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Letter to Councilman LaBonge
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Review "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.

     Not 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 pretensions.

     In 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.

     He 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.

     A 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.")

     Was 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 psychic confusion.

     Santos 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"?

     As 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.

     "We 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 of forgetting?"

     In 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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