Book Review- Unforgetting: A Memoir of Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas

By Adam Schendel

“We were all born half-dead in 1932” is a line from a poem discovered by Roberto Lovato during his teenage years in the 1970s while visiting his family’s homeland in El Salvador. These words, “half-dead,” strike him as expressing a nameless feeling he had as far back as he could remember. Much later in his life, this sense of feeling half-dead, as well as a determination to understand what makes his home country so violent today, led journalist, writer, and educator Lovato to write his life’s story in a new book, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.

Lovato’s memoir is a work that is both personal and expansive, at once a searing personal examination into his own family history that shaped his revolutionary trajectory in life, as well as a wide-ranging history of El Salvador and how the dark shadow of its past have shaped the country’s social context today and fuels the migration of refugees to the United States. Along the way, Lovato clarifies the complicit role of the United States in brutal Salvadoran history and shines a light on how a process of historical “unforgetting” can lead to an honest reckoning with history in order to undergo healing and the construction of a better international world. 

The memoir’s narrative is split between three periods of time, with every chapter alternating between them. The first part is told in the form of journalistic dispatches as Lovato explores El Salvador in 2015, which has become “the most violent country on Earth,” experiencing over 3,300 homicides in the first part of that year (in a small country with a population of over 6 million). This is largely due to gang violence, with one of the prominent groups being MS-13, often used to demonize and smear immigrants in the U.S. during the Trump era, as well as the police and military forces that combat them. 

Lovato gazes into a violent Salvadoran past from the present, as he follows along with forensics teams that unearth mass graves filled with victims old and new, and visits the labs filled with boxes of bones that attempt to identify the dead to provide closure for families who were left with no answers about loved ones’ fates. He speaks to police officers who have become weary and ruthless in the face of endless violence, believing that gangs must be eradicated through extrajudicial executions that have been condemned by the United Nations and human rights organizations. 

He also speaks with gang members, some of them barely adults, to learn what leads them into lives of violence and death. One illuminating answer is given by a prominent gang leader, who tells Lovato that trauma is a key cause of the violence. “The trauma of the disintegration of the family,” he says, of fathers without jobs turning to alcoholism and then to beating the mothers of their children, the trauma of children witnessing the beatings, of sons who are beaten by the boyfriends that their mothers left their fathers for, the trauma of the sons who leave home and join gangs only to be reproached by their mothers, and so on and on. 

The second part of the book’s narrative begins in Lovato’s childhood, growing up in California in the 1970s with his Salvadoran family and tracing his antagonisms with his father due to the latter’s dealings in black market goods and marital infidelity. Later on, Lovato turns to drugs, alcohol, and street crime until the dangerous lifestyle and the deaths of close friends lead him to a reformed life of conservative, born-again Christianity. 

It is during this time period that civil war erupts in El Salvador, as the leftist guerrilla organization known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) entered violent conflict on behalf of fighting poverty and repression against the right-wing Salvadoran government, a military dictatorship backed by billions of dollars of United States aid on behalf of the Reagan administration. By the end of the war in 1992, over 75,000 people had been killed, many of them due to extrajudicial executions and disappearances carried out by escuadrones de la muerte, government death squads that Lovato compares to those of the Nazis, and whose commanding officer was trained by the U.S. military at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. 

The suffering and instability of the war leads Lovato to the work of aiding Central American refugees in the late 1980s, and eventually to directly participating in the conflict itself as part of the FMLN. 

The third pillar of the narrative is Lovato’s attempt to understand his enigmatic father, lovingly deemed “Pop”, and the family history that Pop refuses to speak of. The story here takes place in El Salvador of the 1930s, when Pop was a young boy descended from indigenous ancestry being raised in poverty as an illegitimate child by his single mother. Indeed, Lovato notes that perhaps most children in the country at the time were born as ilegítimo and that for his father and “millions of other Salvadorans, ‘family’ meant being raised by strong, heroic single mothers.” 

Salvadoran society of the time was an oligarchy ruled by about a hundred families who held most of the country’s wealth, and Pop was the rejected son of a wealthy successor to one of these powerful families. They had grown rich off of exported coffee crops, which were harvested on plantations established on stolen indigenous land by workers who were exploited and abused by the owners of society. 

This portion of the book is an excellent analysis of Salvadoran history and serves to decipher the mysterious line of poetry that so impacted Lovato as a teenager, about all Salvadorans being “born half-dead in 1932”. Social unrest due to worker exploitation and falling coffee prices leads to a failed rebellion attempt by communists and indigenous communities headed by the revolutionary Farabundo Martí, and the new dictatorship of El Salvador responds with a wave of indiscriminate massacres across the country that becomes known as “La Matanza”, the Slaughter, in 1932.

 Horrifying descriptions detail how armed paramilitaries went town-by-town and house-by-house to execute communists and indigenous people, who become the victims of outright genocide. Though likely unknown to most people outside of Central America today, La Matanza has been characterized as one of the bloodiest brief episodes of violence and murder in modern history, right up with some of the worst atrocities to occur later in World War II.

It is this history that the poem diagnoses as resulting in all Salvadorans being born half-dead, and Lovato identifies the episode as casting a shadow of silence over an entire generation, including his father, who eventually opens up his traumatic memories to his son as an old man in his nineties. Lovato also connects La Matanza to the violence of the civil war of the 1980s and the death that still plagues El Salvador today in the 21st century. 

One of the other highlights of the memoir comes as Lovato at long last reckons with the role of his own native United States as he visits a Salvadoran mother and her remaining family in 1990, after losing three of her small children and all of their belongings in a rocket attack launched by a government helicopter during the civil war. Breaking down crying after speaking with them, Lovato makes a commitment not just to fight against the government of El Salvador, but the government that funded and supported the dictatorship’s murderous war: “my own government, the one that had issued my passport.” 

Lovato writes about how his American identity and sense of American exceptionalism had blinded him to the role that the U.S. played in destabilizing El Salvador and how it materially contributed to the deaths of thousands of the citizens there. “I couldn’t fathom the fact that my tax dollars as a US citizen were used to perpetrate such abominations against children [like the ones murdered in the rocket attack],” he laments. “I simply couldn’t.” 

A recurring theme throughout the book is a sense of forgetting, of historical amnesia that comes in the forms of the silence of Lovato’s father about his family history, of the lack of historic reflection on behalf of El Salvador regarding La Matanza in 1932, and how myths of American exceptionalism blind us in the U.S. to the ways our country propagates violence around the world in places like Latin America. Thus, Lovato commits himself to “unforgetting” and uncovering the truth, as “a critical way to start the process of individual, familial, and national healing”. To be a reader of Lovato’s memoir is to undergo our own version of this “unforgetting” to help us learn about the past and present within this book and perhaps to apply the same examination in our own lives. 

Review by Adam Schendel. Help support the La Crosse Independent on Patreon!