Visionary books are tricky to review because they invent the form in which they land in the world. Such is the case with John Phillip Santos’ The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire: A Tejano Elegy. The book is a memoir, a genealogical inquiry and a speculative inquest of the past—from an imagined future. Put on your space boots: You’re not in Abuelita’s kitchen anymore. Open up the family album, align your maps of the Spanish Conquest, and prepare to dive into the gene pool. With John Phillip Santos as resident lifeguard, you can leave the water wings behind.
Empire is subtitled A Tejano Elegy; perhaps the matter of genre is best left at that. The book reads as a lyrical meditation on the author’s South Texas family origins. Santos pins their provenance among bloodlines that course through a broad genetic diaspora. Imagine a 3-D hologram of your ancestors morphing into each other (better yet, imagine the film running backward), and you begin to approximate the impressionistic effect of Santos’s prose. It turns like a color wheel over all the family faces and places and wars.
Santos’s wash of metaphysics, anecdote and Mexican family history is hard to resolve sequentially until you understand his intention to let those strands arise at once. “For some years,” Santos writes, “I had imagined writing a book that would gather all of the secret true histories of the discovery and conquest of las Américas … perhaps as a way of starting to account for how the families I came from in Texas had come to find themselves written into this strange historical epic.” Some pages later, Santos intensifies his wish to tell the story through a cosmological prism: “This was the anagogic journalism I had imagined,” he writes about television documentaries he produced, “reporting on the world from the perspective of eternity.”
Small wonder that Empires embraces so many fronts as it gathers forward. A compact with eternity struck, the reader follows Santos in and out of lifetimes, colonial archives, family conversations and memoirish recollections that inform a journey to the heart of his mestizo identity. In one inspired section, Santos revisits the family town of Guerrero, flooded by Falcon Reservoir but resurfaced after a drought. Everything about the passage, from ghostly streets to Santos’ encounter with a long-lost relative at an isolated border post, resonates as only the strangest and truest life can. History returns, the literal and metaphorical converge, and the book conjures its secret history. You can sense Empire throwing its voice forward on all frequencies in hopes of crystallizing as many double-exposed moments as it can.
Nowhere does Empire throw that voice further than with the figure Cenote Siete, Santos’s fictional ancestor from the future who comes to guide him. “C7” appears gradually, then with full-on Nostradamus pronouncements and the apocryphal flourishes of an ancient Mayan in a space suit. It is a bold conceit, affecting in its postcolonial way. The conqueror remains stuck in the calendar he created, while the conquered escape through the rip in the space-time continuum. This interstellar grandfather amused and, more often, moved me. Other times, I wished for whatever the Ancestors were smoking.
“We were always somebody else before we came to be whoever our ancestors thought us to be,” Santos writes. “And by the time we had a sense of being one identity or another, we had already become something new.” By the time Empire ends, the same could be said about readers. Somehow the received history of the Southwest has shifted. The Alamo is the Alamo is the Alamo. Only it is not.
Vicente Lozano lives in Austin. He is currently at work on a novel.