Anti-migrant political rhetoric often focuses on the spectacles of border crossings, criminal organizations, and poverty in the Global South. But where do these phenomena come from? A closer look at the history of El Salvador and the Salvadoran diaspora in the US offers a lesson in the links between the so-called “migration crisis” and US imperialism and policing. In his new memoir and first book, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, journalist Roberto Lovato traces the long history of colonial violence in El Salvador through the story of his family. Lovato joins Rattling the Bars to discuss his book and the lessons El Salvador’s revolutionary history can offer the world in a time of ecological and demographic upheaval caused by the cascading crises of capitalism.
Roberto Lovato is an educator, journalist and writer based at The Writers Grotto. He’s also the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins). A recipient of a reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center, Lovato has reported on the drug war, violence, terrorism in Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Haiti, France and the United States.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. Today we have an extraordinary individual, I would like to say, an author, a freedom fighter, who’s going to give us a lot of insight and history into the Salvadoran Civil War, among other things. He wrote a book called Unforgetting. Introduce yourself to our audience, Mr. Roberto.
Roberto Lovato: Well, thank you, Mansa. I’m happy to be with The Real News and you again. I’ve been doing stuff with The Real News for many years, and I’m glad we’re all still alive and kicking and fighting and hopefully inspiring people in this epic moment that we’re in.
So in response to this epic moment, I wrote this book, Unforgetting, which is a report and memoir that at one level is about the violence that we see in places like El Salvador in the United States and the interconnection between, say, the genocide and mass murder in El Salvador and the role of the government of the United States. But at another level, it’s a story of my family, my relationship with my father, a troubled relationship. How do you love somebody that has some issues like my dad did and like a lot of our dads did? And at a deeper level than that, beyond all that, all the darkness and violence and things that I write about are really about what I call the tenderness that survives the terror.
And I wrote this very consciously for a moment like the one we’re living in now, because it was clear to me when, for example, we see Barack Obama caging, separating, killing Central American children. In the cases of caging and separating Central American children, you’re talking by the tens of thousands, something that people blame Trump for but forget Obama was the originator of along with his Head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson. So you see the writing on the wall where the United States and the government are going, and it’s clear that we’re not going in a democratic direction, but an anti-democratic direction.
So I wrote a book that provides the blueprints for me, the spiritual blueprints of how to face anti-democratic regimes and moments like this one that are so filled with crisis. So if there’s any silver lining in the dark of El Salvador’s history, it’s that. It’s the revolutionary struggle that I actually was a participant in. And I had decided to come out about it in my book for the first time after almost 30 years. And so I’m a journalist and an author, and I’m a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a visiting professor of English in the English department.
Mansa Musa: Speaking of the book, I like how you used the metaphor of using the machete. And the other day somebody gave me this. And when I was thinking about it, I was thinking about how you said… And you spoke on this earlier about what you tried to capture. But I liked what you said about utilizing the machete as saying the machete cut swiftly to and fro, and then say, the machete is… They dismembered our memories and displaced our families. But this is more metaphorical.
And I want you to talk about this part of it before we go into some of the details of the book. I want you to talk about why you said, “Yours is a story of remembering. It saved my life.” But say, “Mine is a story of unforgetting.” When you’re saying your story is a story of unforgetting, are you saying that all your experiences that accumulated in you being the person that you are today… That you didn’t want to forget those things that attributed you to being who you are? Or not forgetting the things in general, the atrocities, the CIA, the repressive regimes of El Salvador, and the mass murders that they committed? Or all of the above?
Roberto Lovato: I’d say it’s the latter, Mansa. It’s all of the above. At one level, my story is that of a journalist’s search for the roots of violence in his parents’ homeland, El Salvador, the secrets of the government of El Salvador, the death squads, the secrets of the US trained military, the involvement of the US Pentagon in training and funding mass murder on an epic scale in this country that’s smaller than Massachusetts, and where 80,000 people were killed, 85% of whom were killed by their own government as backed by Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush number one during the war, and backed by every US president after the war. Because the killing continued in other ways after the war. So yeah, at one level it’s a story of me as a journalist trying to document and understand the things that governments, militaries, CIA, and other agencies do.
