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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 de Vera family, whose ancestors and in-laws originally hail from the Ilocos region in the northwest of the Philippine island of Luzon, but whom history's cards send first to the capital in Manila, through sundry hinterlands across the rest of the island, 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 grew up in Pangasinan province, studied hard to become a nurse and was first to settle 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 same flight also lands her into the life—and heart, eventually—of Rosalyn, a makeup artist and hairstylist, who was all of four years old when her own family left the Philippines and settled in Milpitas too.


Here, geographically, temporally, and emotionally distant from her old lives in the old country, Hero would rather move on, get a new job, live a new life, and she isn't one to offer up ancient tales of privileged youth in Vigan and Manila, and firsthand repression and deprivation in the Cagayan Valley, unless prompted. The problem is, it's easy to keep her mouth shut, but much harder to hide her scarred hands—and when Roni with her unfiltered curiosity, and Rosalyn with her growing infatuation, both notice and ask the inevitable, what's Hero gonna say?

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.
  • 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.
    • Paz' abusive father often gets drunk too.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Rosalyn unloads on Hero when the latter drives herself to the hospital where Rosalyn's Lolo Boy just died, knowing full well that if Hero is pulled over and asked to show I.D., she'll be exposed as The Illegal, and quite probably deported.
  • Asian and Nerdy: This is rather to be expected given the whole book is about Filipinos, but more specifically:
    • Pol is a supremely talented surgeon, and also practiced as a pediatrician, opening a children's polio hospital.
    • Hero herself got into the elite University of Santo Tomas in Manila, herself opting to become a surgeon like Pol, and though she drops out, applies her medical knowledge in the mountains as a rebel field doctor.
    • NPA cadre Amihan is very knowledgeable on Philippine history, particularly its long centuries of colonial oppression, by Spaniards, Americans, Japanese, and even post-WWII, pro-American Filipino lackeys, not to mention multinational corporations. (Some of the cadres even joke that she's being an "insufferable bore".)
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Presumably the dentist whom young Paz pays (with her hard-earned money) to fit her with a gold tooth, emulating her atse (elder sister) Carmen. The operation turns out to be a shoddy one when she loses most of her upper teeth not long afterward (except for her molars), and is forced to wear dentures on her upper jaw for the rest of her life. One imagines a quality gold tooth would've been well beyond the ability of young Paz to ever scrape up for, growing up in rural Pangasinan in The '50s.
  • 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.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Paz and Pol were frequently like this when they first met in the same hospital. Years later, as a married couple and parents to Roni, they still occasionally argue or give each other the cold shoulder.
    • Hero and Rosalyn frequently engage in this too.
  • Big Fancy House: The de Vera house in Vigan, as befitting its bourgeois owners.
  • Butch Lesbian: Amihan, the NPA Rebel Leader. In her teens growing up on a sugarcane hacienda, she learned to cut cane and curse, cut her hair short, and is apparently called kuya ("big brother") by other tenant farmers, even if a girl. Later, of course, she gets involved with Hero, after both join the NPA in Isabela province.
  • 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.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Pol wanted to name his daughter after his mother, the original Geronima de Vera, but his older brother Hamin beat him to it. But he forges through with it anyway when Roni is born in the early 1980s, when Pol still thought Hero was dead, either of starvation and exposure in the NPA's mountain bases, or due to abuse by state forces.
  • 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.
    • Tita Soly, Pol's sister and Hero's aunt, also refuses to live in the pointedly elitist, condescending way she grew up, and lives in a modest house in Metro Manila, with her two children and the occasional boyfriend, and without any househelp except a visiting washerwoman. She ends up nursing Hero back to health after the latter is released from two years in a Hellhole Prison camp, emaciated to within a centimetre of her life at the end of it.
  • Dirty Commies: The NPA, or New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
  • Disabled Love Interest:
    • In a manner of speaking. Paz lost most of her upper teeth and wears dentures, and has a mild case of Bell's palsy, but that clearly hasn't been a deterrent to Pol's affections even after he inevitably learns about it.
    • Paz' older sister Carmen is a more explicit example, with half her face stricken by Bell's palsy (which unlike Paz she hasn't been able to keep in check), but that somehow makes her as a whole even more attractive, like her possible celebrity namesake, The '50s movie star Carmen Rosales.
    • Hero herself, with her broken hands, though she doesn't seem to be described as a terribly standout looker.
