Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Book Review by David Bacon
Afterimage, Vol. 42, no. 2 

Unsettled/Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs
Photographs by Donna De Cesare
University of Texas Press, 2013
164 pp./$65.00 (hb)

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 MartÆ 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 Salvadorans  that 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 MartÆn-Barù, 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 Usulutçn 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). 

Monday, August 11, 2014


The Story of Natalia Bautista
Told to David Bacon
The Journal of Transborder Studies, #2 Summer 2014

Natalia Bautista was born in a Mixteco family that had migrated to north Mexico to work as farm laborers.  She became involved in the strikes that changed the conditions for workers in Baja California in the 1980s, and today lives in Santa Maria, where she is a community organizer.  She told the story of those strikes to David Bacon.

Natalia Bautista talks to a Mixtec family living in an apartment complex in Santa Maria.  In the spring and summer they work picking strawberries.

Well I am from Oaxaca.  I have always stated that because my mother is from Santiago Tiña and my father is from Rancho Diego Mixtepec.  But my parents left Oaxaca in the 70's.  They moved to Veracruz to work in the sugar cane fields and that is where I was born.

My parents are farm workers.  They left their hometown due to economic problems, just like everyone else.  They first moved to Veracruz, and from there the moved to Sinaloa and stayed there for a while.  They then left to Sonora and eventually came to Baja California Norte.  When we arrived I was already six years old.  That is where I have my first memories of growing up and seeing my parents work.  I remember my father working at a ranch by the name of Rancho Caña.  That is where we grew up.

Cucumber pickers, migrant farm workers from Oaxaca, on the back of a pickup truck, waiting to be taken to the fields to work.

We first arrived in a little town named Vicente Guerrero.  My father rented a small house from a family from Jalisco.  He worked in the fields just outside the neighborhood.   My father then met the owner of the ranch and asked if we could live there.  I don't know the details, but that's where we ended up.  My father built a small house out of cardboard and covered it with plastic.

We stayed in that house for four years, as long as my father worked on that ranch.  We wouldn't have left if my father hadn't been fired.  I remember him coming home telling us we had to leave.  My father, my brother and other workers then refused to get out until they were compensated.  That is the first time I remember hearing that workers had rights and could organize.

A young boy getting ready to go into the field to pick tomatoes on the ranch of the Santa Cruz Packing Co., owned by the Castañeda family.

Those topics weren't covered in school.  In fact, I didn't attend school very much.  I only went up to third grade.  I remember not passing first grade on two occasions because I didn't speak Spanish.  Learning the alphabet was difficult for me. It was something completely foreign from what we spoke at home.  My parents were Mixteco, so we only spoke our language.  I began working when I was eight, picking brussels sprouts with my aunt and mother.

My father was fired after having organized the other workers.  I don't recall if it was my father or brother who first realized they had to organize.  I remember them traveling to Ensenada to seek support.  I would listen to them talk and I remember they said they'd met with a woman named Norma, from an organization that would support their efforts.  They held their meetings and completed the paperwork to ask for compensation.  The company finally paid them and my father and brother pooled their money to purchase a small plot of land.  That is where we grew up, in the Benito Juarez neighborhood.  The majority of those receiving compensation moved there.  My brother still lives there. 

Isabel Zaragoza and her infant daughter Lagoberta, live in a labor camp in Vicente Guerrero, a town in the San Quintin Valley.  She and her husband arrived a few months ago from Oaxaca.  They work as migrant farm workers in the fields, picking tomatoes.

As a kid, you just like being in the mix when adults are talking.  When you're young, you try to become involved in adult conversations, and it was interesting to me.  I remember my father and brother organizing.  That's when I learned that workers had rights, and you couldn't simply let them go and treat them like animals.  When my father told us that he had been compensated and we were moving, I remember thinking, "Wow, this works and it's a right."  I walked away thinking that we were humans.  The people who moved with us were like-minded folks, with similar ideas and goals. 

Later they all came together to fight for electricity and running water.  I learned you had to keep fighting and organizing in order to improve your living conditions.  When we first moved, we had to a walk long distance for clean water.  We would carry our clothing to wash it at the water source.  Everyone began to talk about the need for electricity and water.  Soon after, folks from Sinaloa who were familiar with organizing came to help.  They encouraged us to also think about our rights as farm workers.

Marcial Sayas Flores, a disabled farmworker, lives in a labor camp for migrants owned by a wealthy rancher, Don Daniel Gonzalez.

The organizers who came were from CIOAC [the Confederacion Independente de Obreros Agricolas y Campesinos - the Independent Confederation of Farm Workers and Farmers] -- the Garcia brothers, Benito and Fernando.  My father knew them because their parents were also from San Juan Mixtepec.  My father offered our house as a place to meet.  By then, they had already organized workers in various camps.  It seemed to happen so fast -- by the time I realized it, they were already painting signs, making banners and talking about a grand march.  It was very exciting. 

