The Power of the Word: Talking with Roberto Lovato

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International journalist, author, activist, and co-founder of Dignidad Literaria, Roberto Lovato is like a badass big brother who gives voice to Latinx angst, loudly and without apology. So, when I received my copy of his memoir, Unforgetting (Harper Collins 2020), I expected him to come out swinging with his usual lengua valiente. Instead, I was disarmed by the book’s reverential use of language, a sacred element Lovato uses to dive into a complicated cultural and personal history.

“The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly,” Lovato begins, sailing into the uncharted waters of story. Born to Salvadoran immigrants, Lovato grew up as an at-risk youth, in the Mission District of San Francisco. It was the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Central American war was all that most US citizens knew about El Salvador. Roberto joined the revolution in El Salvador, leaving behind his family to become part of something greater. He returned to a homeland whose struggle he never knew. Lovato’s memories, juxtaposed with his father’s, weave alternating stories that become one. He writes about his own identity, as well as a nation struggling to remember itself.

Lovato’s Unforgetting is more than a memoir; it’s an epic. At just under three hundred pages, it’s a container of history, turned on its side, with a surprising ocean spilling out. It has recently garnered critical acclaim from the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles Review of Books.

I talked with Lovato via Zoom, and we discussed the poetic power of language, the process of excavating truth, and why progress is never as effective as revolution.

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The Rumpus: After reading Unforgetting, it’s obvious you love language. When did you fall in love with words?

Roberto Lovato: From the beginning. I grew up with a father who, when he wasn’t running guns and contraband from San Francisco to El Salvador, read poetry and was a lyrical storyteller. My mother, a maid and lifetime union member, always sang to me. My earliest memory is of my mom singing to me in the kitchen, the song “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” a paean to the turtle dove, considered by some a bearer of love, truth, and beauty. Just listen to that pace and sound in Cucurrucucu. Onomatopoeic. Beautiful. My mom was always singing, mostly trio music and romantic boleros. As poor and as troubled as we were, there was always music and poetic language in our house. The Salvadoran language is very poetic, our tongues constantly savoring and serving up the deep history in the Spanish, English, and Indigenous languages. Our tongues carry a lot of history.

I also rebelled against the expectations of religion. I was the only one in my family that didn’t make their first Holy Communion. I didn’t do any of that religious stuff. [Laughs] But my guilt, combined with my love of the Word, inspired a secret study, reading the Bible and tattered catechism books under the covers of my bed. You could say that Jesus was my first superhero, descending into the underworld before ascending to Heaven.

I believe in the power of the Word. I used to read the King James Version of the Bible. I think one of my brothers brought it home after being in some cheap motel with a woman. I would just read all the time: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” I was like, Damn! Words have always been part of the rituals that we have, and I love that. I love reading Indigenous stories. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of them. I started stealing books from the Mission Library, with my friend Freddy Weinstein.

Rumpus: I loved that part of the book…

Lovato: Yeah, my criminal life began by stealing books! [Laughs] I didn’t realize until much later that poetry and music paved the way for me to become a revolutionary. When I look back now, I can see fellow writers and poets as revolutionaries. There’s Mercedes Sosa. There’s Silvio Rodríguez. There’s Neruda. There’s Galeano. There’s Roque Dalton, the guerilla poet. Their example as poet warriors was there all along. They were planting seeds. Language is still at the center of my being. I didn’t realize how much I loved language until I wrote a book. I put all that love into the book.

Rumpus: I feel the love and the struggle in here. The story gets personal quickly, but I expected a journalistic voice, an historical perspective. Instead, it felt lyrical and epic.

Lovato: I wrote and edited several times. With my editor, Erin Wicks, we edited the book down to what it is now. When I was finally finished, I breathed a sigh of relief and accomplishment. I said, “Fuck! I’ve been on an epic journey.” [Laughs] I didn’t consciously think about this when I was writing, but when I looked back, I saw that most readers haven’t been where I’ve been. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I’ve seen thirty years and twenty-five hundred miles of war, genocide, mass graves, narco and gang violence, and history. I’ve seen the power of poetry in a people who overcame. After realizing the breadth and scale of our journey, I wrote the introduction, about the machete, and how epic history is a stitching together of intimate histories.

