Narrator intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Also, check out our other podcast, Fiat Vox, about the people and research at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos, at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.
Good afternoon. Im Geeta Anand, Interim Dean and professor of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Welcome to this special Berkeley journalism event, a celebration of National Hispanic Latino Heritage Month.
Todays event brings together a recent graduate of our program, Jess Alvarenga, in conversation with Bay Area author Roberto Lovato. Id like to thank our cosponsors, the Latinx Research Center, at UC Berkeley, and the NAHJ student chapter here at UC Berkeley, and lecture Deirdre English, for their efforts in putting forth this timely event.
Lovatos book has been hailed in the New York Times, in a review by the writer Carolyn Forche, who said, The story of the U.S. and El Salvador is a complex puzzle indeed, and Lovato is among the first Salvadoran American writers to assemble it, shuttling back and forth in time, between countries and languages, to retrieve the pieces for 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 him, identity.
Today marks the first time that Lovato has been interviewed by a Salvadoran journalist. And now, let me turn it over to Jess Alvarenga. Jess, take it from here.
Jess Alvarenga: Thank you. Thank you, Geeta, and thank you, Latinx Research Center, and to my alma mater, Berkeley J-School, for hosting this event. Im so super excited to be here with the wonderful Roberto Lovato.
A little bit about Roberto. Roberto is a Salvadoran storyteller, journalist, former FMLN guerrillero, and all around [Spanish language]. Hes the author of a new book Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.
His work has been featured in Guernica, the Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, the Guardian, just to name a few. Unforgetting has received glowing reviews from the New York Times and Newsweek, and the In t he Thick podcast and more. Roberto, bienvenido.
Roberto Lovato: Thank you, Jessica. Its my honor to be with you, with the J-School at my alma mater, Berkeley, and who I thank for the co-sponsorship, along with Dean Geeta Anand. Thank you to Deirdre English, who helped bring this together.
Another special thanks to the Latinx Research Center, and to the leadership of Laura Perez, and a very, very, very super duper special thanks to Angela Marino, whos been a big part of my journalistic and other life for many years. So Im happy to be back with Berkeley.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah, thats great, yeah. And just like Geeta mentioned, this is a super historic moment. This is one of the first times, or the first time, that a Salvadoran journalist is going to be interviewing you, and just talking about whats happening in El Salvador. Two Alvarengas, at that, because my last name is Alvarenga, your mothers last name is Alvarenga, so remind me to check our ancestry.com, to see if were long lost cousins or something.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. Were both members in good standing of the pupusagensia.
Jess Alvarenga: Exactly, and Im trying to keep it that way. Yeah. So, a little bit about Unforgetting. Unforgetting is a journey through the underworlds that have remained fragmented, until now. Roberto brings us along to navigate the terrain of family secrets, unmarked graves that remain uninvestigated, and the nations violent past, overshadowed by the more immediate contemporary violence. And my favorite part, Roberto, is how you make all of these connections to uncover your own traumas, and in turn, Unforgetting.
So the book is written in several different narrative styles. Theres some chapters that read as though it were a journal through different parts of your life, when you were an adolescent, when you were a rebellious teenager. I love the fact that your biggest rebellion was to be an [Spanish language]. I love it.
Roberto Lovato: You know what that is?
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah, I also used to be a Bible banger, so weve been there. Other parts of the book feel like a memoir, and some serve as a historical text, and others like investigative journalism. And youre actually going to bless us with a reading of the book today, so Im super excited about that.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, Yeah. Ive picked a section from Chapter 28.
Jess Alvarenga: Thats great. Yeah, but before we begin, I do want to give everyone a heads up, that at times well be talking in detail about graphic violence and the war. I wanted to offer a trigger warning, to make sure everyone can take care of themselves during our conversation. And the chapter that Robertos about to read is especially graphic.
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. Let me lay the context for this chapter. Its later in the book. The book is, like you said, a journey through different underworlds, the underworlds of the guerillas, the underworlds of the gangs, the underworlds of our family histories and secrets, the underworld of the secrets of nations, the things that countries dont like for us to know, I mean, which is theoretically how you get a president like Donald Trump, for example.
Jess Alvarenga: Right.
Roberto Lovato: You have all this accumulated things you deny, youre going to get something like that. Its kind of the Jungian shadow coming back to bite us.
In El Salvador, Im actually stopping my journalistic journey in El Salvador, to discover, figure out what makes kids so violent. Because that was the main purpose in the present day part of my story, which is, Im there to try to understand, after seeing kids in immigrant prisons.
I have a driver whos with me, whos been with me throughout the journey of the book, and hes taking me to see to go to my fathers homeland, in Ahuachapn, in the western coffee growing region, which has seen a lot of violence and terror, and a lot of coffee. They go together, violence, terror and coffee.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah.
Roberto Lovato: And so, were driving, and Ive been asking him about his past a little bit, and its trickling out. You know, youre driving for an hour, two hours, three hours. And so, his names Isaias. And so, let me start.
You know, boss, he says, tilting his head back, as he takes a deep breath, signaling he wants to talk. I was thinking about those questions you asked me about the Special Forces. Yes?
Oh, and Isaias is a military person. Yes?
So I brought you some pictures I wanted to show you. Check them out. Theyre in the glove compartment. I open the glove compartment, lift the car registration papers, and the .38 he has on top, and pull out a plastic sandwich bag containing photographs.
Inside are five pictures. From the faded colors of the pictures, I guess they were taken some time in the mid- to late 80s. Theyre from my training, he says, with a hint of pride in his smile. It took a lot for us to graduate.
The picture on top of us is of a younger, thinner, shirtless Isaias, standing beside another guy. Theyre standing on a grassy field, wearing bandanas and fatigues, their faces painted green, and holding M-16 rifles. In the background is a smiling, unidentified child in a red shirt, photo bombing. Behind them sits a big white building with windows framed by barbed wire. That was our graduation, he says.
Another picture shows him fully suited in military fatigues, as if gearing up for battle, sitting in the back of an army truck.
Thats us going to combat.
