“There are hints everywhere of a secret history,” says John Phillip Santos as he sits in the cool, melon-colored interior of San Antonio’s Liberty Bar. “I remember going on a tour of the Mission Espada with my class when I was a kid and seeing an estaca outside the church, a place where people were shackled. I asked the teacher about it and got a dismissive response, but it was a clue to another past. “The 43-year-old author, documentary filmmaker, and television producer has spent nearly a decade unearthing these “hidden, revelatory details.” He collected them in his evocative first book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation (Viking), a secret history of sorts that was nominated for a National Book Award last fall. Part historical inquiry, part memoir, it sprang from the conflicting allegiances he felt while coming of age in San Antonio: As a child Santos was taught not only the official version of Texas history, which in his classes began at the Battle of the Alamo, but also the centuries-old accounts of his family elders, Tejanos whose ancestors had inhabited the land since the early 1700’s. The shopkeepers, sharecroppers, and vaqueros who composed the Santos clan passed down stories of an unknown San Antonio, a city whose lineage was not Anglo but Mexican and Indian. The old ones, Santos wrote, “made it feel as if we were all denizens of a secret Mestizo city, a world that existed parallel to the apparent physical lineaments of the city everyone else saw.”
Long before Places Left Unfinished was greeted with critical acclaim, Santos was one of only a few Mexican American students at Churchill High School, who by dint of prejudice was placed in a remedial English class and urged to consider a vocational track. He instead went on to a remarkable career in letters. As a student at Notre Dame, he cultivated a “Tex-Mex nationalism” and organized an unusual literary festival his sophomore year. “John and I still laugh about picking up Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs at the airport and driving them back to campus through the snow,” recalls poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whom Santos had also invited to the festival. “We were mesmerized—and worried about having a wreck.” After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in literature and philosophy, Santos became the first Mexican American to win the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He earned a master’s degree in English literature at Oxford, then returned to the U.S. to enter the Ph.D. program in English at Yale. But in 1983 he dropped out to pursue a career in journalism, working briefly as an arts critic at the San Antonio Express-News. The following year he moved to New York to become a producer at CBS News, making dozens of documentaries whose far-ranging topics took him from Nicaragua to the Sudan; two projects, one about AIDS and the other about spirituality, were nominated for Emmys. He joined PBS in the early nineties, producing several programs with Charlie Rose, and in 1997 he became a program officer at the Ford Foundation, where he allocates grants for its media, arts, and culture division.
Santos is eloquent and engaging, speaking with equal ease about Aztec codices, Edmund Spenser, and the Monterrey hip-hop band of the moment, Plastilina Mosh. He has always been a traveler between different worlds. As a child visiting his family’s birthplace in northern Mexico, he left behind sticks and stones he brought with him from San Antonio; on his return home he threw flowers from Coahuila out his parents’ car window, hoping to “sew the two worlds together again.” His family’s journey from the barrio to the suburbs was more difficult for Santos to reconcile. “When I rode in my uncle Manuel’s 1954 pearl-colored, wing-finned Chevrolet, rumbling thunderously with its great, roaring mofle through the new, white neighborhood we lived in on the city’s north side, I ducked under the backseat window, fearful some of my new friends might see me in that hulking behemoth jalopy, which was very definitely an old Mexican’s car,” he wrote. “I wasn’t ashamed of Uncle Manuel, but I knew the Anglo kids from my new public school did not understand the glories of these vehicles, decked with conjunto music radio, saints’ cards, dashboard religious statuary, and furry dice, and I was too young not to give a damn.” Places Left Unfinished chronicles these first stirrings of identity, along with the stories of those who populate Santos’ family: Teofilo, the great-grandfather kidnapped by Kickapoo Indians; Fermina, the albino great-aunt who is clairvoyant; Lico, the uncle who insists that the family is directly descended from the king of Spain. The memoir’s main character is arguably San Antonio itself—a city, Santos notes, that was already three hundred years old at the time of his birth. Recalling the old mercado district and the grand, gilded movie theaters that once lined Houston Street, Santos rues the antiseptic tourist attractions that have taken their place. But he still catches glimpses of an older San Antonio: He marvels at the chance appearance of the “Chevrolet Madonna,” an image of the Virgin Mary that reflected off the fender of a maroon Impala in the barrio several years ago. The enduring theme of Places Left Unfinished is Santos’ inquiry into his grandfather’s 1939 drowning in the San Antonio River, ruled a suicide by the authorities and long kept a closely guarded secret in the family. Santos wanted to probe his grandfather’s death, he wrote, “because his life was a missing arc between us and our incalculable origins.”
Currently at work on a new book, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire, Santos will delve more deeply into these origins, exploring his family’s time in South Texas and northern Mexico and further back still to Spain. He had never felt any particular kinship to Spain, Santos explained, until a trip to the Basque country brought on a Proustian moment of revelation. “The barkeep brought out some rice pudding, and it was exactly as my mother and my grandmother used to make it,” he says, smiling at the memory. “It was a little clue, a hint, to a larger story.”