Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi El Inframundo

By Dorothy Cole

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

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

John Phillip Santos is a poet, video essayist and reporter. All three vocations are in evidence in this memoir. It was the reporter who tracked down pictures and reminiscences to tell the story of his Mexican family's Texas exodus. It was the video essayist who singled out the visual reminders to frame each section of the story. Above all, it was the poet who was forced to give in to the nagging feeling of a story untold.

According to his own account, Santos spends a lot of his time, both awake and asleep, in a region he refers to as the Inframundo. This is a part of the material world where the immaterial can be expressed. The barriers between waking and sleeping, past and present, alive and dead, are irrelevant there. It is partly his ease in reaching this region and in interacting with its other habitues that help him to tell this story, and to understand why it needs telling.

This tale is emblematic of the Mexican American experience only in its similarity to the progress of any immigrant group in the Americas. Each generation is a little bit farther removed from the lifestyle and beliefs of the old country, and each step of removal fosters a stronger yearning for the knowledge and culture of the older generation. The Santos, Garcia and Lopez families are no more or less typical of Mexican Americans as a group than any specific family could possibly be. They have been comparatively lucky, in that they have been able to participate fully in U.S. society without losing their link to the past. This is part of the natural cultural diversity that the Southwestern states offer as a gift to the country as a whole.

Santos seems very taken with the Aztec part of his heritage. Like many of his generation, he sees his roots as more indigenous than European, but it is the essential blending of the two that stands out to the reader. His casual mysticism is as much Spanish Catholic as it is Native American, as well as being highly personal to himself. He tends to attribute much to genetic memory, including his poetic view of events, but he is clear-eyed enough -- and a good enough storyteller -- to let his family members appear truly. Sometimes their actions support his theories, sometimes not. The Inframundo may be an Aztec concept, but the people Santos meets there speak Spanish.

John Phillip Santos grew up in San Antonio, went to Notre Dame and studied in England as a Rhodes scholar. He lives in New York, and seems to have grown accustomed to speaking for the Latino point of view. Much of what may seem extraordinary from so far away is still part of normal life in the Southwest and Mexico. Santos takes advantage of his distance to integrate his memories with any pre-conceptions that readers might hold.

As a straight history, the book is somewhat confusing. Two of the main characters, Santos' father and grandfather, have the same name and in the non-linear sequence of the narrative it is occasionally hard to tell them apart. Santos naturally places great significance on episodes that he remembers himself, some of which were really rather mundane, and he leaves off the endings to some key incidents. But that is what memoirs are: pieces of memory. Santos is able to unify the story by relating seemingly divergent occasions, and by just including some good stories. He uses a poet's love of the telling detail to reveal both more and less than he means to. Again, that is what poets do.

This could have been a straightforward family history, documenting the successes and failures -- mostly, this family remembers successes -- of a particular group of people. The grandfather's hidden tragedy could have remained simply a mystery the grandson couldn't solve. Instead, Santos has made his grandfather's fate, and his own search for an explanation, the centerpiece of an unforgettable chronicle.

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