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Q&A: The intertwined histories of the US and El Salvador

Roberto Lovato, who is helping to spread more “powerful, beautiful, and inspired” stories, explores US culpability in Central America in his new memoir.


What does the history of violence in El Salvador reveal about the United States?

That’s one thing Salvadoran-American author and journalist Roberto Lovato seeks to uncover in his new book, “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.” Through searing yet elegant prose, Lovato explores his family’s history and uses his extensive reporting on gangs and mass graves in El Salvador, and on migrants at a detention center in South Texas, to shed light on the cycle of trauma and violence that El Salvador — and Central America at large — seems to be trapped in.

Roberto Lovato says he's writing for anyone "with an open mind and an open heart."Handout

“Where most see the refugee crisis as ‘new,’ I see the longue durée of history and memory,” Lovato writes. “Where many see the story beginning at the border, I see the time-space continuum of violence, migration, and forgetting that extends far beyond and below the US-Mexico border. Where others see mine as a Central American story, I see it as a story about the United States.”

In the 1980s, the United States fueled and prolonged a 12-year civil war that killed more than 75,000 people in El Salvador. The war pitted leftist guerrillas against a right-wing, military-led government that the United States backed with billions of dollars in economic and military aid. It even trained Salvadoran soldiers on US soil. Many of those soldiers went on to commit blatant human rights violations, killing men, women, and children en masse. For instance, in El Mozote, a Salvadoran village, an estimated 1,200 peasants were executed in one of the worst massacres in Latin American history. The decade of violence pushed Salvadorans to flee to the United States.


I spoke to Lovato about his groundbreaking book, the future of Central America-US relations, and the latest on “Dignidad Literaria,” a US grassroots movement Lovato spearheaded with two other Latino writers to hold literary publishers accountable for systemic biases against writers of color and to promote Latino voices. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


What type of audience are you hoping to reach with your book?

I don’t really write with a particular audience in mind. But I really hope my audience is a reader with an open mind and an open heart to a story about Salvadorans and people in the United States, readers who are looking for an inspired story of redemption and overcoming. The book is nothing but a testament to the resilience of Salvadorans, because El Salvador has been and remains one of the most consistently violent countries since its founding in 1821.

Of course, El Salvador has many more dimensions than gangs, violence, and fleeing migrants.

Central Americans are the second largest Latino group in the US after Mexicans. But nobody knows anything about us. And when the media talks about us, there’s a degree of superficiality and fakeness that I detest. This is the kind of thing that made me decide to write the book. I feel a huge responsibility to break the silence with, I hope, integrity and the power to move hearts — to move beyond a two-dimensional image of crying children and screaming mothers.

Why are these the dominant images of Central America?

One of the reasons is the US’s perception of itself. You know, Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill, American exceptionalism. And these are tropes that are shared by not just Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, but by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and their predecessors. We live in a country that doesn’t want to believe it is capable of the barbarities it’s been involved in in Guatemala, in El Salvador, and in Nicaragua. There’s a level of denial there.


The other part of the problem is we — Latinos, Mexicans, Central Americans — haven’t forced our way into the publishing industry, into journalism, and all the different cultural and communications systems. So, our stories don’t matter to an industry that’s not really concerned with Latino stories.

The other part is a bipartisan problem. The tragedy of El Salvador is a bipartisan tragedy in the US, as in, Jimmy Carter supported the Salvadoran military just like Ronald Reagan did. Barack Obama caged and separated Central American children before Donald Trump did. By the thousands. But the Democratic Party can’t afford to admit that it began the mass caging of Central American children. These are the inconvenient truths of US foreign war and economic policy, and domestic immigration policy.

You co-founded “Dignidad Literaria” this year mainly to elevate Central American and Mexican authors whom the publishing industry ignores. What has the movement accomplished so far?

I feel pretty good about what we did. We initiated a conversation. We lit a spark in our community about the need to be leading ourselves, with our own voices, in the national narrative of the United States. There is nothing that says in film, in literature, and in journalism that 60 million Latinos have a voice and matter in the larger scheme of things.


How can Latinos start claiming those spaces?

We have an important story that needs to be told as beautifully as possible. And then we have to fight for our stories. I believe fighting for our stories is equivalent to fighting for our lives in the crisis-ridden world that we live in right now. If you look at COVID-19 deaths among Latinos, police killings of Latinos, exploitation of Latino workers, they all come on a foundation of erasure and silence. We have to fight against that with protest and with our own words telling our own story. And I think we have to tell stories that are powerful, beautiful, and inspired.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, what should be his administration’s policies toward Central America?

Step one would be to issue a formal apology for what the United States did to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people killed and their families: death squads, training those militaries, funding them.

Step two is simple. They have to immediately stop the caging of children and imprisonment of children and mothers fleeing extreme violence. Finally and bigger, they have to follow up with something material like a Marshall Plan for Central America to help rebuild industries that create real jobs, and decrease the militarism and funding for policing. A plan that focuses on, for example, youth programs, jobs training, teaching, so that instead of going into a gang, a young person has an option to go into something else. My sense is that Biden won’t do all of that. But if he does, I’d be on the tables singing the praises of Joe Biden.


Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.