Karma brought Donna De Cesare to the Los Angeles home of 3-year-old Esperanza in 1994 when she captured one of her most famous photographs of the girl holding a pigeon while a gun rests next to her on a bed.
De Cesare, an award-winning photographer and associate professor in the School of Journalism, captured the fleeting moment while waiting eight hours for Esperanza’s 15-year-old cousin Giovanni to return home so she could give him his first birthday cake.
The gun in the photo was one Giovanni used for protection after he was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw his niece jumping on the bed. She plopped down and a gun on the bed came closer to her,” De Cesare said. “At the same time a bird flew up and she clasped it in her hand. That’s karma. If you do good things, good things happen to you in return. If I had left earlier I would have missed that picture.”
The image is one of more than 30 by De Cesare in the Harry Ransom Center’s new exhibit, “Inside El Salvador,” running through Aug. 3.
The photography exhibition of more than 100 black-and-white images focuses on El Salvador ‘s civil war and its aftermath.
“I want people to take away a better understanding of these people and this time,” De Cesare said.
“Historic visual records, these photographs are vital eyewitness testament to the humanity and struggles of the Salvadoran people,” she said. “They also serve as crucial reminders of past human rights abuses that continue to haunt us to this day.”
The section with DeCesare’s images is called “El Salvador Inside Out.” It begins by covering the end of the civil war and then forms two stories that trace the tragedy of youth violence from its origins in Los Angeles back to El Salvador.
The first story follows Jessica Diaz as she attempts to break the vicious circle of violence trapping her family. Government officials in El Salvador shot her father in front of her and her brothers were in gangs.
De Cesare first documented Diaz from the Ventura Juvenile Correctional Facility when she was 16. Many of the images in the exhibit show Diaz after she was released and adjusting to life.
“She got out and fell in love and got a job. Success for these kids is if they aren’t in prison or dead,” De Cesare said.
De Cesare reconnected with Diaz years later when she was reaching out for help.
“She still struggled with addiction issues and was calling for help, De Cesare said.”
De Cesare put her in touch with someone but then lost contact again.
The second story follows Edgar Bolaños, whose mother sent him back to El Salvador, naively believing he will be safe from the world of gangs that killed his brother, but the L.A. gangs were in El Salvador, too.
In one image Bolaños holds a baby.
“I want a family of my own, but first I need a house, a job, I need a future,” he said.
This never happened for Bolaños. He was killed in 1999.
The images of Diaz and Bolaños were part of De Cesare’s work documenting the rise of street gangs in Los Angeles, specifically the Salvadoran gangs.
De Cesare said she wants people viewing her images to take away a better understanding of why people get involved in gangs.
“Wanting to do criminal things isn’t the first reason,” she said. “There is something else there and we aren’t addressing that. It is more about emotional and psychological scars.”
De Cesare said many just want someone who will listen and be compassionate to their struggles.
“Edgar was trying to find someone who had a sympathetic ear,” she said. “He was very protective of me. I was never afraid. We need to care more than we fear.”