I look to see where we are on Ruta Ocho, and see were near Lourdes Colon. See there, boss? he says, pointing towards the city on our right. Thats where we had dinner at my house. You remember? Yes.
The image of Isaias playing soccer in the dusty street, in front of his house, with Saulito, his 6-year-old, comes to mind. As we ate the casamiento and chicharrones cracklings his wife, Hidea, had cooked, Isaias talked about how soccer, family outings and the occasional whipping was a trifecta of parental discipline necessary to raise his boy in a gang-controlled neighborhood like Lourdes Colon. The former kid soccer player in me smiled, even as my inner beaten child cringed.
That one we took when we were with the trainers, he says, pointing down toward the next photograph in my hands, Los Americanos.
I look at the photograph. In it, Isaias is crouching next to a tree. Hes stripped down to his green army underwear. Hes wearing a bandana and his face is painted, as he looks directly into the camera.
In a semicircle around Isaias are seven of his fellow soldiers, other Special Forces trainees, all with painted faces and bandanas, and all stripped down to their underwear. Isaias and another guy next to him are holding big gray tin cups. Above them, a bleeding corpse is hanging from a tree. I realize its a dog, whose skin has been peeled off, leaving only a dark strip on the reddened snout, showing it once had black fur. Its throat had been slit, and its blood is dripping into one of the cups.
Isaias is looking straight at the camera. For once, hes not smiling. His arms and lips are covered in blood. The trainers watched as our commanders told us, Number Three, you will not graduate unless you drink the dogs blood, Isaias says. He has on the same nervous smile he wore when we were in the dangerous gang country. So we had no choice. The colonel told us, I will tear up your diploma if you dont.
Ive read death squad manuals prepared by U.S. trainers, and heard the stories of Escuadron activities. Ive gotten to know death squad operatives, like a guy named Leonardo, who had turned away from the Escuadrones, and started volunteering with CARECEN, back when I first met my partner, G, in San Francisco.
This still feels horrifically surreal. I study the picture and listen with the same morbid fascination that sells horror movies and newspapers. But my interest is also anthropological, a study in the ritual of dehumanization and murder that has been destroying Salvadoran life for centuries.
Number Three, the trainer would call me, Isaias continues. Its your turn to hang the dog, the first dog.
So I breathed in and went at it. I put the knife there in the neck and cut the vein. He points to the spot on his own neck.
Diablito, I want you to make sure you dont lose a drop of blood. No waste, not one drop, the trainer said.
Son of a bitch. It was so disgusting. After getting the blood, I put the cup up to my mouth, and quickly swallowed. It tasted salty, the blood of that animal, salty like you cant imagine. Ours is sweet by comparison. It was like drinking sea water. Its even worse when as it coagulates. Almost 30 years after his Special Forces training, his body still trembles in disgust.
It becomes like gelatin. I was lucky, since that was still fresh, he says. Some guys had to drink it dry in [Spanish language], a cup. Afterward, they ordered us to cut up the dog, cook the meat, and make the soup with intestines and bones. I swallow and try to calm my nausea with deep breaths. Vomit bubbles up my throat.
I ask Isaias to pull over so we can get something to drink. We stop at a fresco stand. The greenery all around us soothes me, until I regain enough calm to hear the voice inside me that says, You wanted to understand what turns kids into killers. Heres your chance.
The desire to avoid any more gory details collides with the need to understand why he did it. Still, I cant quite make myself ask this question outright, for fear of shaming him into silence. Instead, I ask, Why do you think they made you do that?
It was part of our Special Forces commando training that lasted three months, he says. I think they put us through it for different reasons.
To give us the will we needed to kill. Also, for survival, to train us to search and find food wherever we could, what to do if we were captured by guerrillas. They pulverize you until you submit.
How many of you participated?
The course started with 40 soldiers. We finished with 25. Others deserted.
Those pulverize and submit parts hes talking about are important aspects of the reeducation provided to Salvadoran and other soldiers by trainers at the School of the Americas, in Georgia, at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and at other Pentagon facilities. Isaias was trained in El Salvador by Salvadoran officers who had been trained at the School of the Americas and were supervised by UA officers sent to the country as part of the Pentagons aid program.
Like any other boot camp or police academy, the rigorous physical and mental training of the Salvadoran military is designed to turn a person unaccustomed to killing into a person disposed to kill for a higher purpose defined by his or her controllers. The forging of this identity is accomplished in two ways, one overt, and one covert.
The overt training described in the course catalogs of these facilities is designed to transform grunts like Isaias into professional soldiers, soldiers steeped in and guided by the doctrine of just war. On the surface, the just war curriculum Isaias and other soldiers study looks innocuous, with courses in human rights, and special and civil military operations, and resource management.
Beneath the surface, however, the curriculum has a darker purpose. In the words of Leslie Gill, a scholar who studies the military training taught at the School of the Americas, The just war thesis is a tactical anodyne that obscures the horrors of war through its emphasis on the responsible use of violence by military professionals. Images of the professional soldier engaged in the good fight enhance the virility and heroism of men who sacrifice their personal safety to fight a malicious enemy for the greater benefit of the nation. They also permitted officers to distance themselves from their humble origins, and to disassociate from the real terror of actual violence, which was passed off to frontline soldiers from ethnic and racial minorities of supposedly inferior intellect.'
Jess Alvarenga: Wow, powerful, thank you so much for reading that chapter. And, as we come later on to find out, is that part of the chapter, or where you and Isaias were headed to, was to actually interview two witnesses of La Matanza. And you were researching the history of La Matanza, but while doing that, you are also confronted by the contemporary violence of the 1980s, which is everything that Isaias went through, but also confronted by the violence that is happening today.
That brings me to my first question. I want to start at the beginning of the end, with La Matanza. In 1932, somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 Indigenous people in El Salvador were slaughtered by the state, making La Matanza one of the most violent episodes in the modern era.
And in the chapter that you just read, you interviewed two of the survivors of La Matanza. So I want to ask, how does the silence around La Matanza inform the silence around the civil war, and around the gangs of today?
