Only Their Names Die: A Portrait of El Salvador • Moises Saman • Magnum Photos

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Only Their Names Die: A Portrait of El Salvador

Reflecting on Moises Saman's work made in the country, alongside five poems by Roque Dalton

Moises Saman

The mother of a suspected "Calle 18" gang member Rigoberto Carrillo, stands next to her son before he is taken away by Salvadoran police during a raid in the Panchimalco district on the outskirts o (...)

Magnum photographer Moises Saman has worked in El Salvador on numerous occasions between 2007 and 2018 covering urban crime – including one of the country’s most notorious gangs, MS-13 – and its effects upon urban populations and prisons. His work also focused upon post-war poverty, rural flight, and ultimately the mass emigration from the country in the form of the Migrant Caravan moving northward through Central America in late 2018 and into 2019. Saman suggests that to a certain extent, these unfortunate phenomena have been subsumed into the national identity: “Over the years I began to realize that these issues also intersect in ways that have transformed the social structure of the country, and in some instances they have become part of the culture; such is the case with migration.”

Seeing each of these troubling areas as interdependent in keeping El Salvador in a state of crisis, Saman notes that there are still many moments of beauty and celebration in the work he has made there: that the work is, “simply a reflection of life in a place as violent, and full of contradictions as El Salvador.” He sees these contradictions and complexities echoed in the work of Roque Dalton, one of El Salvador’s most celebrated writers.

Roque Antonio Dalton García, a leftist poet, activist and journalist – exiled from the country in 1961 for his political activities – spent time in Mexico and post-revolution Cuba, where he became active within the pan-Latin literary-group, Casa de las Américas.

After returning to El Salvador and continuing his work in leftist literary, political and revolutionary circles, Dalton was killed in 1975, just before his 40th birthday. Though no one has ever been formally charged, and Dalton’s body is yet to be found, the killing is widely understood to have been carried out by members of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP). The ERP was a revolutionary group that Dalton was a member of himself – which operated under the umbrella of the left wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and was riven with infighting and personal animosities among high profile members.

Dalton’s work often dwells upon the state of his homeland, particularly the horrors of crime, violence, war, and imprisonment – and can be brutal in language and imagery. Yet it is also at times upbeat, and its vividness speaking of love and beauty as much as it does of pain and darkness.

Saman found this duality in Dalton’s work, and his view of El Salvador  to be inspirational during his time in the country. He notes the unfortunate aptness of the writer’s difficult life and senseless death, focused as Dalton was on capturing his country’s contradictions and brutalities, “[His] life and tragic death could be metaphor for the country itself, but I was mostly drawn to the conflicting love-hate relationship that he had with his country, which he expressed through his poetry. I found this contradiction incredibly inspiring when trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless violence that continues to beset El Salvador.”

Warning: This article includes numerous graphic images that readers may find upsetting

Moises Saman An incarcerated MS13 gang member smokes a cigarette inside the Chalatenango prison. Chalatenango. El Salvador. May, 2007. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

"Who are you but this numbered monkey with a gun, shepherd of keys and hatred, flashing the light in my face?"

- Roque Dalton

THE NATIONAL SOUL

Dismembered country, you slip
into my house like a little poisoned pill.
Who are you, crawling with masters
like a bitch scratching herself on the trees
she pisses on? Who put up with your symbols
and your gestures—a girl’s smelling of mahongany—
knowing you had been stripped by the rapist’s drool?
Is there anyone who isn’t fed up with your smallness?
Anyone you can still get to honor and watch over you?
What do they call you now that, ripped to shreds,
you’re the whole future in its last gasps in the mud?
Who are you
but this numbered monkey with a gun, shepherd
of keys and hatred, flashing the light in my face?
I’ve had enough of you, my sleeping-beauty
mother stinking up the night with your jails:
I’m being eaten up inside now by my work,
This stalking that turns the good son into a deserter,
The young dude into someone dead from lack of sleep
and the nice kid into a hungry mugger.

Central Prison, October 1960

Moises Saman Merchants working in the Tiendona market in central San Salvador. This market is controlled by gangs that extort its merchants for money. San Salvador. El Salvador. 4 October, 2018. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman San Salvador. El Salvador. 21 September, 2018. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman After a brief chase, a policeman arrests a suspected gang member involved in the carjacking of a truck. The police then brought the victims of the carjacking to the scene of the arrest, where the v (...)
Moises Saman Students and parents during rehearsals for El Salvador's Independence Day celebrations at the Centro Escolar Valle del Sol. Colonia Valle del Sol, Apopa. El Salvador. September 9, 2016. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Memorial for a young man killed by gang violence in San Salvador. El Salvador. 2007. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

"The almond trees injured by the winter’s high tides know my grieving because they fell in it again and again"

- Roque Dalton
Moises Saman A female gang member is found raped and murdered on a road in the town of Ilopango, on the outskirts of San Salvador. Ilopango. El Salvador. May 2007. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

A DEAD GIRL IN THE OCEAN

Because you had returned the ethereal body of that girl to me
intact in the dampness
of her death, deep like the slumber of seashells,
and because you weren’t sorry for me and my mortal bewilderment
—waterspout in an eye wounded by the old search—
I was the one left out of it, the one with no right to tears.

Now it’s late for all that.

What was my crime except love?
And where did she die
except in the waters of my love?

The almond trees injured by the winter’s high tides
know my grieving because they fell in it again and again.
They are the green mirrors,
the green comforts of my distress.

The rest of you,
count this lack of wisdom among my deficits of love.

Let my steps, ocean, head towards you,
owner of my dead girl.

