My psychedelic journey began on a late summer day in 1974, when I was eleven. I hadn’t actually taken any drugs yet, but the psychedelic spirit of music and revolt inside and outside our crowded Mission District apartment would take me on a long, strange trip that has yet to end.
My family lived within earshot of the music, gunshots, and mayhem of the Army Street projects: three blocks of white graffitied towers housing almost 500 Black and Brown people.
The world around us burned with the revolutionary fervor I saw in our neighbors, some of whom were Black Panthers, Brown Berets, hippies, and Vietnam war protesters. Meanwhile, the fervor of my brother Ramón, Jr. (aka Mem) and myself was dampened by the wet rags of the Saturday cleaning ritual ordained by Ramón Alfredo Lovato, Sr. (aka Pop).
Pop was a complicated person. On some days, he was a handsome mustachioed Orpheus, a lyrical, sometimes loving, and always charismatic man who rose from the depths of Depression era El Salvador and brought our apartment to life with laughter and the songs blaring on the living room stereo.
On other days, there was no music.
As if to protest the cleaning ritual, Mem waited until Pop left for his favorite hangout, Hunts Donuts, to lead us in a counter-ritual he had created: to lie on the ragged red living room carpet and put our three foot Panasonic speakers on either side of our heads as we blasted Abraxas, the legendary album by Mission local Carlos Santana, who had gone to high school with our eldest brother, Omar.
While Mem lay on the rug, I waited my turn on our beat-up red sofa, losing myself in the mystery of an album named for a Gnostic god that embodied both dark and light, good and evil.
I was besotted by the image at the center of the kaleidoscopic album cover—a naked, Black woman who represented the Virgin Mary, speaking with a winged, red, and also naked angel, pointing skyward as she floated on a conga in a psychedelic recasting of the Biblical annunciation of Christ.
After Mem left the living room, I lay between the speakers and started a furious flurry of air guitar and conga solos. Between sets, I stared at one of the spiders nesting in a corner of the living room ceiling. I used to knock the spiders down with a broom and squish them, until I read that these black and brown creatures had a marvelous power: the ability to use their internal chemistry to create the webs with which they navigated the abyss above and beneath them.
I was on the magic red carpet, high on music, soloing, pondering spiders, abysses, and forbidden gods when a powerful force entered the living room.
“What the diablos are you doing?” Pop yelled with the voice that meant he was super-pissed. “Why aren’t you cleaning the house?”
The shock of his presence screeched hard against my musical groove.
“We already cleaned it, Pop,” I said, jumping to attention. “We were just listening to some Santana.”
“I could give a shit about Santana. It doesn’t look clean. You need to get off your ass—or else.”
Pop’s “or else” could mean anything, including the least desirable option: whipping or beating me or leaving me to await his wrath.
Besides his anger and violence, the most abysmal thing about growing up with him was his underground business: buying and selling contraband and running guns between Hunts Donuts and our volcanically gorgeous homeland, El Salvador. I always had the sense that Pop’s homeland bore a deep secret that explained much more than his volcanic anger.
I grabbed a rag and started air cleaning, acting like I was wiping spots Mem and I had already cleaned, until Pop left the house again.
Santana became my gateway drug to the rebellious power of psychedelia. My rage against Pop inside our apartment would grow in proportion to the revolt outside, as when neighborhood people protested after two local congueros who lived around the corner were arrested for playing music in a park in violation of a “bongo ordinance” put forward by Supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
Inside and outside our apartment, the Man’s war on the beautiful had begun. Soon, other protests—with signs against “evictions” and “gentrification”—meant the war would extend to the material plane of our apartments, of our bodies in the Mission.
From age twelve onward, the rebellious spirit led me to find respite at the Mission Library, where I devoured Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Carlos Castañeda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, and Erich Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?
