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1999 National Book Award nominee for Nonfiction.
Land of Little Old Ladies
"Have all the Santos already died?"
That's the question Madrina asks Aunt Connie several times a week, as she awakens from sleeping or daydreaming in front of the television.
"¿Ya se murieron todos los Santos?"
Madrina Tomasa is my grandmother's sister on my father's side of the family. She is the eldest living sibling of her brood of Garcias. She lives with my aunt and uncle in a bright, meticulously arranged room in a house in San Antonio, Texas, where she keeps time by TV novelas like Amor Salvaje, variety shows, and televised-live Sunday-morning masses from San Fernando Cathedral.
Like others of her generation, the present has lost its claim on her. Mostly she wanders, disembodied, through her ninety-five years, as if they were interlocking chambers of an enormous shell of memories. One moment she is a child, bathing in morning light in the mercado of Múzquiz, in the mountains of northern Mexico. Then it is 1921, and she is overturning a Model A Ford on San Antonio's south side. She laughs now, remembering the tumbling tin milk jugs from the dairy truck she collided with, pouring out across the oily pavement on Nogalitos Street.
Though she was married to my great-uncle Manuel for almost sixty years, Madrina is still enamored with el tío Uvaldino Santos, my grandfather's brother, whom she fell in love with as a teen. Aunt Connie says hewas the "love of her life," but they were not permitted to marry because in Mexico it was considered improper for two sisters to marry two brothers. Dead for more than ten years, Uvaldino comes to her in dreams, upright and impeccable in his dark pin-striped suit, with mustache and eyebrows perfectly combed, and presents her with large bunches of grapes. And week to week, she asks my aunt that same question:
"¿Ya se murieron todos los Santos?"
My aunt replies, "Sí, Madrina, ya se murieron todos los Santos."
"All of the Santos have died."
Since Aunt Connie told me that story, I have wondered why she told Madrina all the Santos are dead. Who are we?
Aren't we still unfolding the same great tapestry of a tale begun long, long ago? Aren't my aunts and uncles, cousins, my parents and brothers, all part of the same long dolorous poem that sings of the epoch of ocean-plying caravelas and conquest, of Totonacas and Aztecas, of unimaginable treasures created from jade, silver, and gold? Of gods worshipped and sacrificed to from on top of pyramids—of thousands upon thousands of Indios baptized for Christ in the saliva of Franciscan monks? We may be latter-day Mexicanos, transplanted into another millennium in E1 Norte, but we are still connected to the old story, aren't we? The familia walked out of the mountain pueblos of Mexico into the oldest precincts of San Antonio—then, finally, into the suburbs of the onetime colonial city, where the memory of our traditions has flickered like a votive flame, taken from the first fire.
It's a common name my family carries out of our Mexican past. It is a name that invokes the saints and embroiders daily prayers of Latinos in North and South America. The old ones in the family say the name was once de Los Santos. "From the saints." But no one remembers when or why it was shortened. There were Santos already in San Antonio two hundred years ago. In the records for the year 1793 at the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which later became the Alamo, you find the names of Manuel and Jorge de Los Santos, referred to as "Indios," but it's not clear whether they are our ancestors.
It sometimes seems as if Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering. We have made selective forgetting a sacramental obligation. Leave it all in the past, all that you were, and all that you could not be. There is pain enough in the present to go around. Some memories cannot be abandoned. Let the past reclaim all the rest, forever, and let stories come to their fitting end.
* * *
I never understood people's fascination with immortality. The idea of life without end gave me chills. Even as a kid, I wanted to be among my family and my ancestors, walking through our short time together, fully knowing it will end. I wanted to bind Texas and Mexico together like a raft strong enough to float out onto the ocean of time, with our past trailing in the wake behind us like a comet tail of memories.
But the past can be difficult to conjure again when so little has been left behind. A few photographs, a golden medal, a pair of eyeglasses as delicate as eggshells, an old Bible, a letter or two. Some families in Mexico have troves of their ancestors' belongings, from pottery of the ancients and exquisite paintings of Mexico City in the eighteenth century to helmets and shields of the Spaniards, and even hundred-year-old parrots and maguey plants that have been handed down, from the great-grandparents who first tended them.
By comparison, the Santos are traveling light through time. In my family, virtually nothing has been handed down, not because there was nothing to give, but after leaving Mexico to come to Texas—so many loved ones left behind, cherished places and things abandoned—the antepasados ceased to regard anything as a keepsake. Everything was given away. Or they may have secretly clung so closely to their treasured objects that they were never passed on.
Then they were lost.
My mother's mother, Leandra Lopez, whom we called simply "Grandmother," sat in her cluttered dark house on West Russell Street like an aged Tejana sphinx during the last ten years of her life. Through the year, she filed away embossed death notices and patron saint prayer cards of departed family and friends in the black leather address book I consulted to write out her Christmas cards every year. In early December, I would sit down with her and first cross out the entries for all those who had "passed onward," as she used to say. By each name in the book, she had already scratched a cross with thick black pencil lines.
Memo Montalvo from Hebronville, Texas. According to Grandmother, a good man. He had married a not-very-pretty cousin from Laredo.
