Central American nations have recently had the highest per capita homicide rates in the world—surpassing the per capita death toll even in war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan—and gang violence has been the dominant explanation for this tragic state of affairs. But why has gang activity become endemic in the region? Photojournalist Donna De Cesare began covering Central America during the civil wars of the 1980s, focusing especially on the disrupted lives of children and youths, and continued her photography project in Central American refugee communities in the United States in the 1990s and postwar Central America in the 2000s. She documents a history of repression, violence, and trauma, in which gangs are as much a symptom as a cause of trauma, trapped as they are by social neglect.
With profound empathy for a reality that is too easily defined and dismissed as repugnant, Unsettled/Desasosiego takes us on a visual journey into the lives of children deeply affected by civil war and gang violence. De Cesare’s photographs and bilingual personal narrative trace the evolution and expansion of the notorious 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs from the barrios of Los Angeles to the shanties of Central America. They show how decades of war and violence—as well as the illegal drug trade—have created a culture that allows gangs to flourish. At the same time, her photographs portray the humanity of gang members and their families, encouraging us to understand the lives of youths at the margins and to take responsibility for the consequences of political and social actions that have ruptured Central American society for generations.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. . . . It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world. . . . The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled . . .
—John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Most of the time I am behind a camera. I am a photographer and a journalist. I tell other people's stories. So it is rare to have a portrait of myself. The snapshot I hold is a special one and I want to share it with the photographer.
Carlos studies the picture I've just handed him. "I took this one!" he exclaims, smiling at me momentarily before gazing back at his handiwork. In the photo I stand with some of his siblings beside the smoky adobe and wood dwelling where we've laughed and cried, argued and listened to one another's stories on my trips to Guatemala in the first four years of the twenty-first century.
When I began photographing Carlos he was eighteen years old and still drawn to life in the streets. For a time before and while I photographed his story, he associated with a gang—a risky proposition in Guatemala. On this particular morning he was twenty-one years old and in his last year at the Guatemalan national school of fine arts. That he had lived to take this picture of me was no small miracle.
Carlos was a six-year-old Mayan child growing up in a Guatemalan war zone, in 1987, when I first went to Latin America, although I would not meet him until nearly a decade and a half later. I'd arrived not in Guatemala but in neighboring El Salvador with a reporter friend to write and photograph stories about that country's civil war. At the time, the U.S. government was spending billions of dollars on weaponry and military advisors to aid a regime that international human rights groups criticized; but the Reagan administration told us we were fighting "communist terrorists" who would soon be at our borders if we didn't take strong military action to stop them. What I witnessed in El Salvador and Guatemala was quite another story.
As I look back on the formative and life-changing years I spent covering the brutal counterinsurgency wars in Central America I find that my memories have undergone indelible if subtle shifts in proportion and shape, filtered by experiences since then. The process of self-reflection alters purpose and motivation. My attempts to draw meaning are a fragile and confounding exercise; yet the humanist impulse compels artists and storytellers to try. Our aftermath narratives become one way to engage with the moral complexity and anguish we encounter. We tell these stories not only so that we may bear our own memories of the suffering of others, but also to do so in solidarity, without acquiescence to tyranny or fatalism.
Today the lure of gangs and the resulting threat of violence are a daily reality for young people growing up in barrios stretching from the United States to Central America. When the media cite Central America's barbarous history, in order to contextualize contemporary accounts of gang violence, the shorthand often results in sensationalist reportage—in narratives that oversimplify and exacerbate preexisting stigma. Yet specific legacies of brutality, impunity, and the suppression of memory are part of the past's unsettled accounts. Accumulated harm undergirds new forms of violence, corruption, and injustice that young people of the postwar generation, like Carlos, face.
My website, Destiny's Children (http://www.destinyschildren.org), tells four photographic life stories, including one that Carlos narrates about himself. Whether the setting is the United States, El Salvador, or Guatemala, these stories of gang experience unfold against the backdrop of childhood war trauma. While this book charts some of the same geography and history, the thread connecting the images and stories here is both more personal and metaphorical. Unsettled retraces my own path from war into the world of gangs, and my continuous grappling with a perplexing and humbling question: What determines whether suffering is turned toward cruelty, or toward resistance and resilience?
