Literature > Cover Story
Uprooting the ancestors
John Phillip Santos writes family-future-historical nonfiction
"Somewhere along the way I met this guy who’s in The Addams Family as Gomez [John Astin from the original T.V. series]; he was at a party. I was basically giving him homage for The Addams Family, but he was in New York for a one-man play called Eureka based on an Edgar Allen Poe story that I had never heard of. So I went and found this book, and it’s this amazing channeled prose poem that purports to be a message in a bottle from the future. I remember thinking, this is American storytelling, and isn’t that wild?”
John Phillip Santos, one of San Antonio’s most engaging public thinkers, is explaining the influences of his new book, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire: A Tejano Elegy over pints in Southtown. The silver-maned poet turned New York T.V. journalist turned international man of letters returned to San Antonio some years ago to care for his mother, Lucille Santos (hereafter referred to as Dr. Santos due to her Ph.D. in education), and finish up a book, perhaps not coincidentally about his mother’s Lopez-Vela family lineage. It was only fair; his first non-fiction book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation: A Memoir, explored his father’s family and his grandfather’s mysterious suicide. The work garnered high praise upon its 1999 release, including a National Book Award nomination, and became a favorite among local readers for its dreamy evocation of midcentury Chicano life in San Antonio.
There was just one catch: It wasn’t a memoir, at least not to Santos. “I knew that wasn’t what I was writing, I wasn’t writing principally about my story,” he says. “Originally, with Places, I had wanted to use a subtitle like ‘an anti-memoir,’ or ‘a memoir without a subject.’ I protested mildly.” Indeed, Places had as much to say about Mexican culture in the U.S. and the power of memory as it did about Santos’s own clan.
If Places is the anti-memoir, The Farthest Home is the anti-family tree, which took Santos decades of globetrotting research to uproot. “Along with many other South Texans, I am a descendant of the people of this forgotten tale, but nothing of their tale was ever told to me by my elders,” writes Santos near the beginning of his elegy. Spurred on by his Uncle Lico’s previous genealogical work, Santos feels compelled to examine his mother’s supposed Spanish roots, tracing them back to the first conquistador excursions to the hardscrabble Northern Mexico region, families who pulse northward until they straddle the Mexico-Texas border, eventually pushing through to San Antonio. “Having begun their story at the turn of the 19th century as the heirs of conquistadors, they began the 20th century transformed into members of an American ‘minority,’” Santos pithily writes.
Stylistically, Santos picks up threads from Places, interspersing detailed family tales with his more modern life as a student at Oxford and as a budding documentary television producer for CBS and PBS. “He doesn’t let you know that he’s writing down anything or he’s particularly listening,” chortled Dr. Santos over the phone last week, regarding her son’s field research methods. “I’m amazed at what he puts in there. Some of these things, I was just chatting with him.”
Reflecting his heritage, Santos writes fluidly between English and Spanish, not even bothering to italicize the Spanish words common to South Texan Anglos. He writes particularly of his mother’s mother, Leandra Vela Lopez, as if she held a key to their common ancestry, if she would only deign to speak of it. On page 32 he notes, “Grandmother seemed like something immovable and of a great antiquity, not just in appearance, but of spirit too, as if her soul had aquired a density and gravity that could bend the fabric of time and space around her.” Santos and his mother agree she never discussed her Spanish lineage. “She had a sense of transforming,” says Santos, trying to explain his grandmother’s refusal even to admit her true birthdate, “of breaking away from the cycles of nature and struggles against the landscape, poverty, and marginality.” Dr. Santos says without flourish, “She was very proud that our ancestors came from Spain, but she was not too definite on it.” Like so many other Americans, Leandra Vela Lopez could point to the region of Europe that she thought she came from, but no further.
At 275 pages, The Farthest Home contains much more than a straightforward tale about a boy’s search for his mother’s mother’s forebears. Santos slakes a palpable thirst to gather the last remaining evidence of a fascinating family story, one the reader can almost see eroding into nothingness before his inquisitive steps, but he also details the trips he takes to Spain, Mexico, and beyond during his search, causing many reviewers to note the book’s travelogue qualities. “This book is about how I came to find this project and this path, and what it means to be on this path,” says Santos. “The path is the medium itself.” And if that sounds meta-, well, we’re just getting started.
In his latest work Santos — who pursued an unfinished Ph.D. in philosophy — includes a good deal of “the turn that [I’d] done in deconstruction that fundamentally problemizes the idea of ourselves in terms of historical creatures and as national creatures.” Beyond the sociocultural movement Santos follows from Old World to New World to New State, there is a significant scientific influence, particularly in regard to genetics. Santos’s ancestral search discovers not one ultimate origin, but, thanks to a detailed DNA test, many scattered and surprising origins. “At root it means that we are all indelibly mestizo,” says Santos, “and for me that means a new version of history.” And complementary to that, a new version of the future. “We are from everywhere,” says Santos confidently, “and if we are from everywhere, we have the right to be anywhere. If we have a right to be anywhere, then no borders will stand.”