Efraín Vela from Mier, Tamaulipas. Son of a cousin on her father's side whom she never spoke to. Supposedly, he was the keeper of the family coat of arms, awarded to the family by the Viceroy of Nueva España himself. What would happen to it now?
Socorro Mendiola, from Alice, Texas. She and Grandmother had taught school together in a one-room schoolhouse in Cotulla in 1910. Then Socorro became a Franciscan nun, breaking the heart of Grandmother's cousin, Emeterio Vela, whom, she noted with a sigh, had died just last year.
And every year, by the degrees of each ended life, as the world grew older, our addressing marathons grew shorter—though Grandmother would change the subject if I pointed out this mortal ratio.
Inside her rolltop writing desk, she kept a mysterious wooden polygonal star that had a different swatch of old Mexican fabrics glued on each facet. The multicolored curiosity smelled like Mexico, all cumin, wild honey, and smoky rose, and when you shook it, a small solitary object rattled inside. A stone? A marble? A gem? To me, it seemed like some magician's puzzle, and locked inside were all of the secrets of old Mexico.
During one of our annual Christmas-card sessions, I asked her if I could have that star, instead of the customary reward of a box of animal crackers and five dollars in change, which she laboriously fished out of her zippered, yellowing plastic coin purse. Grandmother was almost completely blind by then, so I put her hand to the last of the Hallmark Christmas cards in the place for her to sign her name. She slowly scratched out LEANDRA VELA LOPEZ, and told me no, I could not have the star.
I never saw it again.
My uncle, Lico Lopez, her son, ferreted out the past as a passionate genealogist who used research, fantasy, and spells of breathless diabetic madness to craft his ancestral charts of the Lopez and Vela families. Some are elaborate discs, in which each outward concentric ring represents a new generation. In these, as you delve closer to the center, you also go deeper into the past. In others, quickly dashed off as notes to himself, ragged trees and jagged lines are drawn between names like Evaristo, Viviano, Blas, and Hermenegilda. In one, going back to 1763, the capstone slot contains the cryptic entry,
"King of Spain,"
from whom, presumably, he believed we were descended. Subtle faculties and proclivities were passed, speechlessly, through the flesh of successive generations. The ghosts of Spanish royalty mingled with Indios, Negros, and people from every part of the world—in Uncle Lico's secret genealogy of Mexico. Yet, despite the uninterest and ridicule of many, he managed to recover numerous family names and stories.
Lico knew I had some of the same magnetic attraction to the past that fueled his manic genealogies, as if the molecules of our bodies were polarized in a way that drew us both back in time, back, inexorably, toward the ancestors. Before he died, suddenly, in San Antonio, of a heart attack, he sent me all of the notes and charts accumulated in his forty years of digging in the family root cellars. He also gave me a receipt, dated May 25, 1928, laminated and mounted on wood, from my grandfather's grocery store, Leonides Lopez Groceries, in Cotulla, Texas. In my grandfather's filigreed wrought iron pencil script, it details a sale on that day of harina (flour), azúcar (sugar), fideos (vermicelli), manteca (lard), papas (potatoes), and other assorted dry goods, for a total of $5.05.
A relic like this is the exception, though. A trunkful of the Santos family photographs disappeared when Madrina moved out of the old house on Cincinnati Street. She swears she remembers seeing it fall off the truck near the corner of Zarzamora Street, where La Poblanita bakery was located. It was a pine box the size of a shipping trunk, stuffed with heirloom photographs. She can't remember why she said nothing at the time. It fell off a truck onto the dusty streets of old San Antonio de Bejar one day and was left behind, abandoned, lost.
In one photo that survived it is 1960, and the whole Santos tribe is standing on the porch of my grandmother's house, in early evening shadows. It must have been Easter because my many cousins and I are in church clothes, standing in the yard around the trunk of a great sycamore tree. My aunts and uncles are there, partly old Mexican, partly new American, looking handsome, hopeful, proud of the brood standing in front of them. In the very middle of the scene, las Ancianas, Grandmother Santos, whom we called "Uela," short for abuela, and Madrina, her sister, are standing regally in a perfect moment, radiating the indelible light of Mexico. On the porch, Mother and an aunt have my newborn twin brothers, George and Charles, wrapped in blankets in their arms. My father looks serious, with a distant gaze, in a dark suit and silky tie. To one side, standing apart from us, is one of my eldest cousins, René, who would be killed in Vietnam just seven years later.
These are the memento mori of the Santos. There are a few photographs, rosary chains of half-remembered stories, carried out of another time by the old Mexicans I grew up with. In dreams, the ancestors who have passed on visit with me, in this world, and in a world that lies perhaps within, amidst, and still beyond this world—a mystical limbo dimension that the descendants of the Aztecs call el Inframundo. In the Inframundo, all that has been forgotten still lives. Nothing is lost. All remembrance is redeemed from oblivion.
These ancestors, living and dead, have asked me the questions they were once asked: Where did our forebears come from and what have we amounted to in this world? Where have we come to in the span of all time, and where are we headed, like an arrow shot long ago into infinite empty space? What messages and markings of the ancient past do we carry in these handed-down bodies we live in today?