Roberto Lovato: Wow. If I could answer that question, Jessica, Id get a Ph.D. at Berkeley. Thats a great question, but I wont pretend to answer it with any profundity, like it demands. But yeah, thats one of the things that the book is about. The book is about, say, the umbilical connection that many of us as Salvadoreos and Salvadoreas have to our past, the past of extreme violence.
Like you said, La Matanza, in 1932, was an Indigenous rebellion, when people got tired of seeing their kids dying in the usual causes of revolution, which are poverty, the death of children, especially, and repression. And so, the Indigenous people rebelled, and a guy named Maximiliano Hernndez Martnez used it to, not just slaughter 10,000 to 30,000, we dont know how many, but to also establish the longest-standing military dictatorship in the Americas, a military dictatorship that I and Isaias, that I fought in, and that Isaias defended, which is why that scene is kind of poignant in the larger context.
Yes, the violence of La Matanza is a spike in one of the countries thats the most consistently violent in history, as you have in La Matanza, for example, which, according to scholars at Oxford, like a guy named Anders Sandberg, at the Institute for the Future, that studies violence around the world He told me that in terms of the numbers of people killed in a single spot, in a concentrated space, per day, per week, El Salvador 1932 is possibly the single most violent episode in world history.
This whole memory of this was covered up. The institutional memory was covered up, and the individual and familial memory. I had to go and literally dig up, to go to the mass grave sites where La Matanza was perpetrated. They havent been dug up, and theyre right near grave sites from the war that havent been dug up. And those are next to grave sites that are near gang and government mass grave sites.
And so, the memory, a mass grave site is kind of a way that, its a symbol, for me, of impunity, of accumulated impunity and accumulated trauma. And I just want to say, before we go on, the book is very hopeful to anybody that reads it. But I think the darkness of our history, and of our past, is the velvet background against which the power and beauty of the Salvadoran people rises to the occasion of themselves, as I try to show.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. Yes, I completely agree. I agree also that weve just inherited multiple atrocities in less than a century, that have yet to have been acknowledged or atoned. And its something that you touch throughout the book, is the reason why Salvadorans are half dead. And so, one of the things that I noticed in this chapter, specifically, was the internal conflict that you felt when interviewing the two survivors.
Journalism can be very transactional. For some, an interview is just a means to an end, or just part of the story, or just a story. And while there are some phenomenal journalists covering Central America, most reporting tends to lack a complex understanding of Salvadorans. So as a journalist, and specifically, as a Salvadoran journalist, what did you take into consideration when you were interviewing survivors of a mass genocide, like La Matanza?
Roberto Lovato: Another great question Id need a Ph.D. to answer, but the first thing is my own trauma. I think I have to draw on my own experience. I think any journalist does that instinctively if theyre any good, right? What do I feel that they might be feeling? So I draw on my own experience of war and trauma, and other traumas, and I dont want to trigger them. I dont want anybody to trigger me. I dont.
And so, I do want to try to win their trust, to get people to talk. And Im ready to be with them over a period of time, because theres parachuting in, and then theres actually putting in embedded time. I think, you plan for, you plan to get whatever you can on the short term, but you should really get the story in the long term by embedding yourself.
So Ive embedded myself in Salvadoran society for my entire life, because my parents are from El Salvador, like yours. Im born in San Francisco, but And listening for cues, when people are ready to talk.
There was a point in an interview, one of the people, she didnt want to talk anymore, it was clear. Because she was going back, little by little, into what happened in 1932. But she started looking at across the street, where theres gang graffiti.
And so, you have this, the present and the past in there, and at that point, I was, Okay, lets go. I dont want to continue this. I dont want to bring this person to this place like this. So yeah, thats what
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. So you were able to connect with them, and you saw their humanity. And that, like everything you just said, brings me to my next point, on how important it is, how crucial it is to have Central American voices in news stories.
Can you talk a little bit about the research that you did in 2018 for the Columbia Journalism Review, on how Central Americans are portrayed in the media, and why that is so important?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, yeah. First of all, I need to say that in mainstream U.S. media, I suspected, and I smelled the carcass of the fact that the United States doesnt believe that Central Americans are capable of telling our own stories. Its that [Spanish language] are capable of telling our own stories, right?
In the literary realm, I launched, along with Myriam Gurba and David Bowles, something called Dignidad Literaria, because we have the same pattern in literature, where the people who have been winning prizes for telling Central American stories just aint Central Americans. So no matter how you slice it, it comes up zero for us.
And so, I wanted to prove this in a more social scientific way, in a journalistic way. I had some volunteers, and I looked, started analyzing, in 2018, the coverage of the child separation crisis. Everybody remembers when there was protests all around the U.S., and Donald Trump had been separating all these children from their mothers.
I wanted to analyze the coverage from the perspective of the sourcing, in particular. Okay, if Im going to write that story, I know Im going to go to people like Leisy Abrego at UCLA, or Suyapa Portillo, at Pitzer College, at Claremont, to talk about Central American issues, to bring context to the story, go to the scholars.
Im going to talk to organizations like the one I used to lead, CARECEN, Central American Resource Center, to talk to lawyers about, Central American lawyers, who have deep embedded experience with this community. Or if I want to talk to Jessica Alvarenga, journalists who can help me get some insight, if Im not a member in good standing with the pupusagenisa, Im going to go.
So theres community leaders, scholars. The Central Americans have been here since the 19th century, and an especially large number, en masse, since before the 70s. In the 50s, people like my family started coming. So theres a community here thats been here for a long time. And believe it or not, I think we actually know about ourselves. You may not read us saying it, but I think we know about it.
Long story short, I looked at the coverage in all the major media, with these volunteers. We know all the major news makers. And it was, according to Media Matters, they did a study that showed that was one of the biggest stories of 2018, in terms of the number, measured by the amount of stories.
And I looked at it, and I found, guess how many Central American lawyers, Central American leaders, Central American scholars, Central American community leaders? Guess how many I found, in a story thats centered around Central Americans? Because the children and the mothers were, 90% of them were Central American, according to the Department of Homeland Security statistics. So guess how many?
