America Is Not the Heart

Elaine Castillo

Book cover

No, this book is not by my wife, just by her shadow twin!

A really awesome debut novel. I liked almost everything about it. The story is about Hero (short for Geronima), a Filipino woman who comes to Milpitas, CA, as an undocumented immigrant in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. The title is a reference to “America is in the Heart,” a memoir written by the Filipino immigrant Carlos Bulosan in 1946 (see my Goodreads review of same).

For the most part, the story is quite understated. Despite the fact that the protagonist is literally a Communist bisexual undocumented immigrant, the story doesn’t lean super hard on any of these things, and Castillo is definitely not going for an edgy vibe. It primarily revolves around the relationship of Hero with the relatives she moves in with, Paz and Pol, and especially, their young daughter Roni (also Geronima); as well as Hero’s relationship with Rosalyn, a slightly younger Filipino-American woman. It’s kind of a hang-out book; there is tons of people hanging out, mostly at Boy’s BBQ, but also at a hair salon, at home, at parties, and driving around Milpitas. We get some flashbacks and exposition of Hero’s time in the Philippines as part of a revolutionary Communist group, as well as in a prison camp, but I’m glad to say that Castillo doesn’t do the typical MFA alternating-chapters parallel-stories thing. The book mostly stays with Hero in the “present.”

The book has a ton of Tagalog/Taglish in the dialog (as well as other Filipino languages), and Castillo doesn’t do a ton to translate. Elise and I talked a fair amount about how the book would go over with audiences with no knowledge of Tagalog (I’ve picked up enough that I got maybe 80%). It was fun to read the Tagalog and also to see on display some of the mundane aspects of Filipino-American culture that I’ve been exposed to to some degree, which I’ve never seen in a novel before. I really appreciated that Castillo wrote in a lot about the distinctions drawn by Filipinos between various regional, ethnic, and linguistic groups, which makes it really clear how “Filipino-Americans” aren’t just one thing. The references to the Hukbalahap revolutionaries and ongoing Communist resistance groups made me very motivated to learn more about this aspect of Filipino history, which I’ve always wondered about. Finally, the interplay of Catholicism and pagan Filipino traditions was really interesting too.

Elise and I also talked at some length about the meaning of the title, and the intent of the reference to the Bulosan book. On the face of it, the books are pretty different. Bulosan focuses heavily on the very explicit racism and discrimination against Filipinos in early 20th century America, but ends the book talking about how he basically still loves America even so. In Castillo’s book, racism and discrimination against Filipinos play almost no role, mostly because the book takes place almost entirely within the Filipino-American community in Milpitas. Unlike Bulosan, who comes to America for economic opportunity, Hero comes to America basically for political asylum (though this is informal), and has pretty dead-end economic prospects because of her undocumented status. It’s clear throughout the book that Hero misses a lot about her life in the Philippines. By the end of the book she seems fairly happy, largely because of her relationships with Roni and Rosalyn. Ultimately, my interpretation (backed up by a short but pretty explicit passage in the book) is that the title is an anti-romanticism statement. Neither America, nor the Philippines, nor anywhere else is good in and of itself, something worth suffering and sacrificing for. That level of meaning only comes from the relationships we build with other people in those places. I found it to be a realist but hopeful statement–we can’t simply expect happiness from our surroundings, but it’s almost always available, though it may require being open to seeing it in different forms.

Not quite five stars because some of the character and plot developments, especially toward the end, are a little rushed, and only Hero and Rosalyn feel like fully fleshed-out characters.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars