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"Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation: A Memoir," by John Phillip Santos (Continued)

     He brings to life las viejitas--"doñas who held court in shady painted backyard arbors and parlors across the neighborhoods. . . . To the uninitiated, [they] might look fragile, with their bundled bluish hair, false teeth, and halting arthritic steps . . . grandmothers, great-aunts, sisters-in-law.... But under the all-knowing gazes . . . we never felt oppressed or downtrotten." That is so because within all Hispanic culture, these ubiquitous women are symbols of indomitable spirit and endurance.

     Among the ancianos, Uncle Lico suffers a terrible ignominy. He is buried not with the grandiose melodrama of Catholic tradition but with the stingy recitations of "born-agains" who claim his last days, and his defenseless dead body.

     Santos is respectful of the lore some might label superstitions, and his accounts are aptly tinted with magical realism. A double rainbow augurs smooth passage past purgatory. A dream of "luminous pears, glowing bright green against the midnight sky," will end turbulent sleep. The Inframundo of the Aztecs is a limbo "where all that has been forgotten still lives."

     Susto, a sudden fright with religious overtones, can traumatize forever, as when the corpse of an Anglo woman is being carried by two sisters for preparation, and a stumble causes it to fly from their grasp. A veil falls, revealing the face of death to Aunt Madrina, who sees the woman's soul "spiral upward like smoke." That susto causes her epilepsy.

     Santos's sense of awe allows him to leave mysteries unresolved, to yield, instead, strong metaphoric meanings, mysterious epiphanies. As a child, he is fascinated with "los Voladores," men in Indian garb who perform a kind of dance, spiraling downward in widening circles while roped to a tall pole atop of which another man stands singing. The adult Santos believes that the dance--men seeming to fly away, liberated from punishing gravity--holds a secret intended only for him. When he asks the stationary performer what he thinks of as he surveys the field others will fly through, the man answers, "I think about nothing."

     In Texas, an aunt stares in horror at a captive wolf in a cage. In its desperation to escape, the wolf has shredded its own flesh. In her country, wolves roamed freely, "a part of God's wild creation that always seemed beyond human control." Their howls were "like a conversation in an old language . . . everyone but the wolves had forgotten." When she recovers from a blackout at the terrifying spectacle of the martyred wolf, she knows: "We have been taken to purgatory. Soon the chastisements would begin."

     Santos's early background is suggested in references to "fields," to "pickers. Bigotry provides a subtle but strong strain throughout. There are intimations of "refugee camps," of immigration agents sweeping through neighborhoods in search of wetbacks, "greasers." Bicycle tires are slashed, the word "Meskin" scratched on a desk. Santos is made ashamed of the gaudy old Cadillac his uncle drives. There are warnings of Texas ranchers shooting Mexicans.

     In school, he is taught a history populated only by Anglo settlers, not the Indians nor the Spanish who built the city, "a secret history." He deduces: "The struggle against the conquest was still alive."

     The book's flaws attest to its power. A trip to visit the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the blessed brown lady revered perhaps even more than Jesus, is propped beautifully, arousing expectations. But there is, finally, no sense of unique revelation before that staggering presence, who is awesome beyond religious belief. That great apparition assumed Indian coloring--though not Indian features--to become the Mother of Mexico.

     In a disturbing passage and with perfect honesty, Santos documents his shooting of a doe, for meat. He fires three times. The doe will not fall. He refuses to feel guilt. Yet the reader anticipates a revelation beyond the event as the stricken doe continues to move accusingly toward its killer--not unlike the people Santos describes, wounded by a conqueror but still enduring.

Nor is Santos beyond a stumble in his graceful delivery. "It felt like" recurs awkwardly. A misplaced phrase may jar his refined imagery. "Like others of her generation, the present--"

     Those are minor lapses in writing that seamlessly combines a formal literary tone with that of a cuento, a folk tale. Some sentences seem sculpted. Here is Grandmother speaking: "... her sentences moved in one steady arc, like a bow across a violin, and her words were delicately pronounced, so that you could hear every tinkle of an old chandelier, every gust of a Coahuila wind falling to a hush, and the grain of a rustling squash blossom."

     Later, when he journeys as a documentary producer, Santos is able to link the world of his ancestors with that of other people's history of ancient grief, other worlds God forgot. In a famine camp in Sudan, starving bodies beg a television crew for food. He realizes that all he can offer to do is to tell their story.

     What a wonderful story he has told here, in a memoir that is a brave and beautiful attempt to redeem a people out of a limbo of forgetting.

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