Book Review: America Is Not the Heart

Elaine Castillo
416 pages

America Is Not the Heart (Source: Viking)

America Is Not the Heart (Source: Viking)

I had just started reading Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America is Not the Heart (Viking) when a line from another book came to mind: “Why were the women in my world always crying?” It’s from Carlos Bulosan’s novel America is in the Heart: A Personal Memoir, first published in 1946, which has become the quintessential canon for the Filipino American experience.

This line echoed as I read about the beginnings of Paz (short for Pacita) who grows up in Pangasinan, mired deep in poverty, the wailing a yearning of a young girl’s absolution from hunger, from suffering, from inconspicuousness in a family of six. Paz makes her way by fending for herself, her unrelenting grit her only weapon as it takes her to Baguio City for college, back to Dagupan City where she meets her future husband up until she makes it to America.

Fueled by a need to prove herself, to be seen as more than just a probinsyana from Pangasinan, and at the same time be her family’s anchor from thousands of miles away, Paz braves Tennessee until she reaches California.

You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is to be born poor in it; you don't need to emigrate to America to feel what you already felt when you were ten, looking up at the rickety concrete roof above your head and knowing that one more bad typhoon would bring it down to crush your bones and the bones of all your siblings sleeping next to you; or selling fruit by the side of the road to people who made sure to never really look at you, made sure not to touch your hands when they put the money in it. You've been foreign all your life. When you finally leave, all you're hoping for is a more bearable kind of foreignness.

Elaine Castillo (Source: Viking)

Elaine Castillo (Source: Viking)

Still Paz is hungry, even as she fills her cup with dollars from the Golden State, while she continues to support her family. When the notorious babaero-surgeon (womanizer) of Dagupan City proposes from afar, she saw an opening for two things: her heart, which once wildly thumped for the infamous Dr. Apolonio de Vera, or Pol, and the status that came with marrying a member of a prominent family from Ilocos Sur. Together they settle down in Milpitas where she works as a nurse from 5 a.m. to midnight most days, while he relinquishes his orthopedic surgeon coat, everything about his old life to give way to Pol, the security guard. They name their only daughter Geronima, Roni for short, after his mother and his niece, who has long vanished. At some point, the same niece who goes by Hero resurfaces, and she moves in with the family of three, as the book shifts its focus on her.

A former New People’s Army doctor, Hero moves to the U.S. after ten years of serving peasants, farmers, laborers, and her fellow NPA militants in the countryside. After being captured, tortured, and eventually released by the army, Hero spends some time recuperating and healing with another aunt. Eventually, she moves to the U.S. to be with her uncle Pol, someone she has turned to several times throughout her life. With their last name the only thing that binds them to their former lives, both uncle and niece recreate the kind of life they turned their backs on, a life away from a clan deviously intent on maintaining their wealth and power back home.

Navigating the early ‘90s in the Bay Area becomes central to Hero’s life, as she integrates with the largely Filipino community south of San Francisco. She ends up taking the role of Roni’s ate, the older sister, who picks her up from school and takes her to appointments. As they make their way through the manghihilot (healer) circuit of the Bay Area to find a cure for Roni’s eczema per Paz’s orders, they meet Lola Adela. Turns out, Lola Adela is not just a healer but the owner of a Filipino restaurant in a plaza where both Hero and Roni eat pancit (noodles), watch movies, easing their way into a what feels like a second home.

I also wondered if Castillo’s book starts where Bulosan’s ended. If there is a continuum from one novel to another, almost as if both books share an inherent kinship.

While Paz drowns herself in overtime shifts at the hospital, and while Pol moves through their lives preoccupied in his own world, his mind far, far away from where his body resides, the Geronimas find a makeshift family with the rest of Lola Adela’s tribe: her husband Lolo Boy; her granddaughter Rosalyn and the rest of Rosalyn’s barkada (clique). Hero acclimates to her new life in the Bay Area, her new normal involving a seven-year-old and a crew of Fil-Ams. The leap from being a cadre of the NPA to being a civilian--an undocumented immigrant at that--is jarring, as she reluctantly grows new roots, finds her place west of the Pacific. As Hero acclimates to Milpitas and the people she’s come to know as her family and friends, she also comes to terms with her sexuality, something that she doesn’t wave around like a flag but rather wears like an old, comfortable shirt; her queerness never an affront, but something more akin to her bearing. Her uncle Pol even called her babaera when she was younger, an affirmation of the bond between them.

I can’t help but think of the many parallels between Castillo’s and Bulosan’s novel, starting with the llocano-Pangasinense thread. Both are stories of dreamers from humble beginnings, surviving and surpassing every hurdle to emerge with their own versions of what victory tastes and feels like. Bulosan wrote of the struggles of itinerant laborers and farmers, of how it was a crime to be Filipino even in California as he and others came face to face with racism, discrimination, and police brutality. Castillo writes of life during and after martial law in the Philippines, and of fleeing the terror that shapes her characters’ Filipino immigrant experience, while portraying the Filipino American reality in conjunction.

At the same time, I also wondered if Castillo’s book starts where Bulosan’s ended. If there is a continuum from one novel to another, almost as if both books share an inherent kinship. I thought of Bulosan’s reckoning with the Communist Party of the Philippines, and how that materializes with Hero’s years with the NPA, the armed wing of the party. That even though Bulosan saw America as a land capable of embracing him as a son while Castillo’s characters see their new country as a temporary respite from the homeland, in both books America becomes a necessary force for their survival. As with all things important, the relationship remains complicated, no matter how much Bulosan drinks in the gambling house, or how many parties Hero attends in the City. The emotional and political landscapes do not change.

America is in the heart. America is not the heart. When does “not” really replace the “in” in the title? I can only turn back to Paz, the true hero of my heart:

As for loving America or not loving America, those aren't your problems, either. Your word for love is survival. Everything else is a story that isn't about you.

Pia Cortez

Pia Cortez

Pia Cortez is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area and the creator of Libromance, a blog which publishes book reviews and literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant perspective. Her reviews and writing have appeared on Hella Pinay, New Life Quarterly, and Lambda Literary.