The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 126-144
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John Phillip Santos and the Creation of Sacred Memories
Elizabeth Hayes Turner
Historians of the South have ignored the contributions of Mexicans, Cubans, and Latin Americans to the development of southern history and southern autobiography for too long.1 Mexican-Americans living in Texas comprise a significant percentage of the population of that state, so much so that candidates for governor must speak Spanish in their appeal to voters. Although historians of the South only reluctantly think of Texas as "southern," in fact, the Lone Star State, after a short time as an independent republic, entered the Union as a slave state and joined the Confederacy. That Texas is the only southern state with an international border makes it unique. That Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexicans settled it before ambitious Americans seized it puts it in a category akin to Louisiana. Its history, therefore, is both similar to that of other Deep South states and yet admittedly different. Just how similar and also how different can be seen in John Phillip Santos's Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, an autobiographical memoir, the tale of a family and its spiritual journey across cultures and borders, landscapes and urban vistas, silences and confessions, across time unbounded by geography or space.
Structurally, this book differs from most southern autobiographies in that it is not a coming- of- age autobiography nor is it written in a chronological [End Page 126] manner.2 Santos does not focus on his childhood nor does he describe southern society as either idyllic or demented. He does not severely criticize the post-1960s San Antonio that nurtured and educated him to become a Rhodes Scholar. Finally, he does not condemn the South nor wish to escape it. Rather, his career has taken him to New York City, assigning him to self-exile. Thus, he does not grind away at the sins and faults of a region rent by discrimination, prejudice, and violence. What he seeks to do is to uncover the lost history of his family and of a people, who he says have made it their life's work to assimilate, forgetting Mexico and what it had meant to them. If anything, his is a reconstruction of the family's history, a reconciliation between Mexico and Texas, and an exploration of the unfinished business of people-making. His search recovers memories buried in secret places, in remote lands, and in family lore. Santos's book reveals the pain of a family removed from its ancestral roots. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of his grandfather's despondency and untimely death, probably at his own hands. To explain much of this, Santos probes the spiritual content of his family's beliefs, plumbing the depths of his own and his ancestors' dreams, visions, and prophecies for answers and for inspiration. Immigration, suicidal death, and mysticism are at the heart of this book, and each intertwines and informs the other, making this piecework memoir into a tapestry of exquisite colors and design. Of all the memoirs about Texas, or the South, Places Left Unfinished is probably the most poetic, the most artistic. Finalist for the National Book Award in 1999, it is one of the most literary of all southern autobiographies.
Above all this is a memoir of immigration from an old country, torn with strife and self-destruction, to a new land where memories of the former life eventually faded. It is also a reminder that the twentieth- century South is a region full of immigrants, whose voices often go unrecorded and, therefore, unheard. John Phillip Santos, born in 1957, reports that in his student days, he never learned from his teachers about Tejanos, Mexicans in Texas, or about the Native Americans who inhabited the land before the Spanish came, or about the Spanish and the Mexicans who founded San Antonio, or about the vast wave of immigrants who fled to this city by the river in the 1910s and 1920s. He complains...