Rumpus: The introduction says: “We’re all dismembered from above by the ultimate machete of memory: borders. My own ‘American’ innocence was protected by my family.” The language becomes a machete itself, especially when you talk about “sewing yourself back together” to come to a place of unforgetting. That’s a challenging journey!

Lovato: Yeah, I thought, How did I get through this epic journey into the abyss without killing myself? I realized the reason I don’t have a bullet in my head was because of the poetic power, the sublime things, the gorgeous people that I encountered along the way. All of them combined to keep me afloat, and to keep me from letting the abyss pull me in. Nietzsche warns us: if you gaze into the Abyss, it looks right back at you.

I managed to survive, thanks, in no small part to the advice Italo Calvino, war veteran himself, imparted to me in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. He uses the myth of Perseus and Medusa to illustrate how to get at the unspeakable. One way to do it is to use myth. Perseus, instead of looking directly at the Medusa, uses a mirror to see her. I know this is a sexist, misogynist myth, but the idea of using the mirror to look at the abyss is the key here. I came to realize the power of our guiding myths to help us face the impossible. Mine were structured as an underworld journey into light. I realized that I inhabit a lot of different underworlds in my life: the underworld of family and family secrets, the underworlds of the gangs and immigrants, and the underworld of the guerillas. I had to go to myth and story to get at what journalism cannot get to, as seen in our inability to fathom the intersecting crisis revealed by Trump and his growing neofascist horde. I wrote Unforgetting in anticipation of this global crisis of imagination.

Ultimately, I realized I was writing a book about how to navigate apocalyptic times. I was doing it all subconsciously, in the deep, volcanic places of original chaos, where poetry and science, myth and religion, are undifferentiated cells, waiting to burst forth and be born. As Peruvian polymath and poet warrior, José Carlos Mariátegui, and other liberation theologians taught us, we need the mythopoetic imaginary. It’s always part of revolutionary movements.

Rumpus: The mythopoetic language is important when reading the story. These threads of unforgetting are found throughout the book. How did you decide to incorporate the concept of unforgetting?

Lovato: I believe there’s a deeper well of consciousness that connects us all, especially those of us across the landscape of the Americas. Riffing on Jung, I call this deeper connectedness the “continental unconscious.” I see it in our shared literature and languages. I see it in the Indigenous people’s networks that were built in the Pre-Columbian era. I see it in the Uto-Aztecan language group, this hemisphere’s equivalent of the Indo-European languages, undergirding the languages of the West.

I came to understand this concept of unforgetting, in the contemporary sense, thanks to two things: the Bible and Greek myth. I used to be an evangelical and I’ve always read the Bible. When I was studying theology, and later when I studied philosophy at Berkeley, I kept coming across this idea of aletheia, which means the uncovering of truth through unforgetting. This concept was based on mythical themes, when the Greeks believed the dead made their journey into the underworld. Before the dead went to either Elysium or Hades, they had to cross the Lethe river, or the river of forgetting, where they had to drink to forget who they were in life. Aletheia, or unforgetting, is a Greek concept, which the Christians later adopted to define the concept of uncovering truth. I was—and remain—high as fuck with this concept, to the point of writing a book about it.

You know, the Christians believed that the Spirit resided in the breath, which is why you saw them kissing each other in paintings from the early centuries of Christianity. The Latin spirare (breath) is where we get the words “inspire,” “aspire,” and “spirit.” The word conspire in English doesn’t have as good a meaning, but in Salvadoran revolutionary Spanish, conspirar is a compliment. When someone says, “Esa compañera sabe conspirar,” or “That comrade knows how to conspire,” they say this about a badass, someone who knows how to act politically, to find truth and the spirit of truth.

Rumpus: What is it about truth that we have to excavate?

Lovato: Oppression has forgetting at its core. I knew this before writing the book. In my experience, soldiers, death squad operatives, gang members, all have a heavy dose of amnesia, just as most Salvadoran culture does. I learned this stuff as a Salvadoran, but when I applied it to the United States, it was also true. It applies to any nation state. My book begins with a quote from Ernest Renan, where he says nations are built upon forgetting. We have to engage in the process of unforgetting, set aside the radical and complex falsity of our time, as Trump and others of his ilk—and I would argue even Democrats, like Biden and Obama—show us.

Rumpus: How important is it for us to unforget before we see the truth?

