One night in Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy approached photographer Donna De Cesare, saying, “Lady, put me in your book—you can take my picture.” De Cesare recalls the memory of this encounter in Fred Ritchin’s foreword to her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego (University of Texas Press).
The boy did not let up. De Cesare continued her story: “ ‘Am I going to be in your book?’ he asked. ‘I can’t promise that,’ I replied. ‘To make a book takes a lot of pictures and a long time,’ I explained. I told him I couldn’t say for sure, but my best guess was that it would be about three years if all went well. ‘Shit! I won’t be alive by then,’ he responded dejectedly.”
The boy went on to explain that all his homies died before they reached twenty. They were gangbangers. Life on the streets was short, ugly, and violent. The boy didn’t believe he was going to be any different. He, who was never named, is like countless who have come before him, the children lost to a war that has no beginning and no ending because it is played in the shadows, between the borders, and across the Americas. Here are the victims of the War on Drugs: the children.
Unsettled/Desasosiego bears witness to the violence that has dominated Central American countries and refugee communities in the United States over the past twenty years. It is an ugly truth that the mainstream media does not tell, as it glamorizes the drug game in popular imagination. Film, television, music, videos—the hustler, the mobster, the gangster, the outlaw standing against the system and winning big, until he is taken out in a blaze of glory. Never has an anti-hero been so celebrated.
This image stands in stark contrast to the truth De Cesare tells, pulling back the veil and revealing a stark and blood stained history that has given Central American nations the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. At the heart of this violence is avarice and wrath, but two of the seven deadly sins that make the War on Drugs a kind of Hell on Earth.
De Cesare bears witness to the survivors and victims of a war that never ends, a war subsidized by the military industrial complex and fought on the streets by gang members, young boys and girls whose homes have been destroyed by the cycle of violence and addiction that drugs bring to communities vulnerable to exploitation. Gang members are often the most disenfranchised people on earth, drawn into a shadowy world where they are child soldiers for local warlords. The gangs seek to provide what has been taken from them by the system itself: Family. Pride. Protection. Money. Power. Respect. But gang members are the lowest of the low and are served up as fodder for the prison industrial complex, which flourishes with laws in the United States that are nothing short of a new form of institutionalized slavery.
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. This is evident in the story of Angel that De Cesare recounts. Angel, a Central American woman living in Los Angeles, had been only twelve when her best friend, Dreamer, was killed while she was hiding under the bed.
She told De Cesare that the cops didn’t think she would make a credible witness so they did not charge anyone with the murder of her best friend. “The way I saw it, the only person who was going to make her pay—it was me. My homeboys were telling me: ‘Don’t do it. Let us do it. You’re twelve. That’s too young.”’ But I was like: ‘No, Dreamer was my best friend. She’s going to pay and I’m going to take the badge…. [But]I should have let God take care of it. Now I imagine that girl’s mom or whoever was with her. I have to deal with that reality every day of my life. When you take somebody’s life you can’t pay it. Even if you kill yourself, you can’t pay it. It’s not possible.”
Unsettled/Desasosiego is dedicated to telling the untold, revealing the cold, harsh, brutal bloody truth of a never-ending war, a cycle that spins from one generation to the next, 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.