The modern-day Filipino-American experience is intimately explored in Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America Is Not the Heart. The novel clearly pays homage to Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 semi-autobiographical novel America Is In the Heart while charting the experiences of Filipinos living in 1990s California. Where Bulosan immersed us in the experiences of immigrant Filipinos, struggling to survive as migrant farmworkers, Castillo introduces us to a new, younger generation of Filipinos—nurses, security guards, restaurant workers—who had either immigrated to America at a young age or were born in America.
America Is Not the Heart centers itself around the experiences of Geronima de Vera. Geronima is referred to by two different names, depending on where she is living. When in the Philippines, Geronima is known as “Nimang,” the daughter of a wealthy, pedigreed family. When living in Milpitas, a suburb of San Francisco, Geronima is known as “Hero,” the undocumented immigrant Filipino. When Geronima arrives in Milpitas, she is a damaged woman. Her life, to this point, has been subjected to a series of jarring, and, often times, violent transformations: from being born into a Philippine family of privilege, to dropping out of medical school to serve as a cadre doctor with the New People’s Army (a communist insurgency group in the Philippines), to being captured and tortured by the military, to being an undocumented immigrant working in a restaurant in the United States.
The parts of America Is Not the Heart which are set in the Philippines provide readers an intimate glimpse at the Philippine’s rich history and vibrant culture. Castillo juxtaposes the idyllic provinces and their serene beauty with the congested streets of urban centers. Geronima is emblematic of the paradox of a life lived in the Philippines, being a member of the privileged class yet fighting to destroy it, being related to Ferdinand Marcos yet becoming a tortured victim of his government, being the daughter of a locally elected mayor yet finding herself with nowhere to go but America. Castillo allows readers to delve into the complex family dynamics of Philippine society which in turn makes it easier to relate with the characters and the story.
When the focus of America Is Not the Heart shifts to the tight-knit Filipino-American community in Milpitas, California, Castillo seizes the chance to examine the intricacies of a life spent in this cross section of Philippine/American culture. She achieves this, in part, through the use of three major dialects spoken in the Philippines—Ilocano, Pangasinense, and Tagalog. This not only provides America Is Not the Heart with an authentic and original feel, but it allows readers to see what it is like to belong to an immigrant community. This is the idea—that home is not a place, but rather the people one surrounds oneself with—that is the essence of what America Is Not the Heart is about.
Castillo’s writing style is straightforward with a tender heartbeat that never loses its pace. Throughout the story, Castillo is always finding a way to reminds us that we are more than where we came from. America Is Not the Heart is beautifully written and is deeply moving. It will make anyone who reads it feel at home.