In the introduction to Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, Roberto Lovato describes the machete as a symbol: one of Salvadoran identity, but also a personal symbol of memory. Lovato, who was born in the United States to Salvadoran parents, conceptualizes memory as being cut by a blade: there is what he knows, and there is a vast amount of Salvadoran and family history deliberately kept silent because it doesn’t serve those in power. Lovato’s memoir is, therefore, an exploration of his family’s secrets and the secrets of El Salvador, a reckoning. Lovato’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives were directly shaped by the political turmoil of El Salvador and the policies of the United States—as, he learns, was his. This is, he says, “the great paradox of Salvadoran life: to speak of the darkness is impossible, but to not speak of the darkness is also impossible.” In chapters that span decades and his experiences in the two countries, Lovato comes to understand this dual history of two countries, and his family.
Robert Lovato sits down with author Ben Ehrenreich and Alta Live for a digital discussion on their new works on Wednesday, January 27 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Lovato describes a cycle that exists between the United States and El Salvador: Gang culture and policing in the United States were exported as Salvadorans were deported. This helped, in turn, to increase the militarization of American police. Governmental policy oversimplified gang membership in both countries. “Just as law enforcement blurred the lines between youth and gangs and Salvadorans and maras,” he writes, “so, too, had the counterinsurgency movement blurred the lines between policing and military.” Lovato is interested in a kind of national memory for both countries, and he shows how the American press and the Salvadoran government have helped enable the mass forgetting that’s tied to violence: “Forgetting begets forgetting begets ongoing mass murder.” Lovato describes himself as a kid who struggled to find his identity. Ultimately, it is the act of unforgetting—of discovery and remembering—that gives Lovato the language to define himself.
I myself have been a party to silent dismemberment from above, remaining quiet about painful—and inspiring—secrets I held in the shadows for decades. Separated from my self, my experience, my history, I was dismembered, to the point of wanting to do myself in. I remembered this during visits to children caged in immigrant prisons where their soft voices uttered that hardest of realities, “Quiero morirme.” Psychologists treating them told me that one of the primary ways they treat these children involves creating conditions for them to reconstitute the fragments of themselves into stories they can share, to stir the memory and imagination of that part of themselves that’s still resilient and powerful, something we will all need in order to survive and move forward in this fragmented world of perpetual crisis.
Alta caught up with Lovato recently via email to discuss the ways that his story of “unforgetting” has helped him to illuminate the truth about violence in El Salvador and the United States.
What central question does your work ask?
The central question: How can unforgetting—using memory in the pursuit of personal and social justice—prepare us for the epic, intersecting crises we will face as individuals, as families, and as nations? My central answer had to do with how unforgetting can aid both the erasure of the distinction between poetry and politics at the heart of U.S. ideas of “literature” and the formation of the poet warriors, like those who defeated the U.S.-backed fascist military dictatorship in El Salvador. I don’t see us liberal-progressiving our way out of the epic crises we face. I’m excavating the Salvadoran history of poet warriorship as a way to provide an urgently needed alternative to thoroughly dead notions of poetics and politics.
What does the American media get wrong in its stories about El Salvador and Salvadorans in the United States?
The intro to Unforgetting includes mention of some research a couple of volunteers and I undertook for Columbia Journalism Review in the summer of 2018. We analyzed the quality of the media coverage of the refugee child-separation crisis of earlier that year. That year, hundreds of stories about the refugee crisis, MS-13, and caravans dominated the U.S. news cycle for several weeks. Among the least surprising of our findings was that media outlets reported Trump’s child-separation issue as if it was separate from both the caravan and gang stories. More interesting was that the overwhelming majority of stories deleted any mention of two words: Barack Obama, who, along with his homeland security secretaries Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, started the U.S. on the path to mass caging and mass child separation and mass concentration of thousands of Central American children and moms. Obama did this as a practice, not as a policy like Trump. Even though at the level of the immigrant body, at the level of soul-crushing trauma inflicted on thousands of children, there was zero difference between Obama’s caging and separating Salvadoran and other Central American kids.