  • 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, historically ground zero for the country's Spanish-colonial tobacco monopoly. (Hero herself has effectively quit by the time she migrates, perhaps in part because cigarette burns on her skin were one of the many torture methods inflicted on her in prison.)
  • Everyone Has Lots of Sex: Primarily Pol (in his youth anyway), Hero, and Rosalyn.
  • Fiction 500: Many of the superrich Filipino oligarch families publicly excoriated by Hero's NPA comrades are actually known to her or her family at least indirectly.
    • The family of Charmaine, one of Roni's classmates. They own a Big Fancy House in the fanciest part of Milpitas with untouched, ornate furniture on display, have hobnobbed with Philippine Cabinet officials, and back home own assets that dwarfs even the de Veras' collective net worth.
    • Hero's high-school boyfriend was also from a family wealthier than her own; it grew wealthy on scoring local manufacturing contracts for huge multinationals.
    • And of course, the de Veras are indirectly related, by marriage, to the Marcoses themselves, who though Nouveau Riche, still stole and grew to possess literal billions.
  • Fingore: Hero's hands, in particular her thumbs, are thoroughly broken in military custody; her med-school expertise helps her identify her own injury as a Rolando fracture, one of the most difficult to fix (which makes her suspect that her torturers had enough medical knowledge to know to inflict the worst kinds of damage). Pol secretly pays for Hero's initial surgery (with her believing her parents paid for it), and much of the book's "current" setting in The '90s involves Hero trying to regain use of her broken hands, by driving Roni to and from school, by helping with Rosalyn's family's catering jobs, and eventually by waitressing at their restaurant.
  • Food Porn: So much Filipino food. So much.
  • Frontier Doctor: This isn't The Wild West, but Hero occupies a similar role as a field doctor in the New People's Army, tending to wounded rebels and civilians high up in the mountains.
  • Gangster Land: Vigan apparently has a reputation amongst outsiders as overrun by murderous political warlords and their petty-oligarch families; they're not technically criminal organisations, but are seen as just as dangerous. Hero doesn't get where this is coming from until she realises, during her stint in the NPA, that she was part of that warlord class all along, so she never had to fear any of them.
  • Generational Saga
  • Hellhole Prison: Where Hero is taken and tortured by thugs of the Marcos regime for two years, for her NPA involvement. This was around the mid-1980s, just before the regime falls. In fact, she's still in prison when the People Power "Revolution" deposes Marcos, and only gets out some months later.
  • High-School Sweethearts: Hero's first relationship, back in Vigan, was with a boy named Francisco, scion of an oligarch family much wealthier than her own. This would've been when she was in late high school or just prior to entering university, but fizzles out once she does move to Manila.
  • Historical Domain Character: Dictator and fellow Ilocano Ferdinand Marcos is of course a looming presence in the novel's backstory; Pol was in fact first married to a second cousin of his. The de Veras' political connections to the Marcoses themselves haven't stopped Hero however from joining the NPA, the regime's largest internal armed opposition.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Hero spends years in the NPA, which means she's mostly in remote, mountain or jungle settings, or else impoverished rural communities. What little time she spends in larger cities in Luzon, between her joining the NPA and her final migration to the States, also shows urban decay or highly skewed or unequal economic development; and one flashback details her fellow cadres' involvement with the vast U.S. base at Subic, with U.S. soldiers on leave chasing local girls, and both U.S. businesses and military desecrating the environment and steamrolling over indigenous lands (which some NPA cadres aren't above doing, either). Paz' and Rosalyn's families also grew up in similar settings (the Second-Person Narration chapter for Rosalyn details how her immediate ancestors moved to what is basically a Metro Manila slum).
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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. Hero herself is no slouch at this because she can scream pretty hoarsely when coming.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Hero, 34, and Roni, 7, as of 1990. They bond over watching the classic anime of the time, Hero drives Roni to and from school and accompanies her both at home (when Roni's grounded), and to Rosalyn's grandparents' restaurant, and Hero feels quite down when first, Paz plans to enroll Roni in an exclusive school across the Bay; and—more acutely—when Pol takes Roni with him to the Philippines, in particular to Manila and Vigan, their ancestral home, and overstays there for months beyond the agreed-upon return date to the U.S. (Though Hero's also apprehensive that were Roni to continue in the Philippines under Pol's care, she'd grow up to be a spoiled, entitled, classist, petty oligarch's kid, just like most of the de Veras back there.)
  • 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 (and an ill-paid one at that) by the time Hero comes to stay with him and Paz in Milpitas.
