Journey to the Underworld and Back

Issue 259

John Tarleton Oct 28, 2020

“I had to go into all of these different underworlds,” says Roberto Lovato of Unforgetting, his new memoir which tries to make sense of a life filled with political and personal struggles.

Raised as an American kid in San Francisco who admired Willie Mays and identified with the Brady Bunch, Lovato only discovers his Salvadoran identity and the dark family secrets that come with it in fits and starts.

His journey of self-discovery ricochets back and forth between the rural El Salvador of the 1930s, the Bay Area of the 1970s, the Marxist guerrilla movement that he would eventually join and present-day El Salvador. Along the way, he has to excavate the harrowing childhood memories that haunt his emotionally distant father and face his own self-doubts when he falls in love with a beautiful rebel leader.

However, Unforgetting is about more than Lovato’s personal journey.

It’s also a book about imperialism, how the economic and political structures it imposes warp whole societies and how some people will always resist. In El Salvador, a volcano-studded land where wealthy elites have long ruled the dispossessed majority with terrifying cruelty, resistance has often come at a harrowing price.

In a bout of late Cold War hysteria, El Salvador and neighboring Nicaragua became an obsession of U.S. foreign policy makers during the 1980s. Leftist movements were fomenting subversion, President Ronald Reagan warned, and were only a three-day drive away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Solidarity groups, including one that Lovato joined, sprang up in cities across the United States to aid fleeing refugees and promote public opposition to a U.S. military invasion in the region. Instead, the Reagan administration unleashed U.S.-funded death squads and mercenary armies that killed an estimated 200,000 people in Central America, shattering already fragile societies. The story of how those young immigrant children locked in cages arrived here is a legacy of that earlier era, Lovato argues. And just as he seeks to unforget his own personal history and become stronger for it, he also invites the United States as a nation to do so as well.

INDYPENDENT: Why did you write this book? Why are you releasing it now?

ROBERTO LOVATO: There were many reasons. One was the systematic erasure of Central Americans from the English language. The child separation issue was one of the biggest stories of 2018. I did a study for the Columbia Journalism Review and found there were zero Central American scholars cited, zero Central American community leaders, zero Central American lawyers and zero Central American journalists or any other experts in a country where we’ve been here for decades. It reflects the racial amnesia and erasure that marks our lives and has devastating effects.

What is it about El Salvador that you want Americans to learn from this book?

I want people to learn about not just Salvadorans but about the United States. The book is as much about the United States as it is about Central America. The histories — political, economic, cultural and familial in my case — are intertwined and inseparable in the modern era. I want people to understand the effects of forgetting, the dangers of forgetting, for individuals, for families and for nations. And I want folks to see the benefits of unforgetting, excavating those truths that afflict the powerful.

You have been bipartisan in your criticism of U.S. leaders. Still, you say Trump is especially dangerous. Why is that?

The United States itself is a threat of epic proportions to the world, but Donald Trump weaponizes it in very particular, dangerous ways. The United States hasn’t been as hollowed out by neoliberal capitalism as it is now. The separation between rich and poor in the United States surpasses that of El Salvador. We see the emptying out of whatever remains of the welfare state, the militarization of the police, attempts to introduce the military through backdoor means within the borders. We’ve never seen this speed and scale of the hollowing out of the U.S. economy. And, I would argue, its cultural system, because you can’t hollow out an economy without creating an imaginary that explains it away.

It’s been a long time coming.

The decline of the United States began in the late ‘70s to early 80s, when Reagan and Thatcher really started us on the turn toward neoliberalism and the changes in the global economy. People were trying to adjust their storyline about the United States. Both political parties try to keep alive the myth of American exceptionalism. El Salvador tells another story of this country.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve visited mass grave sites. I’ve been pursued by death squads. I’ve had friends and family killed by U.S.-backed governments. I’ve seen children put in cages by Barack Obama. I’ve risked my life as a journalist to get the story out. The story of U.S. fascism from a Salvadoran perspective isn’t new because I fought a fascist military dictatorship that was backed by the United States.

The right-wing always needs an enemy to justify itself. For decades the communists were the official enemy, then Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism became the new official enemy. Now it’s Antifa and so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” such as Portland, Seattle and New York.

I write about “counterinsurgency policing” in my book. I track how the United States sent military advisors to El Salvador to train the military and the death squads. After the war, those trainers came back home to roost. I found out they ended up at the LAPD, at the San Francisco police department, at the NYPD. When the LAPD created anti-gang units, they were trained by former Pentagon trainers from El Salvador and other parts of Latin America.

Counterinsurgency policing starts taking hold in the United States following the war in El Salvador. In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, then Attorney General William Barr transferred 300 FBI agents were transferred from tracking foreign threats to focusing on gangs such as MS-13. That begins the war on gangs that combined with the militarization of police, which we’re dealing with today.

You take great risks in your book to provide a more nuanced look at the Salvadoran gangs without excusing their violent behavior.

I was an “at-risk” youth who engaged in criminal activities, as did my father. I use that experience to explain to the reader how somebody becomes a “criminal.” It’s not so separate from being a member of a family, especially in a place where the vast production of criminality is what governments do.

You refer to your book as a journey through the underworld.

I had to go into all these different underworlds to excavate the heart lost in the darkness. We never lost our heart as Salvadorans, but it appeared we did in the English language media. Joan Dideon once wrote of El Salvador that “terror is the given of the place.” I tell a story that says that love is also the given of the place.

We in the United States could really use hearing that right now because there’s an increased amount of terror here. We’re going to need mountains of tenderness, of love, to sustain ourselves for the world that’s coming — not just surviving Trump, the rise of a neo-fascist mass movement, the pandemic and economic decline but the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Anything else that could help get us through these difficult times?

We’re going to need what sociologists call a millenarian sensibility. We’re in the middle of a moment of epic proportions — George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or Cecil B. DeMille could have created it. But people aren’t responding to it with an epic sensibility yet. People are still sitting in front of their screens, tweeting and making light of things.

Most of the literature in the United States didn’t prepare us for this moment. Neither did the movies. So I wanted to write a book that did what I didn’t see, which was to start preparing us for adopting a more millenarian sensibility. We need a revolutionary outlook to face these epic challenges.

Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in The Americas
By Roberto Lovato
Harper Collins, 2020
325 pages

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