“The machete of memory cuts swiftly or slowly,” Roberto Lovato writes at the beginning of his groundbreaking memoir, “Unforgetting.” It “makes us hack at ourselves,” it “chops up our families” and it “severs any understanding that epic history is a stitching together of intimate histories.”
Fittingly, at the tender heart of this book is a treadle sewing machine used by his grandmother, Mamá Tey, to support the family in El Salvador and, later, San Francisco. At the dark heart of this book is a family secret fiercely kept by his father, having to do with the genocidal aftermath of an uprising in El Salvador in 1932. This massacre, called La Matanza (the slaughter), so traumatized the “tiny country of titanic sorrows” that today, according to Lovato, it is unknown to most Salvadorans, repressed during five decades of military dictatorship. A second uprising, beginning in 1980, led to 12 years of civil war between the Salvadoran military, supported by the United States, and the armed forces of the opposition. The war displaced more than one million Salvadorans, with half taking refuge in the United States. After the war, social and economic reforms promised during peace negotiations were abandoned, and until 2016 amnesty laws protected the perpetrators of war crimes, the majority committed by the military. Civilians, and combatants from both sides of the conflict, struggled to survive in a deteriorating postwar environment.
In the United States, young Salvadoran war refugees defended themselves from urban street gangs by forming gangs themselves, and when the government expeditiously deported them, gang life became a U.S. export, seeding criminal enterprises such as narco-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and money laundering. In the absence of serious economic development and domestic security, Salvadoran parents despaired of keeping their children fed and safe, and sent them north, until whole families were fleeing on foot to the U.S. border. These families are often referred to as “migrants,” but in truth, they are the most recent refugees of the war and its aftermath, victims of a conflict that could not have been prosecuted without the support of the United States, the country that is now refusing to grant the vast majority of them asylum.
“Where most see the refugee crisis as ‘new,’” Lovato writes, “I see the longue durée of history and memory. Where many see the story beginning at the border, I see the time-space continuum of violence, migration and forgetting. … Where others see mine as a Central American story, I see it as a story about the United States.”
“Unforgetting” is a story of two countries, inextricably bound, and Lovato is uniquely positioned to tell it. As a U.S.-born son of immigrants, he grew up knowing the culture of gang life in the streets of San Francisco, spent his holidays visiting family in El Salvador, was briefly a born-again Christian, worked for nongovernmental organizations in both countries, joined the opposition as an urban commando late in the civil war and later witnessed, as a journalist working for The Boston Globe, the exhumation of mass graves. In one of his memoir’s most chilling chapters, he takes us into a forensics lab in San Salvador where “all the country’s documented and undocumented dead come to be analyzed and counted before being returned to their loved ones — or buried in anonymous graves.” We meet Saul Quijada, a forensic anthropologist skilled in “making the bones speak” — “from rural and urban areas where killings in El Salvador force migration,” he says, “to the deaths that take place during the migration through Mexico to the United States.” He shows Lovato one of the older skeletons from the massacre at El Mozote, early in the war: “We’re rebuilding the cranium piece by piece because it was in pieces, chopped up with a machete. The pieces were like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The jigsaw puzzle is one of the governing tropes of Lovato’s episodic narrative; his task is to piece together not only his fragmented identity, but the mosaic of testimony from the host of characters he assembles, all the while standing in the rubble of war’s aftermath. His grandmother tells him: “We’re all pieces of broken glass, stained with blood and struggling to put ourselves back together.” Lovato’s quest is “to do the personal forensic work of recovering the fragments of my childhood and adolescent memories, especially the ones that are often more painful to conjure.” These have largely to do with his violent, charismatic father, whose smuggling business, alcoholism, womanizing and secrecy bequeathed to the author a measure of “nihilistic rage” that animates his search to uncover his father’s secret regarding the massacre in 1932. The revelation of this secret guides Lovato in contemplating deeper questions about the personal and political silences that perpetuate violence; about prolonged mourning and the enduring effects of intergenerational trauma; about the collective inability to look down into the abyss of our history; and about “what turns salvageable kids … into stone-cold killers.”
In a particularly timely passage, he ties the militarization of policing in the United States to counterinsurgency tactics deployed, thanks to U.S. aid and training, by El Salvador during the civil war. The American military strategists who advised the Salvadoran government during that war later recommended using the same tactics in the “war on gangs” in Los Angeles, with “cops wearing puffed-up, RoboCop gear now worn by police everywhere.” Today, Lovato writes, “while the media popularizes the terrors of gang war, it ignores the fact that counterinsurgency policing is a multibillion-dollar industry for the arms dealers and military contractors that provide the tanks, semiautomatic weapons, and other equipment now supplied to local police forces throughout the United States.”
It is a complex puzzle indeed, and Lovato is among the first Salvadoran-American writers to assemble it, shuttling back and forth in time, between countries and languages, to retrieve the pieces for a kaleidoscopic montage that is at once a family saga, a coming-of-age story and a meditation on the vicissitudes of history, community and, most of all for him, identity.
If there is a defining moment in the narrative, it might be his visit to Corral de Piedra in 1990, just after a rocket attack by the Salvadoran military in which a number of children had been killed. “Looking at the crosses placed near the bombed-out adobe wall, thinking about the children — living as well as dead,” Lovato recognizes that his fight is not just against the government of El Salvador. “My new fight was also against the government that … put El Salvador on the path to becoming one of the longest-standing military dictatorships in the Americas,” he writes, “my own government, the one that had issued my passport.” Years later, one of his university students in California will say: “I remember the war and, yeah, I remember seeing dead bodies and things that cause terror, Lovato, but I also remember eating jocotes, always having lots of family around and playing escondelero in the cool shade at the foot of the volcán ’til late. I remember a lot more than ‘terror.’ And who paid for that terror? This country. That’s who.”
In a time of national reckoning, such truths must be faced if we are to be serious about who we are and what we have done. Lovato’s memoir confronts historical amnesia and “the myth of American innocence shared by conservatives and liberals alike.” The picture he assembles is a mural of our complicity in systemic violence and inhumanity, and the resilience of the people who endured it.
A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
By Roberto Lovato