- Interview by
- Hilary Goodfriend
In a new memoir, Unforgetting, journalist and educator Roberto Lovato provides an intimate account of the origins of the contemporary crises of violence and forced migration in Central America. From the United States to El Salvador and back again, the braided, multi-temporal narrative entwines personal and political histories.
Lovato offers sketches of his childhood traveling between working-class San Francisco and San Salvador under dictatorship in the 1970s, as well as his radicalization and militancy in the insurgency that fought the US-backed regime. He uncovers astonishing secrets in his father’s past (no spoilers), providing an autobiographical portrait of imperialist violence and struggle, from the anti-communist wars of the 1980s to the anti-gang policing of the 1990s and 2000s, and the incarceration of migrant families from Obama to Trump.
Below, Jacobin contributing editor Hilary Goodfriend speaks with Roberto Lovato to discuss his book and some of its themes. Their interview reflects on the relationship between memory, repression, and resistance, the exclusion of Central American voices from dominant discourse, and the importance of revolution and solidarity in today’s movements. The interview has been edited for clarity.
You’ve spent most of your career as a journalist and an educator: what led you to take this autobiographical turn?
First thing, I encourage my students and younger people to delete the term career from their vocabularies. I’ve always been more vocationally oriented; I like vocation better because it involves the voice.
I’ve written since I was a kid, and I’ve read since I was a kid. I always felt like I would tell a story one day. I see it as an extension of the political work that I do, although I have to admit — and I hate to sound artsy-fartsy — but the stories take on a life of their own. The idea of producing the book was a dream.
Central Americans have been utterly silenced about our own stories in the United States. I’ve written about the erasure of Central American and Salvadoran voices on, for example, the issue of child separation. We are objects of the imperial gaze. Some of us are very dangerous in an election year, and some of us know all about what Barack Obama did to Central American children, caging them and separating thousands of them — I documented that, I met those kids.
It was a kind of personal point of reckoning meets a political moment of reckoning, one that we’re all having now. I’ve never been out about my militancy, and most of us in the United States haven’t. I think it’s important for people to understand what things like revolución are. I see myself as someone who is a bridge not just to El Salvador but to Latin American traditions that I’ve been exposed to: Latin American ways of thinking about politics, ways of doing politics.
You cite the “inability to look down into the abyss of our history” as a source of generations of violence and trauma in El Salvador and in the United States, and a lot of the book is an excavation of your father’s family history. What’s the significance of this process of “unforgetting” from which you take your title?
As I describe in the book, I was for a moment in my life a right-wing evangelical Christian. I got on my knees and I prayed for the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan. I was a closet thinker even when I was in high school, even though I was hanging out and stealing, robbing, dealing — so I had to get out of that.
I became a Christian, but I kept the habit of reading. I discovered this idea of aletheia, which comes from the Greek word for the Lethe river, the river of forgetting: The dead would inevitably have to go into the underworld, cross the river, but on their way, they would have to forget who they were in life.
So, the idea of “unforgetting” comes from all the forgetting and the amnesia that I’ve seen and lived, politically but also in my own personal life with the secrets of my father. I was born into multiple underworlds, and the book was a way to bridge those understandings of what happens with the patria and what happens with my padre.
When I look at a gang member, I see inherited trauma. I was that kid in many ways, I inherited trauma I didn’t even know I had. So, the journey of unforgetting is an act of personal and political archeology, the process of excavating the parts of history and resurrecting the memory of los de abajo — those below: the forgotten.
I was there in the early 90s when the gangs were really starting to accelerate their violence, when they were starting to be deported, I was there during the war. But I’m not a tropical dude. I‘m from Folsom Street here in San Francisco; I grew up down the street from the projects.
I’ve witnessed the way that official amnesia, and personal and familial forgetting come together to create good soldiers and good cops. It also creates loyal gang members. It makes for an effective death squad operative. I was part of a national liberation struggle, but I’m no fan of the nation-state at this stage of my life. I’ve seen how people use flags to kill and to die for. We forget these facts to our detriment.
I’m hoping that the book is a way for some to counter forgetting and all its ravages. Remembering is simply the act of bringing something up; unforgetting is a process that rescues, redeems the history that the powerful would rather forget.
That’s interesting in the current context, where the current president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, is the first not to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the civil war in 1992. There’s an effort to claim that they’ve ended the postwar period and just sort of wipe the slate of history clean.
I think Nayib Bukele, like his predecessors, is a steward of amnesia. He has very cleverly — I hate to ascribe him intelligence — taken advantage of the deteriorated ethos of both the ARENA party [Nationalist Republican Alliance] and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional [FMLN, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front].
