Having written both a nonfiction book and a fiction book about gangs, people often ask me why gangs? I first encountered gangs as a young newspaper reporter in New Jersey, when I was assigned to write a story about a notorious motorcycle gang delivering Christmas toys to a local hospital. I went to interview them in a small suburban house, very normal-looking apart from the bunch of Harley choppers out front and its rather gloriously hirsute occupants, who insisted they belonged to a “club” not a gang. I was fascinated by them and their chosen lifestyle. They had established their own society with its own rules, dress, language and culture within mainstream society. What drove people to do that? I wondered. A side note: A couple years later, I saw one of “club members” at a New Jersey prison where I’d gone to interview an inmate for another story. So much for the “club,” I thought.
Years later, on a magazine assignment, I interviewed gang members deported from Los Angeles to El Salvador, where they had landed like fish out of water because they’d left Salvador as babies and small children during the civil war. It was a country that they identified with, but really didn’t know. Some of them barely spoke Spanish. They had joined and formed gangs in Los Angeles because their families had moved to predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods that had long-entrenched gangs. The Central Americans formed their own groups for protection, but because they weren’t U.S. citizens, they later were vulnerable to deportation when the government started cracking down on immigrants with criminal records. The stories of the young men I interviewed were really rooted in an unusual outcome of both a civil war and the immigrant experience. They ended up staying in my mind to form the genesis of my recently released thriller, Skin of Tattoos.
Talking to the young men in El Salvador also reignited that previous interest in gangs from when I had interviewed the motorcycle guys, and I started reading about and researching gangs in earnest over the following years. I covered numerous gang issues as a reporter for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, talking to gang members, people who worked with them, people who worked against them, ie. cops. There are many factors leading to gang formation, but in essence, gangs are driven by the universal human need for belonging to and approval of a group, and because some sectors of our society feel excluded from mainstream society, they form their own societies instead. Gang culture is alien to most of our lives and an extreme consequence of socioeconomic marginalization, but everyone can relate in some way to feeling excluded, of needing to belong, of wanting approval.
Christina Hoag is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She also authored Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016) and co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014).
SKIN OF TATTOOS BLURB:
Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice of everything – and everyone – he loves.
SKIN OF TATTOOS: Excerpt
“Ay yo, homes!” A familiar voice sliced through the bustle. “Mags!”
I twirled faster than a ballet dancer, my stomach clenching. Fuck. It was him. Rico. Slashing across the street aiming the shopping bag in his hand at me. His baggy shorts slung so low the waistband of his boxers showed. Socks, white as fluorescent light, pulled neatly to his knees. Ink flowing out of the arms and neck of his plaid shirt. Exactly how he looked the last time I saw him.
The memory of that day bore down on me. We were kicking it at a street corner, and Rico was bragging about how he shot a trey-eight into the ceiling of a liquor store he was jacking, and the storeowner pissed his pants. As he was talking, he took the .38 out of his waistband in a live re-enactment, and I just had to take the piece, feeling its cold weight in my hand for just a second or two before handing it back to Rico. That second or two cost me twenty-six months of my freedom.
Rico threw his arm around me. A thick gold chain shone around his neck. I had a cord with an orange arrow slung around mine.
“Ese.” My voice had as much life as a three-day-old soda.
I never knew if he dropped that thirty-eight by accident, as he said, or if he saw his chance to set me up. I kinda figured the latter. Someday, somehow, I’d get him to admit the truth to me.
“I thought that was you. But I said to myself, ‘Mags, in that fuckin pendejada? Couldn’t be.’ But I looked again and simón, it was. Whatup with this shit?” He flicked the red nose ball. I caught his wrist in midair and stared him down in his swamp eyes. “Easy, fool,” he said.
I dropped his wrist. “Just making a few bones.”
“I heard you was back. We been waiting for you at the garaje, but you ain’t showed up.” Rico drilled my eyes. “You avoiding your homies or what?”
The ball was itching my nose like an oversized mosquito bite. “I got parole and all that. I just wanted to get set up first.”
“I figured you needed a couple days to get readjusted, get some pussy.” He shook his head. “But damn, this shit?” He shook his head. “You ready to get crazy again?”
“Keeping it lo pro, Rico.”
Rico studied me. I suddenly glimpsed myself in his eyes—I had become a small brown man.
He brightened up. “Hey, I just had a kid. A boy. I’m buying some bottles and blankets and shit right now.”
“With Maribel. But I got my side action, feel me?”
“You were always real slick with the jainas.” I knew a little flattery would soften the rough edges of the meet. He smiled big.
“Tell you what, loco, I’ll give you some lessons, make you real smooth.”
“Yeah, I’m out of practice now.” I tried to laugh.
“A lot of changes gone down in the barrio. We need to catch you up.” His arm hooked my neck in a chokehold. “You our firme homeboy, man, you’ll always be part of la familia. We need you, fool.” He squeezed a little too hard. “You come by the garaje. We got a jump in day after tomorrow. We’ll be waiting. We’ll hook you up again, then you can dump this shit.” He pointed his forefinger at me with a barbed wire smile. “Missed you, Mags.”
I watched him vanish into the crowd of shoppers, and spat on the ground to get rid of the bad taste that had flooded my mouth.
Available in ebook and paperback from Martin Brown Publishers on Amazon.
Key words: literary crime fiction, thriller, suspense, mystery, gangs.
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