In the summer of 1983, renowned British photographer Janette Beckman embarked on a project in Los Angeles that would epitomise her predilection for all that was seen as rebel, outlaw and on the periphery of mainstream culture. Janette Beckman had read about the East L.A. gang El Hoyo Maravilla whilst in L.A. that summer staying with a friend. She was immediately fascinated by what she had read and wanted to know more. The story, which was featured in one of Los Angeles’ newspapers, was not accompanied by any photographs. Janette wanted to find them and take her own. After contacting the writer of the story and persuading him to introduce her to the gang, Beckman rented a car and drove to unincorporated East Los Angeles to meet them. In order to break the ice Janette showed the gang pictures she had taken of what she described as the “gangs of England” — punks, mods and other youth subcultures prevalent at the time. She explained to members of El Hoyo Maravilla that she wanted to document their lives so she could show people in London. They agreed. She spent that summer driving back and forth from Hollywood to East L.A. photographing El Hoyo Maravilla. Beckman says that she was advised against going due to the terrible reputation of the area, but she was undeterred. She needed to know more.
The Hoyo MaraVilla (HMV), also known as El Hoyo Maravilla, is a Mexican-American criminal street gang with a long history in this part of East Los Angeles, originating in 1935. “The first generation were known as the ‘Originals’ and the second generation were known as the ‘Cherries,'” according to United Gangs. “El Hoyo has spawned over fifteen cliques throughout the course of their history, such as Ganzos, Locos, Monstros and the Stoners,” and “were the first subset of the Maravilla Gangs to originate in East Los Angeles.” Bob Baker, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, mentions in a 1988 article that “masses of Mexicans, displaced by development in Los Angeles’ Civic Center, began migrating across the Los Angeles River to East Los Angeles in the 1920s, melding with a larger number of immigrants from Mexico. They settled in communities that retain their original names: Maravilla, City Terrace and others.” It was here that the East L.A. gang was born.
The unincorporated East L.A. area El Hoyo Maravilla hail from was, as Janette Beckman observed, “poor, hot and arid.” She went on to say that “there was the constant sound of LAPD helicopters buzzing overhead.” But this was not the only story. What Janette Beckman discovered once meeting El Hoyo Maravilla was a group of young people she referred to as a tribe, not dissimilar to the youth tribes she had been photographing in London in the mid to late 1970s. Those “tribes” were British punks, skinheads, mods, rockers, ska and rockabilly kids. Beckman’s work with British punks allowed her to understand what she terms as rebel culture — that which existed on the sidelines of mainstream society. She embraced attitudes that resisted conformity, that were cutting-edge and thrived on their own norms and standards. This is what attracted her to El Hoyo Maravilla and led her to document their style, neighbourhood and life during that long, hot summer.
What is so striking about Janette Beckman’s photo essay is the beauty of the photographs and her ability to capture the humanity of the young people she came to befriend. There is a certain toughness in the photos which no doubt is there due to the fact that those photographed were members of El Hoyo Maravilla, but you would never readily associate those in the photographs with being in a gang unless you knew of El Hoyo Maravilla. There is a beauty also, and Beckman captures that well. The ladies are bad chicks — they wear make-up, shave and pencil on their eyebrows, have flowing curls and wear what would have been fashionable outfits back in 1983. The photographs relay the style of these young men and women — the ladies glamorous and feminine, the guys smart in starched trousers, white vests and slicked back hair. It is evident from the photographs that El Hoyo Maravilla took pride in themselves and the way they were represented. They appear more as a clique than anything else.
This photo essay is extraordinary because Janette Beckman sought to capture the essence of El Hoyo Maravilla, who they were as young people who had a deeper story — which, as Glitterati Incorporated puts it, was a story “of family, of a group of people that were native to California before, during and after the Spanish and American occupation and acquisition of the land over the past three hundred years.” Beckman wanted her photo essay to dig a little deeper and disclose a people who were tied to their community and families and proud of their heritage and roots. Beckman said that as she spent more time with El Hoyo Maravilla members, she was introduced to family members and the structure of the gang was explained to her. She says, “It was like meeting a big family. They were all delightful.”
