Walk up the littered concrete steps at 1470 Irving St. NW in Adams-Morgan, past the old men sipping their brown-bagged beers, and into the dark, resounding corridors of the Wilson Center. The Galeria Inti is in the basement, occupying the lowest level of the stairwell and hallway. Here the walls have been freshly painted white, and the light is good.

Last month the walls were bejeweled with an assortment of colorful papier-ma che' masks and photographs of the masks being worn during this year's annual Hispanic Festival on Columbia Road. The making of the masks is a tradition dating back more than 200 years to the "Los Gueguences," a street drama performed in Diriamba, Nicaragua, to protest the European occupation. The two principal characters -- and the most elaborate masks -- are the Spanish Commissar, caricatured to look like Diablo, the devil, and a comical donkey, representing the people.

Those masks reflected the lighter concerns of the business of Galeria Inti, and the organization that maintains it, The Centro De Arte. This month's show, opening today, will be a selection of photographs from the book "Inside El Salvador: A Chronicle of Daily Life by Thirty Photographers." And that is a different sort of show altogether.

Including pictures by well-known press photographers Susan Meiselas, Patrick Chauvel, Cindy Carp and others, the show is a collection of frank, at times grisly, observations of life and death in present-day El Salvador. Though not all of the photographs deal with the nightmarish violence of that country's ongoing civil war, almost all of them hurt. For even the pictures of mundane domestic life serve to illuminate the poverty and uncertainty of their subjects.

This show is of special significance, as Washington has the second largest population of Salvadoran refugees in the United States. "Ordinarily we concentrate on local artists in the Hispanic community," says Centro De Arte director Olivia Cadaval. "It is an alternative gallery, and the artists are involved in the whole process, from hanging to communications -- everything.

"We call to artists to express whatever they feel. This extends also to poetry, music, whatever. The gallery is not a political institute, it is a cultural one. We are not telling the artists what to do. The artists are the prophets -- they're the ones that are communicating. The gallery is accessible and open to all quality work."

The gallery itself is run by Horacio Quintanilla, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 1980. He was formerly the director of the National Gallery in San Salvador, and worked closely with the Salvadoran community in cultural affairs. Because Quintanilla is not yet comfortable speaking in English, Cadaval, consulting him, does most of the talking.

"The Centro De Arte started as a Latino gallery in a Latin American neighborhood," she says. "It began in 1976 with the big mural on 18th Street. Our concern has always been to relate to our community here. We are trying to create a dialogue -- art is the consciousness of a people. It is not for a special sector of the people, it is cultural communication."

Cadaval begins speaking urgently -- almost angrily. Quintanilla sits passively, watchfully, through the conversation. He understands.

"You have a lot of exceptional people in this community," says Cadaval. "Many people in the Latino community are country people who have never seen a city in their own courtries. These people have incredible skills -- they can till the earth, they can grow things. But they come here and they don't even know how to use a washing machine! It's a shock. And then there's the language -- that's a terribly difficult thing.

"But they are still exceptional people. They survived to get here, didn't they?"

Looking around the office of Centro De Arte, you gradually become aware of how little of the work stored there is lighthearted or flippant, either in subject matter or in color. What little humor exists is black, the brightest color is blood red. One picture dominates the room, impossible to ignore. It is a painting of figure bound and blindfolded lying twisted on the ground. Dead? Or about to die?

"That," explains Cadaval, "is a very common image in the art of Latinos."