Jess Alvarenga: I know the answer, so
Roberto Lovato: Let me just say, in [Spanish language], okay? Not a one. Not a one in any of the stories, in any of the major media. And so, knowing this kind of stuff was what had moved me previous, prior to this, to embark on the journey of this story. Because all we had in journalism, or in literature, the best known statement about Salvadorians in El Salvador comes from Joan Didion, from her book Salvador.
It was, Terror is the given of the place. Sounds great, and I even bought into it. Wow, man, shes really deep, she gets the But then I had to slap myself out of the colonial construction of Salvador in this, to realize, Hey, I love my abuelita, I love jocotes, I love being under I fell in love with a girl in San Salvador.
I wrote a book that tried to rescue our own dignity and our own identity from the deadness, the deadening effect of the colonial gaze of people like U.S. journalism, generally, and Joan Didion. And so, I put in twice, I put in the phrase, Love is also the given of the place. Because I dont deny the terror. I just know the love, too.
Jess Alvarenga: Right. And its something else that you mention in the book is, were placed in this binary, this violated or violent binary, that we can only exist in this, in these two spaces. We cant exist as complex human beings that can write our own stories, too, about that. And I think with that, also, representation, and taking control of our own stories also comes with its own challenges, especially as journalists.
Some of the fundamental things were asked to give up and hide, in order to be seen as objective, or what in journalism is considered a reliable narrator. I personally feel, that through different aspects of journalism, Ive had to hide a lot of myself. I cant be this complex person. I cant be a complex person and a journalist at the same time.
So in the book, we actually find out that you joined the FMLN. Could you talk a little bit about the tension between your former FMLN militancy, and the need to hide it, in order to work as a journalist?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. I mean, this is a very [Spanish language] question, because we all know our tendency to secrecy, not just in the FMLN, but in Salvadoran culture, generally. We are families who have a lot of secrets, like a lot of other families, not just Salvadoran, but we have a lot of layers of silence and secrets in our thing.
And I connect the dots to military dictatorship and fascism, right? Because the government of El Salvador during the war was a military dictatorship backed by the United States, that the United Nations, during the war, right after the war, said was responsible for killing 85% of the 75,000 to 80,000 people killed.
The Salvadorian government, its U.S.-trained military, and its U.S.-funded and backed death squads, perpetrated things like El Mozote massacre, where approximately, in a matter of hours, 1,000 people were killed in a town. They were mostly campesinos, evangelical campesinos, who were actually, politically, probably more inclined to the government.
And so, the El Mozote massacre, the Atlacatl Battalion wiped them out. Only until last year do we find, because of the forensic work that had to be done, with the Argentinians and the Salvadorans that Ive interviewed, and that Mark Danner at the J-School has done just a fabulous service to the Salvadoran people, with his book The excavation of this history shows that half of the people killed in El Mozote were children under 12.
Half of those, and most of those kids were under 6. So thats all the context for people to understand why a dude born in San Francisco, California, like me, in the Mission District, working class, down the street from the projects, but connected umbilically to El Salvador, decided Id had enough. And I had been visiting in El Salvador, and I decided to join the fight against the fascist military dictatorship, that was led by the Frente Farabundo Mart para la Liberacin Nacional.
And so, to be a journalist after the war I became a journalist in 2004. I came late in my life to it. And Im a strategist. People that know me know I do things in the world, sometimes, like helped get rid of the word illegal alien from the Associated Press stylebook, or get rid of Lou Dobbs from CNN.
So the strategist in me knew that if I was to come out with my red shirt, and my FMLN background, I wasnt going to get a Pulitzer grant to go write stories like I got. I wasnt going to get assignments. Because being a former guerrillero, versus being a former member of the US military, say, that went to train the Salvadoran troops Really, thats looked upon favorably, and you can be objective, if youre a former member of the army. But if youre an ex-guerrilla, those are terrorists, or these terms.
And so, I had to hide, honestly, one of the most noble parts of myself. Yeah, the part of me that risked my life, and that saw the ugly, the most ignoble and noble things there are to see in the world.
I went through that, and I had to hide it. And so, writing the book, and again, the concept of Unforgetting, which comes from the Greek journey into the underworld, where the dead had to forget who they were by crossing the lazy river, the River of Forgetting, seemed the perfect title for my book, because it was about the unforgetting of our histories as nations, as family, but also as an individual.
I had to unforget being in the FMLN, a secret that I held for more than 25 years in my heart, only among my intimate circle. And so, I want the young people right now, who are looking at their world I came out about it, because I wanted the young people looking at their world, you can go do journalism. Thats a legitimate and important option right now, is the pursuit of the truth.
But at the same time, theres also the fight for the truth, the fight that we have, the fight of our lives. And so, the best way I knew to do that was the revolutionary option. And so, I put that in the book, because I want that spirit in there for people to just, Look, if your heart beats this way, the way mine did, before I did what I did, maybe it echoes something in you.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. And I think I can speak for many young journalists, and especially young Salvadoran journalists, that were all very grateful that you have joined journalism, and then paved the way for many of us.
Speaking of objectivity, when you were reporting about the FMLN government, your former comrades, you faced pushback by them. Theres a chapter in the book where you were researching when you were at this mass grave, and they make you delete the pictures, all of the pictures that you took, at the end of all of that research. Could you speak a little bit more about that?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, yeah. I was going to do some stuff, some stories for the Boston Globe, who I write for sometimes. And I was going to, I was doing the journalistic work thats included in the book. I had already decided Im going to do a book.
But I had to pay for it. Like any journalist out there knows, any author knows, you got to pay for it, unless you get one of these seven-figure deals, like the woman that wrote American Dirt.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. Jeanine Cummins, yeah.
Roberto Lovato: So, Jeanine Clem Yeah. So I didnt get that seven-figure deal, so I had to go and work for a living. And I did stories on the violence in El Salvador, and I went out to these mass grave sites. I got the permission of the forensics people to take me there, the [Spanish language].
