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A Salvadoran writer busts the Trump myth of the tattooed immigrant threat

Roberto Lovato, author of "Unforgetting," at MacArthur Park Lake.
Roberto Lovato, author of “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas,” at MacArthur Park Lake.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

On the Shelf

Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas

By Roberto Lovato
Harper: 352 pages, $27

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The author Roberto Lovato is strolling around the concrete edge of MacArthur Park Lake, contemplating the role this place has played in the life of L.A.’s Central American community, himself included.

El Parque MacArthur,” Lovato says, using the Spanish wistfully, “is the historic, political, spiritual and criminal center of this part of [the city]. And like any center, it’s got all this life and death in it.”

This is the symbolic heart of Central American Angeleno culture and identity, the largest node of the diaspora in the United States. Yet the park and its neighborhoods are rarely centered in the grand narrative of contemporary Los Angeles.

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Not far from here, as Lovato describes in his new book, “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas,” the notorious gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was born in front of a 7-Eleven that is still standing on Westmoreland Avenue.

In the early 1980s, the first cliques formed among a few “stoner” kids with long hair who listened to heavy metal, one of the earliest members tells Lovato in the book. They were part of a wave of migration from El Salvador that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Los Angeles as they fled the terror of the Salvadoran Civil War.

These youths banded together in part to defend themselves against more established Mexican and Black gangs. They initially referred to themselves as “mara,” a term denoting friend in El Salvador. That expression in turn was rooted in a 1954 film, “The Naked Jungle,” starring Charlton Heston and depicting a fictional species of “army ants” called marabuntas, “These kids came together out of immigrant loneliness and their love of Ronnie James Dio and Metallica,” Lovato says.

A family photo of Roberto Lovato as a teenager with his mom and dad at Buena Vista Horace Mann in San Francisco.
A family photo of Roberto Lovato as a teenager with his mom and dad at Buena Vista Horace Mann in San Francisco.
(Lovato Family)
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The relatively innocuous origins of the gang contrast sharply with the descriptions by President Trump and Atty. Gen. William Barr of its members as “violent animals.” The administration’s claim that MS-13 is the most dangerous gang in the country is made, Lovato writes, without “any statistical, journalistic, or scholarly evidence.” (Gang members represent a small fraction of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border.)

The specter of a tattooed Salvadoran threat is one of many myths that Lovato seeks to correct or dismantle in “Unforgetting.” But it is arguably the simplest that he tackles.

Throughout this panoptic personal narrative, Lovato aims to reframe Salvadoran American identity itself. And at a crucial national moment, he also reminds us that diaspora Latin Americans in the United States — such as himself, such as myself — share a collective experience marked by historical trauma but also enormous wells of resilience. We might represent, he argues, a case study in how to deal with pervasive inequality in the United States right now.

Fighting back requires “unforgetting,” he writes, because “forgetting begets forgetting, begets ongoing mass murder.”

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Roberto Lovato next to a statue of Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador.
Roberto Lovato next to a statue of Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated by a death squad.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Lovato is 56, bald with trim-framed eyeglasses. He squints as he looks back to the many paths he’s taken, in particular those he’s never discussed in public, despite years of inhabiting a profile as a justice-driven journalist and organizer. He examines these episodes with reportorial care and a soul-stabbing sense of scrutiny.

A native of San Francisco’s Mission District, young Roberto was bookish but angry, prone to eruptions. He joined a clique that dubbed itself Los Originales, getting high and stealing cars. Then he became an evangelical Christian, only to have his faith challenged by philosophy professors at UC Berkeley, where he earned a degree in rhetoric.

Around this time, Lovato began engaging with the history of struggle and violence in his parents’ native El Salvador. He had grown up traveling there, experiencing the classic dissonances of the children of immigrants (“I hated the food,” he writes). But as an adult, back in San Francisco, Lovato met “G,” the single-letter name he uses for the love that altered his life, and his view of El Salvador, forever.

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G was a diplomat representing the guerrilla movement that battled the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military government. The revolutionary fervor of the FMLN, or the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, inspired Lovato, who decided to join G and the rebels’ cause.

Lovato traveled to El Salvador to provide clandestine “logistical support” for urban guerrillas. In “Unforgetting,” the details of his time with G in San Salvador are electrifying.

Along the way, Lovato has been an investigator of massacres as well as a college professor (he was the first coordinator of the Central American studies minor at Cal State Northridge). He worked as an organizer at CARECEN, the longtime Central American civil rights and advocacy organization.

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The old CARECEN offices are a few blocks from the lake. It was there that, in 1992, Lovato witnessed both the celebrations over the end of the Salvadoran civil war and, a few months later, the fury and devastation of the L.A. Riots.

In public life, Lovato is known as a fierce, often pugnacious critic of the dogmas and hypocrisies he sees in centrist-liberal institutions. He’s an unapologetic critic of President Obama’s deportation policies, which he believes set into motion the draconian anti-immigrant practices of the current White House.

This year, Lovato co-founded #DignidadLiteraria, a movement that took demands to the publishers of “American Dirt,” a heavily marketed novel that came under widespread criticism for cultural appropriation and misrepresentation.

Even now, as America’s institutions seek to rectify the systemic neglect and erasure of underrepresented groups, Central American diaspora voices are still tough to find. Lovato’s book is a desperately needed corrective, complicating stereotypes that cling to the community, says UCLA professor Leisy J. Abrego, an expert on the Salvadoran diaspora.

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In media depictions “we’re either victims or criminals, and we don’t have any agency of our own,” Abrego says. “That’s why books like Lovato’s are so important, because they start to capture the full humanity, the imperfections, but also the strategy, the agency, the collective work to change things. And the anger.”

On a mission to document Salvadoran recipes, Karla Vasquez of SalviSoul has run into a major stumbling block: the U.S. cookbook publishing industry.

Steven Osuna, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and a Salvadoran Mexican native of Echo Park, says Lovato’s journalism shines light on the brutalities suffered by Central Americans historically. Cycles of war, displacement and gang and police violence were in many regards fueled by U.S. policies across many administrations; the L.A.-formed gangs flourished in El Salvador after heavy U.S. deportation campaigns.

“His approach is really going to the violence and showing the structural nature of it,” Osuna says. “Instead of focusing on individuals or moments, he wants us to think historically about the conditions of this violence — and I’m not saying necessarily sympathize [with gang members] but make sense where it’s coming from, instead of falling into the tired tropes of criminalization and racism.”

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Near the book’s end, Lovato sharpens his central theme: “Salvadoran violence is in no small part an expression of forgotten American violence.”

Back at the lake, a fire-driven haze hangs gray-pink over the surrounding neighborhoods. Together, we take in the familiar icons along the lawns and walkways: immigrant men hanging around, parents and children playing and a few rougher-looking guys. They intermingle with ducks, geese and seagulls.

Lovato tells me our notion of “revolution” should be constantly refreshed, in accordance with its literal meaning. He likens it to the linguistic root of “apocalypse,” or “unmasking,” which he has also done in this memoir.

“Donald Trump really persuaded me to come out about my militancy,” he says as we pass vendors and hear thumping music from stores across the street. “Because I really want young and older people to really think, ‘What does revolution mean now?’”

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His trademark ardor flashes through his words. “Right now, regardless of who wins the elections, Salvadorans have a lesson to teach, not just about overcoming and resilience, but about revolution,” he says, with a warning.

“We’re not going to ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ our way out of this one.”


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