Unforgetting: An Interview with Roberto Lovato

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Roberto Lovato is a journalist based in San Francisco, California. He reports on violence, terrorism, the drug war, and the refugee crises in Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, and the United States. He is also a longtime political strategist who has participated in the fight against California’s Proposition 187 and the Drop the I-Word Campaign. He is also co-founder of the Central American Studies Program at California State University at Northridge, Presente.org, and #DignidadLiteraria.

In his most recent work, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas, Lovato unearths and grapples with the epic and intimate secrets that have informed his life ― the secrets of his nation, and of his father.  

Amanda Knox 

What made you decide to call your memoir Unforgetting?

Roberto Lovato

I was a student of theology for a while. And in college, I encountered this term aletheia, which was a Greek term that means truth. It also means unforgetting, and it’s rooted in the idea that the dead, when they transition, either going to Hades or to Elysium, are supposed to go into the Lethe River, which is the river of forgetting, and they were supposed to go in and forget who they were in life. And so aletheia means “not Lethe River, not forgetting.” And I think it’s an apt term for what I wanted to accomplish with my book, which is to excavate the family secrets that we ourselves can’t look at, and the secrets of nations. And oftentimes, these secrets contain extreme violence, genocide, mass murder, gang violence, etc. And so I wanted to tell a story not about violence, but about overcoming violence through memory and unforgetting.

Amanda Knox  

How does Unforgetting fit into your extensive reporting on violence and terrorism and the drug war and the refugee crises around the world?

Roberto Lovato  

There used to be a term called state terror. It was used in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. You could call the murder of George Floyd a form of state terror. You have officials of this state, the police, cold bloodedly murdering a man in broad daylight in front of bystanders. By the same token, I’ve covered wars. I’ve been in situations of war where, for example, the Salvadoran government, a fascist military dictatorship, literally mass murdered 80,000 people in a country the size of Massachusetts. 85% of the people were killed by their own government. I’ve seen the bones of the people who were slaughtered at Elmo Sofia, a town of almost 1000 people killed, most of them under age 12, and you have things that, I hate to go into it, but babies being thrown in the air and bayoneted, and rapes of women, and slaughter of elderly. These troops were from the Atlacatl Battalion, which was the U.S.-trained, U.S.-funded, U.S.-armed, and U.S.-protected Salvadoran military. I look at that as a big, awful family secret of what it means to be of the United States.

Amanda Knox 

This history of state violence, how is that tied into your intimate story?

Roberto Lovato

Part of the point of my book is to show that what governments do trickles down into our families. For example, I grew up with a father who had a lot of secrets. And I had no idea what was behind those secrets until I started, to investigate my family secrets, and my family secrets are linked to the history of El Salvador and state violence. I have family who was involved in really terrible things, and I didn’t know anything about it, and I didn’t know the effects of the trauma. And I did crazy things myself. I was a walking, talking, fighting ball of anger as a kid. I would rob people. I dealt and did drugs. I had friends that were killed. I never knew why I did the crazy things that I did as an adolescent. Eventually I came to realize that a big part of my craziness was informed by my family secrets connected to the violence of the government of El Salvador that, for example, in 1932, perpetrated what’s called La Matanza. It’s the single most violent episode in modern history, in terms of the number of people killed in a matter of days and weeks. You have more people killed in World War II, but in terms of the intensity measured by number of people killed per day, the single most intense moment in modern history is El Salvador in 1932. These are things that nobody knows, and I’m excavating them, bringing them out of the darkness so we can find the heart lost in the darkness. 

Amanda Knox 

You’ve reported on violence, and you’ve come to describe the truth about it as being hidden in a labyrinth of intersecting underworlds. I was wondering if you could talk to me about how you have excavated those underworlds, and what it’s like to look up from the depths towards the vast majority of us who are living with our simplistic explanations of these issues.

