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Unforgetting
Cover of Unforgetting
Unforgetting
A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
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An LA Times Best Book of the Year A New York Times Editors' Pick A Newsweek 25 Best Fall Books A The Millions Most Anticipated Book of the Year

"Gripping and beautiful. With the artistry of a poet and the intensity of a revolutionary, Lovato untangles the tightly knit skein of love and terror that connects El Salvador and the United States." —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Natural Causes and Nickel and Dimed

An urgent, no-holds-barred tale of gang life, guerrilla warfare, intergenerational trauma, and interconnected violence between the United States and El Salvador, Roberto Lovato's memoir excavates family history and reveals the intimate stories beneath headlines about gang violence and mass Central American migration, one of the most important, yet least-understood humanitarian crises of our time—and one in which the perspectives of Central Americans in the United States have been silenced and forgotten.

The child of Salvadoran immigrants, Roberto Lovato grew up in 1970s and 80s San Francisco as MS-13 and other notorious Salvadoran gangs were forming in California. In his teens, he lost friends to the escalating violence, and survived acts of brutality himself. He eventually traded the violence of the streets for human rights advocacy in wartime El Salvador where he joined the guerilla movement against the U.S.-backed, fascist military government responsible for some of the most barbaric massacres and crimes against humanity in recent history.

Roberto returned from war-torn El Salvador to find the United States on the verge of unprecedented crises of its own. There, he channeled his own pain into activism and journalism, focusing his attention on how trauma affects individual lives and societies, and began the difficult journey of confronting the roots of his own trauma. As a child, Roberto endured a tumultuous relationship with his father Ramón. Raised in extreme poverty in the countryside of El Salvador during one of the most violent periods of its history, Ramón learned to survive by straddling intersecting underworlds of family secrets, traumatic silences, and dealing in black-market goods and guns. The repression of the violence in his life took its toll, however. Ramón was plagued with silences and fits of anger that had a profound impact on his youngest son, and which Roberto attributes as a source of constant reckoning with the violence and rebellion in his own life.

In Unforgetting, Roberto interweaves his father's complicated history and his own with first-hand reportage on gang life, state violence, and the heart of the immigration crisis in both El Salvador and the United States. In doing so he makes the political personal, revealing the cyclical ways violence operates in our homes and our societies, as well as the ways hope and tenderness can rise up out of the darkness if we are courageous enough to unforget.

An LA Times Best Book of the Year A New York Times Editors' Pick A Newsweek 25 Best Fall Books A The Millions Most Anticipated Book of the Year

"Gripping and beautiful. With the artistry of a poet and the intensity of a revolutionary, Lovato untangles the tightly knit skein of love and terror that connects El Salvador and the United States." —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Natural Causes and Nickel and Dimed

An urgent, no-holds-barred tale of gang life, guerrilla warfare, intergenerational trauma, and interconnected violence between the United States and El Salvador, Roberto Lovato's memoir excavates family history and reveals the intimate stories beneath headlines about gang violence and mass Central American migration, one of the most important, yet least-understood humanitarian crises of our time—and one in which the perspectives of Central Americans in the United States have been silenced and forgotten.

The child of Salvadoran immigrants, Roberto Lovato grew up in 1970s and 80s San Francisco as MS-13 and other notorious Salvadoran gangs were forming in California. In his teens, he lost friends to the escalating violence, and survived acts of brutality himself. He eventually traded the violence of the streets for human rights advocacy in wartime El Salvador where he joined the guerilla movement against the U.S.-backed, fascist military government responsible for some of the most barbaric massacres and crimes against humanity in recent history.

Roberto returned from war-torn El Salvador to find the United States on the verge of unprecedented crises of its own. There, he channeled his own pain into activism and journalism, focusing his attention on how trauma affects individual lives and societies, and began the difficult journey of confronting the roots of his own trauma. As a child, Roberto endured a tumultuous relationship with his father Ramón. Raised in extreme poverty in the countryside of El Salvador during one of the most violent periods of its history, Ramón learned to survive by straddling intersecting underworlds of family secrets, traumatic silences, and dealing in black-market goods and guns. The repression of the violence in his life took its toll, however. Ramón was plagued with silences and fits of anger that had a profound impact on his youngest son, and which Roberto attributes as a source of constant reckoning with the violence and rebellion in his own life.

In Unforgetting, Roberto interweaves his father's complicated history and his own with first-hand reportage on gang life, state violence, and the heart of the immigration crisis in both El Salvador and the United States. In doing so he makes the political personal, revealing the cyclical ways violence operates in our homes and our societies, as well as the ways hope and tenderness can rise up out of the darkness if we are courageous enough to unforget.