The borderless quality of the search in The Farthest Home allows the narrative to be taken over at points by a middle-aged, hypereloquent ancestor from the future. Some critics don’t quite know what to make of Santos’ great-great-great-grandfather forward. The concept of Cenote Siete, as the aging ancient futureman calls himself, is fuzzy enough: How can an ancestor be from the future? His existence in the narrative tests our notion of Santos’s work as non-fiction: Again, how can an ancestor be from the future, and how can he talk to Santos in Manhattan circa 1999? Santos’s mother steadfastly calls the character fictitious, although she admits “I don’t think that John Phillip went to any great extent to make that clear.” Santos seemed fairly clear during his interview that “this is the story that [I] lived,” including Cenote Siete. We spoke of it twice in fact, and just to make sure Santos meant this literally, the second time was over coffee, not beer. “I think a lot of writers have guides, whether they recognize them as such or not, whether they become as objectified or apart from ourselves as [Cenote] presented himself in the book.” Upon learning of his mother’s belief that Cenote is fictional, Santos laughs and says, “Well, I don’t want to concern her or the general public about my state of mind.” Santos asserts that this guide has been present since his early childhood via cryptic notes around his bedroom, and until his disappearance a few years ago, on computer screens. “[John Phillip] did always write little notes and he wouldn’t throw them away,” allows Dr. Santos.
If those puzzles don’t throw a reader off the story, Cenote’s dichos, channeled by Santos, may very well lose her for good. Cenote’s voice weaves in and out of the book via italicized text and Elizabethan English. At first just whispers, Cenote eventually takes on substantial chapters, grinding the gears between a sci-fi future and Imperial Spain’s past. Santos himself describes his first communications with what he later terms his guide as “unsolicited missives and considerable digressions.” At the beginning, Cenote is an unwelcome Uncle taking over Thanksgiving dinner with florid and incomprehensible tales. “Turgid mysticism,” sniffs Publisher’s Weekly. Even Dr. Santos counsels, “You have to really concentrate when you’re reading that.” But after following the mystic through his surreal version of the Norteño frontier, we realize his vital influence on Santos’ philosophy. In particular, Cenote Siete’s questions are the most insightful part of his narration. “If we had an origin, did we also have a destination?” “Why cherish memories that have lost all their remembers?” “How much of the story are you willing or ready to carry, and to what end?”
Santos’s sci-fi/philosophical bent has its antecedents in several works, but Poe’s “Eureka” has a special impact. For one, like Cenote’s dichos, the poem is comprised largely of found text extracted from a corked bottle and dated 2848. What Poe called his “Book of Truths” purports that, like Santos’s beliefs about human lineages, “in the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things … A man in this view becomes mankind.” We are all so inherently mestizo, we carry a bit of everyone in our blood. As an interesting aside — and an example of the inadvertent occurrences that pepper Santos’ path in The Farthest Home — Poe dedicated “Eureka” to Alexander von Humboldt, an early 19th century German scientist. Among other things, von Humboldt was one of the first non-Spanish Europeans to venture to that country’s New World colonies, particularly Mexico, about which he wrote an essay excoriating the Spanish for their racist dealings with the “Indians.” As a biologist and early anthropologist, he was among the first proponents of the Pangaea theory. His winning of Poe’s esteem came through his work Cosmos, a 20-year effort to synthesize the natural sciences. Santos hadn’t heard of the von Humbodlt / “Eureka” connection, but he had studied von Humboldt while in Berlin for a fellowship, the same year he first concocted The Farthest Home.
These connections, between science, storytelling, culture and identity, bind The Farthest Home into a work that, like “Eureka” and Cosmos, endeavors to create a new framework through which to view our world. “Culture, literary imagination, and questions of identity have been somewhat walled off from the implications of a host of scientific discoveries,” says Santos at a tiny café near his Westside home. “I wanted to connect to these movements. In terms specifically of questions of identity, the shift is one that challenges the understanding of culture as somehow illuminating ourselves to ourselves, as a way of affirming who we are.” Despite the arduous genealogical work he undertakes in The Farthest Home, Santos has little reverence for the family tree, or the popular genealogy detective television programs Who Do You Think You Are? (currently on NBC) and Faces of America (PBS). “The tendency in those frames is of going to one single lineage tale, descending from one particular person and hence there’s some kind of imputation of connection, identity,” says Santos. “That gambit I find really fallacious. What the science is doing is illuminating the totality of our origins, not any one specific lineage.”
Instead of a family tree descended from two, maybe four, sets of ancestors and tracing one progeny’s path all the way down to little John Phillip, a truer genealogy starts with John Phillip and radiates outward, considering both parents and both the parents’ parents, etc…, looking more like a horizontal fractal image than an up-and-down family tree. And in light of modern history’s globalized past, it’s safe to say the degree of multiethnicity and multirace occurring over millennia is greater than “puro” this or “100 percent” that. Confronted with that image, it becomes more difficult to consider one small thread the sum of one’s identity. Instead of the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” t-shirts so many Americans parade around in, it would be “Kiss Me, I’m Everybody,” providing for considerably more besos, but less faux-heritage pride.
Trickier still are the cultural identities that served as a backbone for the Civil Rights Era. Is Black/White/Asian still as beautiful? Does Soy Chicano y Anglo y Caribe inspire as much pride? This is the elegiac part of Santos’s book. Over our coffee-and-beer chats, Santos frequently acknowledges the poignancy he feels about his Chicano and Tejano brethren “just coming into voice,” at the same time as he sees this new global identity wave swelling on the horizon. “It’s an unsettling shift, because we’re not by any means finished with the business of recovering the history of our ancestors in terms of how they came here, what happened to them, ways in which they triumphed or became oppressed,” says Santos. But just as overdue is an examination of our true, collective, mixed heritages. “This shift in thinking right now is moving more toward an idea of culture as improvisational, ephemeral, as always illusory,” he says, before heading back to his house to check on his wife, poet Frances Treviño, who gave birth to the couple’s first daughter five days later. This is the new American storytelling, and isn’t that wild? •