Roberto Lovato  

That’s an excellent question that I’m going to need a whole book to answer, but let me try to start just by a quote by Nietsche: “Be careful when you look at the abyss, because it will look back at you.” I was cognizant of this before I embarked on the journey of this book, so the first thing I did was retain a therapist. And the gods of healing and writing shone favorably on me because I got a therapist who was the son of a Holocaust survivor. He helped equip me to go into the different underworlds that have been a part of my life. And when it came time to look into my own past, I realized that I needed to do the underworld journey, which some scholars call Katabasis. I took a journey into different intersecting underworlds. These would include the underworld of crime here in San Francisco. In the Mission District, my father was at the center of a place called Hunt’s Donuts, where he would undertake contraband and even transfer guns to El Salvador. I was ashamed of all that because I felt it brought a bad light on my family as a kid. I didn’t understand why people did those things. I take readers into the underworld of my father’s history and our family psychology. Those things that we’re afraid to look at, or don’t know to look at, or are told not to look at. I go into the underworld of the Salvadoran gangs in the more contemporary era. The gangs were born in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, early ‘80s, and they became really violent after the LA riots, with the help of Los Angeles police, the rampart division, which was one of the most famously corrupt police forces in U.S. history. I was there when the police were doing this. I was there when the gangs were born. And I saw the gang problem become something real huge. I also go into the guerrilla underworld. I take readers into the world that I had been a part of for a while, when we were fighting the fascist military dictatorship. I made a decision to join the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. All of these involve some form of a journey downward. They’re all journeys below the surface of the surface. 

Amanda Knox 

I think a lot of people feel paralyzed in the face of coming up with solutions to such complex problems. What has been your journey to resolve these problems, not only nationally, but also personally?

Roberto Lovato 

Let me start personally, actually. You know, people have told me in the past that I was a really intense guy. Some people used to think I was so intense they couldn’t even get close to me. They’re like, “Damn, you’re too intense for me.” And I recently saw somebody who said this about me before and she was like, “Wow, you’re, different. What’s changed?” I said, “Well, I wrote a book. I did all this research.” The specially stunning one for me is that my father says, “Mi hijo, que te passo, que te siento diferente.” Hey, son, I feel you differently. And if anybody has received the brunt of my anger in this life, it was my father. I’ve been angry at him for a long time. I’ve loved him, and then I’ve hated him, and then I love and hate, and rebelled against him, and then I love him again in the course of the book. And so my father’s like, “What’s going on? Son, you’re different.” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing therapy and I’ve written a book about you.” And I understand what shortcomings my father had in a completely different light. So in Spanish, the word for country is patria, which comes from the word for father, padre. That’s the connection I’m trying to make. The more I learned about my father and all my father went through ― he lived in a poverty that made John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath look like a wine fest ― it softened my heart to him. On the same token, we have to look at the people that are victimized by our governments. For example, gangs. I meet highest level gang leaders that are at the top of the killing chain of 70,000 gang members in El Salvador at the time that I was there in 2015, and low level gang members, and what I found mostly were human beings, many of whom were young kids, most of whom were not violent. Donald Trump did a speech in the Oval Office with William Barr, they had a press conference where they were going to annihilate MS-13 because they’re “terrorists and animals.” That same day I started calling police departments in the areas where MS-13 operates. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Island, Virginia, Alexandria, Virginia, and Houston, Texas. And I asked them, “How many homicides in 2019?” Because if you’re going to call a gang the most violent gang in the world, animals that are threatening entire towns and cities, as Donald Trump has said, they must be killing a lot of people, right? So here in San Francisco, I found out from the Gang Task Force, MS-13, in 2019, had killed a grand total of two people. And in 2020, they killed a grand total of zero this far. There’s these sensational headlines about all these people killed by MS-13 in Long Island, but if you look underneath, the average number of people killed in Long Island by MS-13 is 5.5 per year. So you basically have a handful of white supremacists with semi automatic weapons killing more than all 10,000 MS-13 members in the United States. So, yes, MS-13 has done terrible things in El Salvador and here in the United States, but not any more terrible than any other gang that we know of, because there’s no statistical basis for how terrible they are. They’re just these images of men with facial tattoos. You read Frankenstein, the image of the monster is not the simplistic image that we get. There’s always more to the “monster” than we know. And that’s the journey we have to take in these monstrous times. 

