Courtesy of Roberto Lovato
In his new book, writer Roberto Lovato describes El Salvador as "a tiny country of titanic sorrows."
Courtesy of Roberto Lovato
And those sorrows, especially in recent decades, have been tightly bound up with lives led thousands of miles to the north of the small Central American country in cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Lovato's memoir, out today, is called "Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas." It traces his family's history between El Salvador and the United States, examining intergenerational trauma and political forces that shape his own family's story as well as those of tens of thousands of Salvadorans who have fled violence and warfare.
Lovato is a Salvadoran American former gang member from San Francisco, who went to El Salvador as a young adult to join the guerilla movement in the civil war — and then began covering the brutality of El Salvador's US-backed military government as a journalist.
He spoke to The World's host Carol Hills about what he learned about himself, his family, and the connections between the US and El Salvador while writing the book.
Roberto Lovato: I grew up working-class in San Francisco's Mission District. We had a little group of us. We weren't like a formal, hard-core gang. But some of us had low riders and we would do things like steal cars, deal drugs, do drugs or rob people. But we weren't a hardened gang like you see today in terms of like Crips, Bloods or Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
You know, as a kid, it was not just a rough place. It was a place where my friends and other people that I knew lived. There was violence and there was crime and everything. But there was also humanity — which tends to be forgotten.
I would travel there pretty frequently because my father was a janitor with United Airlines and my mom was a maid with Hyatt Regency. So, we got discounted hotels and free airline tickets and there were military people everywhere. I was into GI Joe as a kid and Captain America. And I thought, "Wow, there's some strange things going on."
I was too young to really understand crime and criminality and the way it's constructed. And so I was initially scared because I heard my dad tell stories about men trying to pick him up and take him away to kill him. And, you know, he would go and find people to sell him guns and other contraband. And then he would take boxes to El Salvador, where he bribed military people and immigration officials would just let him bring the stuff in. And I thought, "Well, man, my dad's got, like, this transnational operation going on."
At that moment, Santana was channeling the electric currents cruising through San Francisco at the time of the hippies, of Chicano power, of Black power, Cesar Chavez marching down Bryant Street, including the political and revolutionary vibe that started coming here with Chilean and then Nicaraguan revolutionaries who came to San Francisco and established organizations and started being active at coffee shops and protesting in the streets. And eventually, after, like, 1979, a lot of Salvadoran revolutionaries came with them. So, I thought they were kind of scary, intense people at the beginning. Little did I know I would become one of them.
Being my father's son, watching my father take risks transferring contraband and doing, like, the outlaw thing, it was not unnatural for me to take risks. And beyond that, I believed in what I was doing when I started realizing that people from the United States were going to El Salvador to either do solidarity work or, Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell, to see these people doing the same thing with El Salvador, which was a movement of its time in the 80s, was, for me, an inspiration.
La Matanza was, in fact, one of the most singularly violent moments in world history. It's just an astonishing level of violence that any scholars of, say, the Holocaust or other acts of genocide will tell you that there's a heavy silence that sets in in a population and in families.
I never knew why I was such a crazy kid that did the things that I did, whether it was as a youth with Los Originales, or whether joining the FMLN, I just knew that I was kind of crazy. And then my dad told me something that explains a lot, not just of why I was so crazy, but I think it explains a lot of the history of why El Salvador is one of the most consistently violent places on Earth.
He tells me that family members had witnessed La Matanza. He tells me things that just move my stomach and move my heart. And really that chapter in my life — it really closed the circle for me as far as my relationship to my father. You know, the arc in my story, like a lot of our stories, is love-my-dad, love-and-hate-my-dad, love-hate-and-then-rebel-against-my-dad-and-the-state, in my case, and then love-my-dad, again.
And so that moment captures that. I go back and forth in time throughout the book so that the reader can hopefully experience a little bit of what I experienced living the life that I lived and not knowing why I lived that life until my father really brings it home for me. I just had to come full circle to my own home to realize that I didn't have to travel the world to see the astonishing levels of poverty and trauma, that they were baked into my upbringing as a boy and as a young man, and that I didn't know that I was carrying that atom bomb.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.