Soldiers in El Salvador in 1985, during the country’s civil war. Roberto Lovato’s task in “Unforgetting” 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.Credit…Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos “The machete of memory cuts,
“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.”
“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.
If there is a defining moment in the narrative, it might be his visit to Corral de Piedra in 1990, just after a rocket attack by the Salvadoran military in which a number of children had been killed. “Looking at the crosses placed near the bombed-out adobe wall, thinking about the children — living as well as dead,” Lovato recognizes that his fight is not just against the government of El Salvador. “My new fight was also against the government that … put El Salvador on the path to becoming one of the longest-standing military dictatorships in the Americas,” he writes, “my own government, the one that had issued my passport.” Years later, one of his university students in California will say: “I remember the war and, yeah, I remember seeing dead bodies and things that cause terror, Lovato, but I also remember eating jocotes, always having lots of family around and playing escondelero in the cool shade at the foot of the volcán ’til late. I remember a lot more than ‘terror.’ And who paid for that terror? This country. That’s who.”
In a time of national reckoning, such truths must be faced if we are to be serious about who we are and what we have done. Lovato’s memoir confronts historical amnesia and “the myth of American innocence shared by conservatives and liberals alike.” The picture he assembles is a mural of our complicity in systemic violence and inhumanity, and the resilience of the people who endured it.
A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
By Roberto Lovato
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The Green Card Process Through the Lens of a DMV Visit
As an immigration attorney, I try to provide clients with a basic, yet insightful, understanding of various aspects of a complex immigration system. It’s not always easy, but I often find analogies to something commonplace can be helpful. One analogy I’ve found to work well to explain the green card process beyond describing its mere,
As an immigration attorney, I try to provide clients with a basic, yet insightful, understanding of various aspects of a complex immigration system. It’s not always easy, but I often find analogies to something commonplace can be helpful. One analogy I’ve found to work well to explain the green card process beyond describing its mere sequence of form filings likens the process to a visit to a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office.
In my practice area of business immigration law, green card processes are mostly employment-based and involve the successive filing of a labor certification application, immigrant petition, and adjustment of status application (with the first not always required and the latter two sometimes eligible for concurrent filing). So I’ll refer to these types of filings in describing the analogy here. But variations of the analogy may be equally applicable to other types of green card processes, such as those in which the aspiring permanent resident will apply for an immigrant visa overseas rather than adjustment of status within the United States, as well as those based on family relationships and those available to asylees and refugees.
The trappings of a visit to the DMV, no matter the state, may be familiar to you: the issuance of a waiting number determining your place in a queue, followed by a long wait for your number to be called at one of several counters to file required paperwork, followed yet again by a lengthy wait for your paperwork to be processed, and eventually – hopefully – approved without issue. The counter at which you’ll be called, and the length of the corresponding queue (or maybe in some fortunate instances, the absence of one altogether), often depends on specific factors, such as the type of service you’re seeking.
Just as you’re issued a waiting number upon entry into a DMV office, aspiring permanent residents are issued a priority date when the first major filing in their green card process (either the labor certification application or immigrant petition) is submitted. The priority date is the date this first filing is submitted and determines, once the immigrant petition is approved, the aspiring permanent resident’s place in any existing queue to apply for adjustment of status.
Similar to how you wait at the DMV for your number to be called to file your paperwork at the appropriate counter, aspiring permanent residents face varying wait times for their priority date to be “called” at a designated “counter” to apply for adjustment of status. The “counter” in the green card process at which aspiring permanent residents must apply for adjustment of status is based on a combination of two main factors: their immigrant classification (which, when speaking with clients, I refer to as their “green card category”) and their country of chargeability (which I refer to as their country of birth). Aside from some significant exceptions outside of the employment-based green card process, the law limits the supply of green cards available each fiscal year. Because the law allocates this limited supply based on a combination of both immigrant classification and country of chargeability, queues form at “counters” where the demand for green cards exceeds the available supply. And the more severely demand exceeds supply, the longer the queue will be. This analogy helps to show why EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in India and China are often confronted with waits lasting many years for their priority date to be “called” at their designated counters, while EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in most other countries often face no such queue. In technical terms, the existence of a queue at a given “counter” means the availability of green cards associated with that counter’s classification and chargeability combination is “retrogressed.” If there’s no queue, green card availability at that counter is “current.”
A visit to the DMV often entails a wait of several hours sitting and keeping watch of your designated counter at it serves the visitors who arrived before you until your own number is finally called. Likewise, many aspiring permanent residents monitor the often plodding, month-to-month movement of “cut-off dates” in the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ monthly Visa Bulletins for the designated “counter” at which they must apply for adjustment of status. The Visa Bulletin for a given month contains various charts showing whether a queue for filing an adjustment of status application exists for any classification and chargeability combination, and if so, how long the queue is. Combinations for which there is no queue are assigned a “C” notation, indicating that green card availability is current and that the adjustment of status application can thus be filed at any time that month, including in concurrence with an immigrant petition if it has not already been approved, and assuming any prerequisite labor certification has been granted. Combinations for which there is a queue, and for which green card availability is thus retrogressed, are denoted by a “cut-off date,” with older dates reflecting longer queues. Aspiring permanent residents seeking to adjust status at a “counter” at which green card availability is retrogressed can track their place in the queue by comparing their priority date with the applicable cut-off date each month. Priority dates that fall before the applicable cut-off date in a given month are those that have been “called,” indicating that much like counters at which green card availability is current, an adjustment of status application can be filed at any time that month, including in concurrence with an immigrant petition if it has not already been approved, and assuming again that any prerequisite labor certification has been granted.
Like processing of paperwork filed at a counter at the DMV, processing of an adjustment of status application may take a long time. But eventually – hopefully – the application is approved without issue. And unlike a visit to the DMV, having qualified counsel during the green card process can make all the difference in one’s chance of success.
 For example, “immediate relatives” (spouses and children of US citizens, and parents of US citizens if the citizen is at least 21 years old) are exempt from annual numerical limits on green card availability. INA 201(b)(2)(A)(i).
 Aspiring permanent residents for whom the queue for applying for adjustment of status involves a wait of several years, such as EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in India and China, commonly change jobs or employers in the course of their wait. Such a change can require a restart of the green card process since employment-based green card processes are generally job and employer specific. But to allow aspiring permanents residents who change jobs or employers to keep their place in queue, the law permits them to retain their priority date under certain conditions if they are the beneficiary of a previously approved EB-1, EB-2, or EB-3 immigrant petition, and likewise become the beneficiary of an approved EB-1, EB-2, or EB-3 immigrant petition based on their new job or employer. 8 CFR 204.5(e).
 US Citizenship and Immigration Service also publishes monthly updates indicating whether to use the Visa Bulletin’s Dates for Filing charts or its Final Action Dates charts, to determine whether an adjustment of status application may be filed.
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