There is an overwhelming preoccupation with food in this book. Part of this is emblematic of the central characters’ struggle and drive to survive: as refugees, the food they bring and gather to see them through their flight is crucial, as is the prospect of what they will grow and eat when they finally arrive. José’s repeated assertions that “they were Ilokanos—they would not starve anywhere” and “Ilokanos can eat what other people cannot,” are both a descriptive and symbolic. The industrious and persevering Ilocano characters of the book are set in contrast with the overbearing but sloppy Spanish rulers who make their lives so miserable and who, ironically, dismiss all “indios” (native Filipinos) as lazy and stupid. “As for patience and industry,” José writes, “they were Ilokanos born to these virtues—it was in their blood, in the very air they breathed.” Istak and his family are resourceful and resilient, overcoming hardship and scarcity to carve a new life for themselves.
There are many ways in which America tells you you don’t belong. The eyes that slide around to find another face behind you. The smiles that appear only after you have almost passed them, intended for someone else. The stiffness in the body as you stand beside them watching your child and theirs slide down the pole, and the relaxed smile when another white mother comes up to talk. The polite distance as you say something about the children at the swings and the chattiness when a white parent makes a comment. A polite people, it is the facial muscles, the shoulder tension, and the silence that give away white Americans’ uneasiness with people not like them. The United States, a nation of immigrants, makes strangers only of those who are visibly different, including the indigenous people of the continent. Some lessons begin in infancy, with silent performances, yet with eloquent instructions.