John Phillip Santos crosses the border


John Phillip Santos is the sort of new intellectual who feels equally at home with analytic philosophy and Aztec mysticism, has wandered the dusty plains of northern Mexico and trolled the elite reading rooms at Oxford, and is a sober investigative journalist and a “laughing vaquero poet.” In his memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, the TV documentary producer and first-ever Mexican American Rhodes scholar uses all these talents to paint an incredibly rich portrait of his extended family. In this journey of remembrance, he connects the story to the birth of Mexico, the New World, the larger phenomenon of migration, and his brush with the apocalypse.

Mining the memories of his family, some given freely, some painfully extracted, Santos pieces together the “double betrayal of Mexico” that his relatives represent. His mother’s side of the family was abandoned by Mexico when Texas was left to the Anglos; his father’s side chose to abandon northern Mexico for San Antonio in the 1910s, when the Mexican Revolution turned their home region into a chaotic battleground. Both branches tightly held on to their traditions, but as Santos grew up, he felt the Mexican in them fade.

Told in a nonlinear narrative that recalls experimental cinema, Santos’s tale describes the slow erosion of his family’s Mexican memory, even as he longs to plunge deeper into it. He contemplates the Aztec concept of Inframundo, a place containing both heaven and hell, and when it invades his Manhattan apartment, he meets the ghost of his uncle Raul. Returning to San Antonio from New York, he elicits unlikely sagas from various relatives: one branch of his family claimed a distant relation to the King of Spain; his great-grandfather, Teofilo, was once kidnapped and raised by Kikapu Indians in northern Mexico.

There remains one gnawing recollection that his family represses: the death of Santos’s grandfather. “Once I became aware of the mystery of Juan José’s death,” writes Santos, “it felt as if all of the stories that had been told of the family’s past were only meant to distract us from this one memory.” The incident, never conclusively proven to be suicide, murder, or accident, becomes the book’s epiphany. But there are no strange fictional twists to this story. There is just the truth that, for the Santos clan, “there were no more places of origin, just the setting out, just the going forth into new territory, new time.”