Moises Saman A dog walks next to a day laborer awaiting for work on a street in Intipuca, a town known for the number of immigrants that now live in the United States. In Intipuca central square, Emigrants Park (...)
Moises Saman Alleged gang members arrested during a raid wait to be processed outside a police station in San Salvador. San Salvador. El Salvador. September 9, 2016. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

"Only those who live outside the prisons can honor the corpses, wash off the grief for their dead ones with embraces, scratch up the grave with fingernail and tears"

- Roque Dalton
Moises Saman A thief lays dead inside a bus after a passenger shot him dead in self-defense during a botched robbery in downtown San Salvador. San Salvador. El Salvador. 30 September, 2018. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Street scene in the town of Intipuca, a town known for the number of immigrants that now live in the United States. In Intipuca central square, Emigrants Park, boasts a monument to local farmer Sig (...)
Moises Saman Framed photographs of family members living in the United Sates are hanged on the wall of Catalina Silva de Medina, a resident of Intipuca. Some 5.3 million Central American immigrants live in the (...)

"How can I hope, down in this rotten hole, to take in more than newsprint, the sheen of delicate black letters..."

- Roque Dalton
Moises Saman A local fisherman stands on the shore in the Bay of Jiquilisco opposite the Chaparrastique volcanoe in the Usulutan district of El Salvador. Corral de Mulas, Usulutan. El Salvador. 27 September, 2018. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

BAD NEWS ON A SCRAP OF NEWSPAPER

Nowadays when my friends die
only their names die.

How can I hope, down in this rotten hole,
to take in more than newsprint,
the sheen of delicate black letters,
arrows deep into personal memories?

Only those who live outside the prisons
can honor the corpses, wash off
the grief for their dead ones with embraces,
scratch up the grave with fingernail and tears.

Not those of us in jail: we just whistle
to let the sound play down the news.

Moises Saman Incarcerated members of the MS13 gang in their sleeping quarters inside the Chalatenango prison in El Salvador, one of the prisons in El Salvador where the "Yo Cambio" (I Change) program of gang re (...)

"Give me your hands and some shade, but a shade gentle and cold, a darkness so thick even the fireflies have been driven out"

- Roque Dalton
Moises Saman About 600 Salvadorian families displaced from their homes in violent neighborhoods on the outskirts of San Salvador now live in a makeshift camp near the town of Soyapango, south of the Salvadorian (...)
Moises Saman A policeman covers his face during the funeral of Jose Antonio Alfaro Rodriguez, a 31-year-old policeman that was murdered by gang members while off-duty in front of his home in the Ciudad Arce dis (...)
Moises Saman Children with trophees at a soccer tournament organized by the community to keep kids out of gangs. San Salvador. El Salvador. 2007. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Students and parents during rehearsals for El Salvador's Independence Day celebrations at the Centro Escolar Valle del Sol. Colonia Valle del Sol, Apopa. El Salvador. September 9, 2016. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

THE TROPICS

Noon strikes
Like the shattering of the clay pigeons
On the breasts of the white doves as they fall.

It’s just that here everything burns:
the grass underneath your feet,
the leaves in your face, on your hands,
the water in the well that wanted to be blind.

How can anyone think of making love in this fire?

Just the same we even delight in our thirst.

(Give me your hands and some shade,
but a shade gentle and cold, a darkness so thick
even the fireflies have been driven out.)

Panting,
Your face tumbles downward, sinking into the moss,
my heart

Move your side of burning coals away from me, naked one…

Moises Saman Salvadoran migrants rush to jump a fence to exit a restricted official border crossing area between Guatemala and Mexico at Tecun Uman. The migrants refused to stay in the area after Mexican immigr (...)
Moises Saman Dozens of Salvadorian migrants, part of a caravan of hundreds of migrants from El Salvador making their way toward the United States, ride inside a container trailer on their way to the Salvador-Gu (...)
Moises Saman A caravan of Salvadoran migrants cross the Suchiate river border from Guatemala into Mexico after Mexican immigration authorities declined their request to legally transit through Mexican territory (...)

DREAM AWAY FROM TIME

There was a time
when I knew a lot about the dead.

Whenever I stopped to face the night
in the last streets my sorrow
could bear,
I would make out their voices clearly,
hailing me through my country’s mist
and reminding me over and over
that some day I’d have to throw in my lot
with the infinity ice of bodies that were lost.

I knew how the dead whirled around
shaking their terrifying crystal manes,
wearing the ivy’s battle dress,
eager to use their sacred animal selves
they had saved up from this life.

God was someone dead I couldn’t understand.

Learning how to die,
that’s what life was.

Now
after new hymns, new oceans of tears,
after new eyes present behind the numbers,
from steady, cruel, never-ending bonfires,
from silent houses
where husbands love their naked brides,
from the dead body in the hospital
solid friend unmoved by my question,
from winters that bleed ahead of time,
from churches that grow on and on
over the initials of the salve, I
know
    that
        the
            dead
                raised
                    their
                        flag
and let us, miserable sons of oblivion,
to the life we still have to build,
country, sea or cosmic life,
cleansed of the old obstacles
(of darkness or special silences)
and of its solemn images
and secret outcries
hidden in the trees.

The dead are dead.
They’ve stayed behind.
Dead.

Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)
Moises Saman The annotated diaries of Salvadorian Forensic Criminologist Israel Ticas document his daily work on the front lines of gang-related violence. Some of the gruesome daily entries include detailed pho (...)

"Panting, your face tumbles downward, sinking into the moss, my heart, move your side of burning coals away from me, naked one…"

- Roque Dalton
Moises Saman EL SALVADOR. September 15, 2016. Santiago, a senior member and spokesman of the Sureños faction of the 18th Street gang poses for a portrait at an undisclosed location in El Salvador. Since 2007, S (...)