The Tattooed Generation

The Tattooed Generation

Martha and la Shadow are talking about sex. Martha is sitting beside me on the steps of a suburban apartment complex in San Salvador with her four-month-old baby girl in her lap. La Shadow sits across from us in a lawn chair, gazing into a pocket mirror and dabbing on fresh lipstick. I ask Martha if kids here use protection. “I could never get Bullet to use condoms. I was getting the shot,” she says, referring to the Depo Provera injection. “But then we stopped, and . . .” she trails off, stroking her daughter’s hair. “Having a kid is really hard for us now. We don’t have money for rent or electricity, so it’s even harder with a kid.”

La Shadow smiles when Martha asks how it’s going with her boyfriend. “I was with him last night,” she says.

“Are you taking pills?” Martha asks.

“Nah. My man keeps saying he wants to have a little girl.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing. I can’t have kids.”

La Shadow is tall and dark, with wavy hair. She dresses like a typical urban American high school student, though she has never set foot in the United States. Recently, she has taken an interest in computers and spends hours, body motionless, fingers clicking away, at the terminal of an ancient Mac II at an office in this building complex. What jars with the wholesome image is the dark blue scrawl on the concave part of her chin. It says “Tiny Locos,” the name of the mara, the gang she belongs to. This tattoo is not the only mark gang life has left on the willowy seventeen-year-old. When I ask, she shows me, nonchalantly, the scar near her navel where a catheter was attached for several months to hold her excrement. La Shadow recently survived a wound inflicted by a rival gang—a gunshot to the breast that ripped downward through her internal organs. Pregnancy is a moot point; Shadow can never have children.

Inside the building complex, Martha’s boyfriend, Bullet, is hanging out in the apartment that has been converted into the office of Homies Unidos, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) whose goal is to end youth violence in El Salvador. Bullet is spindly and agile. He moves in jumps and starts as if pursued by an indecisive mob. Rumor has it he got his nickname because he moves so fast, not because he is quick with a trigger. Bullet’s secret weapon is an electric smile, but he tends to scare off strangers because he has the numbers 1 and 8 tattooed on his earlobes. Bullet belongs to 18th Street, a well-known Los Angeles street gang that has planted a seedling in El Salvador. Eighteenth Street and its rival Mara Salvatrucha reinitiated their battles on Salvadoran soil after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began deporting convicted gang members back to their native lands in the early 1990s. Bullet is now a street ambassador who translates the history and politics of la vida loca into rap lyrics. Both he and Martha grew up in Los ...

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