Tobar, Hector. 1998. The Tattooed Soldier.
Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books.
Â“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.Â”
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 Â“municipal day of settling
accountsÂ” that will aid him in his vendetta.
Â–Christina Sheldon, University Library, CSULA
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.