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Literature / America Is Not the Heart

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A 2018 Doorstopper novel by Filipino-American author Elaine Castillo, and her first novel, America is Not the Heart is, at … heart, a Generational Saga centred around the extended de Vera family, who originally hail from the Ilocos region in the north of the Philippine island of Luzon, but whom history's cards send first to the capital in Manila, then ultimately to Milpitas in the San Francisco Bay Area—a common rite of passage for Filipino immigrant families in the United States.

Starring roles in that family include: Paz, who studied hard to become a nurse and first settled in California; Pol, her surgeon husband, who aspires to resume his medical practice in his old age; and two girls both named Geronima, cousins to each other though separated by some decades and a childhood on opposite sides of a world and a colonial empire by any other name. The older Geronima, a medical student in Manila who dropped out to join a Communist rebel insurgency against the then-incumbent dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, also goes by "Nimang", but upon her move to America is eventually rechristened "Hero" by the other, younger Geronima—"Roni", Paz and Pol's daughter, who's starting first grade when, in 1990, Hero flies into her and her parents' lives (again, in the case of Pol, her uncle).


The title is a play on words from the title of America is In the Heart, a famous classic Filipino novel about migrant working life in America, written by Filipino labourer and author Carlos Bulosan.

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Tropes featured:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The Present Day of the novel begins in 1990, just one generation behind the novel's 2018 publication.
  • Abusive Parents: Paz' father sometimes threw furniture at her head when he was visiting from his job in Guam.
  • Aerith and Bob: Most of the names, belonging to Filipinos, are some variant of Western, but they still run the gamut from old-school Hispanic names (e.g. Geronima, Adela, Paz, Apolonio (Pol's full given name) and his siblings, etc.), to less-stuffy generic Western names (e.g. Rosalyn), to nicknames that, though also Western-based, would mark one out as Pinoy (e.g. Boy, Pol). There is the occasional apparently indigenous-Filipino name, like Isagani, one of Rosalyn's friends, or Amihan, one of Hero's comrades back in the New People's Army, and possibly her first girlfriend.
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  • The Alcoholic: Lolo Boy, Rosalyn's grandfather, who drinks away his later years likely as a way of making up for the vitality he lost on hard farm labour on the American West Coast in his youth, where he was working along with his father and uncles.
  • Badass Pacifist: Hero might've joined a rebel army, but she spends most of her service there treating other rebels and village people, not out on the front lines in combat.
  • Big Fancy House: The de Vera house in Vigan, as befitting its bourgeois owners.
  • Bi the Way: Hero had a fling with a guy in high school, and has fucked serially on both sides. In The Present Day of The '90s, her current fling is with local hairstylist Rosalyn.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Hero was set for med school in the Philippines, surgery in particular, and dropped out to give medical assistance in the New People's Army, but then she's tortured and her thumbs are smashed by military thugs.
  • The Casanova: Pol had a reputation for plowing through the nurses at the Philippine hospital where he used to work in his youth (that's how he met Paz). He's given that characteristically Hispano-Filipino title, babaero ("womaniser").
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Religion doesn't play too central a role (for Hero at least), but her relatives are familiar with several, well-to-do, Couples for Christ Filipino families in the Bay Area, and even in the diaspora, they've brought their Spanish-Catholic festivals from the old country with them, like the Santacruzan.
  • Defector from Decadence: Hero, prior to joining the New People's Army to fight the Marcos regime, originally came from pretty generous circumstances; her immediate ancestors in the Ilocos were of some wealth and authority in their town and province, and were in fact prominent supporters of the regime (which is basically the sole reason the Army thugs stopped torturing her—because her family's on the regime's good side, and persecuting even a nominal member of their own Commander-in-Chief's allies could have serious political repercussions). Ironically, decadence saved her life in this case.
  • Dirty Commies: The NPA, or New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
  • Doorstopper: Elaine Castillo herself has said in interviews that she prefers writing long books.
  • Everybody Smokes: Hero's childhood in Vigan, in the Ilocos region; she herself started smoking in her early teens (this would've been from The '60s to The '70s). Doubly so for her uncle Pol's generation: Hamin, Hero's father, can tell various tobacco flavours and started smoking as a grade-school child. Naturally, given the Ilocos are deep in tobacco country, long the fount of the country's Spanish-colonial tobacco monopoly.
  • Everyone Has Lots of Sex: Primarily Pol (in his youth anyway), Hero, and Rosalyn.
  • Food Porn: So much Filipino food. So much.
  • Generational Saga
  • I Have No Daughter: After Hero goes underground and joins the NPA, her parents, Hamin and Concepcion, effectively disown her, never attempt to contact her again, and refuse even to pay for her surgery after her thumbs get broken in the prison camp. It's Pol who actually foots the bill; Soly, his sister and Hero's aunt, who cares for her after her release, lies about it, to make Hero believe that her parents would at the very least pay to get her thumbs fixed.
  • Hospital Hottie: Paz is considerably attractive, which is one reason Pol gets smitten by her in particular. (Then again, with his reputation as The Casanova, Pol probably saw most of the nurses in his hospital as some degree of this.)