This happened around 1985.  I was young, probably 13 or 14 years old.  I really don't know how to explain it, but the next thing I knew there were lots of people from Ensenada and Tijuana coming over to the house.  Now that I analyze it as an adult, I realize the majority were from the Mexican Socialist Party.  I met a lot of them.  They came to offer support and help in any way they could.  They supported the workers in various ways, but it was basically a conversation of ideas.  I contributed by serving food and coffee. 

Celerino Garcia, the brother of Benito Garcia and the first Mixtec indigenous candidate, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, for the Mexican Federal Chamber of Deputies from the Valle de San Quintin in Baja California. 

Finally the day of the march arrived.  We all participated and nobody worked.  The strike was very impressive.  It was huge and spread through the entire Vicente Guerrero neighborhood.  There were different labor camps involved.  It began with the workers from Rancho del Mar and then a neighboring ranch.  They agreed that nobody would show up for work, and if someone did, they would throw tomatoes at them until they stopped working.  Most elected to participate in the march, so I didn't see anyone pelted with tomatoes with my own eyes.  You had to participate because it was for your rights.  All the workers from the different companies met in the middle to form a large group.

In those times, they were asking for a salary increase and better working conditions.  They also asked for better treatment from the foremen, a set lunch period and for buckets that weren't so heavy.  The most important request was for a salary increase.  Back then they were asking for 1,500 pesos.  That was before the devaluation of the peso.  The strike won higher wages and transportation for the workers.  They were first transported in the large tomato containers, but after the strike they were transported in buses. 

Beatriz Chavez, a farm worker organizer for CIOAC, cheers at the last rally of of Celerino Garcia's election campaign.  She was later imprisoned for her activity defending the housing rights of farm workers.

The CIOAC organization set up shop there permanently as a labor union.  They fought for labor rights of farm workers. And the union received support from the political party leaders.  The political party established itself with the workers after the strike.  It became a partnership, where workers felt they could be part of the union that helped protect their rights, and also affiliate themselves with the party.

In those days, I think both the union and political party were fundamental.  The party wasn't there solely for your vote.  It was a party that worked in support of the workers and the union.  If there was a work stoppage having to do with labor, the party was there to help.  Party leaders were intimately involved.  You have a right to organize, but you need a labor group to back up your ideas.

Celedonio Marcelo Raja, a farm worker, at, the last rally of of Celerino Garcia's election campaign.  Marcelo said he was 102 years old, and remembered the events of the Mexican Revolution.

When they met with large groups of workers, they spoke more about labor rights.  At the organization level, then they talked more about ideas.  Party leaders would speak to the workers about the government system and talked about struggles around the world, like the labor struggles in Russia and Nicaragua.  I remember being in awe after hearing them speak.  I felt that they understood what was happening in the world, and that my ideas were important.  I was very impressed.  Party leaders spoke of changing the system and establishing a new and different government.  I imagined a marvelous place, but we're still waiting for that.

The CIOAC activists that helped organize came up from Sinaloa, Sonora and San Quentin.  But they were originally from Mixtepec in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca people have had their own struggles.  Two years ago I accompanied my father to Oaxaca and asked him how the town's school was built.  He said it was a community struggle.  After so many people started migrating, they encountered a different world with different rules and structure. 

Hieronyma Hernandez picks strawberries in a crew of indigenous Oaxacan farm workers, in a field near Santa Maria.  Many members of the crew are Mixtec migrants from San Vincente in Oaxaca. Mexico.  The earth in the beds is covered in plastic, while in between the workers walk in sand and mud.

I think that is where the idea of change came about.  Benito and Fernando say that idea began in Sinaloa.  They worked in the fields and experienced what all workers faced.  They met people involved in the party with the same ideas, who were already trying to mobilize workers.  That is how they became involved in the movement in Sinaloa, and eventually in Baja California.

After the strike I got married.  I fell in love with the movement, the ideology and everything else.  Two years after meeting him, I married Benito.  He continued his participation in the party.  I still held on to the dream of a large labor union that was able to improve the lives and working conditions of workers. 

Natalia Bautista in her home in Santa Maria, surrounded by paintings by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Fernando and I still have that dream, but he did the hard work.  He was one of the most influential people of that time and movement.  He gets little recognition, but he did all the work.  He would give his life for the movement, and is the one who wouldn't sleep so that he could reach the most isolated camps.  He kept the idea of organizing the workers alive and would constantly remind them that they had rights.  The brothers split up after a few years because Fernando returned to Sinaloa and Benito stayed in Baja. 

I supported my partner, whether it was a march, meeting, campaign or the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cardenas.  That was the first time we thought we were going to have real change in this country.  It wasn't going to be total change, but a real movement forward.  He was our hope, because all of the groups aligned with him.  We really thought we were going to do it.  My children and I helped spread his message.  We tried.  We won.  We actually won.  But those in power didn't permit the change. The people still resist and want a different government.