As I wrote in Unforgetting, even more startling is this tragic and telling fact: “All the stories in all the main media outlets of the United States erased Central American experts from the refugee crisis story. All of them. There were no US-born or -based Central American lawyers, no Central American scholars, no Central American NGO leaders, no Central American journalists in any of the coverage on any channel.” Not a fucking one. I continued, “The Central American voices that were included in the news stories about the refugee crisis looked more like the stereotypes we’ve come to expect: two-dimensional images of refugee mothers’ pain and sound bites of refugee child suffering.”
From a Central American perspective, even the best reporting on child separation and caging neglects the history of U.S. policy in the isthmus—war, genocide, militarism, genocide—of the last 80 years. Reporting on El Salvador and Salvadorans, survivors of the longest-standing military dictatorship in Latin American history, continues to be a variation on the theme captured in the most oft-quoted phrase about us in the English language: “Terror is the given of the place.” The phrase comes to us from Joan Didion, who wrote it after spending all of two weeks in El Salvador. After more than five decades relating to Salvadorans and El Salvador, I concluded something else: that love is also the given of the place. This is what most journalism, most literature (see American Dirt, for example), and most English-language stories about El Salvador and U.S.-based Salvadorans miss. This is also what Unforgetting is about, finding the heart lost in the darkness of U.S. media portrayals.
How did your relationship with your family change once you came to understand more about El Salvador’s forgotten history?
Writing Unforgetting fundamentally altered my relationship to my family, especially my father, the man whose Orphic poetic powers inspired me as much as his lesser qualities forged the rebel in me who decided to join a youth clique and, eventually, the FMLN guerrillas. In anticipation of the difficult politics of family that might ensue, I briefed everyone, including my father, about what to expect from the book, and everyone was and is very supportive. I grew up poor in San Francisco and with a lot of silent pain and shame about being Salvadoran, a reality made more difficult by my failed attempts to compensate by identifying with “America,” the might of empire that informed my childhood love of GI Joe, the U.S. military, Adam-12 (cops), war movies, and the flag I cried to while pledging allegiance at San Francisco Giants baseball games featuring Willie Mays.
Writing Unforgetting gave me an arc for my relationship to my padre and the patria (country) of El Salvador: love them, love and hate them, love hate and rebel against them, and, finally, love them in adult ways, and on my own terms. Understanding the history of El Salvador, one of the most consistently violent places on earth, and the history of the country that funded, trained, and politically protected the perpetrators of the violence for generations deepened my appreciation of what it meant to call myself “Salvadoran” and also led me to reject the bloodbath of a country that named itself for the continent of América but deleted the accent. That’s why I wrote the book too. That’s why I no longer call myself or use the word “American,” except in quotes. I prefer being a child of what the great poet warrior José Martí called “the continent of light,” América. I even coined a term to describe myself: “Américan.”
How is the current moment shaping your writing?
I wrote Unforgetting after a journey of 30 years and 2,500 miles—from El Salvador to the U.S.—across a northern part of the American continent overrun with war, genocide, mass graves, narco and gang violence, and other tragedies. Along the way, I also unforgot the meaning of words like “apocalyptic,” which originally meant “uncovering” and “revelation” and the like. Compared to the peoples of the Southern Hemisphere exploited and destroyed by the United States, many United Stateseans living in the current moment are only taking baby steps in their journey into the depths of apocalypse. They’re applying the term based on everything from 19th-century notions of apocalypse-as-end-of-times to the multibillion Hollywood and other investments in The Walking Dead, Marvel Comics movies, violent gaming, and other mythmaking story machines. This segment of the culture industry does nothing but reproduce the ideologies that sustain the militaristic culture of slavery and death that has been the United States since its inception. Lost in the fog of this perpetual warfare culture is any notion of the sublime and the beautiful that will carry us beyond the dead imaginaries of liberal and reactionary alike. The current situation was predictable when I started writing Unforgetting and, in fact, informed both the writing and my decision to unforget and come out about my own experience of poet warriorship with the FMLN guerrillas. In a word, the current global situation has both confirmed what I feared and made even more urgent the work of helping others break the piggy bank of their political imaginations.
Give us the elevator pitch for Unforgetting.
A U.S. citizen of Salvadoran descent searches for answers about the causes and history of violence in his family and in his homelands (El Salvador and the U.S.) and discovers the power to heal and overcome violence by using memory in the pursuit of justice, the power of unforgetting.