John Phillip Santos has been involved with The University of Texas at San Antonio in some form or another since moving from New York City back to his hometown in 2005.
Author of the acclaimed Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, Santos completed his newest book, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire, in 2009 on the university campus—UTSA President Ricardo Romo offered him use of a vacant office at the Downtown Campus as a quiet retreat from his own home (“La Casa de Chihuahuas,” Santos says). Last year, Santos, who was the first Latino Rhodes Scholar, coached two Honors College students who made it to the semifinals of the prestigious scholarship competition. And earlier this year, the UTSA Libraries hosted Santos as a featured speaker at the opening of the new Special Collections Suite, which houses his papers as well as those of other San Antonio writers, on April 12—the same day Santos’ wife, Frances Treviño, gave birth to their daughter, Francesca, after more than 24 hours in labor.
“I was in a semi-delirious state,” Santos recalls with a laugh.
Now, Santos’ relationship with UTSA has been formalized and expanded by his appointment to the Honors College as a University Distinguished Scholar in Mestizo Cultural Studies. Overthe summer, he moved into his new office on the Main Campus, where he’s now working alongside such longtime friends as faculty members Ben Olguín, Norma Cantú, Josephine Méndez-Negrete, Steven Kellman, Wendy Barker and Ellen Riojas Clark.
“There are lots of kinships already, lots of shared ideas,” Santos says. “All of these people, for a long time, have been enduring conversations about this. I was always bending their ear.
“Really, this is what I came back to San Antonio to undertake.”
This is Santos’ plan to create in San Antonio—at UTSA—an international forum for exploring mestizo cultural identity, or mestizaje. The term mestizo originated in the Spanish colonial period to denote people of both European and American Indian heritage. Today, the term is often more broadly applied to any person of mixed heritage, but, Santos notes, it also is a charged term because of its origins at a point in history when racial status was closely linked to social status.
“We’re kind of at dead end, a loggerheads in terms of the language of race and the language of identity, for all kinds of reasons,” he says. “I mean, we have the first undeniably mestizo president, and yet it’s a term we dare not speak. The question of race has become so sensitized in terms ofthe public sphere that we can’t really resolve these questions in meaningful ways.”
What Santos envisions, and what took shape through dialogues with both Romo and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Frederick, is making UTSA a destination for a host of people worldwide—scholars, artists, writers and scientists, too—who are exploring this same theme of identity.
“It’s a meme, an icon of thought, that I see appearing in different parts of the world simultaneously out of different contexts and settings, but essentially sharing this reorientation of how we think about culture emerging from a host of sources rather than one single orthodoxy or tradition,” he says. “It is informed by Latino studies and Chicano studies,but it’s even more multidisciplinary.”
The first piece of the project is a mestizo studies seminar, which Santos will launch in the spring 2011 semester. That seminar will serve as a laboratory for creating an institute or other organized effort for exploring mestizo studies; more important, Santos says, it will give students an active role in that exploration and also engage the public in the dialogue.
San Antonio is an ideal setting because it has always been a crossroads of cultures, he says.
“In this next period in American history, where we become a much more diverse nation both in terms of demography and ideas and faiths, I think our role—San Antonio’s role—has critical new importance.”
In addition to the mestizo studies seminar, Santos will teach a workshop in creative nonfiction writing and media, drawing from his skills as a storyteller. His own writing skillfully blends autobiography and mysticism, an approach that helped propel Places to be nominated for the National Book Award in 1999. He also has produced documentaries and news programs in 16 countries for CBS and PBS.
As he prepares his syllabi, Santos has no shortage of other activities to keep him busy through the fall. On campus, he’s trying to meet faculty in other disciplines—sciences, geography, politics and economics—to find more co-conspirators for the seminar. Off campus, he is the guest of honor at Gemini Ink’s INKstravaganza on Sept. 23 and will also be featured as part of the Texas Book Festival Oct.16–17 in Austin.
And even though he’s been back in San Antonio for five years, Santos says he’s still relishing in everything that living in this cultural crossroads has to offer.
“I will drive really far for good BBQ or a Mexican combination plate.”