Amanda Knox 

You’ve long been researching not only the physical borders that we put between ourselves and other people, but also the psychological and personal borders. It seems to me like borders have a multi-layered significance for you. I was wondering if you could talk to me about that.

Roberto Lovato

I make a metaphor. I draw a parallel between the mortar borders and machetes. Borders are our machete that cuts us off from the memory of the planet itself. I opened my book with a quote by a great historian, Ernest Renan: “Forgetting, I will even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation. And it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place as the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences.” My simplistic barrio way of saying it is, “Hey man, just look under the hood of any nation, and you’re gonna find the bones and bodies of slaughtered indigenous communities.” Any nation, whether it says the United States, or Mexico, or El Salvador, has a history of stealing and genocide and slaughter of indigenous people. Those unresolved traumas of nations are what we see in our streets right now, in terms of the injustice done to black lives and black bodies. The injustice done to indigenous lives and indigenous bodies. The injustice done to Mexican, Salvadoran, and other Latino bodies and minds. These are active in our politics below levels of awareness. I think my attempt is to get at that. We have to do this work or we’re going to be suffering under the boot of a soundbite culture that produces soundbite politicians like Donald Trump.

Amanda Knox 

Given the fact that all progress has come with a great cost, what does progress mean to you?

Roberto Lovato 

I try to look at it from the perspective of the indigenous thinkers. Progress is a justification for genocide. You look at El Salvador, for example, and you have newspapers and politicians saying things like, “The indigenous hold on the land, they’re backwards. Their structures of their families, their ways of life, are backwards. They’re halting progress, and they need to be taken ― even, if necessary, taken violently.” That’s a clear example of how ideas of progress are used to racialize people. Racism has a scale, justified by science. The people that have the biggest weapons being the ones who are advanced, and the ones who don’t have the weapons and who are just living a peaceful life being the backward peoples in history. Our ideas of race have always had this notion of progress inserted in them, and I tried to show this with the indigenous people in El Salvador. They had their own way of life, they didn’t need any help from the coffee barons, but the coffee barons came in and started declaring them backwards, and then created armies to undermine, and if necessary, kill the indigenous people by either bringing them into the military and forcing them to lose their allegiance to their tribes or using those militaries to slaughter indigenous people as they did in 1932 during La Matanza. So progress is lethal.

Amanda Knox 

Has it always, and is it inevitably, a zero sum game? Are there always going to be winners and losers?

Roberto Lovato 

I wouldn’t like to think so. I think the survival of the planet, climate change, like, I’ve been to Juarez when it was at its very violent moment. I’ve been to Turkey right near Syria. I’ve been to Salvador and other countries, and I started realizing, from talking to scientists, that underneath the surface of the surface of the violence in these countries is the monster at our door. I’m here in California, I wake up every morning now with smoke. It increases my stress. The way that climate change affects countries in the south, the depletion of water, the intensification of social conflict, the floods that destroy crops, the food cycles devastated. The violence in El Salvador has a component ― it’s not cause and effect by climate change, but it is influenced and worsened by climate change. The planet’s in disequilibrium. We have to, in our relationship to it, reach an equilibrium so that it keeps the life sustaining systems that help us and other species. You know, I used to be a revolutionary. I don’t know what revolutionary means now. I’m trying to figure that out. But I think being a revolutionary has to have an element of being about climate change and struggling to bring the planet back into equilibrium so that we can diminish violence. Because the earth is going to return to its equilibrium on its own. It’s a matter of how much we worsen or help it. 

Amanda Knox

That actually introduces an interesting paradox where, on the one hand, one could argue that unity, like progress, is a excuse for genocide. And on the other hand, we have to unite against a common problem. How do you reconcile the diversity of humanity by interest, and the unity that’s necessary for there to be a reckoning with injustice that has occurred because of diverging interests?