At another level, though, it’s a story of a son trying to understand his father. My father, Ramon, who just died a few months ago, was an incredible human being. He was a natural born poet. He was a leader of people in his labor union at United Airlines. And he had a voice and he had a way of speaking that was lyrical and beautiful and very musical. And he was very musically inclined and had a magic about him that just charmed people. Of course, when you live with somebody like that, you also get to know if they’re such a thing that there’s still another side to them. So it was another side to my dad’s beauty and magic, and that was my dad’s violence, my dad’s sometimes abusive nature that I grew up with as his youngest son and the rebel in the family who didn’t really want to take what the authorities gave him in the house. So I rebelled.
Mansa Musa: And let’s look at… When you talk about the violence that took place in El Salvador, I really like the way you outline this book because you draw this tapestry of the history, and then you go past and present, which automatically shows that the repressive conditions in El Salvador ultimately are going to lead to FMLN. When you talk about, I think it’s your great-grandfather, your father’s father, Romancito, where his father was… For lack of better word, he was either a [inaudible] or oligarch. They owned property and slaves. They took and had their way with Indigenous people. And coming out of this is the birth of your great-grandfather, if I’m not mistaken. But more importantly, that period that you outlined and that period there shows how the relationship between the oligarchy and the people that ultimately led to Marti, led to a mindset to resist the repression. Speak on that.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. I traced the history of violence in El Salvador. It actually predates the military dictatorship established in 1932. But for conversational and storytelling purposes, I focus on 1932 because it was a spike in the violence, which has been some of the most consistent violence on earth in El Salvador since its founding in 1821 by oligarchs who started off farming indigo. And then in the late 19th century, early 20th century, realized that there was a market for coffee so they started stealing Indigenous land, killing Indigenous people, at an accelerated rate that culminated in 1932 when a guy named [inaudible], the general Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, staged the coup that left somewhere on the order of maybe 10, 20, 30, maybe even 40 to 50,000 people dead in the course of a couple of weeks in what is considered by scholars of world violence one of the most violent episodes in world history.
And so this violence was perpetrated by the precursors, the people that were before what would become death squads in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Actually, ’60s through the ’90s. And so my dad actually lived through that period. I don’t want to give away the whole secret about my dad’s story because I want people to read my book, but let’s just say my dad has this atomic bomb of a story in his life that he never said anything about. And I had to go and excavate it like an archeologist or investigate it like a detective.
And I eventually found out and I found out, for example, this isn’t one of the bigger… This isn’t even anywhere near the big secret my dad has. But one of the things I do discover that I’ll share is that the man you mentioned, Don Miguel Rodriguez, my dad’s father, was one of the perpetrators of La Matanza, one of the members of the Guardia Civica, the Civic Guard, precursors to the death squad that would go door to door taking Indigenous people who were trying to feed their kids and rebelling because their kids were dying at an accelerated rate. Started going door to door and taking them out and hacking them and shooting them and massacring them by the thousands.
My grandfather was one of those people. Thankfully my dad was never recognized by his father and he never had any love for his dad, really. My dad struggled to try to connect to his father, but his father rejected him because my dad was born out of wedlock. And there starts my dad’s journey into extreme poverty that makes any poverty here in the United States look like a wine festival or a pizza party because you’re talking about poverty that leads to genocide, which is extreme, like we saw in Rwanda or in El Salvador.
Mansa Musa: And then you give context to the word Mara as far as the origin of it. And when we look at MS-13 and we look at how the United States contributes to the violence that gave birth to entities like MS-13, gave sanction to the death squads in El Salvador. But you give context to the word. And educate our audience on that. Because when we hear MS-13 and we get the media view, we get the view that this is the beginning and this is the end. This is what it is, this is what it has always been, this what it is always going to be. But in your storytelling, you give context to this as it relates to the narrative of the violence that came out of El Salvador.
Roberto Lovato: One of the things I do in my book is show the connection between the current issues dealing with gangs both in El Salvador and Central America and in the United States. Because remember, MS-13 was born in Los Angeles, here on the West Coast. I’m in Las Vegas, but I’ve lived in LA, and so the gangs were born in LA in the Pico-Union neighborhood, but we are not told that they’re a product of US culture, US policing. And so my book attempts to draw the line that connects the violence of, say, La Matanza of 1932, the dehumanization, to the violence of the war with the support of the United States, and the violence of the gang that was created with the help of, say, the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI under Attorney General William Barr during the first Bush administration and the LA riots, and continued by President Clinton, continued by then President Bush II, continued by Barack Obama, continued by Donald Trump, and now continued by Joe Biden. And so the gangs are nothing if not a creation of the United States’s political culture and policing culture. And poverty.