I was especially taken with the work of Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist-philosopher who had first turned Allen Ginsberg onto LSD as part of a research project at Stanford in the late 1950s, when the drug was still legal. Bateson’s ideas about what he called “the pattern that connects”—that more than reason, “recognition and empathy” connect humans to other humans and to nature—gripped the soul of the fragmented teen I’d become.
Despite these ethereal wonders, I still came home to an angry father. I became increasingly disconnected after he did things like pulling a gun because I stopped him from hitting me. My revolt eventually exploded onto the streets where I found fellowship—and my first psychedelic experience.
In the summer of 1981, at 17, I dropped some mescaline, my earliest hallucinogen. That same year, I encountered the person who, in many ways, would help me revolutionize my consciousness about psychedelics, Grace Swanson.
On meeting Grace, a Sicilian grandmother whose daughter Judith had married my brother Ramón, my first thought was, “Who the fuck is this weird older lady with the frizzy hair and electric eyes?”
I was visiting Ramón and Judith’s Victorian apartment on Sacramento Street and brought my tattered copy of Mind and Nature, Bateson’s book about the pattern that connects.
“Oh,” she said with a big grandmotherly smile. “You’re reading Gregory’s book.”
“You know his work?” I asked. I had never shared these ideas with anyone.
“Yes. We were just with Gregory and Lois in Big Sur,” she said.
I felt a mix of cool and scared, my distrust of white people putting up a big angry border against the pattern that could connect us. Despite my reservations, Grace and I talked about Bateson and other things for hours that evening.
“Fuck,” I thought. “This lady knows thinkers I admire. Maybe I should lighten up on her.” On top of that, Grace was family, a fact that allowed me to trust her as I’d never trusted a white person. I wanted to know her.
Over big bamboo bong hits with her gentle hippie bear of a husband, “Bongo Bob,” Grace told me about the divorce—and the pursuit of consciousness—that had brought her West, after a friend gave her John Lilly’s The Center of the Cyclone. Neuroscientist Lilly was the author of many psychedelic books, and he had invented the sensory deprivation isolation tanks featured in films like Altered States. I had entered the psychedelic realm of the white men through the books I read, after entering the physical realm through my Brown community. I felt intensely the tension between the teepee ceremonies of the underground and the (often) well-meaning white men who studied and westernized that ancient knowledge in very above-ground, public ways. Grace would help me bridge the gap between these worlds.
“This man, John Lilly, was going through some of the same experiences I went through,” Grace told me. “Only he was doing drugs. I was meditating six to eight hours a day, reaching altered states of consciousness. I decided that I had to meet him and found out he was in residence at Esalen.”
The stories were cool, but what most drew me to Grace was her combination of motherly love and wisdom. Her many oft-repeated phrases—“welcome everything in experience,” or “set your intention,” or “things happen below levels of awareness”— became mantras, especially when experimenting with the medicines.
“I love and adore you, Tito,” Grace would say in every conversation, and her wisdom helped me surrender some of the anger I felt for white people—and for Pop.
After attending community college, I went to UC Berkeley, graduating in 1987. I started working with refugees in San Francisco. Wanting to understand both the crisis and the familial roots that brought my family to San Francisco, I visited Chalatenango, the war-torn region of El Salvador, in 1990.
When I returned, I sought out Grace to help me make one of the most consequential decisions of my life: whether to join El Salvador’s Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN): guerrillas fighting against the fascist military dictatorship the U.S. was backing.
Grace invited me to visit her in Big Sur and Esalen. We hung out briefly with some fascinating psychonauts at Esalen’s cliffside baths, but my mind wasn’t very cosmically oriented. Instead, I was focused on the material plane of the catastrophic war in El Salvador.
Back at her cabin, she gave me some mushrooms. They took effect as I lay on her couch. My body started shrinking and growing like I was Alice after biting the cake that said “Eat Me.” Grace guided me on my decision. I went back and forth, tripping on the majesty of Big Sur, the emerald waters of the Pacific, and other parts of the coastal scenery while talking about how angry and scared I was.
