December 23, 2020

Best Books of 2020

Once again, El Faro asked me and a bunch of others to name our favorite new books on El Salvador. Limiting myself to those published in this wretched little year, I recommended Coffeeland, Augustine Sedgewick’s account of the crazy, transnational history of coffee consumerism, and Héctor Lindo Fuentes’ El alborotador de Centroamérica, a fascinating and as-yet untranslated history of the loud, surprisingly influential anti-imperialist movement in El Salvador of the early twentieth century.

Sedgewick’s book has been fittingly praised in all the right places, but, I was left wondering, how many other great histories of Latin American relations with the United States like Héctor’s are not being published in English because the writer can’t find a U.S. publisher? The title means “the troublemaker of Central America” and comes from a snivelling 1913 cable from the U.S. embassy in San Salvador to the Secretary of State describing Salvadoran public opinion, inflamed at the time over U.S. gunboat diplomacy all over Central America. Everyone knows El Salvador has always meekly followed the dictates of U.S. foreign policy, right? You might not think so after reading this book, which really complicates any understanding of how public opinion interacted with power in Latin America at the dawn of the age of mass media.

Two books published in 2020 that I’m looking forward to reading in 2021: Roberto Lovato’s memoir Unforgetting and Ricardo Roque Baldovinos’s look at culture and politics in the crucial decades of the 1950s and ’60s in El Salvador, La rebelión de los sentidos. And one from 2019 that I loved: Carolyn Forché’s deeply moving, terrifying memoir of El Salvador as it was tipping into civil war, What You Have Heard is True. I read it on the porch in Maine last summer and couldn’t move til I’d finished it. I didn’t think I could include it in this year’s El Faro recommendations but I’m glad someone else did.