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Los Angeles | urban experience | demographics

1992 Los Angeles riots | race relations | gangs in LA

Central American Diaspora | immigration | return migration

U.S. involvement in Latin America | School of the Americas

State-sponsored terrorism

Guatemala | Maya

Latin American politics | social movements

Violence and its effects


Forgiveness | reconciliation | peace | revenge

Body art

Acknowledgements Project Contact


Tobar, Hector. 1998. The Tattooed Soldier.
Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books.

“The Tattooed Soldier was born from my experiences as the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and as a young reporter assigned to cover the impoverished neighborhoods of central Los Angeles.”
 -Hector Tobar

In the days leading up to the 1992 riots, residents of Los Angeles gather in MacArthur Park hoping to find a momentÂ’s respite.  Lovers stroll the lake, mothers mind children, and men play chess hoping to temporarily forget an eviction notice, elude gang warfare, or sidestep social bigotry.  Onto this stage step two men unwittingly connected by the past that haunts both: a Guatemalan death squad attack commanded by one man and survived by the other.  Recognizing his assaulter by the yellow jaguar tattooed on his arm, the victim resolves to dispense justice on behalf of his murdered wife and child.  Little does he realize that the verdict of the Rodney King trial and history itself will conspire to declare for Los Angeles a “municipal day of settling accounts” that will aid him in his vendetta.
–Christina Sheldon, University Library, CSULA


Publishers Weekly Reviews
The first novel from L.A. Times reporter Tobar is a gripping tale of revenge set on the lowest rung of L.A.'s social ladder, amidst the hardscrabble lives of illegal immigrants and the homeless.

The fates of Guatemalan death-squad veteran Guillermo Longoria and traumatized, homeless refugee Antonio Bernal have been entwined since the day Longoria killed Antonio's wife and son in Guatemala. Obsessed by memories of his family and also by the mental picture of the assassin with a yellow jaguar tattooed on his forearm, Antonio ends up as one of LA.'s drifting dispossessed. By chance he sees Longoria in MacArthur Park and is electrified by the possibility of avenging his loved ones. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we meet Longoria, a peasant who was forced to join the army but eventually grew to love the power it gave him.

He absorbed the twisted logic that justified the massacre of an entire village to drive out the "infection" of communism, but he too is now haunted by memories. The novel's denouement occurs during the 1992 L.A. riots, a colossal day of reckoning when the powerless underclass of L.A. erupts in fury and when both men move toward their fates. Tobar's prose is clear and crisp, authentically colored by the liberal use of Spanish phrases. He never sentimentalizes Antonio's tragic story, and even the hateful Longoria is depicted with understanding of the social forces that molded him. The complexities of these two characters give this novel power and weight. 7500 first printing. Copyright 1998 Cahners Business Information, Inc. From: Reed Elsevier Inc. Copyright Reed Business Information

Radical Teacher, Fall 2004.
By H Bruce Franklin 
I have never found a novel that introduces more of the issues I want to explore with my students than The Tattooed Soldier, a magnificent work of social realism written by Hector Tobar, himself the son of Guatemalan immigrants and now Latin American Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. This is an overwhelmingly powerful and insightful fiction, one that becomes more relevant with every new development of the current "War on Terror. "

The three main characters are Antonio, a vaguely leftist student in Guatemala City; Elena, the revolutionary woman he marries; and Guillermo, a young peasant who becomes head of the Americantrained death squad that murders Elena and the infant son of her and Antonio. The novel opens years later, when Antonio, now living as an impoverished immigrant in Los Angeles, is forced to join the throngs of California's homeless. It reaches its climax when Antonio kills Guillermo in the midst of the riots touched off by the acquittal of the police who bludgeoned Rodney King. At the core of the novel are complex class and gender contradictions, the meaning of "globalization" for both its victims and its metropolitan centers, and intensely conflicted choices for individuals living within the global war of terror being waged by the American empire.

When I teach the novel in my course "Crime and Punishment in American Literature" to our diverse working-class students here at Rutgers University in Newark (labeled for six years in a row by U.S. News and World Report the most ethnically diverse university in the nation), I never know what aspect of the novel will ignite the hottest discussion. Sometimes it revolves around relations between the beating of Rodney King and the death squads in Central America or, now, in Iraq. Sometimes it's social class, with an interesting focus on the ex-peasant Guillermo, who was originally kidnapped into the Guatemalan army while watching a showing of E.T. in a village theater and whose own alienation becomes most revealing as the Utopian vision of America he received while being trained in state terrorism at Fort Bragg crumbles amid the spontaneous disorder of the Los Angeles riots. This year, it was a raging argument about the meaning of revolutionary acts, set off by an Iranian student who harshly criticized Elena because her naivete about the nature of the state led to the chain of personal tragedy.

The Tattooed Soldier has everything a radical teacher might want from a work of literature.

