Skin of Tattoos
by Christina Hoag
on Tour October 17 - November 24, 2016
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.
Hoag tells the story of a gang member's attempts to flee his life of crime in this debut novel.
After 26 months in prison, 20-year-old Magdaleno "Mags" Argueta knows he can't go back to his previous life as a member of the Cyco Lokos, one of Los Angeles' most notorious Salvadoran street gangs. He's hoping his time served will earn him veteran status, allowing him to walk away without repercussions. Unfortunately, his crew is now under the command of his chief rival, Rico, who's less than sympathetic to his aspirations to go straight. What's more, the only jobs available to a tatted-up ex-con like Mags are demeaning, such as passing out fliers on the sidewalk while dressed as a clown. At home, his family relationships remain strained: his mother sees him as a disappointment, his father as a source of shame, and his fireman brother makes him look irresponsible by comparison. His sister, Lissy, still treats him with affection, but he's heard rumors that she's hooked up with a member of a rival gang. Despite his pledges to stay out of trouble, Mags finds that no one believes he's up to the task. His parole officer tells him, "The life's not going to let you go so easy." As hard as that is to hear, Mags knows that it might be the truth. Hoag is a talented writer, summoning Mags' world on the page with remarkable empathy and detail: "The sidewalks were crammed like a giant flea market—people selling jeans, pots and pans, plastic bags of mango slices….Everything looked familiar and strange at the same time, old and new, I belonged and I didn't." Despite a story that feels a bit well-trod, none of the characters seem hastily constructed or come off as clichés. Their pressures and motivations are clearly stated and genuinely felt, and readers will quickly become invested in Mags and his confrontation with an uncertain future. A sense of melodrama flares toward the end as events start to feel less realistic and a little more heightened and Hollywood-ish. But the overall experience is surprisingly nuanced and wholly enjoyable.
A well-crafted, engaging novel about an ex-con trying to break free.
Genre: Literary Crime
Published by: Martin Brown Publishing
Publication Date: September 2016
Number of Pages: 267
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Read an excerpt:[Profane language alert]
"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.
When Tweety yelled "five-o," Rico took off like an Olympic sprinter. I never even saw him throw down the cuete. I had no reason to run. As Morales was giving me his routine hassle, he kicked the edge of a bush behind me. Then he crouched down. When he straightened, he was dangling the piece with a pen hooked through its trigger guard. He busted me on possession of a firearm. It got worse. They matched the cuete to the robbery, and my fucking prints were the only clear ones on it. I had no alibi. The fact was, I was doing a drop with Chivas to the big jefe that night.
Lissy signed a statement saying I was watching TV with her at home that night, but nobody believed her, seeing as she had said that before when I got busted. I couldn't drop Rico's name or I'd have a green light on me as a snitch. My P.D. told me to take the D.A.'s deal even though the storeowner couldn't positively identify me in a lineup. I took the hit for possession, and they dropped the robbery, as well as the ADW charge, which they tacked on since "I" waved the piece around and shot it during the robbery. Like I would ever pull such a dumbass move.
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.
Christina Hoag is a novelist in Los Angeles. She is the author of Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016,) a YA romantic thriller about an abusive relationship, and Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, August 2016), a literary thriller about the gang world.
She also co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014).
A former staff writer for The Miami Herald and The Associated Press in Los Angeles, she was also a correspondent in Latin America, where she reported from 14 countries on issues such as the rise of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Colombian guerrillas, Guatemalan human rights, Salvadoran gangs, Nicaraguan landmine victims, and Mexican protests, for Time, Business Week, Financial Times, Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, and other publications.
She has had numerous short stories, poems and creative nonfiction published in literary magazines and journals, Her short story "My Mother's Knives" was included in a horror story anthology, And Now the Nightmare Begins (Bear Manor Media, 2009) and her literary short story "Life Stories" is forthcoming in the anthology 100 Voices (Centum Press, 2016).