Last week I got a question on the reference desk about the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha. Because I had watched a terrifying and very affecting movie last summer about these guys, I was uncharacteristically excited to work on this question. As I had found myself so disturbed and moved by this film, I was surprised to discover there is very little out there on the MS13, and that that is published is in Spanish. This particular faculty member requested that the materials all be in English, so I was even more surprised to discover that there are precisely 2 books in the Pittsburgh area in English on the MS13. I feel guilty about this, but I immediately checked out one at the public library.
This is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Samuel Logan), had for starters, one of the worst book covers I’ve ever seen:
See? Pretty bad. The MS13 are notorious for their Mara tattooes, and Logan & his publishers really capitalized on this for the cover. While I am taking issue with silly things, I will also take issue with the subtitle, as at one point in the narrative he writes that they are not in fact the most violent gang, but one of many. These are by and large cosmetic flaws, so I can let them slide.
I never really bought much into true crime books, but boy, was this ever one. I loved the material Logan was working with, and the pure shock value of much of the story almost could have carried the narrative alone. The book is about a girl–Brenda Paz–who got jumped into the MS13 at age 15 and was ultimately murdered by her “homies” when she was 17, pregnant, and an informant. Logan writes Brenda as this supremely likeable girl–he talks of her being nicknamed “Smiley,” and emphasizes how cheery and adorable she was, but this got really annoying after the 9th or 10th time he writes about “Smiley.” I think Brenda’s story worked best when framed by details of the MS13–how it started, how they migrated north to the US, etc, but there frankly wasn’t enough of this. The framing that Logan does manage to do is superficial at best, and comparable to the MS13 Wikipedia page. Which is to say brief, and possibly nonfactual.
Reading this book got tedious and repetitive. It was a little like how I’d imagine reading the transcripts from 20/20 would be. Very dramatic, all in a passive voice, with very little description. Literally every sentence was written in the past tense (I started to count how many times he used the word “had” but lost track after one chapter). In my youth, I was a non-fiction major, and we had a saying, “Show, don’t tell,” that we would liberally scrawl all over everybody’s writing every time they skimped on dialogue and setting, and holy cow, was I tempted to write “SDT” all over Logan’s book. I confess to having been majorly absorbed in the plot (enough so that I secretly got mad at OMC when he started to simultaneously read it as HIS bedtime reading), but the writing made me want to bang my head off of a wall. I think I might have been better served reading the Paz/cop transcripts or something.
Which brings me to my last point. I haven’t really researched the research behind Paz’s story, but Logan attributes nothing. Not one thing. I’m not asking for a 45 page annotated bib, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to include a small sampling of citations so interested readers at least have other places to turn for further (and maybe better) research.
Lies: that wasn’t my last point. Logan paints this bleak & terrifying picture of how the MS13 is going to take over America and eat your babies and shoot your grandma and steal her Camry but he never offers much in the way of a solution. So what, I want to say. They’re coming and there’s nothing we can do about it? There’s lots of room for further research and writing here, so maybe this is my way to make up for the many failings of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha.