Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, by Aviva Chomsky, reviewed by Mark D. Walker

This book seemed a perfect follow-up to the Guatemalan Journey, one writer’s take on Guatemala. In contrast, this book provides a historical overview of some underlying causes of growing immigration to the U.S. Plus, one of my favorite authors, Todd Miller, who wrote Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, offered good reasons to read it,

I have waited for Central America’s Forgotten History for the past decade. This thorough and thought-provoking book revives the history that has long been severed from the Central American experience in US discourse, especially around immigration. Chomsky demonstrates that you can’t divorce centuries of colonialism and settler colonialism, US-supported dictators and death squads, and decades of neoliberal economic deprivation and dispossession from the people who arrive every day to the militarized US frontier.

The author touches on the underlying political realm of “neoliberalism,” which promotes decentralization, local self-governance, and the promotion of formal democracy, which grants local governments and cultural and ethnic minorities greater recognition and autonomy. “But it was an ‘autonomy without resources’ that failed to address the larger structures that communities marginalized.”

The author also points out some of the implications of neoliberal market-based development based on extractivism, “Over half of the hundreds of environmental activities killed in the past decade lived in Latin America. Guatemala has the highest per capita rate of killings of environmental defenders in the world. In 2018, a record sixteen environmental activists were killed there.”

One of the more recent ties between the U.S. and the growth and proliferation of drug gangs. “By the turn of the 21st century, gang members were an American export,” journalist Dara Lind concludes. Between 2001 and 2010, the United States deported over a hundred thousand people who had been convicted of crimes to Central America…”

Chomsky goes on to point out that “By 2000, up to 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States was shipped through Guatemala. Global organized crime took advantage of local societal breakdowns to ‘incorporate  “mareros” (members of  gangs)’ as cheap labor within a system of networks that employs down-and-out youth everywhere in the world.”

Chomsky contends that former President Trump’s immigration policies were only the most recent iteration of over a century of U.S. domination and exploitation of Central Americans.  “The violence and poverty that afflicts Central America today is a direct result of colonial and neocolonial development policies and the cultures of violence and forgetting needed to implement and justify mayhem. If we want to create a more just world, we must acknowledge the many layers of collaboration and ignore today’s underlying inequalities.”

Historian Chomsky, coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University, writes that in Central America, “forgetting is layered upon forgetting.” Against a backdrop of jungles and volcanoes, the people there proved victims to generations of foreign resource extractors: first, the Spanish, who subjugated Native populations and imposed a caste-like system of governance; then European companies who, according to the author, kept the elites in their pockets, building an export economy of coffee and fruit that expropriated land; then U.S. military intervention. The latter is scarcely known to most Americans (and indeed, in its details, to many Central Americans). Still, it set in motion forces that finally led to the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Chomsky points out that the latter two were propped up by the Reagan administration, which asserted that the governments were committed to human rights and anti-communism. This might have been true, but, as Chomsky notes, the flood of refugees north “gave the lie to Reagan’s claims of the government’s legitimacy and right to U.S. support.  The failed policies of the Trump administration were in line with a system that imposed and promulgated neoliberal policies on what were de facto colonies. Still, even the wall-builders could do nothing about the resulting exodus.

As Chomsky notes, in 1970, the U.S. census counted 114,000 Central American immigrants; in 2017, there were nearly 3.5 million. The author makes a convincing case that much of Central America’s violent unrest can be laid at the feet of U.S. leaders and restores the region’s fraught history of repression and resistance to popular consciousness. It connects the United States’ interventions and influence to the influx of refugees seeking asylum today. At the center of the current immigration debate are migrants from Central America fleeing poverty, corruption, and violence in search of refuge in the United States.

Aviva Chomsky addresses the urgent question, “How did we get here?” Centering the centuries-long intertwined histories of U.S. expansion and indigenous and Central American struggles against inequality and oppression, Chomsky highlights the pernicious cycle of colonial and neocolonial development policies that promote cultures of violence and forgetting without any accountability or restorative reparations.

Chomsky examines how and why histories and memories are suppressed and the impact of losing historical memory, an important concept considering the growth of book banning and “sanitizing” school curriculums. Only by erasing history can we claim that Central American countries created their own poverty and violence. At the same time, the United States profited from their bananas, coffee, mining, clothing, and export of arms, which were ignored. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the root causes of the current immigration crisis and the complex relationship between Central America and the United States.

And yes, the author is the eldest daughter of Noam Chomsky, called “the father of modern linguistics” and an icon of rebellion and intellectual dissent. I’ve added this informative book to the bibliography of my forthcoming book, The Guatemala Reader: Extraordinary Lives & Amazing Stories.

Product details


Publisher: Beacon Press


Best Sellers Rank #45,274 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals)
#7 in Central American History
#21 in Central America History
#26 in Emigration & Immigration Studies (Audible Books & Originals)

About the Author

Aviva Chomsky is a history professor and the Latin American Studies coordinator at Salem State University. The author of several books, Chomsky has been active in the Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for more than thirty years.

About the Reviewer

Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world with agencies like Food for the Hungry, Make A Wish International, and Hagar USA. His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association. His second book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, won the 2023 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for Best Travel Book. He’s a contributing writer for Literary Traveler, Wanderlust Journal, and The Authors’ Show. “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading And Why” can be found in the Arizona Authors’ Association Newsletter, Authors Digest.  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com.




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