Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. Roberto Lovato. New York, NY: Harpercollins, 2020. 309 pp. $24.83 hardcover
Born of the struggle for self-determination, Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas cuts like a machete through the noise of our current political moment with surgical precision. His unique, necessary voice arrives during a time when the US—decimated by the ongoing pandemic and reeling from a chaotic election season—begins ushering in what Lovato recently described during a panel via Zoom as the era of intersectional empire.
For many Democrats and most media outlets, Joe Biden’s victory signaled the country’s return toward common sense. The nation was even promised ‘the most diverse cabinet in American history.’ Many liberals rejoiced. The fight, however, was far from over. Shortly after 1 p.m. ET, on January 6, 2021, during a violent siege on the US capitol, fascist white nationalists blindingly loyal to Trump, forcibly tried to block a joint session of congress from counting the electoral college votes, sending shockwaves around the world. The images and footage that filled our screens were a giant display of white power, featuring a sea of people decked out in MAGA and neo-Nazi merchandise. In the end, five people died. Once it was clear the attempted coup had failed, congress reconvened. By the next morning, Biden emerged, once again, as president-elect.
While preserving the election of Biden may seem like a win, it’s hardly the full picture. Among the many deficiencies exposed by the global pandemic, one glaring oversight is how the US immigration system and its litany of human rights violations have gone largely unchecked. This failure predates Trump and according to Lovato, that alone is cause for concern. “The total lack of context,” he explains, “in US reporting about the ‘new’ crisis of refugee kids and their moms sickens me. Many of us have been watching the deadly double helix of extreme violence and migration spiral out of control for more than twenty-five years.”
Immigrant rights activists have already expressed their disappointment with the incoming Biden administration announcing it would not roll back Trump-era immigration policy as previously promised. Lovato has seen it all before. One of the central tenets of Unforgetting is to shed light on an inconvenient truth: both political parties are complicit in the loss of migrant lives. “The institutional denial,” Lovato declares, “of the destruction of Central American child refugee innocence puts up borders to protect and sustain the myth of American innocence shared by conservatives and liberals alike.” He goes on, “Different circumstances in each country yield the same result: the remains of Salvadoran children and adults buried without investigation into their deaths, unstoried, and without remembrance, regardless of who is president in Mexico, the United States, or El Salvador.”
It’s a scathing indictment. One that demands we see beyond the images produced by the 24-hour news cycle (caravans, unaccompanied minors, etc.), and reckon with the ways this American empire, under the guise of democracy, is a colossus of mass graves. The bodies filling them were fathers, mothers, lovers, relatives, babies, friends, young, old, and the truth of how they disappeared from this world belongs to Central Americans. If only they could be given the same level of dignity being put into uncovering the identities and backstories of deceased Trump supporters in the waning days of his presidency. The fear, of course, is that once the orange boogeyman is no longer a priority, most of the media will ‘go back to brunch’ and leave hard-hitting journalism in 2020.
The Preservation of Memory
Whereas Jeanine Cummins, author of the highly controversial narco-drama American Dirt, referred to migrants as one faceless brown mass, Lovato has challenged our historical erasure with a well-crafted, sweeping portrait of El Salvador. Unforgetting presents our vibrant, non-monolithic community in full technicolor and delivers a pulsing narrative that dares to journey beyond the borders dictated by scholars and pundits.
Writing about the tiny country of titanic sorrows is not for the faint of heart. But with subject matter so heavy, it’s Lovato’s personal evolution from street tough to pro-Reagan evangelical, to, ultimately, a revolutionary, that floods the pages with optimism. The end result is a white-knuckled thriller that blends the poetic and the raw into a deeply moving love letter dedicated to generations of Salvis. The series of vignettes not only document the devastation caused by decades of interventionist policies within the isthmus, they also capture our spirit and resilience in all of its luminous complexity.
Lovato’s immersive storytelling skillfully brings these authentic Salvi voices to life and posits the harrowing account as an antidote to the misinformation spoon-fed to the public designed to stigmatize Central Americans. Lovato is careful not to build caricatures and centers femme vocies. He pays homage to the soothing melody of our dialect. The caliche (Salvadoran slang) flows smoothly and with purpose. Throughout, he champions the idea of the US, longtime architect of endless chaos around the globe, being held accountable for its meddling.
