NOVEMBER 16, 2020
THE TRANQUIL HUM of the Sumpul River seemed incongruous given the historical terror that had once happened there. In 1990, Roberto Lovato, at the time an activist with the Central American Refugee Center in San Francisco, visited the site during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. It was the first mass grave he humbly witnessed. The grounds near Chalatenango also once held the distinction of being the worst massacre in the nation since 1932; the Salvadoran military and paramilitary forces killed more than 600 souls there in 1980 — the first, but not the last, brutal salvo against civilians in the war.
“My visit to the killing fields of Chalatenango gave me a different sense of what it meant to be Salvadoreño,” writes Lovato in Unforgetting, his new memoir. “Now I realized that learning both Salvadoran history and the history of my family was essential to understanding my story.”
Born in San Francisco’s Mission District, well before the emergence of the Farabundo Martí Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) as an armed leftist opposition in El Salvador, Lovato is a Salvadoran raised in the United States by immigrant parents, including his father Ramón, a central character known in the book as “Pop.” Lovato, a longtime activist and journalist, undertakes a pensive journey in this memoir through various underworlds in El Salvador and the United States, with many tools and guides at his disposal. First among them is a machete. Wielded as a metaphor, its long, sharp blade is sufficient to cut through the density of buried secrets and trauma, both personal and political. A guide also intermittently appears in the form of the late Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, who proclaimed all his countrymen “half-dead” after “La Matanza” (the slaughter) of 1932, when the regime of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez cruelly suppressed an indigenous uprising.
Lovato lives many lives — street tough, evangelical Christian, activist, guerrilla movement supporter — all of them Salvadoran. In his youth, he visited relatives in El Salvador with a lofty sense of his own Americanism, but that attitude begins to dissolve over time, especially when challenged by the university friends of his cousin Adilio, who are supportive of the growing guerilla movement.
In his shifting views, Lovato embodies the twisted relationship between the United States and El Salvador, where “unforgetting” means untangling oneself from the contradictions of history. For him, the final knot unraveled in 1990, during a fact-finding mission in Corral de Piedra, at another site of mass death. That’s where a mother recounted losing her children to rocket fire from a military helicopter, an assault from above that left only the skin of her youngest grafted onto an adobe wall. The US government trained, funded, and defended the military dictatorship throughout the war, bearing responsibility for its wanton excesses every step of the way.
“Any semblance of the chess-playing child who had ardently defended America from critics, like my cousin Adilio’s university friends, died in that moment,” writes Lovato. “I couldn’t fathom the fact that my tax dollars as a US citizen were used to perpetuate such abominations against children. I simply couldn’t.”
The memoir eschews chronology, preferring a tapestry of revelations that spans both nations and generations, mirroring the fragmentation of traumatic memory itself. The narrative arcs rarely, if ever, feel disjointed, as they’re masterfully woven together via Lovato’s fluid, engaging, and incisive prose. The feat would make Lovato’s late grandmother Mamá Tey, a seamstress, proud.
Traversing history once more, Unforgetting offers portraits of life after the truce ending the civil war, only to have violence take a new turn in the early 1990s. By then, Salvadoran youth in Los Angeles had sought protection from gang violence by forming Mara Salvatrucha, a clika of their own. Under the presidency of George H. W. Bush, Attorney General William Barr saw an opportunity to militarize the police in response. Deportations exported street gangs to El Salvador, where the government took an iron-fist approach informed by the United States, renewing state violence in a weary nation.
Lovato helped with jobs, training, and education programs for youth in Los Angeles during the ’90s, where he befriended Alex Sanchez, a former member of MS-13 turned Homies Unidos activist, who was politically targeted by the LAPD. Returning to El Salvador as a journalist for The Boston Globe in 2015, he finds the FMLN in power, an established political party waging war on gangs through mano dura policies. Lovato’s pristine image of moral, heroic guerrillas gives way to cynicism.
During one definitive exchange, Lovato asks Santiago, a gang leader in San Salvador, what he thinks is the cause of all the rampant violence. The bookish man offers a succinct, sober assessment, seemingly befitting a social worker, not a “shot caller” who could order a hit with a snap of his fingers. “Well, there’s trauma,” Santiago says, before listing all its forms within broken families. The response gives Lovato pause, and Santiago emerges as another mirror reflection of the fragmented Salvadoran soul. But the truth he offers is incomplete, though he later acknowledges that gangs in El Salvador perpetuate violence, making matters worse.
“Like it or not,” writes Lovato, “we Salvadorans are all, in some sense, the children of El General and La Matanza.”
Unforgetting’s grandest revelation comes through the resolution of Lovato’s often fraught relationship with Pop. Despite occasional prodding, Pop maintains an obstinate silence about his own father, a wealthy man who considered him an ilegítimo, and also about Ahuachapán, where he grew up. Eventually, Lovato is able to gently pry open the wounds of Pop’s childhood memories, which belong to all of El Salvador.
Unforgetting’s arrival is timely, offering a stark contrast to the bigotry wielded by Donald Trump as he wildly rails against MS-13 and Central American migrant caravans. It’s also an antidote for the prevailing wisdom on El Salvador, best summed up by Joan Didion in her 1983 book, Salvador, that “terror is the given of the place.” There is much violence to be sure, but for the “half-dead,” there remains much life. Lovato himself finds love with an FMLN compañera in the midst of civil war, when a third of all Salvadoreños organized against the state in one form or another, seeking redemption through revolution. Meanwhile, gang members break the cycles of trauma against all odds. And forensic labs provide the sites where the work of “re-membering” the dismembered occurs.
There’s little difference, in the end, between the memorial task of such technicians and Lovato’s own literary offering. “Watching their rituals of forensic recovery led me to believe that unforgetting is a critical way to start the process of individual, familial, and national healing,” he writes. “The same applies to reconstructing the bones of our personal and national memories, including the memory of what it is to be American, the identity that has caused so much devastation to those of us who identify as Salvadoran.”