With these questions swirling inside me, I have rediscovered some stories of the family past in the landscapes of Texas and Mexico, in the timeless language of stone, river, wind, and trees. Tío Abrán, twin brother to my great-grandfather Jacobo, was a master of making charcoal. He lived in the hill country, where the cedars needed to make charcoal were planted a century ago to supply the industry. Today, long after he worked there, walking in that central Texas landscape crowded with deep green cedar, I feel old Abrán's presence, like the whisper of a tale still waiting to be told, wondering whether my intuition and the family's history are implicitly intertwined. Even if everything else had been lost—photographs, stories, rumors, and suspicions—if nothing at all from the past remained for us, the land remains, as the original book of the family.
It was always meant to be handed down.
* * *
I am one of the late twentieth-century Santos, born in la Tierra de Viejitas, "the Land of Little Old Ladies," a sun-drenched riverine empire in south Texas reigned over by a dynasty of Mexican doñas who held court in shady painted backyard arbors and parlors across the neighborhoods of San Antonio. To the uninitiated, las Viejitas might look fragile, with their bundled bluish hair, false teeth, and halting arthritic steps across the front porch. Their names were ciphers from the lost world: Pepa. Tomasa. Leandra. Margarita. Chita. Cuka. Fermina. They were grandmothers, great-aunts, sisters-in-law, and comadres.
Their houses smelled of cinnamon tea, marigolds, burning church candles, Maja brand Spanish talcum powder, and Pine-Sol. They tended garden plots of geraniums, squash, tomatoes, cilantro, and chile, decorated with stones that were painted to look like Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Cantinflas. The chickens in their backyards sometimes seemed to cluck to the sound of the polkas coming from the transistor radio left on in the bathroom. They healed children, and animals, with their remedios, potions and poultices made with herbs that had names like el garrabato and la gobernadora. Asking Tía Pepa how she learned the old remedies, cures, and healing arts, she once answered, "It's nothing special—just some little things I heard some people talking about when I was a little girl."
When she was fourteen, Pepa performed her first healing on a woman in her village of Palaú, Coahuila, in north Mexico. The woman was wasting away from a week of stomach cramps and nausea. She was empachada, afflicted by some alien spirit that had entered her body to block and torment her guts. Pepa explains how she laid the ailing señora on a large dining room table, rubbing her with freshly squeezed plant oils, tightly wrapping her in a blanket, "like an enchilada," and praying by her side for hours, petitioning the evil spirit to come out. The cramps subsided and the lady quickly got better.
Many years later, my brothers and I would be left with my grandmother and her old sisters when we were sick with colds. They wrapped hot, wet towels around our clasped hands and had us pray, "to preserve and concentrate the warmth of your body." The heat of the living rooms of las Viejitas was moist with the faint, burnt paraffin scent of the gas flames rising along the white-hot porcelain heating fixtures. While I lay dazed with the flu on a sofa, watching The Andy Griffith Show, Let's Make a Deal, or The Mike Douglas Show, they made huevos rancheros and atole de arroz, read the Bible, planted a new cactus in the backporch garden, and in the afternoon, took a long, tranquil siesta.
On their solo trips to Mexico, we heard how las Viejitas rode tough mares and swam in rushing rock-bed arroyos. After being dropped off across the border in Nuevo Laredo or Piedras Negras, they traveled by bus far into the old country to see sobrinos y comadres in Monterrey or Nueva Rosita, or deeper into Mexico to collect water from a spring in Querétaro said to have healing powers.
Some traded small parcels of real estate, purchased originally with insurance money from their long-departed husbands. Some loved parades—some wore fur coats in the middle of summer. Others prayed with eyes closed, their hands held to the breast and clasped so tightly the blood ran out. They wore powders and pomades, with small handkerchiefs always modestly folded into their cuffs or bodices.
Effortlessly, they seemed to know exactly what needed to be done. When a violent storm suddenly descended on the city, they pulled the windows closed and made crosses of lime on small cards, placing them under the beds, chairs, and tables.
They rolled tortillas while cooking beans and carne guisada on fiery stoves—and ended most days with a shot of tequila and a little juice glass filled with beer.
Then it was time for the rosary.
That there were no men among las Viejitas didn't seem strange at all. They seemed to have died so far in the past that no one ever spoke of them. The pictures of the grandfathers, and the great-grandfathers, were kept in loving regard in living room cabinets and bedroom bureaus—always with the claw mustaches, always unsmiling, stiff-spined in their heavy wool suits. In one old ivory frame, Uela and Abuelo Juan José, my father's parents, were caught in brisk midstride, staring ahead, snapped by a strolling photographer on the downtown sidewalk of Houston Street, under the marquis of the Texas Theater. I marveled at my grandfather's stance, with leg kicked out as if in a march. His expression was tender yet determined. But by the 1950s, most of the men were already distant memories. Las Viejitas had made it through without them, even if much of the century had been lonely.
