the tattooed soldier


Antonio, a refugee from Guatemala's dictatorship, stumbles upon his wife's killer in MacArthur Park, recognizing the soldier by an unforgettable tattoo. He plots his act of personal justice as Los Angeles explodes in a fury of looting and arson.


"..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 complexities of [the] characters give this novel power and weight." --Publisher's Weekly


"Hector Tobar's tensely drawn novel does what the political novel has always done at its best. It makes you look at your world with a harder, fiercer and colder eye, and ask yourself the endless, easily shrugged off question: 'What must I do?'"

-- Fort Worth Star Telegram




The original "tattooed soldier," sans tattoo: my father as a Military Policeman in the Guatemalan Army, circa 1958...




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.

My first paying job as a writer was with the San Francisco community newspaper El Tecolote in the mid 1980s. Later, I won an internship to the L.A. Times in the late 1980s. I wrote about homelessness, about Latino immigrants (especially those from Guatemala and El Salvador), and urban violence for the City Desk. When you start out at a newspaper you get the dirty work, "night cops," and so I was sent out to many "drive-bys," "officer involved" shootings and the like. During the day, I worked on features about the new immigrant neighborhoods of the city. In 1989, I wrote a front-page story about Salvadoran soldiers joining the stream of refugees from Central America to Southern California: a social worker at the agency El Rescate told me a story about a client of hers who had spotted a death-squad member in Mac Arthur Park, which was the central meeting place of L.A.'s Central American community. That anecdote became the germ, many years later, of The Tattooed Soldier.

I had grown up in Los Angeles, but the L.A. of the late 20th century bore little resemblance to the optimistic, gleaming metropolis I remembered from my youth. Instead, I came to see Los Angeles as an imperial capital whose central core had been abandoned, left to the refugees of the empire's wars, the detritus of the empire's failures. It almost made sense when the city erupted in flames in the 1992 riots. I tried to capture this vision of what Los Angeles had become in my reporting, and especially in one story about Crown Hill, a neighborhood just across the Harbor Freeway from L.A.'s Financial District. Its 19th century Victorian mansions having been demolished by developers years earlier, Crown Hill was a collection of vacant lots where homeless men and women lived in the shadow of downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers. 

I started writing fiction, signing up for workshops at Beyond Baroque and at UCLA's night extension program.  In 1993, I quit The Times when I was accepted to the Masters in Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine. At UCI, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the short-story writer Stuart Dybek, and the writer and poet Judith Grossman (among many others) encouraged and inspired me during the two years it took me to write my novel.

Selling the book wasn't easy, even though I had a wonderful New York agent behind it, the legendary Virginia "Ginger" Barber. Two years passed before the small publisher Delphinium Books stepped forward to buy it. I met an amazing editor, Joy Johannessen, whose energy and intelligence elevated my somewhat undisciplined manuscript into a work of art. Later, Penguin Books bought the paperback rights: it's currently in its 5th printing in paperback, thanks to many readers like you, and to dozens of academics who have helped circulate the book widely.  



Like many places in the book, the tunnel at the end of the Tattooed Solider is a real place. It was built in the early 20th century for the L.A. transit system and abandoned in the 1950s. For a virtual tour of the tunnel, click here.