Unforgetting is largely told from the multi-generational lens of the Lovato family, and cradled by some of the darkest moments in Salvadoran history, including: the 1932 Matanza, the Mozote Massacre in 1981, the formation of the MS-13 gang in L.A., and the US-funded civil war (1979-1992)—damage from which the country has yet to fully recover. Chapter by chapter, Lovato methodically unpacks the memories of his youthful rebellion as the son of Salvadoran immigrants growing up in San Francisco, CA, while trying to make sense of his family’s side hustle selling contraband and the contradictions of his bicultural existence.
Like many Central American families, the Lovatos kept their fair share of secrets and the jaw-dropping stories behind them, buried deep within the family’s emotional coffers. Prying them open was considered taboo, even dangerous. “In philosophy classes at Berkeley,” Lovato writes, “I had learned the Greek word aletheia, unforgetting, which the Greeks also equated with uncovering truth.” Lovato’s willingness to navigate the shadows of untold Salvadoran life powers the engine of the book. It allows us, and the world, to see ourselves in high definition.
One stunning sequence is found in Part IV, where Lovato weaves together a gut wrenching story about his 2015 visit to Panchimalco—one of the most violent municipalities in El Salvador—with an equally arresting moment set in late ‘70s San Francisco. In the first, Lovato airdrops the reader into the aftermath of a shootout between the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) and the 18th Street Revolucionarios gang. He’s there on assignment with the Boston Globe, covering the deadly feud between local gangs and the government. While waiting for a convoy to escort him and a forensic team to the remote location where they expect to investigate a crime scene, Lovato meets Perla, a former schoolteacher turned PNC officer, who describes in stunning detail the impact of gang violence on his life. He refers to the youth nearby, some as young as 14, who’ve gathered at the cemetery with their families to mourn the death of their fellow gang members, as irredeemable—inhuman.
His conviction is resolute and a bone-chilling reminder of the deep tensions that exist between the two groups. The flashback that follows sends us to the Mission District where a buffed 16-year-old Lovato, then a member of a gang called Los Originales and going by his nickname Tito, is in full tough-guy mode. Drunk and high, he makes an attempt to sneak back home through his bedroom window after a night out, but is caught by his Pop—a violent confrontation ensues. The breathtaking juxtaposition is held together by Lovato’s courage to say the quiet thing out loud: unresolved father issues are a plague on the lives of countless Salvi men.
That legacy of violence forms a potent mixture resulting in generations of lost boys and fuels the tragically high rates of femicide in the country. Surviving outbursts by traumatized victims of historical genocide leaves behind extensive collateral damage, and Lovato’s willingness to be emotionally naked is profound. His intimate understanding of how our youth lose their innocence is a stern warning about the consequences of robbing them of their humanity. The moment is a triumph against our preconceived notions of masculinity and leads the author to a series of discoveries that reveal a major family secret. One that holds the key to unlocking the door of forgiveness.
Passing the Torch
Since the beginning of its colonial period, writers of all stripes have endeavored to assess the condition of El Salvador. Left breathless by its sweeping mountain vistas, volcanic terrain, and captivated by the surf along the ocean beaches, they note—out of pity—the cruelty of its perpetual self-harm. Lovato pushes back against this mischaracterization of the small nation, affectionately referred to by its inhabitants as El Pulgarcito. He writes, “In the almost forty years since [Joan] Didion wrote her book Salvador, most English language writing about Salvadorans and El Salvador remains a variation on her theme: ‘Terror is the given of the place.’”
Most of Salvadoran history can be neatly organized into thorough accounts of bloodshed perpetrated by military death squads on behalf of wealthy coffee barons and the criollo-elite upon its poor, Afro and Indigenous population. This, in turn, fueled numerous uprisings—and the absent consideration of who funded the murderous campaigns to stop dissent, has flattened the dialogue and fractured our cultural identity. The blame, which is typically cast toward an unruly lower class, misgovernment and, most recently, gangs, denies access to the well-deserved dignity of the country’s most resilient citizens. It also buries the truth.
