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“Unforgetting”: Roberto Lovato’s Memoir Links U.S. Military in Central America to Migration Crisis

StorySeptember 09, 2020
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We look at how decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America have led to the ongoing migrant crisis, with Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato, author of the new book “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.” Lovato recounts his own family’s migration from El Salvador to the United States, his return to the country as a young man to fight 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. “I’m unforgetting a history of not just El Salvador, but the United States and of myself,” says Lovato.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we spend the rest of the hour looking at how decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America has led to the migrant crisis of today.

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, where he was born.

Roberto, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on this unforgettable memoir. But let’s start with the title, why you call it Unforgetting.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Before anything, Amy, thank you, as always. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be with Juan and you and the crew once again on this joyous occasion for me, that I’ve worn a red shirt for you that’s in celebration and in solidarity. And I was going to have a gangster lean when you played that song that I used to play, like, in lowriders and stuff. And so…

But the term “unforgetting” comes from the Greeks. The Greeks believed that when you went into the underworld, the dead — when the dead went into the underworld, they had to cross the Lethe river, which was the river of forgetting, before going to either Elysium or Hades. And so, as I was trying to pick out a title for this book, I realized that the journey that I had taken to all these different underworlds for the book, whether it was gang underworlds, the underworld of the FMLN guerrillas, the underworld of my personal family history, that was unknown to me in many ways, or my own psychology, and the underworld of migrants, who have to kind of occupy an underworld existence in many ways — I just thought, “Wow! What a perfect way to kind of bring up and excavate the truths that get hidden,” because in Greek — the ancient Greeks believed that “unforgetting” was also the term for truth, aletheia, which means not Lethe river, unforgetting. And so I am unforgetting a history of not just El Salvador, but of the United States and of myself. And, you know, my book is kind of a coming out for me personally, and I’ll explain that as we go.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Roberto, you begin the book talking about a tour you were giving in 1992 in Los Angeles at the time you were working with the immigrant rights group CARECEN in Los Angeles. And you’re touring around a foundation program officer, one of these people who decides whether to give money to worthy organizations. And you had very mixed feelings taking him around the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles. There’s a sudden shootout at one point. Could you talk about that whole part of your work with CARECEN? Also, what lessons might be drawn for a lot of activists today, Black Lives Matter activists and prison reform activists, who are suddenly being courted by foundations who suddenly have discovered that they haven’t been properly funding antiracism programs around the country?

ROBERTO LOVATO: That’s a great question, Juan. Yeah, the opening, the introduction of the book, is 1992, right after the L.A. riots had hit. We had foundations and corporations come in, along with scholars, and it was just people interested in post-riot L.A. And we were in MacArthur Park touring, like we did. I felt like — and I say at one point I felt like, you know, I was getting tired of being like Virgil to these Dantes, you know, these aspiring Dantes wanting to see the underworld. And so, I’m showing this guy, Leland, MacArthur Park, when I’m approached by the first MS-13 member I ever met, this kid named José. And, you know, we were — and I could tell that Leland was scared out of his wits, like he was in a lion’s den or something, and he was looking to me for security.

And so, I open it that way because it shows kind of the way that the whole issue of youth and urban youth and gangs, even foundations and corporations will kind of shy away from, as do legislators, including legislators of color here in California, where the gangs were born, in fact, where MS-13 and 18th Street were born. And then, after they were born, they kind of adopted the structures of like the Mexican Mafia. And so, I’m there when this is starting to escalate and get more violent.

And then, Attorney General William Barr, again, and at the avatar, from the Bush administration, who’s now in the Trump administration, deployed all these FBI resources to L.A. and other cities to start the gang war, which, you know, we see the products as we speak, right? And so, then he also introduced the INS to then join the LAPD and law enforcement to deport the “problem,” the gang structures, to El Salvador.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You then go on in the book, in the subsequent chapter, to talk about your experience visiting immigrant families in detention in Karnes, Texas. And could you talk about that and also this whole effort of the federal government to put these detention centers in the most out-of-the-way places, so that even journalists have trouble getting to them?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, this is an example of those underworlds I’m trying to get at. Like, a lot of people don’t realize that those immigrant prisons — I refuse to call them “detention centers.” It’s a travesty to call them that. And, all my fellow journalists, it’s a travesty. You know, they put these prisons down in southern Texas precisely because immigrant rights groups won’t go down there. It becomes harder for them to go down there. And it becomes harder for journalists, say, in San Antonio, to drive all these miles down south to visit these places. And there are actually ICE memos.

