The Izalco Volcano is one of the youngest and most active volcanoes to emerge in El Salvador’s recent history. Since the 18th century, its explosive lava could be seen by passing ships on the coast, earning it the nickname the Lighthouse of the Pacific. The photographer Muriel Hasbun chose it as the subject of one of her most iconic photographs All the Saints (Volcán de Izalco, amén) to mark the imprint of her Palestinian family on the Salvadoran landscape.
Diffused among clouds
In the black and white photograph, the viewer gazes over a canopy of trees in the foreground as the pyramidal volcano appears at center with its dry and rocky terrain. The summit seems to be draped in a darker tone as if we are witnessing an eruption. A billow of smoke, diffused among clouds, emerges from its crater. Mirroring the shape of the volcano, the artist has included a textual inscription in Arabic calligraphy. The handwriting belongs to her paternal great-grandfather, a Palestinian of Greek Orthodox faith who left Bethlehem in 1909 to escape Ottoman conscription, a military service requirement for all Ottoman citizens. He and his family moved to El Salvador and began a new life as Arab immigrants in Central America. The inscription states a prayer: “In the blissful and eternal happiness of Heaven and in the name of the pure and immaculate Mother of True Light, and all the martyrs and saints, amen.”
The photograph is a gelatin silver print that the artist created in a darkroom using several negatives which are overlaid to create the composite image. There is an eerie quality to the photograph due to the shadows and highlighted areas marked by white lines. She achieved this effect by experimenting in the darkroom: re-exposing the photographic print during its development. The process is known as solarization and involves re-exposing the paper to light mid-way through the development process. It is likewise known as the Sabattier effect and has been used by many well-known photographers of the 20th century such as Man Ray. This type of overexposure allows photographers to play with tone as dark areas appear light or light areas appear dark in the image. The plume of smoke, the right side of the volcano, and the line running down the middle gouged by lava flow are likely the darkest parts in the negative, which are now reversed for the viewer. The print is part of Hasbun’s most renowned series, Santos y Sombras/Saints and Shadows, where the artist reflects on her family’s diasporic origins.
The largest Palestinian diaspora outside of the Arab world resides in Latin America. The majority of those who settled in El Salvador were from Bethlehem, like Hasbun’s great-grandfather. They began arriving in the 19th century in search of a better life and by the start of World War I, many more Christian Palestinians chose to leave their homeland to avoid serving in the Ottoman army. They were classified as “Turks” due to their Ottoman origin, though the term would become a pejorative one as it took on racial connotations.
Without access to the political or economic infrastructure in El Salvador, Palestinian migrants began working as peddlers, selling goods on the streets or door to door, until eventually earning enough to become merchants and shop owners. Within a generation or two, many would become successful business owners of renown. For example, the department store Siman, founded by the Bethlehem-born immigrant José Jorge Simán in 1921, became one of the most successful chains throughout Central America. Resentful of their success, the elite creole, Spanish-descended population, began to impose immigration laws that restricted entry to Chinese and Arab immigrants on the grounds of being “pernicious” (meaning they had a harmful influence on Salvadoran society). In 1933, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez prohibited entry to those hailing from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Turkey, while forcing those already in the country to register as foreign residents. Within three years, he would enact a law banning Arabs from opening new businesses as a retaliatory measure. This xenophobic nationalism spread throughout the Central American region. A second wave of Palestinian immigrants would also arrive in Latin America following the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, when Palestine was partitioned and effectively lost 78% of its territory, forcing more than 700,000 to flee. The Arabic inscription in All the Saints (Volcán de Izalco, amén) attests to the struggles that many Palestinians suffered as newcomers to this land and how their sense of faith and unity helped them to forge roots in the diaspora.
Culturally, the Palestinian and Jewish communities in El Salvador share much in common. Hasbun’s mother, Janine Janowski, a French woman of Jewish faith, also immigrated to El Salvador as a young adult. Janowski married Antonio Hasbun and founded an important art gallery named Galeria El Laberinto (The Labyrinth). Originally, Hasbun developed a series about her maternal family’s experience of surviving the Holocaust known as Only a Shadow?, and later began a series devoted to her Palestinian paternal side in All the Saints. But as she worked on both sides of her family, she realized how they couldn’t be separate entities. They represented who she was as a whole and reconciled her ancestors’ experiences of migration. She therefore merged both projects (Only a Shadow? and All the Saints) into Saints and Shadows.
The volcano as a site of violence
In addition to referencing her family’s imprint on the Salvadoran landscape through the written prayer, All the Saints (Volcán de Izalco, amén) also addresses the site of an infamous massacre known as La Matanza that took place in the area surrounding the volcano. In January of 1932, Indigenous peasants and communist fighters rose up against the dictatorial regime of Hernández Martínez and the oppressive system of oligarchy where power and land rested in the hands of a few. The economic effects of the Great Depression had by then reached this Central American region, and coffee exports (the greatest economic engine for the country), were at an all-time low, forcing coffee producers to lay off workers. The widespread unemployment of primarily Indigenous workers of Pipil-descent created the social unrest that led to the rebellion. The military responded swiftly and began targeting ethnic Pipils, indiscriminately killing thousands. The massacres continued for two weeks, and scholars estimate that 30,000 Pipils were murdered in what they label an ethnocide. Given the targeted mass killings, Indigenous people in the region abandoned their traditional dress, language, and religious rituals to escape persecution. This history seems to hold almost a tactile quality in Hasbun’s image heightened by the dramatic effects of solarization. Her great-grandfather’s prayer mentions “all of the saints and martyrs,” and one cannot help but to associate those rebel leaders with the invoked martyrdom of his prayer.
Izalco, a national symbol
Peter Fassold, an American photographer born in Germany, was among the first to photograph the active Izalco volcano in the 1880s when he lived in Central America. It has since captured the imagination of many more photographers whose images have made Izalco a national symbol. Izalco has been at the center of many tourism campaigns. However, Hasbun’s striking image departs from this nationalist and capitalistic rhetoric by giving witness to the pluricultural and multiethnic histories often kept hidden in this globalized Central American region. The volcano’s eminent eruption speaks to the urgency with which she hopes to spark doubt in official state histories.
Kency Cornejo, “US Central Americans in Art and Visual Culture,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latina and Latino Literature, edited by Louis G. Mendoza (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
Erina Duganne and Abigail Satinsky, editors, Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities (Los Angeles: Inventory Press, 2022).
Erina Duganne, “There was no record of her smile: Muriel Hasbun’s X post facto,” Contact Zones: Photography, Migration and Cultural Encounters in the United States, edited by Justin Carlisle and Sigrid Lien (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2021).
Erina Duganne, “Registers for the Future: Muriel Hasbun’s Pulse,” Muriel Hasbun: Seismic Traces, curated by Tatiana Flores (New Brunswick: Rutgers Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities, 2022).
Elizabeth Ferrer, Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021).
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
K. Mitchell Snow, “Muriel H. Hasbun: Landscapes of Light,” History of Photography, volume 23, number 4 (1999), pp. 364–69.
This essay is part of Smarthistory’s Latinx Futures project and was made possible thanks to support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.