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From revolution to racism

A debut novel traces the social injustices of life as a Filipino immigrant in the United States

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America Is Not the Heart

By Elaine Castillo, Viking, 480 pages, $27

“It was a crime to be a Filipino in California,” the poet and labour organiser Carlos Bulosan wrote in his 1943 half-novel, half-memoir, America Is in the Heart. The son of subsistence farmers, he came from what was then the American territory of the Philippines to the United States during the Great Depression along with about 100,000 migrant workers, almost all men, almost all poor and desperate. The book — lean as a liturgy, with jags into the sublime — bears witness to the wrongs visited upon them by white Americans who called them “monkeys”, barred them from restaurants, refused to rent rooms to them, assaulted them for befriending white women and sometimes shot them in the back out of sheer boredom.

Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, with its echoing title, draws a clear line of descent from Bulosan’s testament. A portrait of Filipinos in 1990s California, it’s hungrily ambitious in sweep and documentary in detail, and reads like a seismograph of the aftershocks from trading one life for another.

Gone are Bulosan’s pea pickers, drifters and gamblers, hopping freight trains up and down the coast. They’ve been supplanted by nurses pulling 16-hour shifts and surgeons-turned-security guards, with useless foreign medical licences and no hope of ever holding a scalpel again. Their world is small and circumscribed, populated almost entirely by fellow Filipinos and not ranging far beyond pre-Silicon Valley Milpitas (where the author grew up), a prosaic suburb of San Jose whose distinguishing feature seems to be the potent scent wafting from the local landfill.

Some are only a few years removed from crowded apartments where relatives on expired tourist visas slept on couches and floors, and where a newcomer might be offered a bed on the kitchen table, “like a rack of lechon”. But unlike Bulosan’s lonely bachelors, who were ineligible for naturalisation under the anti-Asian laws of the time, most of Castillo’s immigrant characters have become citizens and planted roots.

Their children were either born in America or brought to the States so young they have no memory of their first country. They are American in a way that their parents could only dream of being; as one mother notes of her daughter’s relationship with this country, “she doesn’t have to love it. She’s of it.” (America Is Not the Heart isn’t a rebuttal of Bulosan’s title but a kind of mondegreen, or mishearing — a joke with a kernel of truth, as the younger generation in the book starts to forget the words of their ancestors.)

The story revolves around the arrival in Milpitas of a damaged woman, Geronima De Vera, known in the Philippines as Nimang but immediately christened Hero by her 7-year-old American cousin, Roni. It turns out to be only the latest of Hero’s transformations: She was born to a rich, pedigreed family, descended from Spanish colonial officials and Chinese merchants and chummy with President Ferdinand Marcos. The name of her hometown — Vigan, in the northwestern province of Ilocos Sur — strikes fear in her classmates at university in Manila as a “no-go zone, a kingdom of terror”; belatedly, Hero realises that the warlords who rule the region are her godparents and neighbours.

Radicalised under martial law imposed by Marcos in 1972, she drops out of medical school and joins the New People’s Army, a communist rebel force that continues to resist the government today. For a decade she serves as a cadre doctor in the mountains of Isabela in the northeast, until she’s captured by the military and tortured. When they figure out her lineage, they dump her in a vacant lot in Manila, weighing less than 90 pounds and broken in body and spirit. The government offers her parents financial compensation “for the oversight”; soon after, her father is elected mayor by a landslide. They refuse to speak to the daughter who dedicated her life to destroying theirs, and she has nowhere to go but America, where her uncle takes her in.

All this takes place as the novel’s back story, but it refuses to stay in the past, resurfacing in flashbacks as Hero tries to adjust to the disorienting lull of peacetime and “a world in which there was still corny music, lechon kawali, heavy but passing rain, televised sports, yearly holidays, caring families, requited love.” Once she fought alongside comrades who prized “the ability to put a knife in the chest of a mayor or landlord on a regional bus and walk away with no injuries, minimal witnesses”; now she ferries Roni from school, works the cash register at a strip-mall turo-turo (steam-table restaurant) and wanders through parties at strangers’ houses, picking up one-night stands, mostly men and sometimes women.

Hero is difficult and prickly, qualities shared by Roni, who loses a tooth in a scrap at school (to her glee), and Rosalyn, a new friend acquired practically against Hero’s will. A tough-talking makeup artist who feels uneasy with the ideal of beauty that requires lightening the skin and rounding out a flat nose, Rosalyn bluntly propositions Hero, masking her true feelings as mere lust, an act of bravado that fools no one. Hero in turn rejects what she sees as Rosalyn’s simple-minded sentimentality: “A heart was something you could buy on the street, six to a skewer.” Their love story starts in stutters, the risk of exposure all the more real with every touch.

Prickliest of all the characters is Hero’s aunt Paz, whose impoverished origins (in Pangasinan, Bulosan’s home province) no distance can be great enough to erase. Although she’s not the heroine, in some ways she owns the book. Nothing else in it quite matches the sheer velocity and power of the opening chapter, which recounts Paz’s life in the second person, like an incantatory prophecy or benediction: how she scrabbled as a child for crabs in holes that could as easily harbour snakes, weighing danger against hunger (“hunger always wins”); saved up pesos to have a tooth pulled so she could replace it with one made of gold, a sign of status — only to have her other teeth fall out, thanks to the cheap dentist’s bungling; and finally landed a husband above her station, not knowing that “marrying someone who’s always slept with a full belly will be like being married to someone from another planet.”

Castillo’s prose is less lyrical than propulsive, driven by rises in cadence. At times it reads as if spoken, even declaimed. Like Bulosan, she channels a righteous anger, revisiting America’s historical crimes, among them the practice of waterboarding, inaugurated during the Philippine-American War. But her true target is the persistence of social iniquity both in the Philippines and among Filipinos in America. At Roni’s school, the term “Igorota”, referring to a Filipino hill tribe, is flung at her as an insult; further south, in Glendale, an undocumented Filipina housemaid is kept prisoner by the family that employs her. Everyone still privileges pale skin (“beautiful meant she was white-white-white, practically lavender”). Castillo repeatedly returns to emblems of provincial life as talismans against wealthy arrogance, like a gourd hollowed out by hand to make a rustic bowl, or a dessert of sticky rice cakes sold by the side of the road.

The book, like its characters, roams freely among languages: English, Tagalog, Ilocano and Pangasinan. Castillo subtly makes the meaning of words known without direct translation, reminding us how much conversation consists of chain-links and muscle memory — of words that are felt more than understood. Here too are details not entirely translatable, like a picture of Jesus with a flaming heart; instant ramen noodles crushed and eaten raw from the plastic bag; a widow refusing her husband’s last wish to have his ashes sent to the Philippines, instead keeping them in a cemetery by the hospital where she works so that on every lunch break she can visit his grave. Such details are strewn like crumbs for Filipino readers like me: moments of recognition marking the way home.

–New York Times News Service

Ligaya Mishan is the Hungry City columnist for the New York Times.

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