Review by Vanessa Rodriguez
America Is Not the Heart by Filipino-American author Elaine Castillo debuted in 2018. Its title is a play on Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical novel, America Is In the Heart, published in 1946. Castillo’s narrative covers three generations of Filipina women from immigration under Marcos’ oppressive rule to living in the States clambering for the American dream.
Hero—formally known as Geronima—immigrates to the United States for a second chance at life living with her Uncle Pol and his young wife, Paz. Disowned by her family due to her involvement in the political upheaval in the Philippines, Hero arrives with nothing but a suitcase and her secret past. With no green card and broken thumbs from her two year war encampment, she is given the task of caring for her uncle’s daughter, Roni. A seven-year-old girl with the same namesake, scarred by eczema and constantly gets in trouble at school.
While taking Roni to a faith healer, Hero meets Rosalyn, a young makeup artist who reminds her of a past love in the Philippines. This woman awakens something in Hero that she thought she had long lost or maybe never had. Love.
The story is told primarily by Hero in a third person point-of-view with some chapters and scenes dedicated to other characters written in second person point-of-view like Paz, Rosalyn, and Pol. I found the second person narrative hard to connect with and the author’s choice to use no quotes for dialogue for the entire book a bit jarring. Despite the non-preferable technical aspects, the narrative was immersed in Filipino culture, language, and especially food. It left me reminiscent of my own Lola Lucing eating rice with sabaw in the kitchen of my childhood, sitting with one foot on her seat and her knee at cheek level, as well as the superstitions and myths my mother relayed to me growing up, regarding living a long life or going to bed with my hair wet.
The characters give an in depth view of life in the Philippines from Hero’s wealthy upbringing to Paz’s life in a poor family with several children where the only thing making her desirable is that she bares the fairer complexion of a mestiza unlike her other siblings. Once the setting transitions to northern California, the characters explore life as an immigrant that despite living in America where work and the level of lifestyle is better, they still struggle to make ends meet, supporting family abroad, and integrating into a society where class status still dictates how you’re treated on the outside as well as inter-culturally.
America Is Not the Heart embraces family—not just blood relation—and its struggles while exploring Filipino history and diaspora, bisexuality, and romance. Though Philippine politics play a role throughout the story, the narrative focuses more on the characters’ evolution and development of relationships set in times of war and by the terms of cultural expectations and displacement. Overall, it’s a raw and engaging read that opens a window into Filipino social injustices and culture in the 1990s.
Also by Vanessa Rodriguez:
Review: The Tiger at Midnight