Nearly four decades after being “scared straight” within San Quentin’s walls, journalist Roberto Lovato returned to share his insight and wisdom with the SQ News Journalism Guild.
Lovato was a troubled teen dabbling in crime and on the verge of a serious downward spiral in the early ’80s. A local police friend intervened and brought him to San Quentin when he was 16.
“There has to be a place for words versus all the images in today’s society”
“F— this!” he said of his immediate reaction to the Quentin environment back then. “It was very scary. This place seemed so medieval to me.”
That firsthand shock of seeing prison and prisoners motivated Lovato to change. Jailed briefly for selling drugs, he said he also committed robbery, stole jewelry and cars, but he was never caught.
“Anybody can commit a crime,” Lovato acknowledged. “We’re all born free, born innocent, but we get socialized to be something else.”
“Prisons equal profits and big money,” he continued. In advocating for change, Lovato said he believes the prison system must focus more on reform and stop perpetuating a “system of crime.”
He referenced Russian author Dostoevsky: “The measure of any civilization is in its treatment of children and prisoners.”
Lovato told of his own outrage at seeing families being held at a private federal detention center in Texas. “These are mothers and children fleeing from the worst places on Earth,” he recalled.
It was Lovato’s love of learning, especially his love of words, that turned him around. “It’s my life’s mission to try and change the world with words,” he proclaimed. “There has to be a place for words versus all the images in today’s society.”
Now 53, Lovato did social justice and community work before becoming a journalist 13 years ago. He has written for The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, and Nation magazine.
Lovato said his current focus was intergenerational trauma. He is working on a book about his father’s escape from genocide in 1930s El Salvador when he was a child and the lifelong traumas that followed. He said much of the book examines the effect his father’s psychological scars played in his own life.
“There were a lot of secrets in our house,” Lovato disclosed, adding that his father never spoke to him about “La Matanza” — that historic Salvadoran massacre — until he was 85. “That sense of injustice made me act out because I saw my parents as the first line of injustice.”
“I grew up with boatloads of darkness,” he said. “And monsters grow in the dark, not in the light. We need more transparency and less darkness.
“A writer’s goal should be to put it out there for the world, and yourself, to see. The secret to writing is that it’s not only conscious, but also a subconscious thing.
“The idea is to excavate like an archaeologist into your past.”