Lovato: Unforgetting is a political act, but it’s also intimate and personal. It was important for me to unforget because I’d forgotten parts of myself. I’d never been “out” about being in the FMLN guerillas as an urban commando. I kept that secret for twenty-something years. I considered this to be one of the better parts of me, someone willing to risk his life for others, for a higher cause. I learned a lot of things in that process, like the depths of humanity and inhumanity, the depths of the noble and the ignoble. My dad’s deep secrets, kept in his own past, had a fundamental role in shaping who I was. I didn’t know why I joined my youth clique, Los Originales, or why we stole cars, engaged in violent criminal activity. I didn’t know why I joined the FMLN, other than I was pissed off and wanted to do something. Later, I discovered that I was bearing this atom bomb of heavy stuff from my dad. I had to unforget that, or excavate that truth. The individual process of unforgetting is not disconnected from a collective process of unforgetting. Nations are built on forgetting. I wanted to connect the forgetting in my belly to the amnesiac beast of nations.

Rumpus: I was moved by the respect you imparted for the characters in Unforgetting. I viewed each character with respect because of the way you depicted them. Your father, both physically and emotionally abusive, is redeemed by the end, and we see good in him. He has a quest for knowledge and truth. Santiago, a guerilla leader, reads Homer. Your abuela, Mama Tey, holds fast to traditional roles, but her Singer sewing machine becomes her ticket to freedom in this country. Each person, real and imperfect, is redeemed by self. How did you do this?

Lovato: Sometimes forgetting is necessary, I admit that, and I’m not naïve. But sometimes the act of forgetting has consequences, not the least of which is creating inhumanity. When you forget to narrate someone in full, you create an idealized good or an idealized evil. You perpetuate the status quo by objectifying humanity. Humanity isn’t a commodity that can be moved around and shifted or posed to do whatever you need it to do. To give the reader a fuller picture of humanity, people are going to be conscious and awake. They will criticize the thing that dehumanizes them.

There’s a sense of memoria historica, or historical memory, where memory is used as an instrument in the pursuit of justice. On a practical, personal level, I painted a picture that was as “real” as I could make it. We need some connection to the reality of family. I know we’re in a time where people love fantasy, but reality is important, especially during a time when things are mythologized and manufactured. I wanted to present a rounded, balanced view of my family. I had a whole process to go through with members of my family. “Hey, listen, Pop, I’m going to talk about you. You’re going to look like you do in all your glory, but you’re also going to have this.”

I say this as a Salvadoran, and as a Latino: we have a lot of narratives that idealize our parents. I read that stuff all the time, and to be honest, it’s fucking boring. Boring! It’s not real. I don’t know a single human being that’s perfect, unless they’re perfect in their imperfection. I don’t like these idealized narratives of family that too many of us have. Some people have this fear of speaking ill of our parents or family. We’re creating inhuman stories, or incomplete stories. The role of the poet, and the role of the poetic, is to smash the conceptual linguistic narratives and stories about Othered people.

Rumpus: Are we making progress toward those stories?

Lovato: I don’t really believe in progress. When I look at the history of El Salvador, or the United States from a Native American perspective, progress is a murderous ideology, if ever there was one. So, I’m not a big believer in progress. I’m still a believer in revolution and the necessity of it.

More than ever, I believe we have to think about emancipatory power, especially in literature. For example, less than one percent of US literature comes from the Latinx population, and there’s sixty million of us (approximately sixteen percent of the population) here. We get less than one percent of the publishing pie? I mean honestly, what the fuck is that?

I don’t get a lot of what passes for literature in the United States right now. There used to be an advertising slogan: Where’s the beef? You can easily say: Where’s the emancipation? Where’s the revolutionary sensibility? We need to overcome these epic crises we’re facing right now, but where is the literature that speaks to that?

Every so often, revolutionary movements rise up, like the Levelers in England. When industrial capitalism started destroying the agricultural way of life, the Levelers came up. In Latin America there were—and still are—revolutionary poet warriors. Gabriela Mistral wrote about this. You can read about these revolutions in Pablo Neruda’s poetry. I try to align my work the same way, where the poetic is linked to the political. We need to face epic challenges with epic literature. We can’t liberal-progressive our way out of these times. I tried to write the book in line with those values.

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Photograph of Roberto Lovato by Beth Mickalonis.


Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. In the United States, her work has appeared in Pangyrus, Eclectica, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, Salon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also co-authored two memoirs, published in South Africa. Her work usually deals with themes of morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →