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Record Detail

Collection Number:


Collection Name:

Donna DeCesare Photography Collection


DeCesare, Donna

Life Dates:


No. of Items:


Span Dates:



The collection consists of thirty-two gelatin silver prints by Donna Decesare, acquired at the time of the “Inside El Salvador” exhibit. Images begin by documenting the end of the civil war, then follows Jessica Díaz in Los Angeles and Edgar Bolaños in El Salvador as each struggles to break free from haunting and intimate memories of violence and violation. Titles and captions follow:

2008:0029:0001 -- San Antonio de los Ranchos, Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988

"While playing, Abelito, an orphan boy, finds fragments of an American-made mortar that exploded near his home."

2008:0029:0002 -- Sonsonate, El Salvador, 1989

"Lucia Cubas, a cleaning woman residing in Houston, TX, returns to El Salvador to verify for Americas Watch whether the exhumed remains in an unmarked grave are those of her 'disappeared' son. The body showing evidence of torture and execution style murder proves to be that of Lucia’s 32-year-old son, an economics student."

2008:0029:0003 -- Barrio, San Salvador, 1989

"Child near dead civilian reportedly killed by Salvadoran death squads."

2008:0029:0004 -- Jesuit Murders, November, 1989

2008:0029:0005 -- Soyapango, El Salvador, 1989

"While waving white flags, civilians flee aerial strafing and rocketing of their neighborhoods by the military during the guerrilla offensive. While the guerrillas had largely invaded the upper and middle class neighborhoods, the military dropped the bulk of their bombs on the working class residential neighborhoods."

2008:0029:0006 -- U.S.-Mexican Border Crossing, 1991

"Salvadoran youths escaping the conflict in their homeland have dug a pathway to the U.S. side of the new INS border fence intended to stem the flow of illegal migrants."

2008:0029:0007 -- Juvenile Prison, Los Angeles, 1994

"When DeCesare met Jessica Diaz she was at the Ventura Training School, the only juvenile correctional facility in California that interns girls. Jessica spoke of her memories of El Salvador. From the window of their tiny house, three-year-old Jessica had watched as government soldiers took her father outside and shot him in the head. Since then she has been haunted by the memories of other violent deaths."

2008:0029:0008 -- Altar, San Salvador, 1994

"In El Salvador, Jessica’s half-sister Sonia Diaz tapes memorials to her family’s tragedies on the mirror. The photographs show her father who was killed by soldiers, her brother killed in gang wars in Los Angeles, her brother in jail in El Salvador, and her sister Jessica in jail in California. Sonia is the only one of the siblings who didn’t go to Los Angeles and the only one who did not become a gang member."

2008:0029:0009 -- Visiting Day, Los Angeles, 1995

"Jessica embraces her mother Carmen and her son Carlos on visiting day at the Ventura Juvenile Correctional Facility, 1995. Addled by an addiction to crack, she had been persuaded to help her drug dealer rob a bank. 'He said with the money we could go away somewhere else. I hated my life. I wanted to escape as far away as I could.'"

2008:0029:0010 -- Victor Diaz, San Salvador, 1995

"Victor still never talks about it. He was six years old when he saw Salvadoran soldiers murder his father. His tattoos read 'In memory of my father Victor' and 'In memory of my brother Ulises.'"

2008:0029:0011 -- Memorial, Los Angeles, 1997

"Carmen Diaz keeps a memorial to the latest family tragedy in her home in Los Angeles. The murder rate in El Salvador now surpasses the death toll during the war years. Victor Diaz has become part of these tragic statistics. He was murdered in El Salvador in 1996. His family assumes the murder was gang related, but it was never investigated."

2008:0029:0012 -- Jessica and Danny, Los Angles, 1997

"Jessica fell in love with Danny. They steal a moment to themselves. 'I don’t know what I’d do without Danny. He has really supported me.'"