What Janette Beckman did with the El Hoyo Maravilla series was very apt for the medium of photography. The photo essay captured the experience of El Hoyo Maravilla as it existed back in the beginning of the 1980s. It captured a minority experience and catapulted it into people’s lives, giving them insight into a world they may have had no previous knowledge of. The photos were considered too raw at the time and remained in Beckman’s personal collection until 2011, when they were published as a monograph by Dashwood Books entitled El Hoyo Maravilla. This series tells the story of people who wanted their lives to be understood, even if it is only through a series of photographs. Beckman’s photo essay could have been dark and menacing, but it is instead focused on “the love that exists in the community and the self-love that comes from pride.” What is so powerful about these photographs is their ability to transform the chaotic, often violent world of El Hoyo Maravilla into something that exudes beauty and deep passion.
Janette Beckman didn’t want what she did with El Hoyo Maravilla to be about the negative aspect of gang life — an expose on violence or about politics or oppression. She wanted it to be about the true nature of the young people she met in East L.A. back in ‘83. El Hoyo Maravilla, like that of many other gangs, are predominantly only mentioned in the news media in relation to gang violence and crime. Those involved in gangs and gang-related activities are themselves simply statistics. Those associated with gangs are cannon fodder in a judicial system that sees them as problems — young men and women who are a blot on the fabric of society in need of removing. Latino gangs are themselves often associated with extreme levels of violence and, it is believed, are made up of what is termed as large proportions of immigrants from Latin America. In a Voices of NY interview, Deanna Rodriguez, the prosecutor in charge of the Brooklyn district attorney’s gang unit, describes Latino gangs as “more violent” than other gangs. She also said they are renowned “for using knives and daggers” and for being very strong.
What many media reports tend to overlook is that Chicano gangs, like that of El Hoyo Maravilla, have roots and a long history that is tied up in a tradition of clannish violence that has been passed down through generations. These Chicano gangs were forged on the kind of blood ties that eternally bind them to family, community and soil. In the same 1988 article, Baker writes that Chicano gang violence is “diffused through many barrios, rather than being concentrated in a single area like South-Central Los Angeles.”
In the same article Bob Baker interviews Linda Castillo, a street intervention worker with the city’s Community Youth Gang Services, who says, “What we try to reinforce is that we need to respect each other’s neighbourhood, each other’s property, whether your wife, children, husband. Anything you want, you have it in your own neighborhood.” The article goes on to describe “a code” that was “born of remote, segregated barrios, forged in an era when most adults, let alone children, did not have cars, when the outside world was just that, when each neighborhood felt the need to huddle against unknown forces, when connection with Mexican culture was strong.” The code included: “a distinct set of traditions, rules and taboos passed down for generations. Violence, it is said, was not committed randomly, only to settle specific scores. You did not shoot into someone’s house. You did not attack bystanders. You did not jump a rival gang member if you saw him walking with his family.” Much of this code governed Chicano gangs in their infancy, but has been eroded over time.
East L.A.’s large Latino community, though fraught with problems like racism, police brutality, poverty, gangs and crime, has maintained a great sense of community and self-determination. The community continues to fight for the rights of Latino/as living in the area. Grant Joseph Silva, in David J. Leonard’s and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo’s Latino History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, as “a place of hope, cultural identity, and historical resonance whose reputation as a strong Latino community contributes vitally to the diversity of greater Los Angeles and the entire United States.” The cultural and familial ties that exist within gangs like that of El Hoyo Maravilla are rarely examined by the media, and it is easy to see why. The cholos and vatos commit criminal acts that are dealt with accordingly, but things run so much deeper. Janette Beckman’s El Hoyo Maravilla were people whose style represented everything they stood for. It was their tattoos, outfits, physical appearance, cultural identity, neighbourhood and family. Style for them was gangster.
In 2014 the El Hoyo Maravilla photo essay became part of an exhibition of Janette Beckman’s work entitled “Rebel Cultures: Punks, Rap and Gangs” in Los Angeles. Beckman has revealed that most of the Hoyo Maravilla guys photographed are either in jail or have passed away. But what is more important is the enduring power of her photo essay to captivate and draw people in to the lives of those who were a part of El Hoyo Maravilla and the East L.A. community. On seeing one of the famous photos in the El Hoyo Maravilla collection, an image of the “the Riviera Bad Girls,” I was struck by the beauty of the ladies and just how normal they looked. This is what Janette Beckman wanted. Rudolfo Acuna, a noted Chicano historian said in Baker’s 1988 article that “the cholo, however distorted his life may be, is still trying to keep a sense of being Mexican.” This is essentially what Janette Beckman’s El Hoyo Maravilla reveals, once you are able to dig beneath their troubled layers.
Wendy Hackshaw is a writer from London who is currently researching late-1970s New York City and the cultural and social movements that came out of that period. Her work focuses on revolutionary aspects of style, music and culture. You can follow her @deeshimmer.