Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation: A Memoir,"
by John Phillip Santos (Continued)
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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,
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."
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.
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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Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.