Looking Back

Roberto Lovato transforms past harms to hope in new memoir

We already have scientific evidence: Adverse childhood experiences—known by psychologists and public health experts as ACEs, which refer to repeated physical and/or mental trauma during a child’s earliest developmental years—can result in serious, life-threatening illnesses or conditions in adulthood. Studies increasingly show that ACEs lead to higher rates of adult cancer, heart, liver, lung and autoimmune diseases, obesity and Type 2 diabetes, chronic debilitating headaches, problems with alcohol or substance abuse, teen pregnancy, job instability, poverty and more. Like many other public health issues, the impact of long-term childhood trauma left untreated can reverberate for generations and is felt most egregiously by people of color.

In thinking about the long-term devastation individuals and many families will undoubtedly suffer, and grasping for a sliver of hope, Bay Area-based journalist, writer and activist Roberto Lovato’s memoir, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, came to mind. In his coming-of-age book, released to critical acclaim in 2020, Lovato describes a life that includes a father’s secret having to do with La Matanza (The Slaughter), an uprising in El Salvador in 1932; behind-the-scenes direct exposure within the Salvadoran military to the fallout of a 12-year civil war that was supported by the United States; and lost relationships with friends in violent gangs like MS-13 in the 1980s whose narco-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, money laundering and other activities ran rampant among the Salvadoran refugees deported by El Salvador’s dictator-led country to cities in the U.S., including San Francisco, where Lovato grew up.

Becoming for a time a born-again Christian, witnessing or experiencing constant violence from his father and others, his trauma was at first countered and sadly, later amplified by summer visits to his family in El Salvador. Accepting posts as a young adult with guerrilla resistance groups late in El Salvador’s civil war and becoming an activist with the Central American Refugee Center in San Francisco, Lovato’s mashup of connections led him to a vocation as a journalist for The Boston Globe, The Guardian and other newspapers.

Over time, his quest for resolutions became both professional and personal and left him aware of the effects of intergenerational trauma. In his memoir, Lovato seeks to comprehend “what turns salvageable kids … into stone-cold killers,” but also to reconcile himself with his identity as a U.S.-born son of immigrants—and to find a cornerstone upon which to at last settle and understand America, his family history and his father.

Broader, complex questions ultimately considered by Lovato extend to the veracity or lack thereof of American values such as the “myth of American innocence.” He examines America’s history, its role in supporting foreign military dictatorships for economic and political gain, and covers today’s anti-immigrant, over-militarized, systemically racist culture, among other troubling topics.

No easy conclusions lie at the end of Lovato’s non-chronological account. Hope, therefore, resides not in swift solutions, but in Lovato himself. Here is a man who as a child was subject to all kinds of horrors. Even so, he found purpose in his work and writes of discovering both emotional equilibrium and the ability to express forgiving compassion to and for his father. “Through all of this,” he says, “I’d found my way. I’d come to realize that if we do the necessary work of unforgetting, our buried love can blossom.”

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first surgeon general, is highly regarded for her ACES-related work in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a historically Black community with high rates of poverty and violence. Her TED talk on the effect of childhood trauma on adult health garnered more than 5 million views. Harris emphasizes that childhood adversity changes biological systems and has impacts that last a lifetime. While Lovento surely suffers some of those health ramifications, his insights into his own childhood trauma led to self-healing that now provides a counterpoint; a kind of balm preventing much of the violence he suffered from being passed on to the next generation. In that real-life truth—for Lovato, through writing; for readers, in the reading of his story—there is hope.

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