    • Because they belong to the same family, Hero also counts; she similarly left all their 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.
  • Inter-Class Romance: Paz and Pol.
  • Jaded Washout: In one of Hero's Catholic high-school classes she's shown a Jesus portrait by Greek-Spaniard painter El Greco, where the Jesus in question is depicted as wan, tired, and has the impression of being resigned to being unable to save everyone; alternatively, his expression can be just that of the weariness of adulthood.
  • Landslide Election: When Hero—in military custody—is confirmed to be related to the Marcos-allied de Veras of Vigan, the Marcos regime backpedals, orders Hero released, and generously compensates the family, though Hero only actually gets out of prison after Marcos' ouster. In 1990, the year Hero migrates, her father Hamin wins by landslide as mayor of Bantay (an Ilocano satellite town outside Vigan). (Fat lot of good the compensation does for Hero herself, though, whom her own parents disown.)
  • Latin Land: Much of the postcolonial/neocolonial Philippines counts as this particularly in the highly colonised, majority-Catholic lowlands, and the de Veras' home base of Vigan is actually a self-aware poster child for this, maintaining its horse-drawn calesas (carriages), heavily-built Spanish-colonial stone houses, and cobblestoned streets.note 
  • 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 and Rosalyn's grandmother are Witch Doctors, 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, and a heart-on-her-sleeve hopeless romantic when reading and shipping her shoujo manga pairings, prone to what in Tagalog would be called kilig (romantic squeeing).
  • Literary Allusion Title: To the classic Filipino-American novel, America is In the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. (That novel came out in the Penguin Classics series in 2019, and guess who wrote the foreword—Castillo herself!)
  • Massively Numbered Siblings: Pol himself is one of eight children. (There was a ninth, but she died in infancy.) Both Geronimas stand in stark contrast as only children, outliers in a heavily Catholicised Filipino society where large families are more common and preferred.
  • May–December Romance: There's a nearly 20-year gap between Paz' and Pol's ages.
  • 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. (Roni was named after Hero, who was in turn named after their grandmother, the original Geronima de Vera, née Chua.)
  • 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.
  • Police State: The Philippines under Martial Law in The '70s, against which the NPA (where Hero enlists) is fighting. But she learns pretty quickly, thanks to NPA cadre Amihan's lectures, that even before the Marcos regime, the country has gone through Police State periods for much of its history, both as direct colony and ostensibly "independent", "democratic" republic: American soldiers had brutally put down thousands of Filipino Revolutionaries in the early 1900s, Japanese soldiers committed untold crimes against locals in World War II, and even between "independence" from the U.S. in 1946 and the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, the Army and Constabulary of the Philippine Republic—heavily U.S.-backed—aren't above chasing, arresting, harassing and abusing tenant farmers, armed rebels, student activists and labour leaders.
  • 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.
    • Amihan, who becomes Hero's girlfriend in the same rebel movement, and is often in charge of educating the cadres.
  • 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: A couple of chapters refer to a "you", one to Paz and the other 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.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Isagani and Rochelle, two of Rosalyn's friends-cum-informal relatives (in that Filipino way where unrelated family friends are considered family).
  • Slice of Life
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: The natural dynamic between Paz' (rural poor) and Pol's (landed elite) families. Hero herself gets pulled into various versions of this enduring class conflict in Philippine society (joining the NPA rebel movement), which extends even into the diaspora (she often encounters the families of Roni's classmates, some of which were rich enough to be considered Fiction 500 back in the old country).
  • Small-Town Tyrant: While it's never gone into specific detail whether any of the de Veras are actually politicians or just political operators (except for Hamin, Hero's father, who starts out a Vigan councillor and becomes mayor of a Vigan satellite town in a Landslide Election), as a whole they fit this trope for their jurisdiction of Vigan, acquiring a reputation amongst outsiders as a fearsome warlord clan. Overlaps with Feudal Overlord.
  • Suburbia: Milpitas and environs, especially in The '90s and earlier.
  • 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: Most prominently Adela Cabugao, Rosalyn's lola, a faith healer who manages to fix up Roni's eczema problem better than the Western skincare medicines she was taking before that—and who later treats Hero for some emotional distress, too. There's also Grandma Sisang, Paz' mother, and Roni's lola (grandma), who refers Roni to Adela in the first place; and back in Vigan, in the Philippines, Hero too was brought to one when she comes home exceedingly wasted.