Roberto Lovato  

Well, Amanda, I’d get a Nobel prize if I could answer that question. That’s why I wrote about nations. My book is a critique of nations. The violence and the amnesia that’s underneath them. And corporations have already superseded nations long ago. Our tax money is used for foreign wars, for foreign trade that doesn’t benefit us, benefits a handful of very rich people. Nations have shown their obsolescence some time ago, but we haven’t caught up as a human race yet. The rise of fascism in the world is a cover for corporate domination, because if we don’t have to deal with these right wing people, we would actually have to face the problems of the planet, beginning with climate change. And if we have to deal with climate change, we have to deal with a carbon-based economic system that is destroying the planet. This isn’t the Soviet Union that brought climate change. It was U.S.-style capitalism that has brought us climate change. We’re going to have to dismantle the carbon-based model of capitalism. There’s simply no choice. We’re not going to Democrat or Progressive our way out of this. We’re gonna have to face capitalism. That’s why I can’t, I’ve never been out about having been a revolutionary, but I put a little spit on my finger, and I look at the prevailing winds, and I’m like, “Hey man, I better tell my story because I want people to feel the way I did about social justice and wanting to change the world.” Among one of the better things that I’ve done was to fight a fascist military dictatorship. I keep that as a secret my entire adult life, and now I’m free of that. I had to unforget who I was in order to get a job as a journalist and not be considered some radical crazy, because that’s the world we live in. We’re going to have to think in revolutionary terms. That’s going to require us to be adults and say, “Look, we have to agree on this. Climate change is going to do us in. Let’s agree to dismantle the things that bring about climate change.” And that’s where the corporation’s come in, with your commercials, with your politicians, with all the power they have to distort and divert our attention from a confrontation that’s necessary to save the planet and the life sustaining systems on the planet.

Amanda Knox 

The way that you’ve grappled with your family’s experiences personally, what can we take from that as a society in how we approach our unifying problems and the problems that divide us?

Roberto Lovato  

Buddhists believe we all share suffering. I believe that we all have a shared history of suffering, genocide, slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy. A lot of this, in the modern era, has been concentrated by nation states. So we really have to think about what’s underneath the hood of these nations, all the terrible things that we don’t want to admit. We need to apologize to the native people. We need to reparations for the descendants of the enslaved. We need to have an apology by the government of the United States to the people of El Salvador who were slaughtered. We have to back our apology materially with something like a Marshall Plan to rebuild El Salvador. If we start doing that, we’ll see not just improved life there. We’ll see diminished immigration. We’ll see an evisceration of gang culture. They’re exterminating gangs, when they should be exterminating poverty. The courage to look at ourselves truly in all our complexity and in light in our darkness applies to individuals, to families, and to nations. And that’s kind of my point of my book. I’ve walked around thinking and feeling like this for a while because there’s nothing that concentrates your attention like a bullet flying by your head or a death squad operative trying to pick you up and kill you. And so my personal story, I’m a regular guy, grew up working class here in San Francisco. I’m not from El Salvador. I’m from here. But I’ve experienced these things that were tied to what governments did, including the government of El Salvador, and my government here in the United States. Those are the kinds of connections we need to turn away from the policies that are based on monsters. Instead of sending 1000 cops that do nothing except worsen gang violence and exterminate people in communities, let’s use that money to create jobs programs. My friend Mike Davis once said, “Create 100,000 jobs in South LA, and you will eliminate the gang problem.” Gangs are the “monster” they used to hide the real monster that is the capitalist system that’s destroyed and killed with impunity. And it’s destroying our planet literally. That’s the real fight. They don’t want us to have the real fight. It’s not just Donald Trump that distracts, by the way. The democrats with their inaction on these issues, also. That’s what makes them weak. They’re not ready to face their own complicity. For example, children who are caged. We all were shocked at that in 2018, right? I looked at that in 2014. I’ve interviewed mothers who tried to slit their wrists, the conditions are so terrible. I’ve been in places where kids try to hang themselves because they’re so awful. And those places weren’t built by Donald Trump. It began with Barack Obama in 2014. And that’s just something, it’s maybe gonna lose me some readers, but I’ve lived a life where, I’m sorry, I can’t let my truth be subject to your need for a fantasy about your country and your presidents and your life. Fantasy is going to continue the cycle of destruction that we’re living in.