In the summer of 2015, the journalist and activist Roberto Lovato returned to El Salvador to do some reporting on why his family’s homeland had become the most violent country on earth. A few years earlier, he had ventured there to bury his mother’s ashes, but that ceremony was cut short when he was chased out of the cemetery by members of the gangs—better known as maras—that dominate Salvadoran society. Now he was intent on getting to the bottom of how the constant battles between the maras and the Salvadoran police and military had led to a state of affairs every bit as perilous as El Salvador’s devastating 12-year civil war.
In Unforgetting, a memoir that situates his family’s story within the broader history of what he dubs “the tiny country of titanic sorrows,” Lovato describes a personal awakening to El Salvador’s century-old cycle of violence, the process that prompted his turn to journalism as a means of grappling with the scale of the nation’s trauma. Illustrations of that grim legacy are not hard to come by—take the abbreviated life of Giovanni Miranda, a fellow Salvadoran American whom Lovato befriends during his 2015 stay. A recently deported car mechanic dressed in a Metallica T-shirt, Miranda runs a garage in a suburb of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. Over a couple beers, he shares stories about restoring classic cars and growing up in Dallas, drawing out Lovato’s own memories of cruising around the Mission District of San Francisco as a teenager. “My body adopts a gangster lean,” he reminisces, “sitting as though my left hand’s on top of the steering wheel, while looking out the driver’s window and leaning on my right elbow with the coolest possible look: jaw clenched, eyes dreamy, head slightly bobbing.”
Though he’s sitting in Miranda’s garage in El Salvador, Lovato’s mind has returned to the 1970s, when he ran with a small-time Mission crew that called itself “Los Originales.” A few days later, when Lovato drops by to say hello, he finds the garage closed. A neighbor down the street tells him simply, “Está muerto.” Lovato quickly learns the young man has been assassinated by the maras for crossing someone under their protection—a stark illustration of the precarity of life for Salvadorans, a reality Lovato was only beginning to apprehend.
Though his memoir is mostly concerned with the process of unearthing the experiences of violence that both he and his family (especially his father) suppressed throughout their lives, the book doubles as a journalistic bildungsroman. Lovato may today be recognized as a preeminent voice on Central America’s tribulations, but he came to reporting only after working throughout the 1980s and ’90s for nonprofits serving Salvadoran immigrants and as a program coordinator for Central American students at California State University, Northridge. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that he began writing in earnest, namely by filing articles for this magazine that focused on Latinx politics in the United States during the Bush and Obama years. Lovato’s memoir reveals that journey as intensely personal, a progression made possible only by his refusal to accept his father’s silence about the horrors he had witnessed in El Salvador.
Unforgetting plays out along three time lines: the 2015 reporting trip in which Lovato meets Miranda, the scenes depicting his winding path from Los Originales to revolutionary activism and then academia, and a reconstruction of his father’s childhood in Great Depression–ravaged El Salvador. The wide scope allows him to explain how the maras evolved from a few crews of what he calls “heavy-metal-listening Salvadoran stoners” in the Pico-Union district of late ’70s Los Angeles to their current form, an assortment of sophisticated, international criminal networks that have more control over the day-to-day life of most Salvadorans than their government does. The structure of the book also allows him ample opportunity to locate his family in the country’s modern history, most notably the brief period when Lovato dabbled as a “guerrillero” member of the revolutionary Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front during El Salvador’s civil war (which lasted from 1980 to 1992) and the revelation that his father witnessed the atrocities of La Matanza, the 1932 slaughter of tens of thousands of Indigenous Salvadorans by the nation’s military.
Lovato’s father (whom he calls “Pop”) had never spoken about La Matanza from his childhood years until 2000, when his son asked him about it directly. Though he was only 9 at the time, Pop is still able to clearly describe watching army officers thrust shovels into the hands of so-called communistas to dig their own graves, as well as the night a man pleaded with his father’s mother to let him hide in the family’s adobe oven and the visions that descended on Pop at night of “the dead and the ones that were almost dead before they came to give them the tiro de gracia.” “I saw not just one but hundreds of dead in those days,” Pop says, before he begins to sob.
