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Seeing Central American Youth As Human Beings


Today the tattooed faces and bodies of Salvadoran gang members are put on display for readers of US and European newspapers and magazines in much the same way that images of tattooed indigenous people in New Guinea were used to titillate readers of National Geographic at the dawn of photography more than a century ago.

Young Salvadorans are pictured behind bars or with guns, just as people labeled “savages” were once posed with spears. This is the dehumanization of the indigenous. Even the language accompanying the images carries the same flavor of the exotic, the dangerous, and the “other”-something to frighten comfortable middle-class viewers with what seems an inside look at an alien and violent world.

The people of New Guinea were described as bloodthirsty cannibals. Today National Geographic introduces the 2011 television documentary Gang War USA: El Salvadoran Gang Violence by alleging that “El Salvador is one of the most violent nations on Earth-with 10 times the murder rate of the US-and it’s all thanks to imported gangs.”

There is violence in Central America, as everywhere, much of it the consequence of social inequality and poverty. But violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras mushroomed because of the United States policy of sponsoring wars against popular movements for social change. Huge social dislocation and violence are today the legacy of those wars, not just in Central America, but in the US as well.

That violence is the subject of Donna De Cesare’s book, Unsettled/Desasosiego. De Cesare spent two decades taking photographs of Salvadoran young people, documenting the impact of violence on their lives. Her work is as far from media stereotype as one can get. She clearly loves the Salvadoran people whose lives have intersected her own, and her involvement with and commitment to them extends over many years. Her concern is to show the humanity of what is now a Salvadoran binational community, as it tries to deal with the consequences of war and migration.

Unsettled/Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs contains 105 beautifully reproduced black-and-white images, and is divided into three parts. The first features images De Cesare took during the guerrilla war of the 1980s. The second documents the lives of young refugees as they were incorporated into the gang life of Los Angeles. The third travels back to El Salvador to examine the results of the massive deportation of young people to a country many hardly knew when they left as children.

De Cesare’s images of the war are not battle scenes, but ones that show its impact on ordinary people. In one, a group flees down a San Salvador street waving white shirts and flags, presumably at government airplanes above, that are bombing their neighborhood during an guerrilla offensive. In another, a child cries in terror at an unseen helicopter. A stark portrait shows a child staring into the camera, holding a fragment of a mortar shell. Her subjects are not anonymous symbols, but people reacting individually with anger, terror, or determination.

The young people depicted here are not just victims of violence. A young man holds a taped-together rifle, his sympathies obviously with the guerrillas. This image doesn’t simply critique the way war sweeps up the young, but shows its youthful subject taking sides in a conflict in which he knows the stakes. In another portrait, “Gustavo” sits in a forest camp, having joined the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) after the army killed his parents.

Over two million mostly young people fled El Salvador during the war, the great bulk of them to LA. Most crossed the US/Mexican border without visas, in many cases walking all the way from Central America. They were not welcomed. This flood of refugees made obvious the real costs of a murderous policy-arming the Salvadoran military and supporting death squad governments in the name of fighting communism.

In LA, Salvadorans found work as street corner laborers and domestics in homes-the dirtiest and least secure jobs. Their children roamed the streets of poor neighborhoods like Ramparts, where police routinely lined them up against walls in the same kind of police and army lineups their families remembered from El Salvador.

In one of the most telling photographs in the second part of De Cesare’s book, “Immigration agents for the Violent Gang Task Force target immigrant youth whom they suspect may be gang involved for deportation”, three young people, their backs to the camera, kneel in front of a wall. An immigration agent has his hand on the butt of his automatic. One youth has his hands above his head. Another’s are manacled behind him. If the photo’s caption didn’t say it was taken on LA’s Westside in 1994, you might think it was from Ilopango in 1984, during the war.

De Cesare doesn’t hesitate to show the violence and drugs that have become part of the lives of young people in LA. But she doesn’t demonize them, and instead seeks their humanity. In one haunting portrait, shooting from below, she captures Carlos Gonzalez holding a portrait of his mother, murdered by gangs in San Salvador.