Until that moment, Grace had remained neutral about my decision. But as we kept talking, she said she didn’t think I should go because she feared for my life.
“It’s easy for you to say that because you’re white,” I snapped. “Your people aren’t the ones being slaughtered.”
“I understand you’re angry, but this may not be the best thing for you. And remember,” she added with that grandmotherly gaze, “you are my people, Tito.”
The family thing hit me, and we argued back and forth before I made up my mind to go.
The shrooms, the stunning Big Sur setting, and our conversation had the effect of intensifying my respect for the authority of my experience, my deepest feelings. Grace was the soft board against which my revolutionary resolve hardened.
But I had no idea what my decision would mean.
In late 1990, I returned to El Salvador to help overthrow the U.S.-backed fascist military dictatorship as part of the FMLN. I adopted a doble cara approach, literally “double face,” continuing to work with a non-governmental organization by day while working to sabotage and prepare attacks on military and other installations.
Among the many experiences that would later require the medical use of psychedelics was a 1990 visit to San José Las Flores, one of the first towns in the region to be repopulated after the massive uprooting of the 1980s.
I arrived to what looked like a celebration of a patron saint. A makeshift plaza had been created in front of a school building in the center of town. Defining the borders of the placita were trees, buildings, and poles—all covered with papel picado, green, yellow, blue, and red decorative paper creating the special ambiente where clowns, music, theater skits, and other activities would entertain the kids, lots of kids.
Las Flores had a few hundred kids, more than most towns. I started speaking with some of them, and the adults—colleagues and community workers—and heard the story of the boy whose parents were desaparecidos; the story of the curly haired girl who would not look at you because her adobe had been bombed out with her family inside; the story of the boy whose mother was raped before being buried in a mass grave.
Some of these kids had parents who, as young people, fled after entire towns of up to 600 people were wiped out by the Salvadoran military.
I left El Salvador understanding better what Roque Dalton, the country’s greatest poet, meant when he called Salvadorans “the saddest most saddest of the world.” I returned to California to heal my San Francisco version of this Salvadoran sadness.
Years later, I decided to retain a therapist. As fate would have it, I ended up at an Edwardian apartment building just a few blocks from where I grew up. Inside the building, in a home office decorated with blacklight posters, pictures of Ram Dass, and other psychedelia, I met my therapist, Charles Leonard. Charles, it turned out, was also the Jewish son of a witness to the Holocaust.
“What do you think about microdosing LSD?” he asked.
“It involves taking small amounts of the substance on a regular basis. I have access and think you should consider treatment.”
I thought about my previous experiences with the medicinas and responded with a big “Fuck, yeah.”
I started the program, taking ten micrograms every three days. I also macrodosed under Charles’s supervision. Throughout, we worked on my main goal: to write a book about the lines linking El Salvador and California, the lines of my family.
Taking the LSD in small doses brought about a state of consciousness in which I could feel—and get familiar with—the deep, unvoiced, untouchable, and, until recently, unavoidable terror at the root of the relentless sadness devouring me.
Macrodosing in a redwood forest near Mount Tamalpais under Charles’s supervision helped me come back in contact with myself. The 200 micrograms (a “heroic dose”) led me to engage in lengthy conversation with my Mom and Pop. In my hallucination, Mom, Pop, and I agreed to keep the inner conversation between us open.
Things felt pretty good, as I floated on water like a slow-motion boatman bug in the murmuring creeks and crevices, until we ran into a Filipino man while hiking. My trip was suddenly shattered by the sight of his clothes: camouflage, the same camouflage of the Salvadoran military that had slaughtered children and their parents, the same camouflage of the military men who tried to kill me.
I tightened my body to attack him, but Charles noticed my tension and talked to me.
“Look at him, Roberto,” Charles said. “He’s smiling, he’s friendly. He’s a nice man who doesn’t belong to the military. It’s how he dresses, part of his style.”
