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This Promised Land, El Sal

Steve Cagan


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Ten years ago thousands of men, women, and children from El Salvador fled to Honduras to escape government repression and violence. They gathered together into a refugee camp, Colomoncagua. What began as a disorganized collection of individuals would develop into a near-utopian community of 8,400 people. The refugees arrived as illiterate and frightened peasants with little experience with democratic institutions; within a few years they transformed the camp into an economically active, democratic, and participatory society. 

Steve and Beth Cagan tell the story of the refugees' harrowing flight, their determination to make a better life for themselves, and their brave decision to return to El Salvador. We learn of the refugees' successful efforts at developing education, occupational training, improved nutrition, health care, gender equality, and participatory democracyÐÐdespite extreme poverty and confinement and repression from the Honduran government. But even as they were creating a new life for themselves, the refugees were longing for their homeland, El Salvador. After long and complex negotiations with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, the refugees repatriated, literally picking up their community and crossing over the border. There, in early 1990, they established a new city named for one of the slain Jesuit priests, Dr. Segundo Montes, where they hope to maintain their communitarian style of work and organization.

This compelling story is illustrated with over one hundred superb photographs of the refugees and their community. The pictures and text work together, inspiring us to believe that people can sustain hope and can work to improve the conditions of their lives even in the worst circumstances.

Rutgers University Press, 9780813516790

Publication Date: April 1, 1991

About the Author

Steve Cagan was born in New York City, grew up in low-income areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and went to the Bronx High School of Science and City College. After getting a Master’s degree in US history from Indiana University, he returned to NYC for several years.

In 1970, he and his wife, Beth, moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to work as regional organizers for New University Conference. They raised two daughters there, and they have lived there to this day.

Steve’s photographic work has always been primarily connected to social justice issues. Among major projects, he has documented aspects of working life for working-class people in Ohio, as well as working on a project to explore the effects of factory closings in the area. A visit to all the countries of Indochina in 1974 convinced him of the possibility of using photography as a contribution to movements for social change.

Steve’s main projects over the last thirty years have been in Latin America—in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, and for the last ten years, Colombia. His most important theme in all this work has been the everyday resistance of grassroots people to the economic and social problems they have to confront.

Steve was a photography professor at Rutgers University (1985-1993), and has taught courses and workshops in a number of institutions in the US and Latin America. His awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Fulbright Fellowships, and several awards from the Ohio and New Jersey Arts Councils, among others.

He has exhibited and published on four continents.