Mansa Musa: Exactly. Exactly. Don’t miss that.
Roberto Lovato: Gangs aren’t born like they would have you believe. They’re just evil gangs, MS-13 with the tattoos. But actually they’re born out of poverty, out of particular historical circumstances, in particular places like Los Angeles, California, Pico-Union neighborhood where I worked.
Before I became a journalist, I worked with a place called the Central American Refugee Center which became the Central American Resource Center. And we were working with Salvadoran families, some of whom had children that were starting to sport tats and starting to speak in a certain way that was different. And we started noticing that they were joining cliques. And we started creating social service programs and job programs and education programs to help keep the young people maybe out of gangs and into other things, maybe like social justice. But there weren’t the resources for that to do it on a large scale and we weren’t able to make a real dent.
And well, we see the results. Instead, the solution of the state was to police them through the LAPD, and then to take them and deport them in the collaboration between LAPD and the then Immigration Naturalization Service. So then you deport them to El Salvador after the war that I fought in and that left 80,000 dead and the country’s economy destroyed. So you export US-style gangs – Because you remember the Salvadoran gangs are modeled off of the Mexican Mafia and their gang structures. And they responded to pressure that these young immigrant kids were facing from members of the Mexican Mafia, from Mi Familia, from the Crips and Bloods.
And so these kids started off defending themselves. They were poor. They didn’t have a connection to the crack economy that the larger gangs had, and they started defending themselves with machetes. So then they got a reputation for being extremely violent, which is in a way true, but in a way is not. Why is having facial tattoos and killing people with machetes more violent than shooting somebody in the face with an Uzi, for example? It’s ridiculous.
Mansa Musa: And you spoke on that. And not to cut you off, but you spoke on that in your book where you’re talking about how a tattoo can get you killed. But let’s talk about the evolution of FMLN and how, one, you show how the struggle developed for certain rights and human rights and the right to live as human beings. But then you go a little further after they gain their liberation. Then former FMLN combatants became police and took on the characteristics of the very people they were fighting against. Speak on that.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. Just a little context. The FMLN stands for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and it was named after some rebels, some communist… El Salvador was the site of the first communist rebellion in the Americas in 1932 when the dictator wiped out… But the truth is, the FMLN should have been called something like the Feliciano Ama Liberation Front, because the movement in the 1930s was primarily led by Indigenous people. But history being history, it’s erased the Indigenous people and centered the leftists, the communists. And they were collaborating in some ways, but the Indigenous people had their own struggle, their own militant organizations, and through the churches especially.
So then when it comes time, El Salvador in the ’50s starts seeing social movements growing. They pushed out the dictatorship for a minute and then the dictatorship came back even stronger. And there’s a back and forth that built the muscles of one of the most effective people’s movements in the 20th century, which culminated first in social movements. One of every three Salvadorans was organized against the state and had adopted radicalized politics in the 1980s. Imagine if we had that in the United States. If one of every three of us was organized against the state, that would be a different United States.
And so the Salvadoran social movement blossomed and eventually consolidated into five different political military organizations that came together in the early ’80s to become the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN. And something I’d never been out about was that I was a member of the FMLN, one of the five groups, the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación. And I worked with the urban commandos in the FMLN in the urban areas.
And so I decided to tell that story because I feel like we’ve lost the sense of the revolutionary. Even my former comrades in the FMLN. Some of the leadership, as you read in my book, came into power, gained the presidency, and we were all crying. I remember I cried on national television. I cried on Democracy Now when I was reporting about this because it meant so much to us. So many died and sacrificed so that would be possible, only to have power do what power does sometimes, is corrupt. And so I tell stories about the way that the FMLN was corrupted.
And when I went to some mass grave sites as a journalist to report on gang killing, I had FMLN police surround me and force me to erase my pictures, not knowing that I used to be with them.
But I try to make a distinction between some of the leadership and the base historically. And so I show the current FMLN and I contrast that against, say, the heroic era of the FMLN, where according to the CIA, the FMLN was one of the most effective, if not the most effective, people’s movement in the Americas, because we were so highly organized and effective.