El Salvador has a rich pre-colonial history. One that is repeatedly ignored, but the rift between the Indigenous peoples of the country and its Indigenous descendants, along with the rest of the population has only worsened over time. Government-led efforts to suppress and distort critical information and create ahistorical versions of events in order to advance a pro-fascist agenda has negatively affected the nation’s ability to know itself. Denial is rampant, accountability non-existent, and all the while its roots continue to fray.
Restoring our collective memory will be a huge undertaking going forward. It will require the nurturing of diverse Central American perspectives. Lovato’s fresh voice, which some may erroneously categorize as ‘new,’ is that of a longtime revolutionary who’s lived a life as colorful as the ones he’s depicted through masterful storytelling. Through his activism, Lovato is leading the charge to open doors for the rest of us. He’s a renowned educator, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, CA, and despite his illustrious career, he’s still making waves. Unforgetting was wide-released by Harpercollins in September of 2020 to critical acclaim. It was a New York Times “Editors Choice” and featured on must-read book lists by Guernica, Newsweek, L.A. Times, Lithub, and Remezcla, among others. Lovato is also one of the co-founders of #DignidadLiteraria, a coalition of writers and activists taking a stand against Latinx erasure by the publishing industry.
The need to reclaim our stories remains vital, especially with the media landscape fixated on reductive portrayals that cast Salvadorans in the role of helpless victim or aggressor. Like the rest of the Central American region, which despite being pummeled in 2020 by COVID-19 and hurricanes Iota and Eta, our people continue to press forward by finding new forms of expression. Lovato’s story of redemption is part of that legacy. His effort to make sense of how the US justifies injecting itself into El Salvador’s affairs brings to surface the internal conflict raging within Salvadorans living in diaspora. His passionate exploration of that dislocation, and the inculcated fidelity to an empire that levies so much harm is heartbreaking and honest. “This same collective inability to look down into the abyss of our violent history,” Lovato explains, “makes it easy for governments and gangs to manipulate the populace into becoming cops, death-squad operatives, and violent gang youth—all of whom wreak havoc in El Salvador, and with help from my violent birthplace, the United States.” It’s a message that Salvadorans desperately need to hear. If we’re ever going to be truly free from the shackles of this cycle of abuse, we must first see ourselves as worthy. We are not a lost cause.
Is it possible for one book to hold the heartache of a whole people? Probably not. But through Unforgetting, Lovato achieves something far more noble: he illuminates our path towards healing. Lovato’s time traveling memoir blazes new trails for Salvadorans like the DeLorean in the film Back to the Future. He’s Doc. We’re Marty. His story is our story. Through it, we’ve been given the chance to discover ourselves once again, and avoid disappearing like the photo Marty keeps in his pocket when he goes back to 1985. The journey is a trek into the treacherous regions of our collective psyche, and Lovato knows how to carve the path forward.
Not with a machete, but with a pen.
About the Reviewer: Freddy Jesse Izaguirre is a Náhuat descendant Salvadoran artist based in NYC. His essays, photos, and poetry have been featured in PAPER, Sad Girls Club, LatinX.com, Basic Brown Nerds, GEN Mag, LEVEL, and La Horchata Magazine.
 El Tecolote “Central American Authors in Conversation.” eltecolote.org via facebook.com. November 23, 2020. Web.
 Vogue “Biden’s Cabinet May Be ‘The Most Diverse in History,’ But Is That Diverse Enough?” vogue.com. December 11, 2020. Web.
 CNN. “What we know about the 5 deaths in the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol.” cnn.com. January 8, 2021. Web.
 Roberto Lovato Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. (New York, NY: Harpercollins, 2020), 106.
 Ibid., xxv.
 Tropics of Meta “Pendeja You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake Ass Social Justice Literature.” tropicsofmeta.com. December 12, 2019. Web.
 Roberto Lovato Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. (New York, NY: Harpercollins, 2020), xvii.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 105-117.
 Ibid., xxiv.
 Roberto Lovato “Roberto Lovato.” robertolovato.com. January 8, 2021. Web. https://robertolovato.com/
 Dignidad Literaria “#Dignidad Literaria Press Conference.” dignidadliteraria.com. February 3, 2020. Web. http://dignidadliteraria.com/
 Roberto Lovato Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. (New York, NY: Harpercollins, 2020), 111.