Elaine Castillo's America Is Not the Heart: What Does It Mean to Be a Filipino Woman?
In Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America is not the Heart, it delves into the themes of Filipino suffering and survival in which we explore a generational story of three Filipino women, each revealing the physical and emotional scars of their past while living in the Philippines and migrating to America.
The story is first told through second person point of view, establishing the narrator, Paz or Pacita, as defensive and vulnerable as she shares her difficult experiences growing up in poor family of six siblings and her mother, while her father would regularly leave every three years at a time due to his job in the military. As readers, we understand and may even find some connection within our own lives to the struggles and tensions that arise as Paz explains the challenges faced for a second eldest daughter and what sacrifices were made to help her family survive. As the second eldest daughter, there was little opportunity in which she had to truly fight and gain her own independence to which we understand her stubbornness as perseverance and strength. Later, we see a transition in her role as the main breadwinner of her family in which we question what are her new or old challenges she still faces in supporting her family and even her additional family of her husband, Pol, coming to America all the while raising her only American born daughter.
The representation of beauty is a major part of Paz’s narrative, which pieces together the challenging question of what it means to be Filipino, more specifically a Filipino woman. The female characters face issues of discrimination and otherness, revealing the desires of wanting to be light skinned or mestiza with references to imported beauty products and perfumes. However, at times being light skinned or mestiza has its own problems due to the colonization of the Spaniards and Americans, thus complicating the Filipino identity and questioning the issue of being “pure” Filipino.
The story shifts to third person point of view in which we get to explore the other characters’ stories and Hero’s main story. The character, Hero, also known as Geronima or Nimang, unveils the parts of her own struggle of gaining independence as a young woman, facing the challenges of understanding her family’s influence and acceptance for the critical and even the most political kinds of decisions she makes while studying to be a doctor and then dropping out to join the New Political Army in the Philippines.
The characters are surrounded by medical and health influences in their pursuits of becoming doctors or nurses. Other political and controversial themes that come up in the novel and challenge the Filipino identity are to be acknowledged as discriminating issues of orientalism, otherness, and racial science. Orientalism is a term explained from Edward W. Said’s text, Orientalism, referencing that is academic and political concept that suggests Asian or Middle Eastern stereotypes through the lens and colonial attitudes of White Europeans. Otherness is term that suggest issues of “them versus us” and the idea of segregating individuals as other or different. Racial science is another term in which biologically defines unequal and biased explanation of race. We can understand these terms more clearly as we perceive the characters experience growing up in their societies in the Philippines and America.
In the novel, Castillo refers to the topics of faith healers and racial science in the Philippines, stating that “Paul Freer, the first dean of the Philippine Medical School, met with W. Cameron Forbes, the governor-general of the Philippines in 1913…that the natives were inherently unhealthy, prone to all manner of plagues, cankers, and skin disorders…Worse, there was a danger they would spread their infirmity to whites.” Another references suggests that “One thing was clear: the locals had to be cleansed before anything could be done with them. Inspections, experiments, education, regulations; medical schools and rigorous training. Perhaps the obsession with cleanliness was part of why Americans invented the water cure in the Philippines.” Another alarming statement, Victor G. Heiser a Pennsylvania doctor and later became Philippine Director of Health in 1902 to create project that would “wash up the Orient” and “came up with the condition called philippinitis… symptoms included mental and physical torpor, forgetfulness, irritability, lack of ambition, aversion to any form of exercise.” The following passages suggest cruel and discriminating perception of Filipinos through reinforcing negative stereotypes and characteristics in order to dehumanize and animalize their identity. Racial science has greatly affect the Filipino identity by stripping away any dignity and defining us as “other.”
The story further explores the role of the faith healers in which Roni’s grandma is a bruha or witch doctor, who tries to help her with her eczema skin condition. Again, we see representation of beauty and health emphasizing the issue of difference and otherness as problematic with society. Roni’s grandma believes her eczema and scars are a curse, making Roni believe that she will go to hell because of the engkantos or kapre demons. On other the hand, Hero also shares her experience growing up with her skin condition of eczema along with her injured thumbs, which represents her own physical or emotional suffering, i.e. anxiety and trauma of her past.
Growing up, I also faced outbreaks of eczema, as well as my mom and grandpa in which we eventually all grew out of it. However, I remember it being difficult and uncomfortable showing the scars and rawness of my arms and legs because of eczema in which one encounter with an individual asking if it was contagious. Reshaping the definition of beauty and acceptance, by acknowledging our physical and emotional flaws as part of our identity, we can begin to reinforce the importance of inclusivity to all diverse cultures and identities.
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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. In addition, she is a recent graduate student at San Francisco State University for the English Literature Master’s program. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.