A Salvadoran-American Assembles the Fragments of a Violent Cultural History (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: violence, immigration, Central America, El Salvador, policing, Latin American history, gangs

A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
By Roberto Lovato

“The machete of memory cuts swiftly or slowly,” Roberto Lovato writes at the beginning of his groundbreaking memoir, “Unforgetting.” It “makes us hack at ourselves,” it “chops up our families” and it “severs any understanding that epic history is a stitching together of intimate histories.”

Fittingly, at the tender heart of this book is a treadle sewing machine used by his grandmother, Mamá Tey, to support the family in El Salvador and, later, San Francisco. At the dark heart of this book is a family secret fiercely kept by his father, having to do with the genocidal aftermath of an uprising in El Salvador in 1932. This massacre, called La Matanza (the slaughter), so traumatized the “tiny country of titanic sorrows” that today, according to Lovato, it is unknown to most Salvadorans, repressed during five decades of military dictatorship. A second uprising, beginning in 1980, led to 12 years of civil war between the Salvadoran military, supported by the United States, and the armed forces of the opposition. The war displaced more than one million Salvadorans, with half taking refuge in the United States. After the war, social and economic reforms promised during peace negotiations were abandoned, and until 2016 amnesty laws protected the perpetrators of war crimes, the majority committed by the military. Civilians, and combatants from both sides of the conflict, struggled to survive in a deteriorating postwar environment.

In the United States, young Salvadoran war refugees defended themselves from urban street gangs by forming gangs themselves, and when the government expeditiously deported them, gang life became a U.S. export, seeding criminal enterprises such as narco-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and money laundering. In the absence of serious economic development and domestic security, Salvadoran parents despaired of keeping their children fed and safe, and sent them north, until whole families were fleeing on foot to the U.S. border. These families are often referred to as “migrants,” but in truth, they are the most recent refugees of the war and its aftermath, victims of a conflict that could not have been prosecuted without the support of the United States, the country that is now refusing to grant the vast majority of them asylum.

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

Read entire article at New York Times