"Places Left Unfinished
at the Time of Creation:
A Memoir," by John Phillip Santos
Note: a version of this
book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
It is not
difficult to find evidence for the claim that Mexican-Americans
often suffer from a sense of alienation, a confusion of
identity. That sense of abandonment lies at the heart
of Mariachi ballads that bemoan something lost, not recognized.
In popular telenovelas of today, the main characters are
virtually always anglicized. The only ones who look Mexican--that
is, Indian--are servants, especially criadas, poor women
retainers who, to the point of martyrdom, are loyal to
their rich and arrogant patronas. Ricky Martin, his hair
growing lighter, sings a few words in Spanish, but he
has been converted into every teenage girl and boy's dream
of a cute American kid. Even his last name is a disguise.
In Spanish it would be pronounced Mar-teen. There is confusion
about what to call oneself--Mexican-American? Hispanic?
Latino? The most prevalent designation, Chicano, was,
for decades, a term of disrespect among Mexicans.
too long ago in Texas, children, if they were fair, were
warned by well-meaning friends not to call themselves
Mexican, but Spanish. Down-sloping "Indian eyelashes"
must be curled into a tilt. Those attitudes of European
superiority have a strong historical parallel. The war
against France produced a dictator, Porfirio Díaz,
a mestizo, who nevertheless became renowned for his European
his impressive memoir, Santos (the name means saints)
attempts to locate the origin of that lingering loss among
the descendants of the conquered Indians, and he does
so with grand success, re-imagining lives, roaming through
myths, history, and borrowed dreams.
embarks on several journeys of discovery: to find the
truth of his grandfather's drowning in the San Antonio
River; to trace Hernán Cortés's symbolic
conquest of Mexico; and to retrieve the banished stories
of his own family.
sense of awe permeates his impressive book and lifts it
above its easy categorization as the memoir of a "Tejano,"
an appropriately elegant word for a Mexican-American born
or raised in Texas. (Santos does not use the word "Chicano.")
the drowning of his grandfather at age 49 the result of
a heart attack? Murder? Santos's search leads him to an
old retired fireman who may have pulled the body from
the river. The addled man responds to questions with a
rendition of "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You."
That, and the reticence of his family to recall the event,
lead Santos to search for a deeper meaning, within the
heavy fog that persisted that fatal day, the niebla, which
means fog in Spanish but also suggests psychological and
moodily describes an ominous fog that infiltrates the
mythology of the Nahuac and Aztec cultures, a fog that
occurs "as if all the heavens have been stilled."
In San Antonio, "the body and its senses begin to
retreat from the outside world." Was his grandfather's
death a suicide in response to a command buried within
the ancient melancholia of conquered ancestors, a melancholia
"handed down, wordlessly, through numberless generations,
inscribed onto the helical codex of the DNA"?
Cortés--"the grandfather no Mexican wants
to admit to"-- --swept into Mexico, he devastated
ancient temples and traditions, squashing a complex culture
knowledgeable in mathematics, medicine, architecture.
He also carved deep wounds into the psyche of the Indians,
spawning children often born of rape, mestizos, "the
mixed ones," outsiders from the two worlds that produced
them. That conquest still "runs through most Mexican-American
families like an active faultline." It creates an
epic of defensive forgetting among a people who, like
Santos, easily weep.
have made selective forgetting a sacramental obligation.
Leave it all in the past, all that you were, and all that
you could be. There is pain enough in the present."
He wonders: "Could you tell a story about centuries
answer, he restores the lives and memories of his family
in San Antonio. With loving humor, he presents a gallery
of snapshots within portraits.
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Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.