They had raised their tribes—las familias—in El Norte, virtually alone. Most of their men fell early in the century, at an epic age's end when the memories and dreams of Old Mexico were receding quickly to the south like a tide falling back into an ancient inland sea, past Zarzamora Street in San Antonio, past the moonlit chalk bluffs of the Nueces River in south Texas, then farther south past the towns of Cotulla, Hondo, Eagle Pass, and the Rio Grande.
After freely moving north and south for generations, the Santos were left on the north bank of this vanishing memory—naufragios—shipwrecked beyond the border. No one now remembered when Texas was Mexico, was Nueva España, was wilderness before the Europeans came.
There was revolution in the old country when the family set out for the north in this century. In 1914 they were Mestizo settlers, part Spanish, part Indian, on the edge of the ruins of ancient Mexico and New Spain. Even though these lands had been Mexican for nearly three centuries—Texas had been taken over by los Americanos in 1836—it was a new world they settled in, less than three hundred miles from home. Mexicanos could easily keep to themselves, but back then, there were some places you just didn't go. Mexicans knew to avoid completely the predominantly German Texas hill country towns of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, where there had been trouble in the past with "esa genre con las cabezas quadradas,"—"those people with the square heads"—as Great-uncle Manuel Martinez, Madrina's husband, used to say.
There were outposts of the "pueblo Mexicano" in cities of the north like St. Louis and Chicago, in Detroit and Seattle, but the Mexican Americans mainly stayed in the lands we knew best, from California to Texas, not too far from el otro lado, "the other side," as Mexico was often referred to.
"The apple never falls too far from the tree," Uela used to say. By leaving Mexico, the family had become exiles in what was really our own homeland. But under the all-knowing gazes of these Viejitas, we never felt oppressed or downtrodden.
* * *
The world of the family in la Tierra de Viejitas was an echo of the worlds of families we knew in Mexico, where I spent a lot of time growing up. After the migration of the Santos and Garcias in 1914, during the time of the Mexican Revolution, only a few aunts and cousins had remained in Mexico, and many of them had died, or been lost by the time I was born. The Guerras of Sabinas, Coahuila, were such old family friends that they had become family, offering me a living root in the land the Santos had left behind fifty years before. I didn't know it then, but my visits to Sabinas, growing more frequent as I grew older, were also journeys to my family's former home in Mexico, there in that cluster of little-known northern towns in the coal-rich high desert country of Coahuila. These pilgrimages were almost involuntary, as if I had been pulled, inexplicably, in a strong Gulf undertow toward the ancestors. In towns such as Sabinas, Agujita, Palaú, and Múzquiz, I was in the company of our family's Mexican ghosts.
The Guerra family home in Sabinas, Coahuila, across the street from the church and the central plaza, was another matriarchy—ruled over by a Viejita, Abuelita Josefina, a widow already for more than thirty years, who was dutifully attended to by her daughters, sons, grandchildren, and a small coterie of India maids.
During one of the first of many visits to the Guerras in Sabinas in the mid-1960s, I awoke with a sudden noise. Outside in the plaza, reservists, bedraggled from long Saturday night cantina vigils, had begun their drills in the plaza at dawn, blowing bugles and pounding their snares as if they wanted to crack the sky open, scaring the grackles and rattling the tin gutters of the house, sounding like clarions of the apocalypse. With the bedroom shutters open to the plaza, I started out of bed, fearing the end of the world had surely begun.
Walking out onto the cold, green malachite floors of the hallway, utterly quiet now, and into the kitchen, old Zulema, whom everyone called "Zule," the longtime head maid of the house, sat quietly on a stool in the early light, knitting her thick gray hair into one long braid, and afterward putting the water on to boil tomatoes for the breakfast salsa ranchera. She had the moon-shaped face of the Chichimeca Indians of the region. By then, her eyes were growing misty with cataracts, so most of the chopping she now left to the muchachitas, who were diligently at their work. Abuela Josefina, dressed in black with a mantle of starched lace chevrons around her collar, sat at a table with a cup of chocolate, sorting beans and chiles through her bifocals while orchestrating from across the room as Zule added the portions of salt, cumin, and cracked black pepper to the softly bubbling clay pot of salsa on the stove. She would narrate every step of the recipe to me—first burning the skins of the tomato, using a pumice stone metate to grind the spices, and always waiting until the very end for the cilantro—while interspersing stories of a specific overfiery salsa she had made for one of her daughter's weddings thirty years before, or a philological aperçu on the origin of the word "tomato" in tomatl, from the Nahuatl tongue of ancient Mexico.
Much of the breakfast came from the courtyard garden, scented with thickets of mint and mottled in the morning shade of lime trees with a nebula of low-hanging fruit. From high up in the leaf-draped branches of a primeval avocado tree there, I watched all of the comings and goings of the morning. The gas vendor who rolled his tanks through the streets shouting "Coahuila Gas!" came through the garden gate looking for one of the girls in the kitchen whom he had a crush on. Meanwhile, the man who sold flowers rang and waited for Zule at the gate, crossing himself every time the church bell chimed in the plaza. Throughout the early morning, with the sound of clapping sandals on the stone floors, grandchildren would appear in small gaggles, looking for their abuela Josefina, who would let each one take a sip from her cup of steaming chocolate.