So I wanted to draw a little bit of that out, that spirit of struggle that we had back in the day when it was the more heroic era, because I think we’re going to need that for the world that we’re facing. We’re not going to liberal progressive our way out of climate change, for example. That’s just not going to happen. We’re not going to Obama Democrat or Biden Democrat our way out of the incarceration and policing crisis that we face. We’re not going to have this most diverse cabinet in history be the cabinet that ends up having hundreds, almost a thousand military bases around the world. So I decided to come out about my revolutionary past because I felt it important to share at least some of the musicality, the spirit, the struggle, the courage, the intrepidness, and the love that was at the heart of the revolution in El Salvador that made us so effective.
Mansa Musa: And when we had our conversation and when I was there talking to you, and I think we came out with the thing of the evolution of a revolutionary way. Where do we go after we find ourselves ducking and dodging and hiding out, conducting ourselves in a clandestine manner, and now we have met our objective in terms of having some type of humanity associated with our people? Then where do we go from there? A revolutionary cannot retire. And in that regard, where do you think we should be at now? Because you spoke on this, and I want to see if you can recapture what you were saying about… And I say, well, you might be accused of romanticizing certain things. And you spoke on the love, and you mentioned the media a moment ago. Speak on that, about where we should be at now or how we should be looking at things, mainly coming out of a more brutal and harsh experience.
And I just want to emphasize the point. Like you said, you visited the graves. You had him excavate. You were there, but the whole purpose was to try to give closure to the families that had loved ones that were executed during that period. So you put yourself in a space where you were trying what they call closure in this country. You were actually trying to bring closure to the family members that didn’t know where their families were at. Speak on where we should be at right now, or your views on what’s going on around the world today and in this country. What do you think?
Roberto Lovato: Well, I wish I had the answer to that, because I’d be a more effective social change agent, Mansa, but I, in all honesty, don’t have the answers to these larger questions. But I am committed to contributing to them. I actually don’t even know what it means to be a revolutionary right now, to be honest. It used to be organizing and taking state power. Well, that didn’t really work out for us when we took state power. And the struggle has become more and more global than ever, and it’s going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
And I don’t have the answer, but I do know one thing. I think any revolutionary in the present and future is going to have to look at things globally, and have to look specifically at this stuff we call climate change. That’s the most devastating of the rotten fruit of capitalism there is, because the consequences are titanically big and affect everyone everywhere. Just look at Florida right now. An entire town wiped out. Look at the way Cuba survived it, like they always do, even though they’re embargoed and cut off. The US is trying to cut them off.
And so I think a revolution… With the time that I have left, I want to explore, for example, how… The word revolution originally came from physics, returning to the same place. And so whatever the future of revolution is, I’m sure it has something to do with equilibrium, bringing, A, the planet back into equilibrium that it had sustained life with, because now a lot of life sustaining systems are being destroyed because of disequilibrium. And then there’s equilibrium between humanity, the human race, and the larger non-human forces of nature that we call nature.
And so we’re going to have to continue the revolutionary struggle frontally against the root cause of capitalism, which is carbon-based capitalist civilization. We have to talk about civilization now because I think that’s the transcendent thing that’s happening now. It’s not just the capitalist United States. It’s the capitalist civilization that depends on carbon. And that’s destroying and intensifying everything.
In my book, I go all across 2,500 miles and 30 years of genocide, gang war, mass graves, narco violence, including mass graves and violence in the United States where, for example, just east of here in Texas, you have mass graves with the bodies of migrant mothers and children who were pushed to their deaths by the Obama administration, by Trump, by Biden, because they’re pushing them to more dangerous places. It’s a fascist treatment of women and children in addition to the caging and separation of those that survive.
And so there’s no tenderness in the state at this point. And I’ve gone and I’ve looked at the abyss as much as I could and I’ve engaged and been a witness to war. And I say this without blinking. You mentioned romance. How the hell do I not have a bullet in my head, Mansa, after what I’ve seen? Is the question, and I answer it in my book. It’s because of the beauty, the love, the love of my family, the love of my [foreign language] in the struggle, the love of everyday people that I’ve benefited from. And I’ve tried to give back the tenderness that we look at each other with, including even gang members.
I used to be in a clique as a kid and I bring that lens to look at the gang members, including hardened killers. I’m not condoning that violence, but the fact is that people that we call killers, people that we put in prison, are not born that way. They’re the product of a society that creates them. And so a social problem has to have a social solution. So yeah, I think there’s got to be some romance if you’re going to carry on a serious struggle in a moment of such epic, apocalyptic climate change, violence, fascism that we’re facing.
