PLACES LEFT UNFINISHED

AT THE TIME OF CREATION

By John Phillip Santos

Viking. 284 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Marjorie Agosin

During the last decade, a powerful and distinct Latino voice has emerged, testifying to the Latino condition as one of perpetual exile. A sense of permanent homelessness seems to permeate The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent by Julia Alvarez, among other memorable works. John Phillip Santos, born and raised in San Antonio, Tex., a writer-producer for CBS, now adds his own voice and story to this luminous constellation.

Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation is part memoir, part lyrical evocation of the diaspora into which Mexicans were thrown after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, and part history of their times in the United States. Santos narrates the stories of various unforgettable characters, including his grandparents, his madrina (godmother), who is blessed with the gift of prophecy, and his uncle Ludovico, who is obsessed with history and genealogies. Within this complex family cartography, Santos carefully crafts his family's past, unfolding a beautiful, universal portrait of migration.

Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation must not be read from a chronological perspective. Santos shows us the ambiguities and dangers of history. As its title so evocatively exemplifies, his book is an elegiac meditation on the things one chooses to remember and those one would rather forget. Throughout the memoir, there are constant reminders of the memories the Santoses kept hidden, to the extent that at times the act of forgetting became part of their strategy for survival.

Yet Santos insists that remembering the ordinary things of life is as important to survival as recalling extraordinary acts of courage. He masterfully weaves the story of his ancestors in Mexico with the landscape and fragrance of their memories, and, as he goes, he retraces the route of the conquistador Hernan Cortes. He bears witness to a past he does not know but manages to recreate it vividly. Santos invokes legendary figures of Spanish American history such as the Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, who chronicled the vanished Aztec culture and its ancient codices.

"But the past can be difficult to conjure again when so little has been left behind," she writes. "A few photographs, a golden medal, a pair of eyeglasses as delicate as eggshells, an old Bible, a letter or two." With artifacts like these, with stories, songs and haunting descriptions of the landscape of Mexico and Texas, Santos conjures the spirits of the past and the voices of his ancestors.

This memoir is more than a lyrical tapestry of genealogical alliances; it is an essay on migration and its effect on the human spirit -- what is left veiled and unveiled. Santos's reflection on the act of remembrance is at the center of this. "Indian memory is Mexican memory," he writes. "Their history -- is our history implicit, silent, inevitable."

But the author does not neglect the modern: His quest remains centered on the question of home and identity, even as he interweaves a history of exploitation, colonization, with a Mexican's quest for personal as well as political identity: "We became Americans," he writes, "and as such, we were no longer a part of the ancient compromiso, no longer obligated to keep a solemn vigil over Mexico's destiny, or, if necessary, to sacrifice ourselves for it. By leaving Mexico's destiny and being left by her, our forebears had meant to free us from the ceaseless cycle of sacred duties to sing and chant and make sacrifices and pilgrimages, so that the cosmos would continue to exist."

This significant and unique memoir goes beyond the "isms" that have stereotyped Latin American and Latino literature for so long. It will break the reader's heart, but it will also educate (the stories of San Antonio, the Alamo, and the U.S.-Mexican border, for instance, will be understood with greater insight and compassion). Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation is about that other America, the one that was silenced even as it emerged.

Marjorie Agosin is a poet and professor of Spanish at Wellesley College. Her most recent book is "The Alphabet in My Hand: The Writing Life."