John Philip Santos on KLRN
John Philip Santos on KLRN

Among the native sons and daughters of San Antonio who have left to find their fortune elsewhere and then, one day, come home, there is no better example than award-winning memoirist, poet, teacher, and documentarian John Phillip Santos.

The first-ever Latino Rhodes Scholar, Santos’s post-studies journey from home began in 1984 and lasted 20 years. He went to work at the Ford Foundation in New York, and then moved on to a career as an Emmy-nominated documentary maker at CBS and The Public Broadcasting Corporation.  In 1999, his family memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Creation of Time, was published and became  a National Book Award finalist.

Santos came home in 2005. He and his wife, the poet, screen writer, and teacher Frances Treviño, have a baby daughter, Francesca, and last year Santos was named a University Distinguished Scholar in Mestizo Cultural Studies in the Honors College at UTSA.

John Philip Santos on KLRN
John Philip Santos on KLRN

What brought Santos back?

“For me, the reckoning came after I left New York for Berlin and a writing fellowship in 2004 and then ended up at Yaddo, in the middle of my new book, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire, and I realized there was something fundamentally off kilter writing about the torrid landscape of South Texas in freezing Saratoga,” Santos said.

What brought Santos back was the city’s history and culture, which for him is the embodiment of mestizaje, a central theme of his life and writing and, now, his teaching. Even then, his second book completed, he almost left again last year, this time for a teaching position at prestigious Brown University in Providence, where he had been a periodic media studies lecturer.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo and Provost John Frederick countered with the opportunity here, which stopped Santos from leaving San Antonio yet again for opportunity elsewhere. No one would argue that UTSA is the equal of an Ivy league college.  If you are exploring fundamental questions about Latino identity, however, South Texas seems like a logical choice over New England.

“San Antonio has the opportunity to become a destination for people around the world who are exploring their own mestizaje,” Santos said. “What is emerging in this city culturally is much more significant, I think, even than the economic changes that are being talked about.”

So Santos, unlike most who have left San Antonio, is back home and probably here to stay, although he doesn’t rule out a future foray to Spain so Francesca can perfect her castellano. Asked to cite a notable step in the evolution of  San Antonio since his homecoming — other than UTSA — Santos said the city’s growing network of river and creek trails and newfound attention to green space has helped him get over the loss of his apartment on Central Park. Casting a more critical eye on the central city, the Los Angeles Heights resident lamented the “visual blight of Fredericksburg and Blanco Roads.”

“It’s the long-term consequences of unthinking development,” Santos said.

Looking downtown, Santos said the failure of the Museo Alameda to realize its potential is a cultural tragedy in a city that should have a national caliber Latino art museum.

“What has been missing all along there is the funding to hire a visionary curator,” he said. “Without one, you can’t have a great museum.”

Santos also talked about San Antonians who have made their mark elsewhere and have not come home. Some will be the subject of future postings.

San Antonio's John Phillip Santos spoke at TedX Austin
San Antonio’s John Phillip Santos spoke at TedX Austin

Brad Segal, a nationally known urban planning consultant who spoke about global urban trends at a Downtown Alliance luncheon Monday, talked briefly about the coming decade’s rise of the “creative class,” people who, by design, want an equally fulfilling lifestyle and work experience, and who will be highly sought after by cities competing for human capital. He’s talking about the kind of people, like Santos, whose presence might best be measured by imagining what it would mean if they left.

Most who do leave, of course, do not return. A central challenge for San Antonio is stanching the outflow of its best and brightest, and becoming more competitive in attracting young creatives to move here and stay here. The trend seems to be changing, but not quickly enough.

The work of Richard Florida, a senior editor at Atlantic magazine and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, may be even more instructive for civic leaders who like to boast of San Antonio as the seventh largest city in the nation and second largest in the state. Those are technically true statements, yet highly misleading ones, and they suggest too many here believe being bigger is better when, actually, being good is better.

The cities best positioned to thrive in the new century, Florida believes, are not necessarily those with the most Fortune 500 headquarters, professional sports franchises, tourism attractions, or even hub airports. “Creative class centers,” places where creative people consciously choose to live and work, are more important. High on their list for making that decision is, you guessed it, the presence of other creative individuals. Second on that list are lifestyle amenities such as parks and being able to live and work without commuting in an automobile.

The mixed-use projects I wrote about in my previous posting seem to be perfect responses to Segal and Florida and their futurist predictions, but whether enough developers with enough capital are in play to achieve the necessary critical mass of residential density and fix decades of what Santos called “unthinking development” remains to be seen. By the consultants’ measure, San Antonio’s strength is not just its growing size, but its history and authenticity.

Proximity to Austin could prove to be another advantage. Within the last week I’ve connected three talented, but underemployed graduates of the University of Texas School of Architecture to two expanding San Antonio architecture firms. All three young graduates, contemporaries of our oldest son, Nicolas, undoubtedly would stay and work in Austin if they could find the right professional opportunities. But  the good jobs available right now happen to be here, and the San Antonio  firms are more than good enough to compete nationally.

Austin now has a surplus of young people who were attracted there by its lifestyle, but without a good job, the city’s high cost of living quickly becomes a determining factor. San Antonio is developing as an acceptable, nearby alternative. It’s more affordable,  and if you live and work in the central city, you can get by with a bicycle and a bus pass.

It’s something the various forces of promotion in San Antonio should consider in lieu of the Top 10 city mantra. Those claims might impress tourists as they await their baggage at the San Antonio International Airport, but professionals know we rank in the mid-30s in terms of metro area size. Yet most people I know would rather live here than Dallas or Houston. Why? Simply put, San Antonio is more livable.

Similarly, promotional messages casting the city and its Paseo del Rio as perpetually alive with trumpeting mariachi and swirling folkloric skirts also appeal principally to visitors and meeting planners. They don’t work for college graduates who want to know what it’s like to live and work here.

If we really want to attract “Next Generation adults,” as they were dubbed by Rebecca Ryan, another urban consultant who addressed a Downtown Alliance audience two years ago, we ought to focus on all those cool apartments that are renting as fast as developers can build them.

“How do you make young people homesick for San Antonio?” Ryan asked a packed house of city leaders. “How do we intentionally design San Antonio as place that our children and grandchildren ache for?”

The question drew nervous chuckles from an audience that included many, like myself, who had watched children earn college degrees and decide not to come home.

So why don’t we try a baggage claim video loop that shows the mediagenic Santos teaching a seminar at UTSA? Or young professionals on foot or bicycles coming and going at the Pearl’s Culinary Institute of America or on their way to South Alamo Street’s The Friendly Spot after work?

Coming next: two young architects who left San Antonio four years ago for a new life in Hamburg, Germany, and what they think about coming home. 

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.