Let me start by saying it took me about a year and a half to finish this book… and for all the right reasons. I was nervous when I started reading this book because I have not yet indulged in America Is not the Heart by Carlos Bulosan. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough context to understand the then-undefined significance of this story. I was completely wrong.
This book instead traveled with me through major life changes and sent me on multiple tangents to learn more about my own Filipina background and identity. The same week I saw a meme about Asian condensed milk sandwiches, I read about Hero being given them after being picked up by a van of nuns and this was the food they had to offer her. I now plan to try one of these sandwiches and that is because Hero made them real for me, her character made them a ‘Filipino Thing’.
The reader gets to know the protagonist, Geronima, or Hero, throughout the book during different parts of her life and different thoughts in her mind. In the beginning, Hero has just moved to California from the Philippines to be with her Tito Pol and his family where she helps with their daughter, Roni. The two become close after going to the restaurant for healing by the owner, Adela. This is where they meet Rosalyn, her friends, and her family where Rosalyn does makeup next door and becomes an integral supporting character to Hero. Life begins to revolve around this restaurant as author Elane Castillo takes you on emotional and intellectual journeys through each of them. The reader will miss them all and feel like they are sitting in the room on the last page- in the race- to eat the most pancit, cheering each and everyone on.
Through the bonds she finds with her new community, the reader learns Hero has lived many different lives in one. Hero is the daughter of a rich family in the Philippines but had no contact with them once joining the National People’s Army. It was during her life with this guerrilla group that she was a doctor and found a new family. Yet, it was also here she was tortured, had both her thumbs severely broken and this life led her to move to Milpitas, CA with her family.
Ilocano, Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Spanish words are ridden throughout this novel and Castillo uses these languages to focus on the fact that Filipino identities are just like the languages — bountiful, old, young, adaptable, interchangeable, and oftentimes untranslatable.
Having lived through so many different Filipino identities and struggling with cultural and language differences, people like myself can identify with her as she analyzes what it means to be Filipino and be different. Hero’s character also explores bisexuality and belief differences among Filipino families which are not commonly talked about in Filipino culture. Her character opens up the grey areas between rich and poor, nurse and artist, elders and youth, and life and death.
It is through Hero’s thoughts and Roni’s questions that I found myself looking up recipes, asking my mom and aunt about words or dishes they remember, and I was sent into a whirlwind of a month trying to track down my family that due to conflict I have never met. Just like Hero, many Filipino families are torn apart because of location, jobs, children, feuds, war, and so many other reasons.
The reader can feel Hero’s emotions and experience her quietness. The reader can feel Hero’s thumbs getting sore and agree with Hero it is time to let them relax. After so many pages I had to pause and think to myself, “I experience that, too,” or “I know this because I learned about that in my Filipino Histories class.”
Toward the end of the book, I noticed I was rooting Hero on, telling her to use her voice and stand up for her family. I was rooting for Hero because through this book I was able to own more of my Filipino blood. I can eat frozen pizza like Roni and still be Filipina. I can forget Tagalog words but remember them later — proving they are a part of me. I can learn how to cook the types of food Rosalyn’s grandma cooks and reconnect with my family over pancit. I can be half white and still be Filipina.
Castillo gave so much to the Filipinx community through this book. Castillo opens up the floor for conversations and questions making this book powerful. Castillo was unafraid to bring a fresh perspective to Filipino studies and culture. The way she writes warrants emotional investment and the need to finish page after page to know what is going to happen next. This book now rests with corners folded on countless pages with words I want to remember and sentences that remind me Filipino culture is not one entity but rather a beautiful, endless breadth of languages, experiences, people, colors, and spaces. I can only hope that any person that feels like they have lost some part of their culture, or doesn’t know where they belong in it, or feels like they are not a ‘real Filipino’ find this book, dive into the story, and finish feeling just as inspired as I did.