  • Ill Girl: Not a debilitating case, but Roni has a chronic eczema problem. Hero had it in her youth too.
  • The Illegal: Naturally there are some of these, this being An Immigrant's Tale of Filipinos in the States. Carmen, Paz' atse (older sister), became at one point a "TNT", short for the Tagalog expression tago ng tago (always in hiding, i.e., from immigration authorities). Hero is also undocumented, and worries she might become this if immigration cops are also loosed on her.
  • An Immigrant's Tale
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Rosalyn, Hero's current girlfriend, can really swear in rapid-fire when Hero's going down on her.
  • Impoverished Patrician:
    • Pol, to some degree. His (and Hero's) family were of generous circumstances back in the Philippines, of considerable old money and politically on the Marcos regime's good side, but he's "reduced" to working as a security guard by the time Hero comes to stay with him and Paz in Milpitas.
    • Then there's Hero, who left all her family's wealth and influence behind when she went into the mountains as a rebel, and winds up living with Pol in California, eventually waitressing at Rosalyn's grandparents' restaurant, and picking up Roni from school.
  • Leitmotif: Medicine and careers that deal with the body. Pol was a surgeon, Paz is a nurse, Hero was in med school and became a field doctor treating villages as a Communist rebel, Paz' mother is a Witch Doctor, and Rosalyn is a hair-and-makeup stylist.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Rosalyn, who deals in actual lipstick (among other things) as a makeup artist working at a salon.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To the classic Filipino-American novel, America is In the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. (As of this writing, that novel is set to come out in the Penguin Classics series by mid-2019, and guess who wrote the foreword—Castillo herself!)
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: It's about huge Filipino extended families and all their friends, who often count as part of the family even if they're not blood relatives. Of course.
  • Mixed Race: The de Vera family, as a whole, originated from a mix of ethnicities fairly typical for their privileged class standing in the Spanish colonial era: Chinese (specifically Hokkien) traders, Spanish landowners, and—still most prominently, though—native, dark-skinned Ilocanos. The foreign mixes aren't that much though, apparently, and of them, even the Chinese is still more stronger or more recent, so that by Pol's generation, he and his brothers pretty much still look native-Ilocano anyway.
    • Of the other families, Paz' ancestry also contains considerable Chinese blood, which is how her family ends up still using terms like atse (a Chinese-derived term for "older sister", from which the ate used in Tagalog and other mainstream Philippine languages derives).
  • Multi-Ethnic Name: Not surprising among Filipino characters, many of whose full names source from Spanish, Chinese, various Philippine languages, and generic English or Western sources, in whatever order, all in the same person: Rosalyn Cabugao (first name Anglo/Western, last name Ilocano), for example. The original Geronima de Vera (for whom Hero and Roni were later named) was born a Chua, meaning she had at least one Spanish given name and a Hokkien Chinese last name.
  • The '90s: Hero arrives in Milpitas, California, in 1990. VHS tapes, classic anime, early hip-hop—and pagers!—are common.
  • One Steve Limit: Explicitly averted, down to full names, with the two Geronima de Veras in this novel, distinguished by their respective nicknames: Hero, the older one (also alias Nimang), and Roni, the younger one. (Both were likely named after their grandmother, the original Geronima de Vera, née Chua.)
  • Only Child Syndrome: Roni appears to be the only child of Paz and Pol—a rarity among huge, Catholic Filipino families, the farther back into the past one goes. Hero also appears to have no siblings either.
    • Massively Numbered Siblings: Just as one example, Pol himself is one of seven children. (There was an eighth, but she died in infancy.)
  • Period Piece: There's a lot of flashbacks to Hero's childhood and early youth from around The '60s to The '70s, as well as her time in the mountains as a rebel, which stretches until the mid-80s.
  • Really Gets Around: Hero, a bike in both senses of the word, though much of it is presented matter-of-factly. Also her uncle Pol.
  • Rebel Leader: Teresa, who served as one of Hero's godmothers in the rebel movement.
  • La Résistance: As led by the NPA against the Marcos dictatorship, then in power. Hero drops out of her university education at the University of Santo Tomas (leading to medicine) to join it.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Back in the Philippines under Martial Law, some relatives of the main cast in the novel were forcibly "disappeared": among them Tato, Paz' cousin. As often happened in Real Life, Paz never even gets the benefit of knowing if Tato died for certain; soldiers only tell her Auntie Bobette of her husband / Tato's father, David's death, but never disclose Tato's fate.
  • Second-Person Narration: The "you" in the narrative often refers either to Paz or to Rosalyn.
  • Shown Their Work: There's a lot of very detailed references to Philippine history, geography, social dynamics, politics, and culture, both formal and pop culture—even native superstitions like engkantos having crushes on individuals.
  • Shout-Out: To a lot of classic Anime from The '70s to The '90s, such as The Castle of Cagliostro, as well as then-popular hip hop and other music genres, and from the old country, even Filipino love songs, old movies, and local komiks.
  • Slice of Life
  • Viewers Are Geniuses / Reality Has No Subtitles: There's a lot of untranslated Tagalog, Ilocano and Pangasinan languages. Sometimes an expression will be followed up by a short English translation, but it takes close reading of context to quickly figure it out, unless the reader knows one or more of those languages to begin with.
  • Witch Doctor: Grandma Sisang, Paz' mother, and Roni's lola (grandma), a faith healer.


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