Skin of Tattoos - Christina Hoag - Guest Post!
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 “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 novel, 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. Again, I was struck how they live in a parallel universe that is driven by values that are completely the antithesis of mainstream society, as in the more violent and feared you are, the more respect you gain.
There are many factors leading to gang formation, but in essence, gangs are driven by the 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. That’s the universal theme that’s inherent in writing about gangs.
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).
Thank you Christina Hoag and Partners in Crime!