It isn’t until after his father finally unburdens himself that Lovato is able to appreciate the “atom bomb” he has inherited, giving him some context not just for his father’s emotional unavailability (and, to a lesser extent, the disciplinary beatings Pop inflicted on him as a child) but also for how Salvadoran violence has perpetuated itself over the decades, leading his grandmother to describe her fellow countrymen as “pieces of broken glass, stained with blood and struggling to put ourselves back together.” While he previously viewed his younger self as a “spoiled, misguided little gringo boy who was so angry and confused about being Salvadoran,” in the process of reexamining his life, Lovato begins to understand “the layers of emotions—fear, anger, hopelessness—working below my conscious awareness to create my inner conflicts.” At long last, he writes, “I’d found my way. I’d come to realize that if we do the necessary work of unforgetting, our buried love can blossom.”
Lovato’s journalism, then, is best understood as an expression of this process of unforgetting, and his work is a case study in the power that comes from a reporter deciding to write stories that speak to his own inner turmoil rather than adopting the studied dispassion typically ascribed to the profession. In his 2016 report for The Boston Globe, “El Salvador’s archives of death,” Lovato rides along with forensic researchers from the Instituto de Medicina Legal—what he describes as a federal “CSI team”—as they trek for two hours through a jungle to the site of a mass grave. Once they arrive, the IML investigators find that a team hired by the Salvadoran attorney general is already at work, led by Israel Ticas, a self-taught crime scene expert who, Lovato writes, had “been filmed eating inside grave sites while excavating and celebrating his birthday in grave pits.”
To be able to capture such a moment—a pair of rival, government-sponsored forensics teams competing over a secret mass grave miles from the nearest town—is a remarkable feat in its own right, and Lovato’s report is only made richer by the subtle way he uses the meeting to illustrate the government’s dysfunction, observing, “The tension between the IML staff and Ticas is palpable, as Ticas steps aside and hikes down from the hill while the IML team unpacks.” Suddenly it doesn’t seem so unbelievable that El Salvador could have become a nation ruled by maras instead of bureaucrats.
As Lovato gets ready to head back to San Salvador, an official from the attorney general’s office orders police officers to delete the photos Lovato had taken of the site, claiming he had not received the necessary approvals to be there. In Unforgetting, Lovato returns to this tense scene, fleshing out the standoff that received only a few lines in the Globe story. “Suddenly,” he writes, “I’m surrounded by guns held by the same cops who were just protecting me. My blood is boiling.” As it turns out, Lovato was asked to delete the photos himself, but the police were forced to do the job after he retorted, “Fuck you. You do it.” The situation clarifies when Ticas makes a quip to him about asking the attorney general’s office for permission next time, implying that traveling with the IML was the real point of contention. “I’m shocked,” Lovato writes. “This quirky fucking guy I was trying hard to like and understand sold me out.”
Throughout Unforgetting, Lovato abandons reportorial equanimity in favor of a more honest portrait of himself: a Salvadoran American as likely to unleash an angry outburst as he is to succumb to tears, all because he is still struggling to make sense of the historical morass he was born into. The violence in Central America and the immigration crisis it spawned has garnered plenty of international media attention in recent years, much of which has a tendency, in the pages of outlets like The New York Times, to treat the maras as inscrutable death cults and the leaders of the region’s governments as replacement-level incompetents. Lovato never falls into regurgitating these bits of received wisdom; before he ever got into journalism, he was chatting with tatted-up MS-13 members in Los Angeles, dodging domineering security forces in San Salvador, and observing the adaptation of Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” policing into the “mano dura” policies of the Salvadoran authorities.
In his reporting, Lovato frequently notes that murders in El Salvador are as likely to be the work of gangs as they are to be exterminados, which he once described in the pages of The Nation as “the extrajudicial killings that gang members and some human rights activists suspect are being carried out by government security forces.” In that article, he characterized the country’s current state of violence as “a civil war by other means.” If El Salvador is to emerge whole from its current fractured state, Lovato argues in Unforgetting, the nation must first stop ignoring its sinister and brutal history. He offers Pop’s process of unforgetting as a model. Admitting the reality of the horrors one has seen cannot make them go away, but airing them might, at least, create the space necessary for a departure from history to become possible.