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Extended Interview: Roberto Lovato on His Memoir About Family, Migration, Gangs & Revolution in the Americas

Web ExclusiveSeptember 10, 2020
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We continue our interview with Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato, author of the new book “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas,” about his family’s migration from El Salvador to the United States, how he returned to the country as a young man to fight with the FMLN against the U.S.-backed right-wing government responsible for grave human rights violations, and his embrace of journalism to tell the stories of people on the margins, including visiting a prison for immigrant families in Texas and revisiting the U.S. role in the El Mozote massacre.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The majority of Central American refugees and immigrants to the United States come from just three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which are the same three countries the United States intervened in during, among other decades, the 1980s on the sides of military governments and paramilitary death squads that killed tens of thousands — and in the case of Guatemala, hundreds of thousands — of mostly Indigenous people. In El Salvador, many soldiers responsible for carrying out the notorious 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which nearly a thousand unarmed villagers were killed, were elite U.S-trained forces. Between 1980 and '92, the U.S. sent over $4 billion in economic and military aid to El Salvador's government — nearly $1 million a day.

Well, today we follow the story of one man and his family, and why he says the story of El Salvador is the story of the United States. Roberto Lovato is an award-winning journalist. He’s just published his memoir called Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. He’s joining us now from San Francisco.

One of the revelations in this book, the award-winning journalist, Roberto, was a part of the FMLN, which is now a political party in El Salvador, and was a ruling party in El Salvador, but was a guerrilla movement that took on the military and paramilitary death squads. And Farabundo Martí, for whom it was named, actually was imprisoned a number of times, was imprisoned in the United States, as well, at the San Pedro detention facility, which Roberto will tell us about, and came out of the Anti-Imperialist League of Latin America. The equivalent in the United States, the Anti-Imperialist League, included Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Diego Rivera and Albert Einstein. Roberto Lovato is a poet warrior. Roberto, tell us about this tradition.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, Amy, you know, one thing you learn in struggle, under great crisis and adversity, is: How do you sustain struggle or become victim, or not — and not become victimized? And I learned in the course of writing the book and excavating my memory that one of the things that sustained me was poetry, was music, were murals, paintings, artists, creative people coming together to literally bring revolution into reality. You even had organizations in El Salvador, political, military organizations, founded by poets. So, you know, I — there’s a long tradition of this in Latin America, where the distinction between poetry and politics isn’t really like we have it here, where there are these boxes — with the exception of people like Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich and June Jordan, who I learned from at Berkeley.

But so, I see myself and I see the book in this tradition. And I want to pipe it into the United States, because I don’t think right now we have the political culture we’re going to need to face the challenges of this epic moment, like, not just Trump and a sense of fascism here and worldwide, not just the decline of the economy and the continued neoliberal domination, or the kind of the fascistization of and the militarization of the police. Even if we get through that, we’re going to have to face climate change. So, to face all of this, we’re not going to Democrat or liberal or even progressive our way out of this, I don’t think. I think we’re going to need something a little more stronger, a little more millenarian.

And that’s where the revolutionary sensibility comes in, Amy. I think that — and I try to capture it in the book in terms of the revolutionary spirit of the Salvadoran people, that’s hidden behind images of gangs and, you know, soundbites of suffering children or pictures of pain-stricken moms. So, the poet warrior tradition is — it has to be excavated in in Latin America and here. We have poet warriors here, but we just don’t know it.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you can talk about the trajectory and the connection between the militarization of police here and the U.S. involvement in — now, again, we talked about, in Part 1 of our conversation, but
the U.S. intervention in three countries, the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras — back 40 years ago. These are the countries that have the massive outflow of migrants into the United States, the U.S. supporting the military death squads and the military regimes at the time of the Reagan era, for example, that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of mainly Indigenous people in these three countries. You don’t see this outflow of migration from Nicaragua, from Panama, from Costa Rica. Talk about U.S. intervention and how it shaped what is happening today.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, yeah, definitely, Amy. And it’s shaped not what happened — just what happened, but what’s happening here now. And this is through a mechanism that I call the circuits of counterinsurgency policing, following people like Stuart Schrader and others who have looked at, like, the militarization of policing really effectively.

And so, I remember seeing — you know, there were military trainers sent by the U.S. to El Salvador, and they were there training the Atlacatl Battalion and the other murderous battalions responsible, for example, for the El Mozote massacre, where I’ve seen the bones of the children that they’re still kind of processing in the forensics labs 30 years later. And so, you know, a thousand people were — approximately a thousand people were killed, more than half of them children under 12, and more than half of those kids under 6 years old. This is what our military —

AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about El Mozote, of 1981, the killing —


AMY GOODMAN: — the military killing of up to 1,000 Salvadorans, talk about the U.S.-trained soldiers that were involved with this, and especially for young people who don’t understand this history. It starts for them at the border: “Why are people trying to come into our country?” they may say. But talk about that connection of the violence that was connected directly to the United States.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah. So, the U.S. trained some of the most murderous battalions in the Americas, like the Atlacatl Battalion that perpetrated El Mozote in December 1981, and almost a thousand people killed, most of them children under 12, half of those children under 6 years old. And so, your natural — you have that, was the first, one of the first, and then you had others, similar, with 500 there, here 600, there whole towns wiped out, mostly elderly people — I mean, tens of thousands of people killed, most of them, 85% of them, killed by their own government, according to the United Nations Truth Commission.