Around the grand dining table, under an equestrian portrait of the family patriarch, Don Alejandro Guerra, Doña Josefina would gently steward the discussion during the meal, beginning by catching up on the family in San Antonio. If her eldest son, Tío Alejandro, was there, the talk would quickly move to news and politics of Mexico's borderlands, the politics of El Norte, a joke about the new Mexican president, an assassination of a governor in the Yucatán—or about poor Mexico herself.
In these mealtime colloquies, over huevos and frijoles, Mexico was referred to in tones of pity and exasperation: all the poverty, all the corruption, all the dust. The idea of annexing Coahuila to Texas would receive a jubilant toast of watermelon juice.
And I worried to myself secretly: What would be the destiny of Mexico?
* * *
Once they arrived in Texas during the revolution, maybe the Santos and Garcia families simply wanted to forget their past in Mexico—the dusty streets, broken-down houses, and hunger. They wanted to burn away the memory of when the families came north across the Rio Grande. Northern Mexico became one of the most violent and chaotic battlefields of la Revolución of 1910, a revolution that was to last eleven years. But for the first years, the revolution was only distant thunder, more of a concern to Mexicans well to the south of Coahuila in states such as Guerrero, Puebla, and Mexico City. The family's flight from Coahuila was in 1914, the year Pancho Villa, along with a myriad of other revolutionary bands, rose up to occupy the bare constellation of towns across the parched high Norteño desert where they had made their homes. San Antonio provided them a convenient escape from the fighting, and—despite other intentions—a shelter for memory, instead of its negation.
For my cousins, as for my brother's and me, the homes of las Viejitas were sanctuaries where Coahuila was still alive, and places where the inhibitions and proprieties of the Gringo world of San Antonio, Texas, outside did not apply. Those were days when the taco and the tamal were stigmatized in public, and Spanish was seldom heard on downtown streets. The old tíos had to speak English, often haltingly, to get along in the working world. Most of las Viejitas, staying in their homes, spoke only Spanish, or at least pretended not to speak English. When Uela spoke Spanish, her sentences moved in one steady arc, like a bow across a violin, and her words were delicately pronounced, so that you could hear every tinkle of an old chandelier, every gust of a Coahuila wind falling to a hush, and the grain of a rustling squash blossom.
The migrations continued through the century. In the 1960s, my parents moved us from one of the old neighborhoods of the city to a new suburb at the city's northwestern edge, in order to get us into the better public schools in San Antonio. We were the first Mexicans in the neighborhood, in a two-floor house with a two-car garage, a built-in dishwasher, central air-conditioning, and intercom consoles in every room. We spoke English to each other, and Spanish to the old ones in the family. When the mariachis played in our backyard, the rapid plucking of the bajo sexto and the shimmering trumpet lines echoed off the neighbors' houses and drew them out to listen. Out there in that virgin neighborhood, it always felt as if we were closer to the iridescent Texas sky, stripped of the protective canopy of sycamore, wisteria, china berry, and live oak that arched over so many of the streets of our old, secret Mexican city, San Antonio de Bejar.
That old San Antonio was part of the hoary earth of the ancestors. Out there in the suburb at the edge of the city, following the early Gemini and Apollo space missions, I read books about space and prepared for the day in the future, which would undoubtedly come, when I would leave this planet in a rocket of my own.
Today, in New York City, I live in a world las Viejitas never visited, very far from the land they knew well. I have been to places they never imagined, like England, Europe, Turkey, Peru, and the Sudan. Yet, wherever I go, there is a ribbon of primordial Mexican night, the color of obsidian, snaking in a dream through the skies high over my head. Sometimes it is easily visible to me, like a burning galaxy, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it drizzles a fine rain of voices, images, and stories. And las Viejitas are here now, too, as they have always been, invisible yet abiding. They are keeping a vigil over the stories they told to me as if they are a compromiso, a promise that has been handed on. I have always felt connected, oriented, and imparted to by them, but unsure how I fit into a story that was never meant to be told.
* * *
Tía Pepa has an old polished silver pistol with a pearl handle which she often brings out when she's in the mood to tell her stories of Mexico. It was given to her by her father, my great-grandfather Jacobo, as a wedding present. Her husband, great-uncle Anacleto, was the foreman of the large coal mine in Agujita, Coahuila, which in those days, could be a dangerous place. Anacleto, who later served as mayor of the small cluster of towns that included Cloete, Sabinas, and Barroterán, is still fondly remembered as the only man to serve in that office without ending up a rich man.
According to la tía, she only had to use that sidearm once, when some bandidos tried to rob their modest house and steal a week's payroll. Hearing them outside, Pepa yelled a warning to them, then fired one shot through the front door, and the hombres malos fled. Years later, when she and Anacleto came to the United States, the pistol was confiscated in its metal Gamesa cookie box by the American customs agents at the border town of Eagle Pass, and it took my mother a year of legal wrangles to help Tía Pepa to get it back.
