San Antonio Recollections

Nombre y voz, memoria y deseo, nos permiten hoy darnos cuenta de que vivimos rodeados de mundos perdidos, de historias desaparecidas. Esos mundos y esas historias son nuestra responsabilidad: fueron creados por hombres y mujeres. No podemos olvidarlos sín condenarnos a nosotros mismos al olvido.

— Carlos Fuentes, 1990.

On Mother’s Day in 1974, seventeen-year-old John Phillip Santos was paying his respects, with his family, to his deceased grandparents. He noticed the dates on his grandfather’s gravestone: 1890 to 1939. He turned towards his father, Juan José Jr., and asked him how his own father had died, so young — wondering was it murder, suicide, an act of God? “He fixed me with a quick, hard stare, strange for his usually gentle temperament. ‘He died too young,’ he said, with a conclusive snap that told me he wasn’t going to say anything further.”

Juan José Santos Sr. fell in love with his wife, Margarita García, during the Mexican revolution, and was so taken with her that once while seeing her perform in a play, he left before the climax, when she would die in another man’s arms. The Garcías and the Santoses became refugees, and in 1914 reluctantly left their homes in Palaú, Coahuila, joining thousands of others headed north to Texas. Both families settled in San Antonio. Juan José learned only as much English as was necessary to get by, and took whatever jobs were available. He began as a gardener on the estate of Colonel George W. Brackenridge, and when the Colonel died, he took a job at the Alamo Ironworks. He farmed for a few years, but by the end of 1938, he was the manager of a petroleum company in the city. Depression times were hard, the company missed payrolls, and his family nearly lost its home. For almost twenty-five years, Juan José had provided for his wife and their children, with the dimming hope of eventually returning to Palaú. Margarita had watched Juan José change since coming to Texas: he had grown graver, and periodically sunk into dark moods. His family learned to accept this as a matter of course.

On the cold morning of January 9, 1939, a heavy fog engulfed much of San Antonio. Juan José, dressed as always in a suit and tie, stood staring out the window of his home. He stepped away from the window, visited the rooms of his children, then went out and disappeared into the fog. The night before, he had been overheard muttering to himself, “Ya es tiempo. Ya me voy. Ya es tiempo. [It’s time. I’m going now. It’s time.]” No one had paid much attention, except for Margarita, who had watched him daily stare out the window as if he were expecting someone. Margarita awakened her son, Juan José Jr. (then twenty-two), and told him to follow his father into the fog. He couldn’t catch up to him, until later that morning — when he and his uncle found Juan José’s body, floating in the shallow waters of the San Antonio River.

John Phillip Santos is now forty-two, and throughout its highly stylized narration, his family memoir ravels and unravels the mystery of his grandfather’s death. Santos recounts the history of the Garcías and the Santoses, their roots in Texas and Mexico, emphasizing the often forgotten fact that Texas once belonged to Mexico, and in many ways has never left its arms. Most immigrants are exiles from their homelands, but Mexican Americans are in a sense exiles in their own land. In this interesting albeit sentimental chronicle, Santos explores his own story as a living example of this paradox, although often in awkward time shifts, and with such a myriad of uncles, great uncles, aunts, great aunts, and grandparents, the book often seems like a complex will with too many codices and even more heirs. But if his weakness is narrative cohesion, Santos’ strength is in the episodic descriptions which highlight the memoir.

Santos was born in San Antonio in 1957, a baby-boomer and a second-generation Mexican American. He was raised in a predominantly middle-class white suburb, and as a boy wanted to be an astronaut. Later he chose scholarship: a degree in philosophy and literature at Notre Dame, and (as the first Mexican-American Rhodes Scholar) a masters from Oxford. Currently he lives in New York, writing and producing television documentaries.

As a boy, Santos spent much of his time with his grandmother Margarita and his great aunts, hearing their warnings about the danger of the susto and el mal ojo. He was spellbound by their stories of the Revolution, of Pancho Villa’s raids in the Coahuila countryside, and the tales of his own family — especially the courtship between the stoic and proud Juan José and the beautiful and strong-willed Margarita. In collecting their stories here, Santos has taken to heart the words of my epigraph, by Carlos Fuentes: “Name and voice, memory and desire, they permit us to realize that we live surrounded by lost worlds, by vanished histories. These worlds and these histories are our responsibility: they were created by men and women. We can’t forget them without condemning ourselves to be forgotten.” In Places Left Unfinished, Santos has managed to retrieve some of that lost and forgotten history, with digressions into the Spanish Conquest of Mexico and even Aztec ritual and mythology, in a Fuentes-like attempt to unite the present with the ancient past.

Santos describes, for example, the Inframundo, a mythological realm that includes both the underworld and paradise — yet it “is not like Hell or Heaven, set apart from the world. It is more like a portal out of history and into eternity, encompassing all of the gradations of darkness and light, where all the dead dwell, simultaneously beyond, and among, us. In the Inframundo, you communicate with the spirits of the dead, with the spirits of animals and all created things, and sometimes with the gods themselves.”

Santos also describes being tormented throughout his life by nightmare visits from the dead. His uncle Raúl, his father’s older brother, once appeared to him in his New York City apartment, reciting a prayer against forgetting the past, a prayer unlike any heard in church. “Butterfly. Cinnamon. Porridge. Huisache. Tortilla. Desires. Lovers. Boulevard. Tiles. Enemy. Clouds. Land. Cowboys. Farm. Creek. Aqueduct. Conception. Tranquility. Blessings and blessings. Always, always, always.” Before Santos can question him, the apparition announces, “There were memories in the familia before there was anyone around to remember them… So where do we begin?”

“Uncle Raúl looks at me now with tears in his eyes, ‘There were the stars and the planets in the sky, the earth, the fire, and the wind. Why not ask them, John Phillip? Why not ask them?”