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About the Author-
  • Roberto Lovato is a journalist and a member of The Writers Grotto. He is one of the country's leading writers and thinkers on Central American gangs, refugees, violence and other issues. Lovato is also a co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, the national movement formed to combat the invisibility and silencing of Latinx stories and books in the U.S. publishing industry. He is also recipient of a reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center and a former fellow at U.C. Berkeley's Latinx Research Center. His essays and reporting have appeared in numerous publications including Guernica, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Der Spiegel, La Opinion, and other national and international publications. He lives in San Francisco.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 27, 2020
    Salvadoran-American journalist Lovato recounts in this anguished memoir his 2015 trip to El Salvador to investigate the country’s horrific gang wars. Along the way, he visits mass graves, and speaks with a gang chieftain enamored of the Hunger Games novels and a police official who hints at extrajudicial executions of gang suspects. In Lovato’s telling, the carnage is an American tragedy: El Salvador’s current gangs were founded in California by refugees from the country’s civil war in the 1980s, in which thousands of civilians were killed by the U.S.-backed military and right-wing death squads battling FMLN insurgents. It’s also a personal story as he revisits his work with the FMLN and a love affair with a traveling companion. He weaves in the troubled saga of his father, who as a boy in 1932 witnessed La Matanza, a massacre of thousands of Salvadoran peasants and Indigenous people by an earlier generation of death squads. Mixing fraught reminiscence with vivid reportage—his driver, a Salvadoran Army veteran, recalls a mission to recover the corpses of comrades: “When we started picking them up, we yanked the meat right off them, like when you have a fried fish and the skin and meat fall right off”—Lovato delivers an intimate, gripping portrait of El Salvador’s agony.

  • Kirkus

    August 1, 2020
    Journalist and activist Lovato delivers a memorable indictment of the civil war in Central America that drove a wave of migration to the U.S.--and spawned gang warfare in the new country. In the 1980s, gangs of young Salvadorans who called themselves "maras"--a name that derives, improbably, from the Spanish title of a Charlton Heston movie--became infamous for fighting with machetes in the streets of Los Angeles. It was not macho posturing, writes the author, whose family fled the U.S.-backed authoritarian regime, but instead desperation: They had no access to the guns that other gangs carried. "These skinny kids came together out of immigrant loneliness and their love of Ronnie James Dio and Metallica," Lovato writes. "Their hardcore violence is a relatively recent development. Even today, most gang members aren't killers." As the Salvadorans became better organized and better armed, they formed the infamous MS-13: "The mara violence that escalated following the LA riots of April 1992 reminded us that time is cyclical, and that violence moves in spirals as the innocent choose between becoming the violent or the violated--or both." Before that, writes Lovato, the Salvadoran kids were longhaired metal heads who hung out at convenience stores. Lovato's meaningful title draws from the Greek word for truth, its literal meaning not forgetting, which is essential, since so many Salvadorans are trying to forget the violence that destroyed their homeland and continues to rage today. Lovato traveled throughout both the U.S. and El Salvador to study this violence, some of which he dismisses as overblown if politically useful propaganda--though its government-spawned versions, such as the Chalatenango massacre of civilians by elite Salvadoran troops, have proven very real. Lovato identifies a logical chain: Against the machete-bearing kids, the LA police became militarized, bringing the war back home and establishing a pattern that persists today. A provocative, revealing work of journalism that explains gang behavior but does not idealize it.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from August 1, 2020
    In a memoir that is at once profoundly personal and historically significant, accomplished journalist and scholar Lovato digs deep into his own troubled past to embark on the superhuman task of "unforgetting" the tortured history entwining his family, El Salvador, and the United States of Am�rica. In short, powerful chapters narrated in a fervent first-person voice, Lovato deftly guides the narrative from the 1930s when his father was a child during the brutal U.S.-backed Mart�nez dictatorship to the 1950s on to 2000, a period during which his family migrated to California during El Salvador's Civil War and the L.A. riots, and the present, when his father is an elderly man with dementia and Lovato is a professor supporting gang rehabilitation and a new Central American Studies degree program, while gang members are declared terrorists and Central American refugee children are jailed in Texas. Lovato braids together multiple points of view as he relates gripping true stories populated by heroic, doomed, resilient, and unforgettable characters who shine in their humanity, hope, and endurance. This mix of memoir and history is an essential chronicle, solidly researched and carefully sourced, and enriched with some poetry and plenty of hard-won wisdom.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    January 8, 2021