Insight on the News, 1998. 14(33)
By Rex Roberts
In the world created by novelist Hector Tobar, the political becomes personal.

Although he can be faulted for dialogue that often seems obvious or awkward and prose that relies on "telling" rather than "showing," Hector Tobar has produced an admirable first novel in The Tattooed Soldier (Delphinium, 307 pp). Tobar is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times -- he shared in the paper's Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 riots -- and his writing benefits from his journalistic experience. More than most first novels, The Tattooed Soldier conveys a sense of history, of world events pressing in on the protagonists ... a welcome change from inward-looking narratives that take place in political vacuums.

Of course, not all readers will agree with Tobar's politics. The Tattooed Soldier tells the tale of two Guatemalan immigrants living in central Los Angeles: Antonio Bernal, a reluctant revolutionary who has fled his native country to avoid execution, and Guillermo Longoria, the soldier who murdered Bernal's wife and child. The book jumps in time and place between wartorn Guatemala and poverty-stricken Los Angeles, and readers will sympathize with the plight of people trapped in these fearful circumstances. Nevertheless, Tobar makes clear his opinions regarding the role of the U.S. military in Central America and the exploitation of immigrants by American capitalism.

"The guerrillas promised the peasants a paradise of free land, free seed, and easy credit," writes Tobar, describing ideology dished out during a training session for Guatemalan officers at a U.S. Army base. "These ideas were the glue that joined the peasants to the guerrillas and held the subversive Communist movement together. To break these bonds of the mind you had to strike at the mind. And the most powerful weapon to aim at the mind was fear. Terror. The guerrillas had already mastered this: they killed suspected informers, they kidnapped the rich, they bombed cafes. Now the forces of good had to master the art of terror as well. And the army and its allies had to use even larger doses because the war was being lost."

Tobar also provides authorial glosses on the admittedly "pathetic and undignified" process impoverished many immigrants face in their search for work. "You stood on the sidewalk, scanning the traffic like a prostitute in search of a john, pushing and shoving with a hundred other men so that you could be first in line when a pickup truck with building materials in the back finally slowed down and stopped. Then you held up the three or four fingers that indicated how little pay you would accept for an hour's work."

No matter the truth of these assertions, The Tattooed Soldier would be eminently forgettable if it were merely a screed against American imperialism. It's not. Tobar knows that good fiction requires complex characters, and neither Bernal nor Longoria -- revolutionary and counter-revolutionary -- are placards for good and evil. Indeed, the strength of the book is its author's ability to make both men human, each with his own admirable qualities and painful flaws.

Bernal is well-intentioned and good-hearted, but naive and meek -- a man who prefers poetry over politics. He develops a crush on a fellow university student named Elena, a world-weary activist. She becomes pregnant. They marry and flee Guatemala City, afraid that they have been targeted by government death squads who have kidnapped several other student agitators.

Longoria, in contrast to Bernal, is disciplined and strong-willed. A peasant conscripted into the army when he was a teenager -- virtually kidnapped himself -- he develops self-respect and sense of belonging as a soldier, eventually becoming a member of the feared Jaguar Battalion. Unfortunately, his loyalty is rewarded in the crudest fashion -- his commanders place Longoria in charge of a clandestine unit composed of hired killers whose work is to assassinate activists, including the Bernals.

Tobar unfolds these histories as we follow the two men's troubled lives in Los Angeles. Bernal has hit hard times, having bounced from menial job to menial job. Now he's homeless, living amid junkies, schizophrenics and fellow immigrants on a vacant lot overlooking the city's freeways. Longoria has a good job working for a Central American mail service, but he's haunted by his past, unable to free his mind of bloody memories. Both men are prone to violence: Bernal beats up an old man who tries to swipe a hot plate from his cardboard home; Longoria hits an old woman who recognizes the meaning of the jaguar tattooed on his forearm.

Bernal recognizes the tattoo as well, finding the former soldier playing chess in a Los Angeles park. By chance he has encountered the murderer of his family thousands of miles from the site of the crime, a rural village called San Cristobal. He himself escaped death by hiding on a departing bus, his sense of bitterness and helplessness compounded as he watched Longoria casually eating an ice cream in the aftermath of the carnage.

The Tattooed Soldier is the story of Bernal's revenge, set against the 1992 L.A. riots, "a day without submissiveness," writes Tobar. "There was nothing to stop a man from settling a dispute with a gunshot to the belly." The big currents of history -- civil war in a developing nation, poverty and exploitation in a developed one -- are boiled down to a mano-a-mano vendetta.

Not so coincidentally, human-rights activists in Guatemala have been exhuming the remains of thousands of people said to have been massacred during the three-and-a-half-decade civil war that only recently ended. "I want the killers to feel what I felt," one villager told an Associated Press reporter this summer, referring to his murdered father.

Tobar, himself the son of Guatemalan immigrants, has managed to express something of that rage -- and of the complex role destiny plays in the lives of men whose fate is to live in troubled times.


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