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

“Unforgetting” is a story of two countries, inextricably bound, and Lovato is uniquely positioned to tell it. As a U.S.-born son of immigrants, he grew up knowing the culture of gang life in the streets of San Francisco, spent his holidays visiting family in El Salvador, was briefly a born-again Christian, worked for nongovernmental organizations in both countries, joined the opposition as an urban commando late in the civil war and later witnessed, as a journalist working for The Boston Globe, the exhumation of mass graves. In one of his memoir’s most chilling chapters, he takes us into a forensics lab in San Salvador where “all the country’s documented and undocumented dead come to be analyzed and counted before being returned to their loved ones — or buried in anonymous graves.” We meet Saul Quijada, a forensic anthropologist skilled in “making the bones speak” — “from rural and urban areas where killings in El Salvador force migration,” he says, “to the deaths that take place during the migration through Mexico to the United States.” He shows Lovato one of the older skeletons from the massacre at El Mozote, early in the war: “We’re rebuilding the cranium piece by piece because it was in pieces, chopped up with a machete. The pieces were like a jigsaw puzzle.”

The jigsaw puzzle is one of the governing tropes of Lovato’s episodic narrative; his task is to piece together not only his fragmented identity, but the mosaic of testimony from the host of characters he assembles, all the while standing in the rubble of war’s aftermath. His grandmother tells him: “We’re all pieces of broken glass, stained with blood and struggling to put ourselves back together.” Lovato’s quest is “to do the personal forensic work of recovering the fragments of my childhood and adolescent memories, especially the ones that are often more painful to conjure.” These have largely to do with his violent, charismatic father, whose smuggling business, alcoholism, womanizing and secrecy bequeathed to the author a measure of “nihilistic rage” that animates his search to uncover his father’s secret regarding the massacre in 1932. The revelation of this secret guides Lovato in contemplating deeper questions about the personal and political silences that perpetuate violence; about prolonged mourning and the enduring effects of intergenerational trauma; about the collective inability to look down into the abyss of our history; and about “what turns salvageable kids … into stone-cold killers.”

In a particularly timely passage, he ties the militarization of policing in the United States to counterinsurgency tactics deployed, thanks to U.S. aid and training, by El Salvador during the civil war. The American military strategists who advised the Salvadoran government during that war later recommended using the same tactics in the “war on gangs” in Los Angeles, with “cops wearing puffed-up, RoboCop gear now worn by police everywhere.” Today, Lovato writes, “while the media popularizes the terrors of gang war, it ignores the fact that counterinsurgency policing is a multibillion-dollar industry for the arms dealers and military contractors that provide the tanks, semiautomatic weapons, and other equipment now supplied to local police forces throughout the United States.”

It 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.

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