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Book Reviews

The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire

Ten years ago Texan John Phillip Santos traced his father's family to its origins in indigenous Mexico.

The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire

The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire

A Tejano Elegy

Author: John Phillip Santos

304 p pp. Viking Adult

Ten years ago Texan John Phillip Santos traced his father’s family to its origins in indigenous Mexico. The book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In his new work, he follows the Lopezes and the Velas, his mother’s bloodlines, to Iberia as Spain began colonizing the New World.

A poet, documentary film producer and the first Mexican-American Rhodes Scholar, Santos is a brilliant writer whose work defies conventional genre. Attempts to label it memoir, autobiography or history are doomed to failure. It’s all of these and delightfully more. Santos employs historical documents, genetic mapping and even the insight of a wise “great-grandfather from the future” named Cenote Siete, to tell the story of looking for his mother’s lost ancestors.

One of Santos’ uncles long obsessed about the family’s roots, and his grandmother sometimes referred to her Spanish heritage, though she considered herself Mexican. So where to start looking beyond those couple of generations back?

He begins in South Texas along the Mexican border, and the Villas del Norte, Spanish settlements from the 1700s in what is now the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Colonizer Jóse de Escandón named this region Nuevo Santander after Santander, Spain. From here Santos returns to Spain, looking for clues about the ancestors Escandón might have brought to the New World. He finds numerous possibilities.

“A Juan Vela is named among the conquistadores of the Yucatán in a chronicle of the year 1534,” and, “there was also a Vela in Cerralvo, in the northern region that was to become Nuevo Santander,” he writes.
There were Lopezes among those who came with Hernán Cortés on that first expedition into “undiscovered Mexico.” One Lopez was said to have “made a massive wooden cross that was placed on top of a Mayan temple in front of which Cortés preached an evangelizing sermon.”

As readers, we delight in these discoveries; we want to know that we, too, might find the seeds to our family trees. But Santos seems to ask that we keep these glimpses of our pasts in perspective, view them against the greater backdrop of human history. As his futuristic relative Cenote Siete intuits: “Go back far enough and everybody is related to everyone. Forty generations into the past and we are ancestrally linked to a sprawling human host of humanity.”

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