People were tired of the war, and he managed to position himself as the new thing in Salvadoran politics. Once he assumes power, he goes back and starts doing the things that have been forgotten: militarism, economic policies that are devastating to the majority, and repressive actions like taking over legislature. Those stir the subconscious pot of El Salvador in deep ways. People know how to act in times of war. It’s very dangerous.
In your book, you emphasize the connections between various forms of state violence in both the United States and El Salvador — from US intervention in the civil war (1980–1992) to the “zero tolerance” policing that resulted in the deportation of gang members from Los Angeles to El Salvador in the 1990s and the criminalization of Central American migrants today. Can you talk about those relationships, and how they shaped your life?
I’d go to El Salvador in the 1970s, and I liked GI Joe, my favorite movie was The Guns of Navarone. I was a US kid and unaware of what the effects of the military industrial complex on my own identity were. In El Salvador it was “normal” to have military people everywhere, woven in to the texture of society.
I was policed as kid, here in San Francisco. Dianne Feinstein was the mayor when I was growing up — I have a huge debt of gratitude to Dianne Feinstein and the San Francisco Police Department, because the batons on my head, the arrests, and the harassment raised my awareness as a young person about the function of police.
The United States was sending military advisors to El Salvador; all these different parts of the security apparatus were basically run out of the embassy and the Pentagon. Then the war ended, and some of those trainers came back to the United States, and they ended up going on to train local police forces like the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] — the first major militarized police department. People started developing the discourse of the new postwar enemy, and one of them became the gangs.
I got a firsthand look at it in El Salvador. It was a laboratory of practices that were then transferred to the United States, oddly enough. It went back and forth: counterinsurgent policing focused on gangs that then became really violent, in part because of the policing by the LAPD; then the LAPD starts collaborating with the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] to deport young mareros to El Salvador, exporting the gangs.
William Barr was the head of the Justice Department when they started to send people to train the [National Civil] Police that we negotiated for in the Peace Accords. You had this militarized policing exported to El Salvador, a country that already had its own history of militarized policing. Then you got this mano dura policy, similar to what we would call “broken windows” here — but on steroids. Combined with the death squad history in El Salvador, it’s a really strange and awful fusion. Those are the circuits of counterinsurgency policing and militarization.
I’ve covered immigration for some time. I noticed when they sent the first border patrol agents to WHINSEC — the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas [SOA]. When I see BORTAC [Border Patrol Tactical Unit] agents in unmarked vans, not identifying themselves, wearing masks, snatching people from the street, putting them in a van, and taking them away without reading them their rights or anything, my stomach tightens, my bones shiver, and I go back to when men like that tried to pick me up in El Salvador.
As you weave together the context for today’s crises of gang violence and mass migration, you also describe your own process of political radicalization during the civil war between the US-backed military dictatorship in El Salvador and the leftist insurgency. How did you find your way to anti-imperialist, revolutionary politics?
For me, it began in my family. My tía mocked the president by pursing her lips and marching around the house, tooting military music with her mouth and making fun of these military dictators. I didn’t fully comprehend what she was doing. She lived next door to a death squad operative and there was always a certain sotto voce you had to exercise in her house. My cousin Adilio introduced me to radical poetry, radical music. He literally dug up this music from the back of the house. He introduced me to Roque Dalton and to Silvio Rodríguez.
I learned to be a militant in the church. I learned to be disciplined like I never was before: how to forgo things, have a mission, focus, and be hard-core committed to it hasta el tope. I caught the fear of God and I was the bane of my mom and a lot of other family members’ existence, ‘cause I wielded that bible like many are wielding it today.
I know from later militancy that you need espirit de corps to sustain a fight and win. I can tell you when a bullet flies by your head you don’t tell yourself, “Marx, help me!” There’s an emotional, ideological component that’s important for spiritual and military warfare. As we’re seeing with Trump’s base right now. The Democrats and Joe Biden don’t have anything near that espirit de corps.
I went to Berkley, and I found respite and a home among people like June Jordan or the crazy poets of the San Francisco mission like Juan Felipe Herrera, who went on to become the poet laureate, and lesser known but no less important poets like Roberto Vargas and Alejandra Murguía, who provided not just a literary example but also a political-military example, because they went to Nicaragua to fight with the Sandinistas.
The Mission district was a source of enlightenment. Black power, brown power, Central American solidarity, Chile solidarity was still vibrant, the women’s movement — San Francisco was one of the centers of the LGBT movement worldwide. There were powerful currents of counterculture and consciousness.