    In this challenging and rewarding book, journalist and activist Lovato passionately weaves his own highly personal account with those of the people of El Salvador along with Salvadorans in the United States. As portrayed here, they share a unified narrative that Lovato and many others have lived in the decades leading up to the present day. His book takes readers on an exploration of his recollections, including his memories of his father's experiences in a violent 1930s anti-dictatorship uprising. While Lovato explores his and Salvadoran's remembrances, he incorporates history of both El Salvador and the communities in the United States to which people migrated. He also argues against atrocities and multiple wrongs visited on Salvadorans. The book is not particularly easy to read, in part because of the sometimes-violent content, but also because Lovato's work moves dizzyingly back and forth in time and place. But, overall, he takes readers into the minds of those who lived through and often propagated violence affecting the lives of so many other Salvadorans, including himself. VERDICT Lovato's revealing story enables us to look within minds and hearts that have been molded by immigrants' experiences in their home country and their adopted one. A worthwhile account that brings a personal face to a complex, nuanced issue.--Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus "A provocative, revealing work of journalism that explains gang behavior but does not idealize it."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "With the precision of a master seamstress... Lovato braids a narrative that spans nine decades and weaves together El Salvador's history of genocide, civil war, revolution and migration with his family's own.... Lovato's book is a brave examination of the oft-erased history of Salvadorans."
  • Newsweek "Journalist Lovato's raw memoir moves from his youth in 1970s California to his time in war-torn El Salvador. He writes unflinchingly about extreme poverty and the trauma of violence and war in a way that is at once extremely personal, expansive and timely."
  • Carolyn Forché, New York Times "Groundbreaking.... A kaleidoscopic montage that is at once a family saga, a coming-of-age story and a meditation on the vicissitudes of history, community and, most of all for [Lovato], identity."
  • Javier Zamora, author of Unaccompanied "Salvadorans are 'a people in the constant motion of overcoming,' Roberto Lovato writes in his pivotal debut Unforgetting. In it, he runs a machete through himself and his family's history—the 1932 Matanza, the 1980s civil war, and our present-day struggles with gang-violence and migration. With raw honesty, Lovato partakes in a much-needed excavation of what it means to be 'Salvadoran'—and 'American'—in this world. Unforgetting is an opening, a tear in the cloth, we Salvadorans must speak through."
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Natural Causes and Nickel and Dimed "What is Unforgetting—a coming of age story, a thriller, a slice of hemispheric history? All I can say for sure is that it's both gripping and beautiful. With the artistry of a poet and the intensity of a revolutionary, Lovato untangles the tightly knit skein of love and terror that connects El Salvador and the United States. This book is an eye-opener into a world Anglo-Americans have been taught is enemy territory."
  • Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Set the Night on Fire "For generations, from McKinley to Trump, the United States has cast a shadow of exploitation and counter-revolution over Central America. In this stunning tale of love and horror, the journalist Roberto Lovato recounts how his own family history, from the indentured Salvadoran countryside to the burning streets of Los Angeles, has been shaped by resistance to yanqui violence."
  • Booklist, starred review "In a memoir that is at once profoundly personal and historically significant, accomplished journalist and scholar Lovato... relates gripping true stories populated by heroic, doomed, resilient, and unforgettable characters who shine in their humanity, hope, and endurance. This mix of memoir and history is an essential chronicle, solidly researched and carefully sourced, and enriched with some poetry and plenty of hard-won wisdom."
  • New Republic "Mixing fraught reminiscence with vivid reportage... Lovato delivers an intimate, gripping portrait of El Salvador's agony."
  • New Republic "Unforgetting is unforgettable. It teaches an essential history which all of us desperately need in order to understand the society in which we live. A finely woven tapestry of inheritance, culture and love, this story of Latinidad in the United States is specifically Salvadoreño yet sits in a breathtaking archipelago of communities and histories on and across borders. With marvelous, intimate storytelling Lovato's coming of age story displaces ugly myths about Central America and its gangs with the truth of what made America, beginning with the ongoing violence of conquest and culminating with the gorgeous repetition of freedom dreams."
  • Publishers Weekly "Electrifying.... 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... share a collective experience marked by historical trauma but also enormous wells of resilience."
  • Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of Looking for Lorraine and Breathe: A Letter to My Sons "There has never been a book about the Latinx experience quite like Roberto Lovato's Unforgetting. Here is a voice that is outraged, philosophical, thoughtful, blunt, emotional, and, above all, fiercely...
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Unforgetting
A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
Roberto Lovato
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