And you have to hike into these really dangerous areas, and there had been these conflicts just the day before, between the gangs and the military and the police, right? Because theyre kind of Actually, I was going to say, theyre fused in El Salvador, but hey, look at your streets, theyre fused here.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah.
Roberto Lovato: Theyre fused, partly because of low salary, but thats another story. So we went out to this really scary place, it reminded me of the war. I got the pictures, I got part of the story, came back to the camp site where we were, these cars were parked.
And the people from the forensics lab left, and they left me there, just with the police and the Fiscal de, or Attorney General. These are all FMLN police and FMLN fiscales. I didnt tell them I was, used to be in the frente during the war. But suddenly, the fiscal walks up to me.
This woman walks, says, Hey. She goes, One of the writers has photos. And she forced me to, she had the police surround me at gunpoint, to erase my pictures. And so that story is, for me, poignant, because it points to this, the opposite of what we usually get, as non-white journalists.
Which is, You know what? Youre not objective about this story, Roberto. You even got that red shirt, youre an ex-guerrilla. How the hell can you tell this story thats about this FMLN government? Well, I went to the grave sites. I got what I knew to be the true story, and I was ready to report it.
My own ex-companero supports me, and I ended up reporting it, because theres some data recovery specialists that I knew here in San Francisco, who helped me recover all my pictures. I got a three-page spread in the Boston Globe, with color pictures.
Jess Alvarenga: Neat.
Roberto Lovato: Now, quite frankly, how I did that, Ill just reveal that, yeah, I gave them payback for erasing my pictures. So its just this, not just for me, its partly a story of an edible relationship that we have to nations, and to political parties, that often fail us, whether were individuals or ex-whatever, but also as journalists.
We all have that. This idea of journalistic objectivity is a questionable enterprise at this stage in human history, if you look at, say, the report that just came out recently, I think yesterday, on the way that most people who watch Fox are 90-something % Republican, and most people that watch NBC are 90% Democrats. So were in this interesting new time, journalistically.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. And in a way, the industry standard for objectivity is, in a way, contributing to the same outcome of forgetting, of silencing.
My last question is actually about U.S. involvement, and the gangs, or the Maras. I learned some new contexts and pieces of history from your book, including that the word Mara came from a couple of little punk rock kids.
But also, my understanding of the links between U.S. violence, and the violence in El Salvador shifted. Ive always had an understanding of the gangs just being violent, and people faced violence from them. But I didnt realize the connection between U.S. police violence in the states, and the ways that the gangs were being brutalized by the police in El Salvador. So can you talk about the influence of William Barr and Rudy Giulianis broken window policy, and the Mano Dura, in El Salvador?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. Thank you for asking that, another great question. Im just warning people that something said, my computer just said my connection is unstable. So well figure it out if something happens. But yeah, its a great question, Jessica, another great question. And Im enjoying conversing with you, and Im so grateful they picked, that we got a Salvadorea to do this.
Jess Alvarenga: Okay, great.
Roberto Lovato: It means a lot to me. Its the first of a month of events Im going to have with Salvadoreos, talking about the book. Yeah. I mean, my point in bringing in William Barr was to do my journalistic duty, which is report the facts. But it was also to show the way I report or I write about gangs, I dont artificially separate gangs from the policing that creates them, right?
MS-13 started off as a bunch of stoner kids listening to punk rock and hard rock like Ronnie James Dio, Metallica, and other heavy metal groups, and smoking pot, and coming together out of immigrant loneliness. And so, in LA, in Los Angeles, and Pico Union, migrant kids. And these kids suddenly found themselves being pressured by larger, more well-equipped gangs, like the Mexican Mafia, like the Crips and the Bloods.
And so, these kids found themselves having to get armed themselves, but they werent armed. They lacked two major arms to really fight back in an effective way early on. One of them was, they didnt have the money for AK-47s, M-16s, and some of the other guns, semiautomatic weapons that were standard, the Uzis, for these other larger gangs. Then they lacked the especially powerful weapon of US citizenship. These young people, I would see them when I was in LA at CARECEN (Central American Resource Center), in the early 90s. They would go to Liborios Market and buy machetes to defend themselves with.
And so, the media, members of the media, like Lisa Ling at National Geographic, sorry, Lisa, but its true, and LAPD And later on, I find out that federal authorities were also starting to pay attention. They started to frame this story as one of these extremely violent gangs, because of the use of machetes, as if shooting somebody And Id hate to be graphic and triggering to people, but I need to make my point. Shooting somebody in the face with an Uzi is somehow less violent than a machete in the neck or something. This is the ridiculous premise that undergirds the idea of MS-13 as the most violent gang in the world, or of Donald Trump right now.
So throughout this time, and since the 90s, William Barr has helped to manufacture and frame this story, as, remember, the Bush Attorney General during the LA riots. He deployed, he led the biggest redeployment of FBI resources after the LA riots, and focused it on gangs. He then sent, after the war, sent trainers to train the Salvadoran police in U.S.-style policing. Then I also found out that the Pentagon sent the trainers that trained people like Isaias, from the School of the Americas [inaudible], they sent those trainers to train, guess who? LAPD, Seattle PD, and YPD.
So, and Ive got these quotes from these police, these cops who were bragging about getting this training from these guys from Central America, who just came from the jungles. And so, William Barr, the Pentagon, members of the media, helped to construct this cottage industry in MS-13 as the most violent gang. When, in fact, when Donald Trump just had, along with William Barr, a press conference in July. They had a press conference where it was all focused on MS-13, and they were going to introduce new kind of instruments to label them terrorists, and pursue them as terrorists.
Being me, I said, Okay, well, whats the factual homicide statistic basis for this? I called police forces in all the major areas, like Alexandria, Virginia, Long Island, where Trump draws a lot of his support from those cops on this issue, LAPD, here in San Francisco. And what did I find, in terms of the numbers of homicides in 2019, which were the most recent, up to date?
