Bordering Cultures

A Rhodes Scholar Laments The Life Progress Left Behind.

Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, by John Phillip Santos (Viking Press). Cloth, $24.95.

THIS MEMOIR OF Mexican-American experience on the U.S. side of the border traces the process of loss and recording old family stories. One minority family's balance sheet of the American 20th century, it bemoans the costs of progress in terms of cultural values and courtesy. It echoes unwittingly the reactionary plaints of the white Southern agrarian movement 75 years ago, but is such a good-natured account that this irony hardly matters.

John Phillip Santos, the first Mexican-American Rhodes scholar, is the Emmy-nominated writer and producer for CBS and PBS of more than 40 documentaries. A widely published journalist, he now lives in New York City. Places Left Unfinished draws on the author's youth in San Antonio, adolescent summers spent dirtying his hands in the ranching villages of Coahuila, and adult journeys to find spiritual roots among pre-Columbian and colonial sites in the Mexican interior.

A thread of narrative tension is provided by his investigation into the mysterious drowning of his grandfather in the shallow San Antonio River in 1939.

The book's structure is self-consciously circular, returning to images of the Voladores, ancient Nahua pole-dancers who represent ties to both Santos' youth and to the ancient wisdom of Mexico. Sustaining this structure requires lengthy flats in which momentum sometimes falters, suggesting not even the author takes this heavy dose of pre-Columbian mysticism literally. However, its inclusion allows the introduction of many interesting facts about ancient Mayan civilization.

By contrast, the great bulk of the book is anecdotally rich and conceived with great respect and generosity toward its characters, who are the author's family. Santos has wonderful relatives -- a lot of them -- whom he brings endearingly to life.

On his mother's side they are Tejano, descendants of Mexican settlers prior to the 1836 Texas revolution. His father's family fled Coahuila during the chaos of the 1910 revolution. Both families were country or small-town dwellers until economic opportunity united them in San Antonio's old town, a place Santos calls la Tierra de Viejitas, ruled as it was by wizened grandmothers and great-aunts who retained the old ways of cooking, remedies and superstition. The men, evoked by Santos in a chapter entitled Códices de los Abuelos, are handy with plants, animals and machinery, and they launch themselves creatively into the work of the burgeoning city.

Although this barrio life seems traditional, it's already a world away from that of the cousins and family friends who remained in Coahuila. In stories of summer vacations as a ranch hand, Santos recreates an idyllic pastoral simplicity while also detailing the dangers and hardships of such exposure to the elements.

The tale then becomes an ambivalent account of upward mobility and assimilation, typified above all by author Santos himself. As he evokes a fond, nostalgic sense of the old barrio, he also communicates the unfamiliar affluence and privacy of the suburb in sprawling new San Antonio, where his parents move to assure better schools for their children. He becomes the first in his family to graduate from college.

At Oxford, he visits the ancient Gothic manuscript room of the Bodleian library in search of plundered Mixteca codices: One of my Tony Lama pigskin suede cowboy boots, once as supple as chamois leather...had developed a squeak in its sole. As I walked across the long chamber...the boot let out a series of slow, high-pitched squeals that irritated the scholars and drew a volley of shushes and tsks from both sides of the aisle.

With every family encouragement, he aspires to a life of books and poetry. He hurls his Tony Lamas into the Thames, which glowers "matte gunmetal gray in London's sulfurous twilight." His family having successfully followed the American dream, Santos nonetheless regrets acutely their loss, "the society of pecans and cabrito." He writes:

I can remember feeling, since long ago, that my generation was destined to be the end of our ancient family lines. Maybe not in terms of offspring, but the end, once and for all, of that old life of rivers and rancher'a, the life that began to ebb when we first left Mexico.

Though he calls it "the Mexican diaspora," more profoundly it's the dilemma of modern life. To cast the cruel paradox of economic progress in ethnic terms risks what Freud called the "narcissism of minor differences." The cross-cultural canon is rife with extended families who no longer live in close proximity; whose home-cooked meals and traditional ingredients are preserved mostly in memory; and whose struggles to bridge generational differences and preserve the faith of their fathers are formidable.

While one may well sigh over the loss of grandma's "wild dove soup con limón," or the old barrio atmosphere, it's quite another thing to wish for the realities of the past to resume -- to forego the positive gains. Remembering this allows one to appreciate Places Left Unfinished not only as an eloquent expression of Mexican-American life, but also as a reminder that the commonality of the human condition enables us to share these fleeting moments. Perhaps also it's a warning to consider critically the pace and purpose of our progress.

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