Charles kept reassuring me. His words had the effect of turning the man into who he was, rather than the murderous monster my mind had made of him. When I came down, I thought about how injured I must be to have such reactions. It was a breakthrough moment enabled by the medicine.
Further treatments felt like they brought the silent, untouchable things that haunted me closer, close enough for me to let them go.
Pop is sitting in his beat-up recliner, rocking in the corner of his Outer Mission home. He watches the news and says he’s happy “ese cerote de Trump” is no longer president.
During a commercial, he looks at me and says in Salvadoran Spanish, “There’s something different about you, son. I don’t know how to describe it, but you seem, how do I say it, mas suave, gentler, less angry.”
I’m silent for a minute, weighing what I want to say. His muy Catolico Salvadoran ideas about drugs date back to the sixteenth century and the first drug war, the Inquisition. As recently as a few years ago, Pop pulled out a machete and swung it at me, screaming, “You drogadicto son of a bitch! Stop trying to steal my money!”
The dementia-fueled rage that led to the machete incident is one reason I began to research treatments for Pop. To my surprise, I found psychedelics, including some that the state of California is considering removing from criminal classification: LSD, mushrooms, and other treatments documented in numerous studies to modify connectivity between the brain regions of those suffering from dementia.
The idea of taking Pop to a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy clinic around Mission High School excites me. The proximity of the clinics to Hunts Donuts will make them a familiar and safe place for him.
Then I remember psychologist friends telling me that, despite growing interest in the medical benefits of these substances and initial moves to decriminalize them in California, only ten percent of those getting psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy identify as people of color. The above-ground psychedelics community has a race problem of hemispheric proportions.
Last year’s announcement by the half a billion dollar psychedelic pharmaceutical giant, Compass Pathways, that it was patenting a variant of the psilocybin mushrooms considered sacred in some Indigenous rituals makes talk of a “psychedelic renaissance” sound ominous in a historical way. I wonder what Indigenous Wirikuta friends who’ve survived many threats—narcos, agribusiness, mining, and psychedelic tourism—think. One therapist with whom I spoke in a small clinic lamented the “superimposition of the corporate consciousness into the idealism of the psychedelic renaissance.”
I look out Pop’s window toward Mission Street. From the roof, I can see a building with a Catholic-looking cross on it, a big, green symbol of cannabis legalization for Black, Latino, and working class users and sellers in the Golden State. Pop and the cannabis businesses both remind me how patterns of intergenerational trauma don’t tend to connect with those of intergenerational wealth.
Almost forty years after I first dropped mescaline while cruising in a lowrider on Mission Street, I remain resolute in the belief that we must decolonize psychedelics.
Fuck it, I think, as I look at Pop. He turns 100 next year and we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“So, Pop,” I start in, “you say you feel like I’m mas suave?”
“Yes. You act differently now.”
“To be honest, Pop, it’s LSD.”
“Yes. Acid, the psychedelic drug Santana and all those rock stars took back in the day, when we lived on Folsom Street.”
“You mean like the drugs that killed Pete, El Hippie, our old neighbor?”
“Not exactly, Pop. Pete overdosed on barbiturates and other stuff. LSD and other psychedelics aren’t dangerous like that.”
He pauses, looks at me.
“So, Pop. The psychedelic medicinas are powerful and can help slow your memory loss. What do you think about visiting some doctors to see if the medicina can help you?”
“Esta loco? I’m not going to take that shit, even if you pay me.”
I wait to see if he’s going to make a sudden, more vitriolic turn.
He pauses again, adopting the philosophical posture he uses when he wants to say something he deems important. Then, he intones, with pontifical authority: “But whatever you’re doing, son, keep doing it. It’s really helping you.”
I’m disappointed, but relieved to have avoided his ancient wrath.
“Yes, Pop,” I say. “It does.”