And so, my journey, my own journey, begins when I meet a child and a mother who are plotting, along with other immigrant women and children and youth, to stage a protest against the awful conditions, that moved some, for example, to — mothers to slit their wrists, or some children to try to hang themselves. And so, I mean, I was reluctant, because my friends Ursula and Felipe invited me to go to this prison, and I was kind of reluctant because I had this whole story from the war and other trauma I didn’t even know that I had kind of stirring up in me, and I knew I would eventually have to tell my story. And basically, my bubble burst when a child tells me this really horrific story of what he saw in El Salvador. And at that moment, I realized, “You know what? It’s time to tell my story. It’s time to come out,” so to speak. And I do. I come out about things that I had known and things that I would learn and things that I needed to tell about myself, including my participation in the revolutionary process in El Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that, Roberto? Can you talk about your involvement with the FMLN? You’re a well-known journalist in the United States. Talk about who the FMLN were. Of course, now they’re part of the regular political process and a party in El Salvador today. But what decisions you made early on?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, Amy, you know, you, as a journalist, and Juan know very well that I wouldn’t get Pulitzer grants if I said, “Hey, I was an urban commando with the FMLN.” You know, that’s just not how it works. You don’t — what you have in journalism, and in literature, I would argue, are not representative of the full spectrum of political, ideological, even racial, if you look at like Latinos and — not even, Latinos aren’t a race, but all the different subracial groups of Latinos are like less — occupy like 1% of U.S. literature.

So, I made a decision, after doing work with refugee communities in the war zones and working with refugees here in San Francisco with CARECEN, Comite de Refugiados Centroamericanos and other groups, like CISPES, etc., here to do solidarity and sanctuary work. I was becoming more conscious. I fell in love. There’s a love story in my book, which is part of the point, right? Because all you hear is, like, terror is the given of the place, like Joan Didion. And I’m like, “Actually, no, I grew up Salvadoran. Love is the given of the place, as well.”

And so, I’m in Chalatenango, El Salvador, one of the most difficult places I’ve ever seen in my life, in terms of war. And I saw really terrible things, including things done to children. And I eventually say it’s not enough for me to just do kind of like what Juan’s talking about, like nonprofit work and having all this language and getting all this funding, like people do here and in other parts of the world to be officially representing communities for very high salaries. I wasn’t really feeling that, so I decided I needed to do something else.

And I had some friends that introduced me to people in the FMLN, and they thought I could be useful working with urban commandos in logistics and things. And so, at that moment when I see this home that was bombed with all these children is the moment I stop being “American.” I stop. You can go and look at most of my journalism. I avoid using the word “American,” since 1991, because of I didn’t want anything to do with that. And so, I became an Américan, with an accent on the E, and a citizen of the United States of América, which is kind of the revolutionary imaginary taking hold of me to want a better place.

AMY GOODMAN: And the FMLN, again, for people to understand, was the rebel fighting force at a time when the U.S. was pouring millions into the military regime and the paramilitaries responsible for everything from the killing of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, to the El Mozote massacre of 1981?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yes, yes. The FMLN was organized against the fascist military dictatorship backed by the U.S. government, beginning with the Carter administration. And, you know, if you’re an historian like my friend Joaquín Chávez, whose excellent book Poets and Prophets of the [Resistance] is a must-read, you know, you’ll see that the U.S. involvement dates decades back. They started supporting El Salvador’s military dictatorship starting in around 1934, when they finally recognized Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who perpetrated La Matanza of 1932, which some historians will tell you is one of the most violent episodes in not just Latin American history, but in world history, in terms of the numbers of people killed per day, per week, in a concentrated place.

And so, the FMLN was — you know, there were groups in the FMLN founded by poets. This was one of the things that attracted me to it, was the nondistinction between the poetic and the political, between the revolutionary and daily life, between love and labor. And so, the FMLN was, according to the CIA, one of the most effective political, military and social movements in Latin America in the 20th century, where, for example, you could read NACLA and see that one of every three Salvadorans was organized against the state in the 1980s, according to the Universidad Centroamericana. And, you know, I mean, it taught me what it means to be a poet warrior.

It’s something that I think we need right now, which is part of the reason I wrote the book, was to share — you know, there’s all this dark, heavy stuff, but I think you’ll find there’s a lot of love, tenderness and hope in the book, because that’s the only way we got through as Salvadorans. And I think, in all my experience around the world, in a most intimate way, I’ve never seen a people with such astonishing resilience as Salvadoreños. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto, we have to break, but we’re going to come back and also want to talk about your fraught relationship with your father, and this revelation in your book that he was a young witness to La Matanza of 1932, the peasant uprising in the government massacre, killings of thousands and thousands of Salvadorans. Roberto Lovato is the award-winning journalist. His memoir is just out. It’s called Unforgetting. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Días y Flores” by Silvio Rodríguez. Our guest today is Roberto Lovato, the award-winning journalist, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Roberto, before break, you were talking about, mentioning La Matanza in 1932. A lot of people don’t realize that the FMLN of the ’70s and ’80s took its name, of Farabundo Martí, Agustín Farabundo Martí, who was one of the organizers of the peasant uprising of 1932 and was also one of the founders of the Central American Communist Party. Could you talk about the links between what happened in 1932, in your understanding of it, as well as the development of the FMLN?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah. I mean, in my view and in the view of historians like Aldo Lauria-Santiago and Erik Ching and Greg Gould, you know, it really — the FMLN probably should have been named the Feliciano Ama — Frente Feliciano Ama para la Liberación Nacional, because it was primarily an Indigenous uprising, right? Indigenous peoples started seeing their kids, the little — the soft part of their heads started sinking in, and watching their kids die. And they rebelled. And there was also communists organizing with them. But really, the core groups of it and the local leadership was Indigenous.

