The Wounds of History

Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting chronicles public and private wars.

in his memoir, unforgetting, roberto lovato frames history through a personal lens
In his memoir, Unforgetting, Roberto Lovato frames history through a personal lens.

At approximately 10:40 a.m. on August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old white supremacist named Patrick Crusius entered a Walmart Supercenter in El Paso, Texas. Brandishing a semiautomatic weapon, he opened fire on the unsuspecting people in the store. The victims included eight Mexican nationals who had crossed into the United States to shop and 13 American citizens. Among them were 23-year-old Andre Anchondo and his wife, Jordan, 24. When the firing started, Jordan shielded their two-month-old son, Paul, from the bullets. On August 8, after visiting the community, First Lady Melania Trump posted a series of photos on Twitter, including one of her, her husband, and baby Paul: “I met many incredible people in Dayton, Ohio [where nine people had died in a separate shooting the day after Crusius’s rampage] & El Paso, Texas yesterday. Their communities are strong and unbreakable. @potus and I stand with you!” In the captured image, the First Lady awkwardly cradles the infant in her arms.

“Most of the victims were people who looked like us, people whose last names end in z,” Roberto Lovato writes of El Paso in the opening pages of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. He is describing watching news reports about the shooting with Ramón, his father. “A few minutes earlier,” he continues, “the newscast that reported on the El Paso massacre also reported on the relentless killing in the tiny country [El Salvador] of titanic sorrows that bore [Ramón].”

Unmitigated slaughters and mass killings are not a new phenomenon in El Salvador; in 1932, Lovato explains, Salvadoran soldiers, under orders from President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, killed an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 mostly Indigenous people who were protesting the government’s oppressive policies. “Those who survived the massacres carried the experience with them for the rest of their lives, often in silence,” Lovato writes. “Many of us have been watching the deadly double helix of extreme violence and migration spiral out of control for more than twenty-five years.”

Unforgetting is part memoir, part journalism, part family history. In this evocative pastiche of interviews, historical accounts, and personal narratives, Lovato constructs a meticulous portrait of El Salvador and its social and geopolitical connections to the United States. What emerges is a complex picture, evoking a nation that—despite toxic media narratives and fractured political systems—has managed to endure. “This same collective inability to look down into the abyss of our violent history,” Lovato reminds us, “makes it easy for governments and gangs to manipulate the populace into becoming cops, death-squad operatives, and violent gang youth—all of whom wreak havoc in El Salvador, and with help from my violent birthplace, the United States.”

The strength of Unforgetting rests in Lovato’s journalistic prowess, his ability to articulate the history of brutality and violence that scars the landscape of El Salvador, and to tell this honestly and without fetishizing or glamorizing the maras or the policies that so many tend to blame. “So began our engagement,” he writes: “stitching together the fragments of our lives, doing our best to feel safe in love and in war as we carried forth the lawbreaking tradition passed on by the poetic outlaws who preceded us.”

Even as it depicts the horrors of warfare, Lovato’s exhaustive narrative moves elegantly from the El Salvadoran countryside of the 1930s to San Francisco’s Mission district, where the author was born in 1963 and raised in the 1970s and ’80s, and on to Los Angeles in the 1990s. It invites us to consider the ways war and violence are inextricably woven into the immigrant body. “The vertigo returns—like I’m Alice in Wonderland or Neo in the first Matrix movie,” Lovato explains, “stretching my head and body as I tumble down the rabbit hole into a world in which all the rules have changed.”

The history of El Salvador is a palimpsest, Lovato suggests, written on pages rubbed away by decades of trauma and avoidance. For him, unforgetting is a practice very different from remembering, requiring us not only to recall the legacy of violence, but also to decide actively to invite that difficult heritage back into the body and the mind. Lovato offers no easy answers, no convenient solutions, which is as it ought to be. Instead, Unforgetting aspires to reach beyond hostility to something else, a state of clarity that comes when we reckon with our choices and confront the forces that have shaped us decade after decade, and from land to land.

"Unforgetting" by Roberto Lovato


  • By Roberto Lovato
  • Harper, 352 pages, $26.99