BOOKS & THE CULTURE Memories Without Borders John Phillip Santos’ San Antonio Recollections BY MIGUEL A. RODRIGUEZ PLACES LEFT UNFINISHED AT THE TIME OF CREATION: A Memoir. By John Philip Santos. Viking. 284 pages. $24.95. ombre y voz, memoria y deseo, nos permiten hoy darnos cuenta de que vivimos rodeados de mundos perdidos, de historias desapareci das. Esos mundos y esas historias son nuestra responsabilidad: fueron creados por hombres y mujeres. No podemos olvidarlos sin condenarnos a nosotros mismos al olvido. Carlos Fuentes, 1990. On Mother’s Day in 1974, seventeen-yearold 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 Jose 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 Jose Santos Sr. fell in love with his wife, Margarita Garcia, 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 Garcias and the Santoses became refugees, and in 1914 reluctantly left their homes in Palati, Coahuila, joining thousands of others headed north to Texas. Both families settled in San Antonio. Juan Jose 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 A John Phillip Santos Dana Gluckstein 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 Jose had provided for his wife and their children, with the dimming hope of eventually returning to Palau. Margarita had watched Juan Jose 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 Jose, 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 Jose Jr. \(then into the fog. He couldn’t catch up to him, until later that morning when he and his uncle found Juan Jose’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 Garcias 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 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 Jose 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 FEBRUARY 18, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.