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Janette Beckman, El Hoyo Maravilla (1983)
Janette Beckman, El Hoyo Maravilla (1983)Photography Janette Beckman, courtesy of Dashwood Books

Immortalising Mexican American gang members in 80s LA with tender portraits

Documentary photographer Janette Beckman’s intimate pictures of El Hoyo Maravilla reveal LA’s gangland community in a bygone era

In 1983, British photographer Janette Beckman was in Los Angeles documenting the burgeoning West Coast punk scene. Browsing through the LA Weekly, she became fascinated with an article about El Hoyo Maravilla (HM), a Mexican American street gang based in East LA. “There were no photos to illustrate the story,” Beckman recalls. “After reading the article in the LA Weekly I tracked the writer down and persuaded him to take me to the ‘Hoyo Maravilla Park’ and introduce me.” The result was a series of intimate, tender portraits of this sequestered and intensely private community who existed in a perilous state – in constant conflict with the LAPD, engaged in constant warfare with surrounding gangs. 

As a documentary photographer known for chronicling subcultures, Beckman was naturally drawn to the marginal aspects of the city that usually elided popular representations of LA at that time. “I just wanted to document the East LA culture and style. It was a part of Los Angeles that no one seemed to acknowledge. Back in the day, before the internet, if you thought of LA it was Hollywood, the movies, Beverly Hills, and the music scene.”

You might expect this hidden side of Los Angeles, operating in the everyday space of the city but also quite detatched from it, would be difficult to infiltrate with a camera, but Beckman’s portraits depict people with a surprising willingness and openness to being in front of the lens. “I was the first British person they had met,” she tells me, remembering the “mutual curiosity” that developed between herself and the gang members. Beckman explains how she ingratiated herself with HM, “I brought a box of photos I had taken of British youth, punks, skinheads, two-tone, mods, rockabilly, reggae, and ska fans,” she recalls. “I explained I had been photographing the ‘gangs’ of the UK and I wanted to show the Hoyo Maravilla to people back in England.”

“It was a part of Los Angeles that no one seemed to acknowledge. Back in the day, before the internet, if you thought of LA it was Hollywood, the movies, Beverly Hills, and the music scene” Janette Beckman

One of the most striking aspects of this series of images is the gang’s aesthetic. Despite being taken in the early 80s, the pictures have a look of another era. Like most subcultures, HM’s unity, cohesiveness, and identity is expressed through the way they dress. “I think the Hoyo Maravilla style may reference the time of the zoot suit wars in 1943,” Beckman suggests. These infamous riots erupted in Southern California when this oversized style of tailoring became unjustly and irrationally associated with grandiosity and unpatriotism, due to the fact it required what was deemed an excessive amount of fabric during an era of wartime rationing. Most of the violence was directed against the Mexican American youth who'd adopted this fashion. As a visual signifier, the zoot suit was thereby bequeathed additional meanings of defiance and resistance.

Looking back at the time she spent with the gang, Beckman remembers the “constant drone of LAPD helicopters overhead” and the sense that “they were being watched day and night.” But her enduring memory is the powerful sense of community she encountered among them. “To me, the Hoyo Maravilla members that I met seemed like a family, they lived in the same neighbourhood and took care of each other. The OGs (elders) kept an eye on the younger members. Family and community is everything.” 

When the images were first published in 2011 – almost 20 years after they’d been taken – the three girls pictured standing against a car (above) got in touch with Beckman. “These three women had remained close friends and still lived in the neighbourhood. They had brought up kids, had husbands, friends, and family killed in gang warfare,” she tells us. “We met up and, over lunch at the Homeboy Cafe in East LA, they said at that time (when the pictures were taken) the HM gang was involved in a turf war with a rival gang. As a result, 90 per cent of the people in these photos are now either in jail or dead.”

Take a look through the gallery above to see a selection of Janette Beckman’s portraits immortalising members of El Hoyo Maravilla.

El Hoyo Maravilla by Janette Beckman is published by Dashwood Books and is available now