Along with Uela, her sister Tía Pepa, and several aunts, Mother drove to the border after submitting all the required gun-permit papers and notarized letters of reference necessary to establish the weapon in the category of an "irreplaceable family heirloom." After a morning of shopping in Piedras Negras on the Mexican side of the river, visits with cousins in Villa Union, and bowls of cald ode pollo at a restaurant in the marketplace, they crossed the international bridge and kept their appointment with the chief Immigration Service officer. After receiving from the ladies a gift of tamales, along with the required documents, yet still puzzled by this delegation of nattily dressed Mexican, and Mexican American, women, the agent warily opened the vault and brought out a cloth bag that contained the pistol. Pepa thanked the agent and put the gun in her purse. As she tells the story of its return today, Pepa looks down at the old gun on her lap as if it were the last talisman of all the old Mexican time.
For years after arriving in Texas, Madrina missed their home village of Palaú, leaving her feeling perpetually displaced and homesick. She had brought little from Mexico, and today she has few things that go back to that time. In her room in Aunt Connie's house she shows me a photograph of her father Jacobo and his twin brother Abrán, taken in a studio in Palaú, with a map of the Santa Rosa sierra in the background. It sits on top of her 27-inch television, which she keeps tuned to one of the Spanish channels at stentorian volume. Another portrait, of Uela, looking stern, yet consoling, hangs over her bed.
Year-round, she bundles up now like an Inuit elder, with a furry wool stocking cap pulled down around her ears, a pink and turquoise flowery house robe, and embroidered slippers made of blonde Scottish lambskin. With one gloved hand, she clutches the dainty glass of beer she takes every day with lunch.
In those long-ago days of the revolution and the migration, she knew a part of old Mexico was dying in the lives of all those who were displaced. That life the Garcias had known in Palaú was soon to be vanquished, and with it a way of living that had been changeless since no one can remember when. It was a way of life that had carried them out of the past like an undetectable current through all the plantings and harvests, the births, marriages, and deaths.
Madrina remembers how many of the families that had left Mexico with them arrived in Texas with nowhere to go and no one to help them. They were los perdidos, the lost ones. If there was nobody to vouch for them at the border in Piedras Negras, they were put on federal freight trains manned by Army soldiers and Texas Rangers, bound for the sprawling desert refugee camp at Fort Bliss, which quickly became known among the Mexicanos as "Fort Misery."
"We were always going to go back when things got better—but then they never did. So we stayed in San Antonio," Madrina recalls now.
Yet, there wasn't much homesickness among the old Garcia brothers. They were not much given over to sentimentality about anything, even Mexico. They simply kept to their practical ways, and by doing so, they remained connected to the feeling of that old Mexican time inside of them. Where las Viejitas maintained something of the knowledge and meaning of that time, their brothers kept and passed down the practices, the daily routines of tasks and chores. Uncle Frank helped me plant a patch of watermelon plants in the beige sand of our ranch in Pleasanton, Texas—moving slowly around the plot, stringing a network of twine from an elaborate frame he had constructed to hang cheesecloth to keep out the greedy dark purple grackles. In that garden, we planted both the round watermelons and the longer, dirigible-shaped ones. Uncle Frank pursued his gardening as if he had done the same thing a thousand times, anticipating the evenings when we would stand over the same garden, spitting watermelon seeds into the bright moonlight.
Despite Madrina's early unease, the family gradually became anchored in the ancient soil of Texas and in the streets of San Antonio. But all of those ghost geographies in the family: the Mexico de Mexico, the Mexico de Tejas, pulled at me like an invisible magnet whenever I spent time with the Garcias.
* * *
Where their brothers were all good with lathes, gears, and engines, the three garcia sisters, Margarita (Uela), Tomasa (Madrina), and Josefa (Tía Pepa), were more inclined to the immaterial realm, where the saints could intercede with God on behalf of humans—seres humanos—and from where humans could draw the power to heal, or, to hurt one another. Many of las Viejitas in the family knew these things, and the Garcia hometown of Palaú in Mexico has always been known as a town of gifted healers.
This was the knowledge that had been handed down, usually mother to daughter, since the time of the conquest, cloaking old Indian sabiduría, or wisdom, in the trappings of a pious Roman Catholicism. If someone possessed these arts and wanted to, they could do harm to you with el mal ojo, a gaze so jarring your soul would be shaken, leaving you listless, desperate, or crazy.
Most illnesses were believed to be carried in the winds, so you had to take precautions that unfavorable breezes did not enter your mouth, your ears, or the top of your head. And then there was susto, a kind of supernatural fright, that ensued when you inadvertently allowed yourself to be invaded by unfriendly spirits. Above all, spirits were real.
Pepa was with Uela when she went to a medium in Monterrey, and they watched the old Indian man pass slowly into a deep, slurring, closed-eye trance. Suddenly, in a distinguished voice, speaking in the crisp, proper Spanish of a metropolitano, he called out to my grandmother by her first name.
"Margarita! Margarita! How I have looked for your across the centuries!" The medium's face was pursed in a grimace. Uela was terrified.
"Who are you?" Uela asked, gripping her sister Pepa's hand.
"It is I, Juan de Dios Pesa."