But the dead are not very reliable witnesses, and cross examination is impossible. Fortunately for Santos, when he began his quest into his origins, the living were still around. He brings to life anecdotes passed on to him by relatives, especially those “blue-haired” old women, las Viejitas, the matriarchs most responsible for inspiring his recollections. The men in his life — father, grandfathers, uncles — had more practical functions: they kept his feet on the ground, instilled the value of an education, taught him how to carry himself in the world. Engineers, craftsmen, laborers, they were men who had given up their dreams (his father, for example, had been a talented singer and songwriter) and had adapted to the harsh realities of the present. They had little tolerance for dwelling on the past.

But the women continued to remember, and they passed on memories of old Texas, Mexico, and ways of life that were quickly disappearing. They spoke of the culture and traditions, in a language that made a curious young boy pursue the dark family question his father no longer asked: what had happened to his grandfather. Las Viejitas were the widowed ladies, Santos writes, “who held court in shady, painted backyard arbors and parlors across the neighborhoods of San Antonio. To the uninitiated, las Viejitas might look fragile, with their bundled bluish hair, false teeth, and halting arthritic steps across the front porch. Their names were ciphers from the lost world: Pepa. Tomasa. Leandra. Margarita. Chita. Cuka. Fermina. They were grandmothers, great-aunts, sisters-in-law, and comadres.” To the boy, they were living history, and could be quite formidable even in their advanced years.

Santos relates a story about a silver pearl-handled gun that belonged to his Great Aunt, Tía Pepa. The gun had been a wedding present from her father, and she had used it only once, to frighten away bandits in Coahuila. Many years later, when Pepa was crossing the border at Eagle Pass, U.S. customs agents confiscated the gun. The I.N.S. soon learned a lesson in diplomacy.

Along with Uela (Grandmother Margarita), her sister Tía Pepa, and several aunts, Mother drove to the border after submitting all the required gun-permit papers and notarized letters of reference necessary to establish the weapon in the category of an “irreplaceable family heirloom.” After a morning of shopping in Piedras Negras on the Mexican side of the river, visits with cousins in Villa Union, and bowls of caldo de pollo at a restaurant in the marketplace, they crossed the international bridge and kept their appointment with the chief Immigration Service officer. After receiving from the ladies a gift of tamales, along with the required documents, yet still puzzled by this delegation of nattily dressed Mexican, and Mexican American, women, the agent warily opened the vault and brought out a cloth bag that contained the pistol. Pepa thanked the agent and put the gun in her purse.

By the winter of 1998, when Santos completed his memoir, nearly all las Viejitas had passed away, joining their husbands and lovers in history. The author had stepped into their shoes: becoming the storyteller, the witness of the past for the future. Their oral history has become a written one.

On the old ways, Santos quotes Rafael Cantú, a San Antonio native and once an Indian scout on the frontier. In 1939, at the age of ninety-six, he told a reporter:

“We were Tejanos … Eramos Tejanos, then all of a sudden, the Gringos really came! … Now it’s Estados Unidos. Who knows what it will be next? It’s my time to go, I think.”

Today, San Antonio is a modern city, its downtown revitalized, flavored with just the right amount of Mexican culture to make it different from other modern, Texas, cities. “The newly opened Hard Rock Cafe in San Antonio,” writes Santos, “is a virtual cantina, where conventioneers can sip Lone Star longnecks and hear Tex-Mex accordion virtuosi in secure, suburbanite environs. It sits near an old island in the San Antonio River where the city’s gentry once maintained an exclusive club in which no Mexicans were welcome. Across the street and down the Disneyesque riverwalk, a quaintly Spanish-style Planet Hollywood is the other twin star of the city’s new downtown, more patronized by tourists than denizens of San Antonio.” Santos wonders if anyone recalls the Mexican mercado, site of the

public dining stands of the Chili Queens, the Mexicana street vendors whose homemade picadillo had long been one of the famous attractions of downtown San Antonio. The aromatic chili stands once stretched bench-to-bench the length of an entire block, ringing the grand square around Haymarket Plaza. Their long tables were covered in oilcloth, cluttered with bottles of oil and vinegar, wooden bowls of salt and ground cumin, and decorated with plates of tomatoes, cilantro, chiles, and avocados….

One could hear Lydia Mendoza,

the haunting singer of bittersweet Norteño ballads about deceitful men and treacherous love. On weekends, she would sit on a wooden basket next to a stand of tortilla makers, hunched over her guitar, intoning all her songs like dirges in a scabrous voice that sounded as if she had grains of an exquisite sand inside her throat….

In these streets were held

the noisy funeral processions that had been one of the most visible public traditions of Mexican San Antonio and dated back to colonial times. When a Mexicano died, the body would remain at home for a night or two as family and friends streamed through, bringing tamales or tacos de chorizo, paying their respects, and joining in around-the-clock recitation of the rosary. Then, on the day of the funeral, mourners would be joined by a small band of musicians dressed in the white cotton garments of Mexican campesinos. The trumpet player would lead the way through the streets, followed by a violinist, an accordionist, and a bajo sexto player.

If someone did remember, would any of the tourists inside the Planet Hollywood care? That was a long time ago — as they say now, it’s history. The funeral processions and the mercado were banned by the city’s health department in 1939. That same year, when San Antonio began to turn its back on the past, a Mexican man had stared out through a window at the fog-covered streets of the city, visited his sleeping children, and left without saying goodbye to a woman he once loved so strongly he could not bear to see her die in another man’s arms — even if it was only in a play. An illusion.

Austin writer Miguel A. Rodríguez was raised in South Texas, and only with great difficulty recalls his time as an Observer intern.

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Published at 12:00 am CST