It is 1956. A young Filipina girl, Rio Gonzaga, narrates her family’s story. The Gonzagas are an upper middle-class family consisting of Rio, her older brother Raul, her mother Dolores and her father Freddie. Rio’s maternal grandmother, Lola Narcisa Divino, lives with the family in a guest room next to the kitchen in the back of the house because her husband, Rio’s American grandfather, Whitman Logan, is ill in the American hospital with what Lola Narcisa insists is the mysterious bangungot disease that only affects men. The American doctors do not know what is wrong with Whitman, dismissing bangungot as mere Filipino superstition.
Rio and her cousin Pucha Gonzaga are American movie fanatics. They are particularly fond of American actresses Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Gloria Talbot, Ava Gardner, Debbie Reynolds and Rita Hayworth. Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter are their favorite actors. Rio and Pucha attend movies every chance they get. Afterwards, Pucha likes to go to cafés, drink TruCola and flirt with boys, especially Boomboom Alacran, whom she plans to marry someday. Rio is four years younger than Pucha and not interested in boys. Rio enjoys sneaking off to her grandmother’s room at night to listen to the famous Filipino radio drama, Love Letters. Lola Narcisa rarely speaks, but she and Rio enjoy listening to the soap operas with the servants while they eat traditional Filipino food with their hands and “cry unabashedly.”
Rio’s father is a respected businessman who works for the very rich Alacran family. He often complains of being a “guest” in his own country because although his parents are both Filipinos, they grew up in Spanish colonial Philippines and moved to Spain when the Spanish ceded control of the country to the Americans. Rio’s “Rita Hayworth Mother” Delores is a former beauty queen who lives to maintain her beauty. She and her husband do not get along and each of them has a lover. Rio’s family is close with Pucha’s family. Pucha’s father, Agustin Gonzaga, is Freddie Gonzaga’s brother. Freddie has secured a job for his brother with the Alacran conglomerate. Once a year, the paternal grandmother Abuelita Soccoro travels to the Philippines to visit her two sons Freddie and Agustin, bringing her two other sons and their families. Abuelita Soccoro is a formal woman, religious and strict. She is very different from Rio’s maternal grandmother, the Filipina Lola Narcisa. The children dread these visits, especially since they do not speak Spanish and their uncle must translate.
The dysfunctional Gonzaga family saga intersects with the more volatile and bizarre Alacran family story. The Gonzagas are close friends of the Alacran family, even though the Gonzagas are Alacran employees (the Alacran family story is told by a third person narrator). Both families attend the same country club, play golf together and socialize with each other. The Alacran and Gonzaga children are encouraged to call the adults “Tito” and “Tita” (Aunt and Uncle). Severo Alacran is the richest and most powerful man in the Philippines. He flies his own plane, collects primitive art, smokes expensive cigars and lives in a museum-like home. He owns several companies and was once nominated for president. He is married to Isabel, another former beauty queen. Isabel and her husband have frequent vicious fights. Severo has several illegitimate sons whom he refuses to acknowledge. They have one daughter together, Baby, who is a burden to them both. Baby is not beautiful like her mother. She is shy, soft, plump and short. She has acne, flat breasts, wide hips and “peasant legs.” She sweats like a man and bites her nails.
One night at dinner, the pathetic Baby announces that she is going to marry a soldier, Pepe Carreon, the protégé of the powerful and fearful head of the Philippine military, General Ledesma. Her mother is horrified, but her father is secretly delighted and relieved that someone actually wants to marry Baby. When her parents refuse to allow her to marry until she finishes high school, Baby takes to her bed and develops a hideous rash that the doctors cannot cure. Just as mysteriously as it appears, however, it disappears and Baby elopes with Pepe Carreon. She is pregnant. In typical Philippine fashion, rumors fly. Baby has been captured by the Communists. Baby is being held for ransom. Baby returns and a hasty but traditional Catholic wedding is planned. It is the wedding of the decade. The President and First Lady are honored guests. Shortly thereafter, Senator Avila is assassinated as he steps out of his car.
Senator Domingo Avila is a popular left-leaning senator. He leads the opposition to The President and The First Lady. Although Avila is a distant relative to the powerful General Ledesma, he despises the cruel general. Their two wives attend the same church and the men are cordial to each other in public, but General Ledesma has been overheard saying that Senator Avila “should have been assassinated long ago.” Senator Avila wants to unite the many warring factions that make up the Philippines and form a government in opposition to the current dictator. He is a man of the people that wants his country to break free of its colonial legacy, but the government-controlled press vilifies him and the passive Filipino people would rather watch movies and listen to soap operas than get involved in politics. There is a growing revolutionary movement, however, which reveres Senator Avila and circulates his pamphlets. Senator Avila is married to a “controversial professor of Philippine history,” Maria Luisa Batungbakal Avila. She shares her husband’s passion for his country. They have two daughters, Daisy and Aurora.
Daisy wins the Young Miss Philippines annual beauty pageant. Her mother believes such contests are demeaning to women and refuses to attend the pageant or let her younger daughter watch it on television. Instead of being...