Here in San Francisco, MS-13 had killed all of two people in 2019, zero in 2020. In Long Island, which is the center of Trumps kind of crusade, theres an average of 5.5 killings by MS-13 per year, for the last 10 years. And remember, there are a lot of MS-13 members. So when you look at the way the story is told, and you look at the facts, they dont go together.
And so, I found out, and youll see this in a piece Im going to publish, that a handful of white supremacists holding semiautomatic weapons in Dayton, in El Paso, in 2019, killed more than the 10,000 MS-13 members the FBI estimates are in the United States. In one month, they killed more, the white supremacists killed more people than all of MS, 10,000 MS-13 in a single year. That should give you some sense of the
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah.
Roberto Lovato: We know the imbalance is there, but when you start looking at it journalistically, its an obscenity, to say the least.
Jess Alvarenga: Yes. Yes, I completely agree. So, we are coming close to the end of our time, and leave some questions from the audience. But before we do, I went to read the poem that Roque Dalton wrote, that you reference a lot throughout the book. And so, everyone that tuned in late, again, my name is Jess Alvarenga, and Im in conversation with Roberto Lovato on his new book, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.
So we are going to read. And then, everyone in the audience, if you have any questions for Roberto, please ask them in the chat. We are moderating those questions. We already have a couple coming up.
Let me find the poem. [inaudible]. Okay. Do you want to take it away, Roberto?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. You want me to read it in Spanish?
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah, read it in Spanish, Ill read the English version.
Roberto Lovato: Okay. This is a book about what happened in 1932, and it was written by Roque Dalton, who was a guerrillero poet, a poet-warrior, which is something I talk about in the book. Because thats also something I think were going to need, before the intersecting catastrophes that were facing, not just nationally, but around the world.
Were going to need something of a, what sociologists call a millenarian sensibility. And so, my experience of millenarianism comes from being part of a revolutionary guerrilla organization. So Roque Dalton was a part of that. He was way on earlier, though in the 70s, and he was also El Salvadors greatest poet, and one of the great poets of Latin America.
So he wrote this poem called Todos. And it goes as follows, in Spanish.
Jess Alvarenga: So Ill read the English translation.
Roberto Lovato: Translated by me and Javier Zamora.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah.
Roberto Lovato: Please recognize my fellow [Spanish language].
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah, Javier Zamora, which, [inaudible] did an amazing podcast on Javier Zamoras journey, The Return, so everyone needs to hear that.
Roberto Lovato: Berkeley grad?
Jess Alvarenga: Mm-hmm. Yes, yes, all these Salvadorians, making creative magic. I love it.
We were all born half dead in 1932. Alive, but half alive, each one of us with a bank account of 30,000 dead, fattened with interest, with profits, that today have grown enough to spread death onto those that keep being born, half dead, half alive.
We were all born half dead in 1932. To be Salvadorian is to be half dead. That which moves is the half of the life they left us. And because were all half dead, the murderers presume, not only that theyre completely alive, but also immortal.
But theyre also half dead, and only half living.
Lets unite half dead of our nation, so that we can call ourselves your children, in the name of the murdered. Lets unite against the murderers of all, against the murderers of the dead, and the half dead.
Together, all of us, we have more death than them. But all of us together, we have more life than them. The almighty union of our half lives, of the half lives of everyone of us, that were born half dead in 1932.
And translated by Roberto Lovato and Javier Zamora. Powerful. Ive been really enjoying this conversation, so I am going to take a couple of questions from the audience.
So, Laura Perez writes, Powerful, Roberto, gracias, and thanks for your shout out to LRC. [Spanish language]. You mentioned centuries of violence. Could you say more about how you connect this to the scene of dehumanizing military training you read?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah. Before anything, again, I want to thank the J-School and LRC, because they really stepped up, without even blinking, to support this. And LRC in particular supported me as a Fellow for three years. And I started some of the thinking about this at LRC, while I was there, so LRC matters, too.
Good question. Another one of these Ph.D.-type questions Im not going to answer, Id need a whole book to answer. But the book that I did write looks at the way that Well, for example, that scene with Isaias, I was in the car with another person, by the way. There was a tension in the car I couldnt bring in, because it would have been the whole chapter.
But there was an Indigenous man named [Renaldo Patria 00:53:38], [Patrice 00:53:40]. He still has Indigenous identity, one of the, less than 1% of Salvaordans whos identified as Indigenous, and tried to practice his language, and advocate and act in the material world on behalf of his community.
Renaldos an ex-guerrillero too, but I didnt tell Isaias that. Just like I didnt tell Renaldo that Isaias was an ex-cop, I mean, an ex-military guy. And so theres a tension in this little beat up taxi, thats the tension of Salvadoran history, because if you look at Renaldo, he looks less Indigenous than Isaias.
Isaias had strong, very dark features, with a military cut, and Isaias was lighter-skinned, had a mustache, goatee. And he was a lot lighter skinned. And so there, in one car, you have Salvadorian history, the history of the amnesia that makes for good soldiers, right? Whether its LAPD, or the U.S. military, or the Salvadoran military, the death squads, theyre all made possible by forgetting, by amnesia.
Hannah Arendt, the German philosopher that I like sometimes, when shes not being overly liberal, she had this statement that said, Terror enforces oblivion. I kind of turn that around, and I add to it by saying, Oblivion enforces terror. Through the psychology, the training, the education given to our police forces and our militaries, to have these ideas about themselves that go back a long way.
I mean, the conquistadores that came to the New World understood they needed to disconnect the Indigenous people from their histories, right, in order to turn them into good soldiers eventually. The nation state of El Salvador did the same thing. It drew people away from the Indigenous [inaudible] armies, into the Salvadoran military, and allegiance to the flag.
I mean, I start off the book with a quote by a guy named Ernest Renan, a great French philosopher of the nation, who basically said, Nations are about forgetting, right? And forgetting enables violence, and so, Im trying to show the workings of this in the short history that I cover. But this rabbit hole of forgetting and violence runs way deep. Forgetting is a form of violence, oftentimes.
Right. Agreed. Okay, our next question is from Diego Salinas. Its a little bit long, so Ill read parts of it.