It was the spirit of the nineteenth-century poet of Mexico City, whose verses Uela adored. When she was young in Palaú, she had wanted to be an actress, and she used to recite one particular poem of Pesa's about a rose pleading for rain from a cloud that was always in too much of a hurry to grant the wish. One day, when the cloud finally returned looking for the rose, it was already dead and dried up. Many years later, in San Antonio, she still recited that poem for her grandchildren.
The ghost of the poet promised Uela it was written in the annals of heaven they would be together someday, and that occult prophecy became a secret the sisters kept until my grandmother's death.
"And what would you do with your husband, Juan José?" Pepa asked her sister, leaving the medium's studio.
"Don't even ask such a question, hermana!" she answered, full of consternation.
As the youngest daughter, Pepa was devoted to all of her brothers and sisters, but especially to her eldest sister, Uela, my grandmother, and in subtle ways she shared some part of each of their powers, the earthly and the ethereal.
Tía Pepa had been there when her middle sister had gotten the susto that changed her forever: Madrina hadn't always been so ethereal, so helpless, so pampered as we knew her when we were growing up. As a child and a young woman in Mexico, she had been mischievous and quick to anger. Then, suddenly one day, she changed. It was on a ranch where the family was living in Marion, Texas, near Austin, when Madrina was about fourteen years old. It was a beautiful, clear Texas day, but it had been raining for days before, and everywhere puddles reflected the yellow sunlight, making the whole landscape shimmer like a mirage.
That morning, a young Anglo woman had died of tuberculosis at a nearby ranch, and the body was being taken to town to be prepared for burial. Pepa and Madrina were playing together on the porch in front of the house when the small buggy carrying the body passed by. The dead woman had been seated upright on the bench, supported by her two sisters, when they hit a bump crossing a small creekbed that sent the corpse flying forward. The shroud that had covered the deceased fell away and the young woman's ravaged body was revealed, with all her hair gone, her face shrunken, and her raked cheeks painfully contorted with teeth showing, her arms clutched tightly to her chest.
The sisters in the buggy screamed and cried out her name, "Adelle!" cradling the body as they sobbed.
According to Tía Pepa, she looked away but Madrina kept staring. At that very instant, Pepa says, Madrina saw the poor woman's spirit leave her body and spiral upward like smoke toward the morning moon, which caused her to fall into a violent seizure, writhing on the floor of the porch and foaming at the mouth. It was the first of many such spells she would have for the next twenty years.
Pepa says the seizures made her sister extremely attentive to others, grateful for how they, in turn, took care of her. Madrina was also highly regarded for her intuitions. She didn't have to think about a problem. She just told you the answer that came into her mind, which was usually good counsel. This power, too, was said to come from the seizures. If Madrina was able to endure the driving emotional storms of her fits, everyday feelings must have appeared to her as if they were in slow motion. She was able to see deeper into the patterns of fleeting moments, to feel faint currents of the phenomena that shape our future. Now, Tía Pepa simply says that you must be extremely careful when the spirits are walking among you.
* * *
In la Tierra de Viejitas, I always knew the ghosts of the ancestors—the Santos, the Garcias, and all the others—are still with us. If not prepared, one could be frightened by the sight of them. Dressed in their downtown Frank Brothers vintage suits and Joske's department store dresses, they still stroll the wide sidewalks of San Antonio's Houston Street, taking long, slow steps past the blue, yellow, red, and green tile walls of the old Alameda Theater and the brightly painted walls of El Tenampa Bar.
The spirits stand dazed in front of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe inside the door of the San Fernando Cathedral, exhausted and dirty from a long day of picking tomatoes. In pairs, the wraiths sometimes float on flat barges down the San Antonio River, past all the tourists, preparing for a long journey south, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and pouring yellow tequila into shot glasses. Los Muertos do not give up their homelands. We call it Texas. Some of them knew it as Tejas, or part of la Nueva Extremadura of New Spain. Others refer to it secretly as Aztlán, the mythical birthplace of the nomadic Mexica people who were to become the fierce Aztecs of central Mexico.
Along with the ghosts, their old gods—from the time before the Europeans—still whisper their prophecies in the ageless sunlight that falls on the ancient earth of Texas, severed so long ago from its Mexican roots. Their old, abandoned calendars, already well spun out, are still counting off these years in the churning mill of the stars, in this, the age of the fifth sun the Aztecs called Cuatro Movimiento, Four Movement.
"You will find your home," says Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god whose name means "Hummingbird of the South"—just as he told the Mexica centuries ago when he sent them off to the south in search of a new home. On his instructions, they left behind their birthplace, where they had lived for so long—Aztlán—"the place of whiteness" in the ancient Nahuatl tongue.
"You will receive many signs, and you will find the kingdom I have promised. But first you must make a very long journey."
All of these movements, north and south, follow maps left drawn in the blood, and the family stories carry their echo, from deep inside the past. The Mexica, who would become the Aztecs, were nomads across sprawling deserts, river plains, and mountain cordilleras for almost three hundred years before they saw the prophesied sign of an eagle consuming a serpent over a cactus. There, in the lake basin of the Valley of Mexico, they built the great imperial city of Tenochtitlán. Soon, though, they did not remember where Aztlán was—only that it lay to the north. They longed to abandon the memory of their centuries of hardship and wandering, replacing it with a glorious chronicle of victories, conquest, and oracles of a vast empire.