So, these are the conditions under which people migrate. They don’t migrate because of the American dream, which is now thoroughly dead. They migrate, in the case of El Salvador in the '80s and ’90s, because of the war and the aftermath of the war, the destruction of the economy and the circuits of counterinsurgency policing, where the trainers that went to El Salvador after the war came — guess where — to your local police departments, like LAPD, Seattle and others, to train police in counterinsurgency policing. And I've got quotes in the book about people that have received training from folks that were in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. And so you see the militarization of police begin and to be theorized and then practiced after El Salvador in ’92.

And then, after that, William Barr then deploys all these FBI agents away from foreign threats to focus on gangs, beginning the “gang war,” and then sending the counterinsurgency police of LAPD and the INS to create and deport the violent, you know, gang “problem” to El Salvador — “problem” to El Salvador. And then, after that, they send kind of this new counterinsurgent policing model to the new Salvadoran police force established after the peace accords.

And so, you see, Amy, there’s like these circuits of policing, that when we talk about gangs, we don’t hear any of that. But when we talk about gangs, we have to talk about policing. And so, it’s no coincidence Donald Trump, right before Portland, had a press conference in the Oval Office around MS-13, right? He and William — who was next to him was William Barr. Thirty years later, there’s the avatar, William Barr, once again, helping militarize our police days before Border Patrol, militarized Border Patrol of the BORTAC, you know, the paramilitary units of the Border Patrol, picked up protesters in those images, those horrific images, we all saw.

I see that, and I saw El Salvador and the Salvadorization of the U.S. That’s why I came out with my book, because I want to see a Salvadorization in terms of a country where one of every three people was organized against a fascist military dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to talk again about what it means to unforget, in every sense of the word, and your point that you raise at the beginning of the book: “The machete of memory [can] cut swiftly or slowly.” Unforgetting “makes us hack at ourselves.” It “chops up our families.” It “severs any understanding that epic history is a stitching together of intimate histories.” Take it from there, Roberto.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, that doesn’t even sound like me, man. I don’t know. This guy sounds better than me. But, you know, that’s the personality you adopt as an author. I wrote that because I realized, after doing all the research of my family, my dad’s secrets, my family secrets, the violence, the crime, the underworlds, like, “Wow! This is an epic story that the Salvadorans have.” And we don’t know any of it. I didn’t know any of it, so how is the audience or anybody else going to know about it in the English language? But even in El Salvador, like 75% of Salvadorans, in a poll, said that they didn’t even know about La Matanza.

So, unforgetting is as much an individual as a political act and a collective act, of not just remembering, because remembering is just bringing things up. Unforgetting, for me, is a process of bringing up and raising up the memories, the people, the forgotten people, and the stories that the powerful would have us forget. Right? Unforgetting is an act of — a liberatory act, more than anything else.

Because you don’t get a Donald Trump without forgetting. You don’t get a Barack Obama without forgetting. I mean, when I went to these immigrant prisons in South Texas, I wasn’t visiting children separated from their moms or children imprisoned in these horrific jails or children caged by Donald Trump. They were caged, imprisoned, separated by Barack Obama. And the cages were mass produced by Jay Johnson, his head of homeland security. So, you know, we have to — a lot of people are uncomfortable with saying that, Barack Obama. They’re happy to say Trump is a fascist when he cages children and does all these horrific things. But when Obama does it, there’s somehow an excuse.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were, early on, talking about Obama, at the time, as you were saying he was building the structure, the foundation, as many in the immigrant community, his — even his immigrant rights allies, Obama’s allies, called him the “deporter-in-chief.”

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, Amy, one of the things I love about you and your show is that you give space to things that are forgotten. One of the things that I did on your show, one of the first people that did it on national television, was to start talking about what Barack Obama was doing with things like something called 287(g) and Secure Communities. I don’t know if you remember that, Amy, but that was the first time on national television somebody was actually talking about these issues, that turned Barack Obama, who promised to undo these programs, into the deporter-in-chief, that ended up deporting 3 million people, that ended up caging — instituting mass caging of Central American children, mass separation by the thousands of children, not as a policy, but as a practice — Trump tried to make it a policy — and jailing hundreds of thousands of innocents, under cover of — what do you call.

And we have bad signs today in the news, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are announcing that they’re bringing on Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top Latina, who gave a Latina immigrant rights face to all the horrific things that Obama was doing under cover of ”Sí, se puede.” So, we have to unforget things like Cecilia Muñoz and Barack Obama on immigration.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up this interview, what surprised you most, Roberto, writing your own memoir?

ROBERTO LOVATO: What surprised me most was the power, the power of the sublime — what surprised me most was the strategic value of the sublime and the beautiful. I didn’t know that I could do what I did in that book. I know there are things that are sublime and beautiful in there, because I put my full heart into it. And I didn’t know that I had that in me, to be quite frank. I surprised myself. And I had the love and support of all these people all over the United States and in Central America, rooting me on to do this. And I didn’t realize that the sublime and the beautiful had been one of the things, along with love, that carried me through the journey of intense trauma that I inherited, of the intense trauma I saw in the war, and of the intense trauma I saw after the war, and that I’m still seeing today. And so, you know, that was the biggest surprise, was the astonishing power of the sublime and the beautiful, that we’re going to need to face the challenges of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, an unforgettable book. Yes, the award-winning journalist, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, that I did with Juan González and Roberto, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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