So you’re a girl and you’re poor, but at least you’re light-skinned—that’ll save you. You’re the second-eldest child and the second-eldest daughter of a family of six children, and your parents are subsistence farmers—your mom sells vegetables at the local market and when that doesn’t make enough to put food on the table, you sell fruit and beans by the side of the road. That is, until your father manages to get a job working as a clerk for the American military in Guam, where he acquires a mistress and regularly sends money back to the family, the latter gesture absolving the first. He returns every three years for a visit, which is why you and nearly all of your siblings are three, six, or nine years apart in age. On those rare visits, you treat him with rudeness out of loyalty to your mother, who neither thanks nor acknowledges your efforts or, for that matter, your existence: eczema-ridden you at 8, hungry adolescent you at 12, all your early ragged versions. When you’re old enough to know better but not old enough to actually stop talking back to him, your father will remind you, usually by throwing a chair at your head, that the only reason you’re able to attend nursing school is because of his army dollars. It’s your first introduction to debt, to utang na loob, the long, drawn-out torch song of filial loyalty. But when it comes to genres, you prefer a heist: take the money and run.
Growing up, everyone says you’re stupid, you’re clumsy, you get into at least one fight a week, and even your light skin, while universally covetable, is suspicious; your father often accuses your mother of having taken up with a Chinese merchant or Japanese soldier or tisoy businessman while he was away. Did that happen? You don’t know. Is that unknown man your father? You don’t know. If it happened, was it your mother’s choice; was it an affair, or was it a case of—a word you won’t say, can’t think, a word that drifts like smog, through your life and the lives of all the women around you. You don’t know. Looking at your own face doesn’t tell you. There isn’t anyone you can ask.
When you’re hungry, sometimes you go out into the fields and stick your stumpy arm down the pockmarks in the earth where tiny dakomo crabs like to scurry away and hide, your fingers grasping for the serrated edge of the shell. Some days you collect enough to carry home for your mother to steam, using the lower half of your shirt as a basket, but sometimes you can’t wait, yanking one out by the leg and dashing it on the ground to stun it, then eating the whole thing right there, live and raw, spitting out bits of calcium. Sometimes instead of a crab you pull out a wiggling frog, but most of the time you throw those away, watch them hop to safety. People warn you that those holes are also the favored hiding places of some semipoisonous snakes, but when you weigh the danger against the hunger, the hunger always wins. On the days when there are no crabs, no frogs, not even a weak snake, you go around picking dika grass, the kind that the farmers usually feed their horses. You sell makeshift bundles of them by the side of the road, alongside the mangoes and chico. On good days, the dika grass sells so well you produce a little side economy that gives you enough money to buy some ChocNut and maybe the latest issue of Hiwaga so you can catch up on your komiks, even though at the end of every one you have to read the most hateful words you’ll ever encounter, in any language: abangan ang susunod na kabanata. Look out for the next chapter.
Around this time your mother’s great love affair is with Atse Carmen, your eldest sister, who’s room-silencingly beautiful in the way older sisters often are, and who gets away with everything. Atse Carmen somehow gets a gold tooth fitted in her mouth despite the fact that everyone in the family eats one meal a day, if that. So when you’re 11 or 10 years old, you get your brightest of bright ideas: you’re going to get a gold tooth fitted, just like Atse Carmen. Not only that, but you’re going to pay for it yourself. You take to pocketing even more of the money you make at the roadside—work that Atse Carmen was never asked to do, just you. But you’ve got three new siblings, a scrappy Rufina, Gloria the toddler, Boyet the infant, so the scant attention that might have been rationed out for you in the past gets allocated elsewhere. This time, though, it’s a blessing—you can carry out your plan in peace. Well, if not peace, then: alone. It’s the same thing.
Excerpted from America Is Not the Heart: A Novel, by Elaine Castillo, with permission of the publisher, Penguin Books.