2008:0029:0013 -- Jessica at Home, Los Angeles, 1998

"At first parole was hard for Jessica. She changed her homegirl look but no one would give her a job when they found out about her past. Her son Carlos refused to accept her as his mommy. 'I felt no one loved me and for some weeks I went back to drugs,' she says. Finally she found help and acceptance from the Los Angeles Conservation Corp.: a place to continue her studies, get counseling, and get work experience in community-based environmental projects.

Jessica and Danny are raising their daughter Cassandra together. Although Carlos still lives with his grandmother, Carmen, he visits. Jessica hopes that one day he will come to live with her and Danny. But meanwhile she says, 'Carlos is all my mom has besides me, now that my brothers are gone. We can work it out.'"

2008:0029:0014 -- Bathtime, Los Angeles, 1997

"After watching his grandma Carmen bathe his baby sister Cassandra, Carlos decides to give it a try with his puppy."

2008:0029:0015 -- Family Gathering, Los Angeles, 1997

"On Thanksgiving afternoon friends and family relax at Jessica’s home. Danny advises a young friend against joining a gang."

2008:0029:0016 -- Protest, Los Angeles, 1994

"The symbol Salvadoran activists formerly used to protest the U.S. backed war in their country is now used by immigrant rights groups to protest deportation to Central America and laws that would deny education and health care to the undocumented."

2008:0029:0017 -- Watts, Los Angeles, 1994

"Esperanza holds her lame pet pigeon. She calls it Giovanni after her 15 year-old uncle who was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. Giovanni never leaves home without one of his guns for protection. He hides it in his wheelchair."

2008:0029:0018 -- INS Sweeps, Los Angeles, 1994

"Immigration agents from the Violent Gang Task Force detain youths with tattoos and baggy pants. Anyone without a residency number or some proof of being American citizen is taken to the processing center for a police and immigration check and possible deportation."

2008:0029:0019 -- Suchitoto, El Salvador, 1992

"An image of the promise of peace in El Salvador. An elderly peasant stands over the first corn sprouting on lands that he and fellow villagers were forced to abandon 12 years ago. Now that war has ended they are returning to remake their lives."

2008:0029:0020 -- Edgar Bolaños, San Salvador, 1997

"When Edgar was three years old he witnessed the Salvadoran army massacre the men from his village. His father was rumored to have been 'disappeared' and his uncles were murdered. 'We couldn’t bury them,' Edgar remembers. 'If we tried the soldiers would say we were communists and kill us too. So dogs came and soon there were only bones.' When the army began threatening his mother, Ana, she left. First she went to San Salvador and then to the United States leaving her four sons with her parents. For five years Edgar lived with his grandma and grandpa while his mother saved the money to bring him and her other sons to Los Angeles.

When Edgar’s two older brothers joined the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Los Angeles, his mother sent him back to El Salvador thinking she could save him. He was fourteen years old. But Edgar found that LA gangs wage war in El Salvador, too. After his brother Jose was murdered in Los Angeles, Edgar reacted by taking his dead brother’s gang name 'Shy Boy.' Shortly after Jose’s body was sent for burial in El Salvador, Edgar tattooed his mother’s name Ana and a tombstone with the name 'Shy Boy' on his back. He began hanging out in the gang crash pads in San Salvador that have become his home."

2008:0029:0021 -- Edgar’s Mother, 1997

"In Los Angeles Ana Bolaños frets about fresh uncertainties the new U.S. immigration law brings. In the past Ana could sneak back over the border to see Edgar in El Salvador. But now the INS doesn’t only deport those entering illegally. Those who re-enter illegally, as Ana must, could face prison. She would lose her chances at U.S. citizenship. The separation in their family is especially hard on Ana. She writes to her son often, but he seldom writes back."

2008:0029:0022 --Letter, Santa Ana, 1997

“'My dear Edgar, All I want is for you to have a decent life, to find peace and happiness. I don’t think you will find those things the way you are living now. Why don’t you stay with my father? He is old and could use your help.' When Edgar finishes his mother’s letter there are tears in his eyes."

2008:0029:0023 -- Gang Crash Pad, San Salvador, 1995

"Edgar’s girlfriend 'Little Crazy' (in the foreground) also used to live in Los Angeles. Her mother sent her to El Salvador thinking it would keep her safe from gangs."