Carlos has lost scores of homeboys. As he thumbs through a stack of images I've brought to show him on another trip, in August 2003, he identifies at least four who have been murdered since I photographed them at different points over the past three years. Carlos tells me that in June 2003 an art school classmate was brutally tortured before his dismembered corpse was set on fire. And the scandalous news doesn't end there. A few days after showing Carlos these images, I learned that nineteen former gang members doing peace work with a local non-profit organization had been murdered one by one over the preceding months. The human rights group that trained them claims that Guatemalan police killed these young people, but on record their deaths remain unsolved.
When I say it is a miracle that Carlos had lived to take my photograph in 2003, there is no hyperbole. Carlos has defied not only grim statistical odds—the World Bank estimates that sixty percent of the victims of the nearly 6000 homicides occurring in Guatemala annually are young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four—but also insidious racial prejudice that curtails opportunity and breeds fatalism. His achievement owes much to his tenacious willpower, but also to family and community efforts to nurture his pride in his cultural identity.
I witnessed the dramatic change that rediscovering and valuing his Mayan mother's cultural heritage and ethics wrought in Carlos. These internal resources have provided inspiration for his art, courage to transcend his gang identity, and vital resilience in his daily struggles against Guatemalan racism. Would this be enough to protect him? I ask myself this haunting question about each of the young people I meet who is struggling to forge a new path in a reality marked by social intolerance, brutality, revenge, stigma, and official apathy.
In the photograph that Carlos handed back to me I am standing next to four of his seven brothers and sisters. His father, usually absent, is present and stands behind us. I am dressed in their mother, Carmen's, huipil and corte, the Mayan traditional blouse and skirt of hand-loomed patterned cloth. Carlos's sister Elvies urged and cajoled me until she wore down my self-conscious shuddering against the thought of myself garbed as a gringa cultural tourist. As Elvies wrapped the yards of colorful cloth from the Quiche Highlands around me I remembered my Irish Glaswegian mother's hands wrapping a Scottish Highlander's tartan kilt around my child-sized frame.
I smile awkwardly, the only smiling face in the photograph. Guatemalans tend to strike a formal and serious expression whenever posing for a portrait. But you can see something else in each of their faces. Carlos's mother, Carmen Ixcoy Mejía, was in her final weeks of a battle with cancer when I arrived to spend Christmas with the family. We buried Carmen two weeks before this photograph was taken.
"De Cesare's work is essential to understanding a chapter in Central America's history that is too often whitewashed or denied."
—Jeremy Lybarger, Mother Jones
"… an urgent and moving work that chronicles those who grew up amid political wars, gang wars or both. It is a look back on lives that were lost, and some who triumphed, during her many years in the region."
—David Gonzalez, The New York Times
"An honest and sobering depiction of gang life, her photographs transcend straightforward documentation, becoming family albums, memorials, and vehicles for social change."
—Genevieve Fussell, the New Yorker
"Unsettled/Desasosiego humanizes a problem that is so great it feel insurmountable. Her photographs and stories show us the war from the inside and remind us of the confusing reality that there is no clear line between the good and the bad guys … speaking truth to power and righting the wrong by finally bringing justice to but a few of the lives destroyed by a war that has no end."
—Miss Rosen, Le Journal de la Photographie
“Donna De Cesare is clearly one of the great documentary photographers of our time.”
—Mary Ellen Mark, internationally renowned photographer and author of seventeen books, including Seen Behind the Scene, Exposure, and Twins
"Donna De Cesare's long years of committed observation, her keen understanding, and her camera eye combine to form something as necessary as it is unusual: an essential history of a phenomenon. She describes the devastation of El Salvador¹s youth carefully and precisely, and rids us of all the stereotypes. There is no shock here; only compassionate understanding."
—Alma Guillermoprieto, acclaimed author of numerous books including Looking for History, writes on Mexico and Latin America for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
"It was encouraging to discover that the photos in this book, product of decades of work, are the result of a dialogue, of an exchange, of shared personal experience…The text, written by DeCesare in a personal and committed voice, offers us a political and historic context that we need to understand the significance of the images."
—Pablo Corral Vega, ReVista Magazine