Photo Book Explores Central America’s Civil War & Gang Violence Legacy



AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas Press has published “Unsettled/Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs/Los niños en un mundo de las pandillas,” a new book by University of Texas at Austin professor and award-winning photojournalist Donna De Cesare. Culminating 30 years of photographing gang members and their families, De Cesare uncovers the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and in refugee communities in the United States in this bilingual book.

Her work has appeared in Aperture and Mother Jones magazines, and has been featured on PRI’s “The World,” and on photo blogs of NPR and The New York Times.

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 such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and gang violence has been the dominant explanation for this tragic state of affairs. Photojournalist De Cesare has a unique perspective on immigrants and the aftermath of war, and the realities of gangs and violence. She began covering Central America during the civil wars of the 1980s, focusing 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 since 2000. She documents a history of repression, violence and trauma in which gangs — trapped by social neglect — are as much a symptom as a cause.

With profound empathy for a reality that is too easily defined and dismissed as repugnant, De Cesare takes us on a visual journey into the lives of children deeply affected by civil war and gang violence. More than a photographic documentation, “Unsettled/Desasosiego” is a memoir of her decades as a war photojournalist, using photographs and personal narrative to 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.

De Cesare is an associate professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and the recipient of numerous honors, including National Press Photographers Association awards, the Dorothea Lange Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Mother Jones Award for Social Documentary Photography, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Her photography has been exhibited internationally in venues such as Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France; Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City; the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou, China; the Museo Tecleño in El Salvador; the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, Germany; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

An exhibition of photographs from the book will be on view at the Benson Latin American Collection from April 25 through July 15. There will be an opening reception Thursday, April 25, from 6 to 8 p.m.

The University of Texas Press, founded in 1950, is a scholarly press that is part of The University of Texas at Austin.

For more information on the book, please visit the UT Press website.


[Photo by Donna De Cesare courtesy University of Texas Press]

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