Mexico was always an empire of forgetting. After the cataclysm of conquest in 1521, when Tenochtitlán fell to the army of Hernán Cortés, Mexico was cut off from the wellspring of its Indian genesis, a place forevermore of fog and mystery. For decades, as the stories tell, night skies glowed with Spanish bonfires burning the codices, parchments, and totems that preserved the sacred knowledge of the Indian past. José Martí, the Cuban patriot and writer, said that the conquistadores "stole a page from the universe."
Spain was just as distant and ineffable, try as the conquistadors might to build a "New Spain" on Mexican earth. For better or worse, all the progeny of the conquest, Indios, Españoles, and mixed-blood Mestizos alike, shared the destiny of being irreversibly separated from their origins. That was the beginning of the Mexican Diaspora. To be Mexican American, Chicano, is to be further removed from those origins.
As a raza, a "nation" we are a Diaspora within a Diaspora.
Yet, something miraculous happened that marked the destiny of every Mexican to be born out of the crucible of the conquest. Ten years after the fall of the Aztec empire, on a hill outside of Tenochtitlán where the Indians had worshipped their goddess Tonantzín, a brownskinned woman dressed simply as an Indian appeared to an Aztec man, Juan Diego, and told him in Nahuatl that she had come to be Mother to all the peoples of this land. By legend, she appeared in a shimmering cloud and made a field of roses bloom in the middle of winter.
Later, her winsome, cloaked image mysteriously appeared in a painting on Juan Diego's cloak. She would come to be known as la Morenita, the Virgin of Guadalupe, part Indian, part Spanish, a living emblem of the union of opposing worlds in the new Mexico, and the supreme Mother whose spirit forged the watchful presence of all of the generations of Viejitas who were to come.
Las Viejitas were born in the Virgin's magic.
They grew up in a twilight time and geography, poised between those ancient Indio origins from the south, Spain's grand utopian designs, and our Mestizo future in the north. The world they remember from their youth is not the modern Mexico ruled over by a roughtrade priestly elite of Ivy league, pedigreed technocrats, orchestrating Mexico's extreme slow-motion collapse. Their legacy is from the time that the Spanish language, theology, and science were first thrown across the Mexican geography like an enormous net, from a vision of the land enmeshed within the cosmos. That vision, with all of its mystical powers, has been almost lost.
When Madrina asks now if all of the Santos have died, she's really wondering whether a whole time has passed, her time, her age—and a generation with it—a generation with a living memory of the deep family bonds into Mexico's past.
All of the Santos have died.
I am one of their survivors.
|1||Tierra de Viejitas||3|
|2||Codices de los Abuelos||27|
|3||Valle de Silencio||46|
|5||The Flowered Path||86|
|6||From Huisache to Cedar||104|
|7||Zona de Niebla||121|
|9||Rain of Stones||162|
|Tent of Grief: An Afterword||280|
Posted December 14, 2000
I am a native San Antonian, which is why I began reading this book. I am not Mexican but I have been around the culture my whole life and have many Mexican friends. This book really let me see the beautiful culture that makes up so much of my city,and really seems to be the soul of San Antonio. I discovered that even though I have resided here my whole life; I really knew very about Mexican culture, their long struggle and the true history of our city. Santos does a wonderful job in explaining and describing our city and the people here. This book and the people/family it tells about are beautiful beyond words. I felt saddened and in intrigued at the same time to learn about the family and cultures' triumphs and tragedies. I Think people will identify with Santos in his love for his family, how he feels about them, and his fear of losing the past. More then anything I appreciate what this book has taught me about my city and its people.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 28, 2000
I was intrigued to discover John Phillip Santos again following some twenty years of wondering whatever happened to John Santos?. I first met John as a fellow undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and remember him as a curious, gifted and mysterious figure always travelling to some foreign place (San Antonio) during spring break, not unlike the characters he writes about. A gifted writer who was at ease with the world's finest poets and writers. To now read between the lines of John's wonderfully maverick ways, and to discover the source of his spirit in his etchings of those who came before him was such a rare human experience. John writes symphonically. This book was such a treasure, as I now reside in Northern New Mexico. I now understand so much more of this rich community. Mostly the book reminds us not to forget. John has a remarkable spirit and there is enough left unspoken in the book that one is encouraged that what lays ahead will be truly great, because what has come before has been so well remembered. John weaves family, myth and spirit with his own personal journey. In an age when people think nothing of appearing on television and revealing their tawdriest secrets, John has artfully pointed the way to a meaningful divulging of one's history without auctioning one's soul. One gets the sense of a work that continues to unfold, and I look greatly forward to more. This would make a great film.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 12, 2000
An amazingly eloquent book. The book reads like poetry, and has a language rarely seen in today¿s writing. Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation is truly one of the most beautifully written books of 1999. It is not your typical book written for a limited reader. The prose are prolific and wrought with amazing imagery. It is so refreshing to read a book written by someone with such a gift for language. Places Left Unfinished paints a very interesting and accurate story of a culture in transition, through the story of a family in touch with its past and exploring its future. This is truly a book lover¿s book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.