Indeed, it is the most complicated challenge when a person has to select between his or her family and personal identification.
If at the beginning of the story Terence’s racial awareness looks clear to him, he starts to doubt it, falls in love with a young male, and moves to Taipei, Taiwan. Furthermore, it is essential to point out that their relationships ruin, and the protagonist finds himself alone in an unknown city with no money for livelihood and no opportunity to seek help from his parents. He becomes an escort for wealthy American and Japanese men as an exotic person and the one who can support a conversation on various themes regarding politics, economics, current events, and art. The fact that Terence is engaged in this activity for over 20 years demonstrates that he has a great amount of time to learn lessons and ponder over his position in life.
At first glance, the story of the main character seems to be a mere presentation of how a Chinese-American person starts working as a prostitute due to a lack of money, and some romantic features of the narration are evident. However, the end of this part of the book shows that Terence concludes to reunite with his family through his father’s 70th birthday party. At this point, readers understand the message of the author that is to logically depict the transformation of the main character’s identification regarding race and ethnicity. During the party, the family, friends, and colleagues are gathered together, and they have a good time spending it together.
The readers comprehend that over time, society changed its perception of race and sexual orientation by becoming more tolerant. Most importantly, the protagonist also accepted his origin and learned that it is an integral part of his life, thoughts, and behaviors.
In the Madonnas of Echo Park, the events about Mexican-American families are united by one place and motif – Echo Park and the music video of Madonna called Borderline. All the stories are designed around one issue: while girls were reenacting the mentioned video, a street shooter killed a 3-year old girl who was given the name of Baby Madonna (Skyhorse xvii). In this book, chapter 4 titled Rules of the Road with its focus on a race-driven conflict seems to be the most representative of how norms are reversed. This story tells about the event with a bus operator, Efren Mendoza, who was driving on his route when a fight occurred between a Mexican-American and an African-American young male (Skyhorse 73).
The driver asked the latter to exit the bus and after a while, he accidentally runs over this person. At this moment, other African-Americans who were under the stress started showing aggressiveness towards Efren, blaming him for racial discrimination. They also accused him of doing this because the man was African-American and his skin color made him invisible in the night.
It should be stressed that Efren considered the conflicts between the mentioned racial minorities disdainfully, considering them something that is not worthy of attention. Since he closed the doors of the bus and moved away with passengers who were primarily Mexican-Americans illustrates that he wanted to protect them. The driver notes that his responsibility was to stay at the place of the accident until the arrival of the police, yet his actions demonstrate his changing attitudes towards race and related conflicts.
When all the passengers went to leave the bus, Efren drove the empty vehicle, and the streets seemed to be deserted as well. It was a night, and a stranger came to the bus and asked the driver to take him somewhere with no further clarifications. It seems that the bus operator found that they were similar in their thoughts and frustration even though the causes might be different. Ultimately, this character states that “I would learn a new set of rules. I would find another way home” (Skyhorse 88). This is a metaphor that refers to the need to reconsider interracial conflicts and find ways to eliminate them.
Another story offered to readers is associated with Manny Mendoza, the brother of Efron, and his views regarding interracial relationships. Namely, his son, Juan, wanted to marry Angie, a Mexican-American young woman, because he believed that it would be inappropriate, while his mother also was of the same attitude. Manny felt aggressiveness every time he observed a White girl kissing an African-American person or any other interracial expressions of love.
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The observation of the street life in their neighborhood forces the protagonist of this chapter to think about his opinion. He discussed the shooting, murders, and stealing, concluding that human life is too short to face all these issues. It is clear from reviewing the chapter that Manny repents in his actions, including the words about Angie. In his turn, Juan is depicted as a responsive and understanding young man, who did not reject his father but accepted his new point, thus symbolizing the revival of this family’s racial identification and recognition.
Race in the Context of the US
Speaking of the social meaning of Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories, namely, the story about Terence, it is critical to pay attention to that epoch of the Cold War, when relationships between the US and China were rather tense. In major American cities, more than 80 percent of the Chinese population was concentrated in Chinatowns, which remained mostly isolated and ignored by the US government until the end of World War II (Ma 88).
Nevertheless, likewise, at the end of the 19th century, these areas were discriminated against in the 20th century as well. This situation is portrayed in the given model through Terence’s family that had to handle immigration difficulties.
Moreover, Chinese immigrants united into district and family associations that were organized depending on the areas where they live in China. Such associations acted as employment agencies, assisted in finding housing, participated in resolving disputes, and identified social and cultural events. In other words, despite the harshest discrimination, Chinese immigrants gradually organized their way of life and adapted to life in the US, developing a concept of patience about life difficulties and racial discrimination. The traditional Chinese way of life – modest living needs as well as adherence to traditions – shaped the foundation for it.
In the novel, the readers observe how the perception of the main character’s family and the whole Chinese community living in Los Angeles changes. At the beginning of the narration, they look like a conservative family that cannot accept that their son is gay. During the story, some thoughts regarding their son’s identity are shown, and Terence’s father becomes thinking that the Chinese family may also be different. Ultimately, they accept their son and unite the family, thus proving that even the deepest wounds may be healed if people are open to each other.
In the Madonnas of Echo Park, the inversion of norms regarding race is described through the placement of the main characters into their cultural context. On a larger scale, the bus driver showed the people who were on the street and inside the bus that conflicts can and should be resolved. The message of this passage is evidently to promote a better understanding of racial minorities of each other, ending fights and discrimination, and recognizing everyone’s right to live in peace. In his turn, Juan helps his father to realize his identity and the features inherent in him as a representative of Mexican-Americans.
According to Ibarrarán-Bigalondo, “this feeling of non-belonging … is experienced as a loss of dignity which the characters often overcome by inflicting on others in a socially inferior position” (83). The given feeling is replaced by in-depth self-awareness of Manny, who starts to consider himself and people around him as an integral part of the same community. Thus, the topic of public attitudes towards the inversion of norms of race is illustrated in this book through particular people as vivid examples of potential changes.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the Madonnas of Echo Park and Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories are two books that describe the life of racial minorities, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans living in the US. To portray the inversion of norms regarding race, the authors of these books provide a collection of stories that are presented from a different perspective.
They are written in an appealing and understandable language to allow the readers to penetrate the context. In the Madonnas of Echo Park, the Chinese-American immigrant, Terence who was rejected by his family since he was gay, founded his way home, while his family accepted him. Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories book shows how norms regarding interracial relationships and conflicts changed.
Ibarrarán-Bigalondo, Amaya. “On Identity, Place, Dignity, and Honor: The Madonnas of Echo Park (2010) by Brando Skyhorse.” Alicante Journal of English Studies, vol. 27, 2014, pp. 79-90.
Leong, Russell. Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories. University of Washington Press, 2000.
Ma, Eva Armentrout. Hometown Chinatown: A History of Oakland’s Chinese Community, 1852-1995. Routledge, 2011.
Skyhorse, Brando. The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel. Free Press, 2010.