John Phillip Santos is program officer at the Ford Foundation in New York and the first Mexican-American Rhodes scholar to study at Oxford. He is a well-known journalist and author of television documentaries. With this book Santos emerges as a prose writer of unusual artistry. His memoir is a stunning evocation of his Mexican-American roots. From the exhilarating vantage point of Manhattan, which is now his home, he takes the reader back to his native San Antonio, where much of the story unfolds. He moves back from there to the legendary Mexico of his ancestors and forward once again to England, where he was a student.
Santos blends literary, historical, cultural and religious sources in an always engaging and vigorous manner. He structures the memoir around four Spanish words or phrases: testimonio (witness), Mexico Viejo (Old Mexico), peregrinaje (pilgrimage)and volador (one who flies). Each section has three chapters. The story centers on his parents’ families, the Garcías and the Santoses, and the typical yet fascinating lives they led over the 19th and 20th centuries as they moved from Northern Mexico up to Texas and occasionally back again. They truly set roots deep down in San Antonio and their story evokes the charm of that premier Mexican-American city. A loose plot line holding the work together has to do with the grandfather who, before Santos was born, suddenly diedthe victim of a murder or, more likely, as a suicide.
Santos captures the subtle meanings behind everyday events in the lives of his extended family. Latinos will find his sensitivity to the expressiveness and rhythms of border Spanish quite remarkable. His perceptiveness regarding the beauty and pathos of Mexican-American music, celebration, literature and art place him in the growing company of great Chicano writers like Sandra Cisneros and Victor Villaseñor. The allusions to Spanish and pre-Columbian literature are enormously effective.
The book’s achievement rests in the remarkable way that the author illuminates the encounter between the traditional, culturally besieged world of Mexico and U.S. modernity. Building on the insights of his mentor Father Virgilio P. Elizondo about mestizaje, Santos makes cogent reflectionsoften in magnificant prose poetryabout the mingling of races, nationalities and social classes among U.S. Latinos. In doing so Santos demonstrates something that is inexorably coming into being in the United States: a new way of being American. This is not the story about assimilation, that dead, retrospective view of America, but of places left unfinished. This book is more than a personal memoir; it is about the startling integration of disparate strains that are finally finding a home in the American heartland where for so long Latinos were strangers in their own land.
Unlike some contemporary Latino writers, Santos does not have an ideological or political ax to grind. While his subject matter is most definitely the lived experience of Latinos in this country, his take on that reality is filled with awe and gratitude and not with anger. As a result he captures the essence of the simple yet extraordinary humanity of the characters that make up his family over generations. He shows how the old people, the viejitos, retrieve the wisdom and mystery of the Indian and Spanish past. But the young too are seduced by the imaginative vigor of Mexican culture. The acids of modernity do not totally overwhelm it. He reveals the cultural creativity in the strange mingling that has been going on in the borderlands over centuries. As a member of a later generation of Mexican Americans, Santos shows how the expressiveness and beauty of Latin America’s dramatic past is still alive in attitudes, values and, most of all, in the dreams of new generations. It has to do with family, faith, joy, gratitude and appreciation of the simplest thingswhat the Latino theologian Alejandro García Rivera calls the aesthetic orientation of Latino culture. This drive for life and beauty is communicated in the banter between brothers and sisters, the wisdom of matriarchs and in the humor and unexpected perceptiveness of slightly deranged, senile uncles or aunts.
This is the world that Santos makes palpable to the reader. No small accomplishment. His work will stand, perhaps, as a watershed in American literature. Already it has been nominated for national literary awards. Written in exceptionally polished prose, it links the essay and memoir genres with the vibrant and still emerging world of U.S. Latinos as perhaps few other books have done. Santos draws from Hispanic and Anglo-American cultural and literary sources. Going beyond the often repetitive social, economic and political perspectives taken on Latino realities, he plunges us into the aesthetic heart of Latino humanity and gives shape to the new American who, perched high on a skyscraper in Manhattan, just may imbue the American experience with new promise and life. By way of contrast one recalls the disenchantment of the world described by Max Weber and other students of modernity. The world painted for us by Santos is once again a delightfully enchanted and real one.