Diego writes, I was born in El Salvador, and came to the U.S. when I was five, in 2001, in [Spanish language]. While I was raised with the strong ties to El Salvador, I was always conflicted by the fact that I never knew anything about the history of my country, especially from the time of the war and before.
My dad tells me the occasional horror story from the war time, but a lot of the larger political ideological context is missing, aside from assurances that both sides committed atrocities. Your book has given me the language and the context to begin to unforget. During that unforgetting process, I can feel an underlying tension between myself and my dad. I want to engage with my dad about the ideology and political buildup to the war that ravaged his childhood, but I find myself quickly out of the depths when compared with the trauma my dad experienced.
The question is, what is a resource that could help me further my understanding of the specific political day to day of wartime?
Roberto Lovato: God, I would never want anybody to understand, well, I dont know if it can be understood. But I think the most important instrument, in terms of your dad and your family history, is your heart and your mind. Its the heart and mind.
Oh, by the way, when Diegos father says that both sides perpetrated violence, thats true. Except that, remember, the United Nations Truth Commission, which was bipartisan, established after the war, found that 5% of the killings of the 75,000 to 80,000 innocents, were perpetrated by the FMLN. Eighty-five percent were perpetrated by the Salvadoran military and death squads.
So, to go around this, dont, I didnt confront my father. I learned not to confront. I learned to lead with my heart, and with my mind, when relating to my parents, who gave me a lot of this history that I had to excavate. Because I grew up without any pictures of my father, with my fathers family, my grandfather. The only picture was my abuelita, Mama Tey. And so, I had to go in, and be like this detective I used to like as a kid, Columbo, in the 70s. And I became Detective Columbo to find out the family secrets, initially. And then, as an adult, as a journalist, and as a, kind of whatever, an author, I started approaching them differently.
I think you can do archival research, you can do journalistic report [inaudible], talk with people. But with your own family, they have to feel comfortable enough to spill the beans. Because theres a lot of beans there, and theyre not going to spill them, because of trauma and triggering and things.
Youve got to find these indirect ways that take time to draw it out, but I think its a worthwhile and necessary journey, to do that with our padres, but also with our patria, with the nations. Which is one of the main points of my book, too. We have to excavate the forgotten histories of nations.
My book is as much about the United States and its role in mass producing mass murder, mass amnesia, that protects it. You just had, this past week, a judge required the Salvadoran military to open up its archives of the El Mozote massacre that I mentioned, where all those kids were killed. Well, the Salvadoran government of Nayib Bukele said no, [Spanish language]. Were not going to do that.
The struggle for memory is the struggle for the future, as much as anything, and so, whether its in our families, or in nations. And so, yeah, my book is as much about the U.S., because again, I was born here. And its also about, in a way, about the birth of the Salvadorian community in the U.S. Because I was here before most of you all. Right? Most of you all, the students, that is, right? I saw you come. I was waiting for you to arrive.
Jess Alvarenga: Great, thank you for that. [Raphael Gissar III] writes, or asks the question, What do you, Roberto, thinks needs to be done, or can be done, on an individual level, to stop the media from perpetrating this narrative of violent Central Americans?
Roberto Lovato: Well, I think its an individual question, but there has to have social answers, as well. Right? As Salvadoreos, we were, we are nothing if not a highly organized people. As I document in the book, one of every three Salvadoreos was organized against the state during the war. Imagine if we had that right now in the United States, if one of every three of us decided to take up and oppose the government by any means necessary. Im not advocating armed struggle or anything, but imagine if we had people that adopted radicalized politics like that. It would be a different country. Wed be in a different situation.
And so, theres an individual component and a social component. But the individual part, I try to do it by example. I want people to read my book, and say, Hey, man, I got stories like that. Im going to tell my story. Because I want all of you to own, research and tell your own stories, and be as dogged in telling, in getting the story, but also dogged in getting it to the right place to be told.
We cant allow ourselves to be marginalized. Along with Myriam and David, we launched Dignidad Literaria, because less than, about 1% of U.S. literature is Latino. So thats a astonishing and pathetic number, if ever there was one, so And you have to, I think, the spirit with which I approach storytelling is as a matter of life and death.
Because I remember, from El Salvador, when people would see on television this guy named Roberto DAubuisson, who was the founder of the death squads. He would say, he would go on television, he would start telling a story about nuns, about priests, about members of the opposition. And guess what happened after he came out on television?
Oftentimes, those people would be found dead, right, by Escuadrn de la Muerte, that Roberto DAubuisson founded. So he told a story that enabled the death. We as humans cant kill somebody, unless [inaudible] human. Something about us. And so, we have to humanize ourselves as an issue of life and death right now, at a time of such epic crisis.
Thats why I decided, Shit, man, I dont have the best Salvadorian story, but Ive seen a few things. And Im going to get letters, because youre inspired, or because you as a Salvadoreo say, [Spanish language].
Whatever your purpose, go out and tell your story like your life depends on it. Because in a collective way, and in the world we live in right now, you have to tell your story, of our story, so that we are more human than the people that perpetrated El Paso, La Matanza, and any other killings perpetry.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah, I completely agree. I feel you just answered Victor [Vasquezs] question, which asks, What can I do as a Salvadoran American academic, to give back to my roots, to Salvadoran people?
I feel you just answered that completely, which is, storytelling is a way that we give back and unforget together. And together, were writing a collective story of ourselves, as Salvadoreos.
Roberto Lovato: Okay. Can I add one other? I mean, we have to fight socially, too. We have to fight. You remember that word, illegal alien?
Jess Alvarenga: Mm-hmm.
Roberto Lovato: I hated that word as a journalist. It was so dehumanizing and awful, and I saw the connection, between that word, and all the major dailies and all the, most of the coverage, and the violent policies and the violence in the streets perpetrated against migrants. So I approached people at the Applied Research Center. I said, Hey, I got this idea for this campaign. Lets drop the I-word.
And there was born that campaign, or when we got Lou Dobbs out of CNN, who was People dont know, look him up. He was basically John the Baptist, John the Evil Baptist, to Donald Trump, right? And he led a foundation in anti-immigrant media and promotion like no one else. And so, we helped get him off of CNN.
