Christina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld and Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults. She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets. She also co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention. Learn more about Christina and her books at her website.
What Inspired Me to Write About Gangs
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 the “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.
Skin of Tattoos
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.