2008:0029:0024 -- Shy Boy, San Salvador, 1997

"Embracing his homeboy’s daughter, Shy Boy says: 'I want a family of my own, but first I need a house, a job, I need a future.'"

2008:0029:0025 -- “Crazy Big Gangstas,” 1997

"This corner is territory of the 'Crazy Big Gangstas,' a subgroup or clique of the Mara Salvatrucha gang of Los Angeles. Most of the fifteen and sixteen year old 'gangstas' in this enclave have never lived in Los Angeles."

2008:0029:0026 -- Punishment, San Salvador, 1997

"There has been an argument among the gang members. A homeboy made a pass at another gang member’s wife. The leaders of the Crazy Big Gangsta clique decide to hold a meeting to resolve the dispute. The judgment is called 'giving court.' Punishment takes place during the gang meeting."

2008:0029:0027 -- Revenge Pact, San Salvador, 1996

"One of the top leaders from the Mara Salvatrucha gang has been murdered inside Mariona prison. Homeboys from the San Salvador cliques of Edgar’s gang gather to attend the funeral and make a pact of revenge over their leader’s grave."

2008:0029:0028 -- Piedra, San Salvador, 1997

"Cocaine was once the drug of the wealthy, but now many gang members have become addicted. Edgar’s homeboy Spider prepares piedra, or crack cocaine mixed with marijuana."

2008:0029:0029 --Piedra, San Salvador, 1997

"When Edgar hears rumors that his girlfriend is going with another homeboy, he becomes despondent. 'I feel angry at her, but I love her,' Edgar says. 'Now I don’t care about anything.'"

2008:0029:0030 -- Edgar Bolaños, San Salvador, 1997

“'There are lots of people here who want to kill me. I don’t mean homeboys. I mean the really bad people from the organized crime rings and other people who just hate us.' Some of Edgar’s friends die in gang fights; a death squad known as 'The Black Shadow' murders others."

2008:0029:0031 -- Edgar with His Grandfather, Santa Ana, 1997

“'I was afraid someone would kill me,' Edgar says. 'So I left the city and went to my grandfather’s for a month. Now my girlfriend won’t talk to me.' Edgar thinks of staying to help his grandfather, but he grows restless easily. The backbreaking work the peasants do is too hard for his grandfather, but he misses the action of the city. 'I am proud that we are peasants. Peasants are humble and generous. But I could never settle in the country. I miss the action of the city, then I grow bored of that, too. Wherever I go I want to be someplace else.'”

2008:0029:0032 -- Jose’s Grave, Sonsonate, El Salvador, 1997

"A few miles from the soccer field where the Salvadoran army tortured and murdered his uncles and other men from his village, Edgar searches a cemetery for his brother Jose’s grave. 'My mom brought me back here to El Salvador because Jose told her some Eighteenth Street gang members were going to kill me in Los Angeles,' Edgar says in a low voice. 'The bullet meant for me got him instead.' Edgar now lies in Sonsonate in the same grave with his brother Jose: the fragile light of his dreams extinguished by an assassin’s bullets. Who killed Edgar Bolaños?"

"On January 9, 1999, after breakfast Edgar’s girlfriend began nursing their two-month-old son. He didn’t want to smoke in the house, so he grabbed his cigarettes and told his girl he’d be back in a few minutes. He never returned. Witnesses who spoke with his mother said that a car with polarized windows drove up and someone blasted Edgar’s chest full of bullets. The police claimed they had no clues. But people in the barrio told his mother that the drive-by shooting was done by a death squad of local vigilantes. Edgar was 20 years old."

Accession No(s):



DeCesare, D., Box 1 (2008:0029:0001-0006, 0010, 0019, 0030)
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DeCesare, D., Box 2 (2008:0029:0007-0009, 0011-0018, 0020-0024)
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DeCesare, D., Box 3 (2008:0029:0025-0029, 0031-0032)
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See Also:

Inside El Salvador (2006:0003:0001-0070)

Mattison, Harry (2008:0027:0001)

Record Status:

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