So, we have to hold the institutions accountable, and in this case, the media, and literature, and academia. Im sorry. Our sponsors here are responsive. I have a great deal of [inaudible] in the J-School, because of the students. And you have a Latinx Resource Center thats better funded and supporting, organically, the community, because of students waking up and taking a role, a hand in things, alongside professors, oftentimes.
Its not always antagonistic between professors and students. I used to be a bootleg chair of an academic program, so I can tell you, it doesnt always have to be antagonistic.
Yes. Yes, I agree. It comes from the bottom. It comes from the people. Completely agree.
So the next question, Brian Chavez Castro asks, What is the significance of La Matanza of 1932? And how does it help us understand the other two historical moments, namely, the 1980 civil war, and the present day migration crisis the book delves into?
Roberto Lovato: Jess, you want to respond to that? Youre really taken with this issue.
Jess Alvarenga: Yeah. I mean, I think we need to really explore La Matanza, and it begins there. Thats the beginning of the end, and something that you touch a lot in the book, and acknowledging all of the atrocities that have been committed to us.
I really like exploring intergenerational trauma, and how that just keeps manifesting among generation and generation. And we cant fully heal as human beings, if were still being haunted by all of these traumatic events. And its hard, its extremely hard, and its painful.
I can just imagine, writing this book, how painful it was to really just open your wounds, and really explore them, and see, Oh, shit. Yeah, thats happened. Or, Oh, shit, my dad is this way, because of all the things that Ramoncito lived through,
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, great response. I agree. I should say, if anybodys thinking of pursuing something like this, that I retained a therapist before embarking on this, because I knew that it was going to open a Pandoras box of my own lived and accumulated and inherited trauma. So, I wouldnt advise people to do something like this without really thinking through the foundation on which youre going to work.
And it worked beautifully, because I got blessed with a great therapist, who had a father, who had witnessed the Holocaust, and survived it, and was really out of the box in his thinking, and just really helped me carry through, so that writing the book became cathartic. I think Im getting that response from people, too. People are crying, reading the book, and theyre feeling theres healing in there. That was part of my own process, and Im so happy when people experience it that way.
I think La Matanza, we have to be clear, is not the only nor the first major episode. El Salvador, from its foundation in 1821, has had the most consistent violence, some of the most consistently violent, has been one of the most consistently violent places in the Americas. And so, nations, by their nature, are violent. Thats part of the point of nations.
You create a flag like the Salvadoran flag, or the US. flag, not because its some religious thing, but you want to inspire religious feelings, that get people to cry, and to feel strong, and to the point where theyll go kill or die for it, right? You can look at that.
Theres people like Patricia, another Alvarenga, Patricia Alvarenga wrote a great book about Indigenous identity and nations, and the way that El Salvador kind of The nation of El Salvador is this violent entity, but so was the nation of the United States, right?
Jess Alvarenga: Yes. Yes, I completely agree. So our last question, because we are really running short on time, you talk about preparing the book, and the challenges along the way. And [Judy Guzman 01:10:56] asks, Did you face any obstacles in newsrooms when you were trying to tell stories about Central Americans, about Central America?
Roberto Lovato: Yeah, the big obstacle is this one right here. See this? Can you see it? Brown skin.
Jess Alvarenga: Oh.
Roberto Lovato: Im brown, right? Thats number one. Just recognize I mean, pursue journalism, but just really do your topography. Map out the terrain. Be realistic. I think oftentimes in schools we set students up, and we dont give them the lay of the land. I know this from MFA programs. You show people how to write, but then you dont tell them about the publishing industry. So number one is that big obstacle.
Number two was white supremacy that reigns in many newsrooms today, unfortunately. Number three is the positionality of people that are Mexican, Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, Salvardoan, Latinx. We are not part of the national conversation of the United States, in any way, shape or form, proportionate to our numbers.
Just look at your Sunday talk shows. If Sunday talk shows were a measure of our humanity, we would be amoebas. Because we dont exist there. And so, we have to recognize that we are way on the margin, and we have to fight our way in.
I mean, there is another way, which, you can go the dance minstrelsy mode, right? But I see that as an obstacle, in literature, and in journalism, where we become journalists, but what kind of journalists are you going to be? Especially at a moment like this? At a moment like this, you young people need to rise to the occasion of yourselves, to really do the journalism that helps the process of saving the planet from humanity. Or saving humanity from humanity.
Rather than talk about obstacles, I like to talk about inspiration, right, vision. Like I said, my book is not just a heavy book. The heaviness and the darkness is the velvet background, to the inspired story of the Salvadoran people, and their struggle, over decades, over centuries. We are a powerful people as anyone, and its my distinct honor to be able to be the first, to tell this in a nonfiction way, and I took that as a high calling.
Im just illustrating how I interpret it. I dont advise students to pursue a career. The career logic is saturated with business and capitalistic ideology. I encourage people to pursue their vocation, which comes from voice. Find your voice, find the things that youre drawn to in the world, that youre willing to tell stories about, or to fight for, or whatever.
But vocation, find your vocation. And then, everything else will fall into place and follow, once youve done the work to find your vocation. And the obstacles? You read my story, Ive been through some things.
Jess Alvarenga: Yes.
Roberto Lovato: Ive survived them, and Ive survived to write, and to fight another day, because Ive had this thing I needed to do. Not just tell the story, but to do it right, and to do it as beautifully as possible. So thats my [Spanish language]. Thats my best.
Jess Alvarenga: And nombre gracias. Yeah, and thank you for such an inspirational response. And its really our turn, as storytellers, to pick up the pen, and write our own stories. Well, Roberto, its been wonderful talking to you. Everybody, dont forget to buy Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas at your favorite independent bookstore. I highly recommend it. Its out now.
Hope you bookmark it just as much as I did. And thank you, thank you, for everyone joining us in this event.
Roberto Lovato: Thank you.
Narrator outro: Youve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find more talks with transcripts at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.