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Picture This: Donna DeCesare gets inside the world of Central American gangs

Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old
Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old "Esperanza" named her pet pigeon after her wheelchair-bound teenaged uncle. He was shot by a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting.
Donna DeCesare
Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old
San Salvador, El Salvador, 1989. In the 1980s El Salvador had one of our hemisphere's worst human rights records. This victim was allegedly murdered by government death squads for violating curfew during the guerrilla offensive in November.
Donna DeCesare
Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old
San Salvador, El Salvador, 2009. At a leadership training workshop on gender rights, a group of young women from one of the most impoverished and violent barrios, lists their suggestions for how to reduce violence in Salvadoran society.
Donna DeCesare
Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old
Apopa, El Salvador, 1995. After Jose Bolaños, the original "Shy Boy," was murdered, his youngest brother, Edgar, tattooed a tombstone memorial on his back and began hanging out in gang crash pads.
Donna DeCesare
Watts, Los Angeles, 1994. Three-year-old
La Unión, El Salvador, 1988. A 13-year-old soldier sits in a classroom at the Salvadoran Army basic training center in La Unión.
Donna DeCesare

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Warning: Some images are graphic in nature.

Central American immigrants flooded into the United States throughout the 1980s and '90s after fleeing brutal civil wars. Though the States provided a safe haven from the systematic violence of places like El Salvador and Guatemala, many of these new Americans carried with them the trauma of the violence they witnessed back home. 

Award-winning photojournalist Donna DeCesare spent years traveling to Central America — El Salvador in particular — to capture the lives of those affected by civil war. She witnessed the aftermath of a government firing squad enforcing a curfew, the execution of Jesuit priests and images of young children unfazed by the violence around them.

RELATED: KPCC's AudioVision has more photographs from Donna DeCesare

Later, DeCesare focused her lens on Los Angeles, a city where many Central American immigrants settled after fleeing war, and found that the scars of their youth translated into their new lives as Americans. These conflicts and their aftermath are the subject of DeCesare's new book, "Unsettled." 

DeCesare joined the show to tell us how her work took her from the war zones of Central America, to the ganglands of Los Angeles, starting with her first trip to El Salvador in 1987.

Interview Highlights:

On why she decided to focus on El Salvador:
"I had covered conflicts in Northern Ireland, I'm part Irish, i'm Italian. I was doing a story for a newspaper in Ireland and met some Salvadoran refugees who were living in sanctuary in Berkeley, California in 1984. That's what got me really interested in El Salvador. I thought, I really should go there."

On the image of Esperanza, the 3-year-old with a pet pigeon (Image 1):
"This was a moment that occurred when I was talking to her grandmother. I saw out of the corner of my eye that the child was jumping on the bed. The door they lived in a very tiny apartment in Watts, and the light was flooding in and I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye a gun on the bed. That alarmed me. She was jumping, and as she went down on the bed the gun got closer to her from that movement and then she grabbed the pigeon that was in their house. She told me afterward that the pigeon was named Giovanni for her uncle who was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. But she also asked me if I wanted to see the other guns. And I said no."

On the image of the young girl and the man killed for violating curfew (Image 2):
"That was the morning after and that man, according to the people who I had talked to, had been killed by a military death squad the night before. That little child standing there looking down the street, I think what got me most about it was the expression on her face, there's a kind of wary look on her face. Not a shocked look, so she's already seen a lot of death, so that's first of all what that tells me, but that she's more concerned about what's happening out of the frame than what's actually in front of her. It makes you feel that there's a sense of danger still. That she's concerned about what else might happen."

On the most shocking thing about photographing child soldiers:
"That there were child soldiers in the insurgency wasn't so shocking, children were orphaned and often if their parents were killed by the army, the only family they would have were the guerillas. To see children involved was tragic, but it wasn't surprising to me as to see children involved in the army. These were young boys who hadn't joined voluntarily, they'd been taken off of buses. One child came up to me and told me that his mother must be worried about him because he never came home from visiting his grandmother."

On Frankin Torres, an LA gang member from El Salvador:
"Franklin grew up in a very, very conflicted area of El Salvador, and his mother decided for his safety that they should leave. So they went to Los Angeles, and when he got here, he said when he went to school he got made fun of, he came to school in a white shirt, tie, his mom dressed him up the way kids in El Salvador dressed in their very best. The kids at school made fun of him. He was living in a neighborhood where gangs were very prevalent and he ended up joining the 18th Street Gang."

On how young Salvadoran immigrants in LA are carrying the scars of war:
"Many of the children who came here witnessed human rights abuses, some of them saw their own parents killed in front of them, sometimes they had histories of being involved as child soldiers as well. So that traumatic legacy is something that people carry with them. Anyone who experiences war carries the impact of that for the rest of their lives, but the kids didn't have anyone they could talk to about this stuff, and most of the parents didn't want to talk about it. So it was among themselves, the gang members together, that was the place where it was safe to talk about their experiences to each other. Many of the kids that I met when I started doing this work were that first generation who had experiences of tremendous childhood trauma."

See Donna DeCesare speak on May 9 at the Annenberg Space for Photography for the Iris Nights Lecture Series, from 6:30-8pm.