In another, De Cesare looks from above down at Ivonne, a young woman lying on a bed with her child beside her, reading a letter from her boyfriend, just deported back to El Salvador. The handwriting on the page is stylized like the graffiti on urban walls (the following photograph shows LA-style graffiti as it begins to appear back in El Salvador). The image conveys the loneliness and pain of separation that underlies the Salvadoran migrant experience.

This section concludes with an image of Salvadorans protesting in defense of their rights as immigrants. They’ve fashioned a replica of a machine gun, not to glorify gang violence, but as a reminder of the state violence Salvadorans were fleeing by coming to the US.

Finally, De Cesare documents the consequences of the wholesale deportation of young Salvadoransthat began in the early 1990s and continues today. This has not only served to tear families even further apart, but some of the deported youth then reproduce LA’s gang culture in El Salvador. Today’s media images of the tattooed young men in Salvadoran prisons take this culture out of context. Young deportees were treated as criminals upon their arrival in El Salvador, by right wing governments hostile to youth and the poor. Their Mano Dura policy was developed with help from US law enforcement, exporting LA’s anti-gang policies.

De Cesare’s images show young people caught up in gang violence. But again the images refuse to demonize them. De Cesare doesn’t believe that violence is somehow inherent to Salvadoran culture or the result of imaginary racial and personal defects. Instead, her images document the reality of communities fractured by this two-way forced migration.

A group of young people hang out in a crash pad in El Salvador, in an apartment left behind by a family who moved to LA. Members of a gang from LA find each other in San Salvador. A young man shows off a tattoo on his back memorializing the death of his brother, a custom popular in the US. Other images depict shirtless young men with tattoos beside smiling young women, but they seem natural rather than postured, violent, or sexualized. One shows a young man holding a baby, thinking, according to the caption, about how to find a job, a home, and a future.

This is not a Pollyannaish view of gangs. One young man lies in his own blood, dead on the sidewalk. Another image shows a man holding his hands above his head in the background, possibly awaiting execution, as a hand holds a revolver behind the back of a figure in the foreground. In a parallel with the LA image, a Guatemalan policeman holds two young men, shirts over their heads, up against a wall.

At its end, the book includes three images pointing to another possible future for these young people: a family ritual celebrating indigenous heritage; young women writing down their ideas for reducing violence; and a teacher helping a student learn computer skills at a community center.

De Cesare isn’t trying to present an overview of all aspects of Salvadoran community life, in either country. She gives the reader a humanistic view of one aspect of the Salvadoran experience-how young people have been affected by war, violence, and deportation.

But it is unsettling that the book ends just before the FMLN is elected as El Salvador’s government in 2009 (reelected this year). De Cesare’s text cites Jesuit social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, who holds that dealing with the impact of widespread violence requires not just alleviation of individual suffering, but the creation of a just society. If any nation of people has fought for such a vision, Salvadorans certainly have.

Today those who fought for this vision have some power to make it reality. And they are mostly young people, like those in De Cesare’s photographs. Is there now an alternative to gang life and poverty, much as Gustavo might have dreamed as he sat in the forest? If people are being deported from the US in record numbers, can we see the faces of the young people in LA’s barrios who now sit in acts of civil disobedience, in front of the buses carrying their friends to detention?

There are images of the work life of young Salvadorans in the book-one of kids picking coffee on the Usulután volcano, and another of Dora Alicia Alarcon, who organized a union for LA street vendors. They suggest that more documentation could deepen an understanding of how this community has not only survived, but has become one of the most important sources of labor activism in LA.

The book does full justice to the images, and in a huge step forward for photography books, has a fully bilingual text, making it accessible to the community De Cesare documents (and increasing its marketing potential significantly). It does, however, put the full photo captions in a group at the back. This deprives the images of important context, and depoliticizes some of them. Without captions, a boy with a taped-together rifle is almost just another child with a gun. Also, some of the images are run across two pages. This allows for larger images, but the gutter running through them makes it harder to see each image as a whole.

Unsettled/Desasosiego is a tremendous achievement, and shows the depth of understanding and documentation made possible through many years of work and commitment by a brilliant photographer.

David Bacon is a widely-published documentary photographer and writer in California, whose latest book is The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013).

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