And so, that, you know — and the way history works, oftentimes we erase Indigenous agency. And so, I felt it important to talk about how — you know, what historians have taught us about La Matanza, that people rose up trying to overthrow the government in what was the first communist insurrection. There were communists involved, including Farabundo Martí. And a man named El General, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, saw an opportunity not just to take power, because he was the vice president, but also then perpetrate what scholars at Oxford have told me is one of the single most violent episodes in world history, as far as the number of people killed per day in a concentrated space and per week in a concentrated space. And so, you know, there’s a — the records of La Matanza were buried, burned, destroyed, by and large. There’s some in — some historians in El Salvador are starting to reconstitute them and rebuild the memory and unforget, right? Because, you know, states are nothing if not manufacturers of — mass manufacturers of amnesia.

And so, you know, from that point on, you get military dictatorship, one of the longest-standing military dictatorships in the Americas. But you also get one of the most consistent left oppositions, and effective left oppositions, in the Americas in the Salvadoran people’s struggle, which is part of the reason I wrote my book, because those pathetic images of children crying and mothers screaming, the sounds, the soundbites of mothers screaming in places like Karnes, are the dominant images, along with gangs of Salvadorans, when, in fact, you’ve got this incredible, astonishingly incredible, political capability that Salvadorans have had and still have.

AMY GOODMAN: So, La Matanza, you reveal in your book — talk about your father’s connection as a witness.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, my father, Ramón Alfredo Lovato, Pop Ramón, known to those of us who love him, was 9 years old when this happened in January of 1932. And I didn’t even know this. I was teaching in the country’s first Central American studies program at Cal State Northridge, and we were trying to find books which you can’t find in English, except for a few, like the one by Gould and Santiago. And, you know, I was doing research on La Matanza. Then I realized, “Hey, this town, Ahuachapán, is where my dad is from.” It was one of the major centers. And my dad never said anything for decades. So then I start doing the research, and I finally ask my dad, and he reveals to me that he had seen La Matanza.

And it was an epic moment in my family history and in my own life, because it explained a lot to me about why I was such a crazy kid that used to gangster lean, like in that song, and run in certain violent and kind of dangerous circles or join the FMLN and other crazy things that I’ve done in my life, had this deep undercurrent of family history that I think a lot of us have in our families, family secrets. And I try to connect those family secrets to the secrets of nations, like with the Matanza, which was, again, covered up and buried along with mass gravesites that are still unexcavated to this day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of family secrets, you also reveal in your book that your father, who had worked for United Airlines for many years as a ramp service worker, also had his own underground life, basically, in the Mission District of San Francisco selling contraband.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, my dad was, along with Santana’s father, involved in the contraband industry in San Francisco’s Mission District. A lot of colorful characters came out of there. And my dad was at the center of it. And my dad, a very smart guy, created a transnational network of contraband, of jewelry, electrodomestics, calculators, perfume, eventually guns. My dad was running guns between El Salvador — I mean, San Francisco and El Salvador. He wasn’t selling them to, like, the fascists or to the FMLN or anything. This was before, in the prewar era, in the '70s. He was doing it to anybody who could afford it. But I learned about the construction of criminality at a very personal level. You know, I had shame about my dad, and I didn't — and my dad’s activities.

And I started excavating the history. I find out that it wasn’t just my dad. It was my Mamá Tey, my grandmother, who made pupusas with me, for me and our family. And with the same hands that she made pupusas, she also transferred — she was actually the originator of this transnational network of contraband that sustained our family. And so, I’m not going to call my abuelita a criminal, or my dad a criminal. I think they were people that were trying to sustain their families by any ways they could and under like — you know, for example, they lived through an El Salvador that didn’t just see La Matanza and the genocide, but a poverty in the Great Depression that made Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath look like a wine festival.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, William Barr, the current attorney general, the attorney general under George H.W. Bush — we just have a minute, but as you wrap up, Roberto, what is his connection to this story?

ROBERTO LOVATO: William Barr, as attorney general under the first Bush, redeployed FBI resources, in the greatest deployment of FBI resources up to that point, taking FBI agents who were fighting foreign — you know, looking at foreign “threats,” and started focusing them on gangs. And then he starts looking at MS-13 and other gangs right after the L.A. riots. You can see he was there in L.A., and he started us on the path to eventually, like, militarizing the police, that we have right now. And then, he then also had the INS deport the gang “problem” to El Salvador, and then he exported, after the war, U.S.-style policing. And then, I found out that military trainers from El Salvador actually came to train LAPD in counterinsurgency, and other police forces. It’s just when you start seeing the Robocopization of cop uniforms — right? — and that we have now. And William Barr had everything to do with — had not everything, but he had a lot to do with this. I had to sing his song, because he deserves all the credit he deserves for what he did to El Salvador and to L.A. and to our national situation long before Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, there is so much more in this stunning memoir. Roberto is an award-winning journalist and author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Wear a mask. Stay safe.

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

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