And so El Salvador provides a laboratory to study, I think, the way that future revolutionaries might take on the struggle. What is the spirit? What is the psychology of someone who faces the real problems and just doesn’t talk a good game about it? And I’m not just talking about myself. I’m talking about all the people that I struggle with, people that are dead, people who died and struggle, people who lived to fight another day.
Mansa Musa: Roberto, educate our audience on how to be unforgetting as opposed to being unforgiving as we close this out. You got the last word. Educate our audience on why they should be unforgetting as opposed to being not forgiving.
Roberto Lovato: I believe in forgiveness. I think we need to forgive ourselves for any of the sins the state has put upon us, to begin with. And I’m talking to not just anybody who’s been in prison or anybody who’s been declared a persona non grata by the state, but all of us in some ways, through the church or through government and through other institutions, have been declared personas non gratas. We’ve been declared sinners in different forms. So we have to forgive ourselves, because the struggle for liberation really does begin in the heart, in the mind. And you are the number one colonizer of yourself. If I read Frantz Fanon correctly and others… thinkers, C.L.R. James.
And so I came up with the idea of unforgetting because I realized, wow. I’ll just speak for myself. When I hid the fact that I was a revolutionary, I was hiding what, for me, is one of the best parts of myself in my 58 years. The best part of myself I kept a secret, and I had to because it was not safe during the war and even after the war, and it still may not be safe. I had to think twice about it and talk about it with my family and friends. But I decided this moment needs a radical solution. And so I don’t have a solution, but I have an experience that may have a family resemblance to a future solution. So I share my family with people. I share my best.
And so I got this name, Unforgetting, from my studies in theology when I was a Christian and I looked at… Christians equated the idea of truth with unforgetting. And they got it from the Greeks who used the word unforgetting, [elysia], to describe the journey into the Underworld that everybody takes after they die. And before you go to either Elysium or Hades, the precursors to heaven and hell in the Christian world, you have to forget who you were in life. And so the path to the truth for the Greek philosophers and culture was to cross the Lethe River, the river of forgetting, and not forget, unforget.
So in Latin America, I learned that the pursuit of justice requires an act of memory because fascism, for example, needs amnesia. You need to forget who you are to become a killer for the state. You need to forget who you are. I have family who are cops. They seem to forget who they were in their culture and history and they become this new identity of being an “American” and being a cop who only talks about good guys and bad guys. And the good guys are usually white or white approximating and the bad guys are usually Black and Brown and poor. So we need to unforget bullshit like that. Excuse my language.
Mansa Musa: No, no, no [inaudible].
Roberto Lovato: We need to forget that if we’re to carry on the heroic struggle needed to improve the future of our… So I studied philosophy at Berkeley, and I discovered through one of my professors the work of a philosopher named Hannah Arendt, who basically showed us how the Nazis depended on amnesia to create their model of fascism. And so for these and other reasons, I think it’s important not just to remember, because when you remember, you’re just taking the file out and looking at it. But when you unforget, you’re taking out the file and you’re using it in the pursuit of justice. And so I’ll leave you with that and with an encouragement and an incitement for those that are listening and who are listening in a world where you’re pounded, streamed, and climate changed into hopelessness, which is… It’s a construct. It’s propaganda.
If you feel hopeless, you’re listening too closely to the voice of those who work on behalf of the powers that be to make you hopeless. Just read my book. Read Unforgetting. Look at 30 years and 2,500 miles of war, of genocide, of mass graves, of gang violence, of narco violence, and other stuff that I’ve had to witness and experience firsthand. And I don’t blink when I tell you, despite all that, all that did was prepare me for this moment in history. And it’s possible to live through things and have your soul intact. You just have to unforget the stuff that matters. And that involves the terror, but you got to go through the terror to get to the tenderness that’s going to carry you forward in the struggle we need to basically save the planet at this point. So I invite you all to become, like some of us, poet warriors.
Mansa Musa: There you have it. The real news about unforgetting and the machete. Remember, you’re not unforgetting. You’re unforgetting those things that have no meaning and are irrelevant, but you’re remembering those things that make you the person that you are today.
Thank you, Roberto. Thank you very much for this enlightening and insightful conversation. And we encourage everyone to get his book Unforgetting, going through this journey of his life, and unpacking violence, and recuperating and healing from decades of violence. Thank you very much.
Roberto Lovato: Thank you, Mansa. And thanks to The Real News.