By some measures, Geronima de Vera — “Hero” for short — would be a true hero; she spent two years in a Filipino military prison without giving her inquisitors any significant information about the guerilla movement she’d been a part of. But by other measures, she’s a failure. A medical student, she never completed her studies and never will; the daughter of a wealthy family, her parents have disowned her; a once-aspiring surgeon, her hands are crippled by torture and are a constant source of pain and awkwardness; a once self-possessed woman, she now suffers from PTSD.
Hero is barely holding it together as she flies to the United States to live with her uncle, his wife, and their young daughter, also named Geronima — or “Roni” — in Milpitas, California, a working class suburb of San Jose in the Bay Area. Barely feeling welcome, she sets about making herself useful by doing housework and picking Roni up from school, but otherwise staying at home and avoiding interaction.
It’s only when she takes Roni to a traditional healer, who is also the owner of a restaurant that serves as a community gathering place, that Hero starts to emerge from her long depression, drawn out by the generosity of the people around her. It’s a surprise to Hero — her experience of the Philippines was one of strong class and ethnic division. Some of that is present in Milpitas, but there’s also a general feeling of solidarity, of immigrants helping each other. That’s new to her.
In “America Is Not the Heart,” which is her first novel, Elaine Castillo writes passionately about Filipino-American culture in the Bay Area.
In “America Is Not the Heart,” which is her first novel, Elaine Castillo writes passionately about Filipino-American culture in the Bay Area; neither wholly traditional nor wholly Americanized, much of it is a new synthesis caused by the experience of coming to America. Hero is surprised at the foods commonly served in the restaurant. To her, most of these are “holiday” foods, not what would be served as everyday fare. The new culture is a synthesis not just of Filipino and American, but also of a variety of Filipino ethnic groups, each with their own language and cuisine.
But as the title implies, it’s not America per se that brings people together — it’s the need to survive and thrive in America, in spite of the racism and exploitation. The heart is in the people around Hero as they recognize that they share experiences — both in the Philippines and in the U.S. — that are more important than their old divisions. This might be true of any immigrant culture, but it’s particularly true for the Philippines, which was a U.S. colony for a half-century and is still economically and militarily tied to this country. A lengthy prologue, centered around Hero’s aunt, gives telling backstory about the previous generation’s migration to the U.S., and the role of Filipina nurses in that migration.
One thing that makes the novel come alive is details.
One thing that makes the novel come alive is details — the songs that Hero taped off the radio in Manila and the songs that a new lover introduces to her; the foods, many with specific significance for specific occasions; the way that Filipino languages differ, where a word in one language may not have a specific equivalent in another. Castillo makes little concession to the non-Filipino reader who may not know what pancit is or what a proverb in Ilocano means, but somehow that reader feels like a welcome, if sometimes clueless, visitor in a house that is not their own.
“America Is Not the Heart” is the story of how Hero heals from the trauma she suffered in her home in this new place. She heals because people are willing to accept who she has been, even if they may not share her politics; she heals because they are willing to support her when she asserts herself in her family; she heals because they are willing to accept a kind of sexuality that might not have been accepted in her home.
One thing that Castillo soft-pedals is Hero’s politics: While Castillo skillfully portrays Hero’s attachment to her comrades and her guilt at leaving them behind, she doesn’t convincingly explain how Hero, from a traditional upper-class family, ends up joining the guerillas in the first place; nor does she explore the likely fact that Hero would have to come to terms with leaving her political activity behind and change or at least downplay her political beliefs when she comes to the U.S. This is a small but disappointing weakness in an otherwise impressive novel.
For Hero, healing means learning to care again. Hero was disappointed in herself because she was too afraid to rejoin the comrades she cared about in the Philippines, and so she shields herself from caring for the people in the U.S. Instead, she acts from obligation — but as she takes care of Roni, as she helps out at the restaurant, as she allows a younger woman there to become her lover, she also starts caring for those people. There’s something very human about how the act of caring can also become the emotion of caring and something universal about the way that human solidarity helps us survive and thrive.
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