There’s no one thing that makes us radical. My parents were union members, so the dinner table talk would be about how crappy United Airlines management or Hyatt Regency management was. I would go clean hotels with my mom when I was kid, and there were times when my mom would say, “Come on, it’s time to go outside,” give me a wooden spoon and a pan, and we’d go outside and there’d be hundreds of workers outside, and she’d say, “Go ahead, start hitting it!” I was immersed in a strike without knowing what a strike was.
Falling in love was another way that I became aware. I put a love story in the book, because I think the image of Salvadorans is not one of love. It’s my way to communicate how deep a people we are. We’ve seen so much terror, so much death, so much violence, but many of us manage to continue loving under whatever circumstances. Che Guevara’s quote about how a true revolutionary is motivated by profound feelings of love is true.
In addition to your militancy with the FMLN, you also worked from the United States with the Central American refugee community as part of the broader solidarity movement to support the victims of US-backed violence and oppose US military intervention. How do you see the legacies of that movement today? What are some of the connections you might draw with current social movements for black lives and migrant justice, and what are the differences you’d highlight?
I am excited at the new directions of solidarity. We’re seeing the inversion of the “rich white North funds and defends the poor South” model of solidarity — although in the background, hidden and forgotten, were the Salvadorans. We’re continuing this legacy at a time that’s more integrated and more complex than any of us could imagine.
So, when you see CISPES [Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador] or SOA Watch pivoting toward issues of migration and domestic stuff, while keeping a link down South, that has to be the future of politics. I’m excited about that, I want to see these organizations led by these young Salvadorans and other Central Americans and latinx people.
Solidarity has to transcend the borders of the United States. It has to be two ways. We have to be aware of the traditions of solidarity and how it works, and what their limits were. I was this anomaly: a US-born Salvadoran in a movement that was made up predominantly of Salvadoran people from El Salvador and white people.
I’m hoping that the young people in these organizations, looking for some political foundation to validate their own sense of what’s wrong not just in the system but within our movements, will conceive of different kinds of solidarity and different kinds of intersectionality. There’s a multiculturalism of empire that’s becoming very obvious in the Biden campaign. We have to have solidarity movements that teach people to think beyond the simplistic boxes of identity politics that we’re given, otherwise we’re doomed.
As a journalist, you reiterate your frustration with the decontextualized or sensationalist representations of Central Americans in US media and the continued erasure of Central America voices. How do you see those patterns playing out and to what effect?
You know the Poema de amor by Roque Dalton: “los que nunca sabe nadie de donde son.” The ones who nobody knows where they’re from. How prescient was that?
I want to help people to understand how deep the rabbit hole of erasure of Central Americans is. You get to know yourself better by looking at the silences, into the abyss, into the volcán. When you have so much that’s repressed, you get Donald Trump, and you get Barack Obama, and you get Nayib Bukele.
To get people to do the horrific things I describe in the book, the perpetrators have to have a separation from themselves. Roberto D’Aubuisson was the US-trained founder of the Salvadoran death squads, a man who admired the Nazis. The Salvadoran military, the dictatorship, had influences that included fascism.
The counterinsurgency programs starved, shot up, bombed, and murdered entire communities of men, women, and children as in [the El Mozote massacre]. The military and its keepers in El Salvador and the United States had to dehumanize not just the soldiers, with the training that I describe, but also just regular people because of this idea that the guerrilla were the fish in the water of these communities.
So when I saw Donald Trump’s press conference a couple of weeks ago on MS-13, and he’s surrounded by William Barr — the exporter of the US model of counterinsurgency policing — I see echoes of the training that they gave Roberto D’Aubuisson. We have no choice but to humanize the gangs. In humanizing the gangs, we humanize ourselves. And that’s a tall order, because I’m not romanticizing the gangs by any means. These are the complicated, humanizing politics we have to face.
It’s astonishing, but I’m sure you’ve seen the statistic that, for years now, El Salvador has had the second-highest rate of incarceration of its population in the world, next to the US.
They’re the most crowded in the world. You see El Salvador reproducing US-style policing and US-style jailing. You see this across Latin America now. When I was covering US destabilization in Venezuela, I discovered early on how they were using the Justice Department as an instrument of counterinsurgency and destabilization. You start seeing [corruption charges against] Dilma [Rousseff], [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], Cristina Fernández — they’re these programs that the Justice Department was instituting to do what CIA used to do, programs that Sérgio Moro from Brazil and hundreds of judges and prosecutors have gone through.
I never intended to write a memoir. I’m a journalist, and I always thought memoir was the stuff of self-absorbed thirty-somethings. I now have swallowed all those words. I think telling our stories is urgently critical, especially for Central Americans. Given the levels of dehumanization that we experience, we need to be militant about telling our stories.