Rio is one of the three main narrators. She tells her family’s captivating story through means of flashbacks so her recollections are filtered through the more experienced eyes of an adult. Her observations and assessments come across as sardonic and detached, rather than as innocent childhood memories. Rio is both an eyewitness and a dreamer, however. As the reader finds out at the end of the novel, her observations may be her own invention. Her cousin Pucha accuses her of purposefully mixing things up. The reader is left to wonder how much of the story is real and how much is invented. Perhaps Rio’s story is wishful thinking. Perhaps she has fashioned her own mental movie with her family as the actors.
Rio’s story begins when she is ten years old. She is a precocious young Filipina girl, a “mestiza” whose ancestors include Americans, Spaniards, Chinese and native Filipinos. Older acting than her ten years, she pals around with her cousin Pucha who is fourteen when the story begins. Rio is not interested in boys and loses patience with her cousin Pucha’s constant flirting. Rio is tomboyish and shuns her mother’s attempts to mold her into a proper Filipina woman that cares about her looks. Rio is conflicted. While she would rather watch movies and read books than have her hair and nails done, she also is mesmerized by her mother’s perfumes, creams and ointments, tubes of lipstick, jewelry boxes, combs and brushes and talcum powders. She spends hours watching her mother “dress and undress, talk in hushed tones on the telephone” and give orders to the servants. She defies her mother’s warning to stay out of the sun, which will ruin her skin. “I love the feel of the sun toasting my skin,” she explains. Rio remarks that her mother often complains that she is strange, rebellious and “an ungrateful little brat” who hates wearing dresses and going to parties, yet she also notes that her mother seems proud of her “precociousness” and worries about the negative influence the boy-crazy Pucha might have on her.
Rio is close to her maternal grandmother, Lola Narcisa, and sneaks off to her grandmother’s room to listen to the Filipino radio drama, Love Letters, with the servants. Unlike others in her upper middle-class family, Rio is respectful of the servants and does not treat them as if they were invisible. Rio enjoys eating the traditional Filipino food that her grandmother and the servants eat with their hands in the tiny incense-filled room. She finds the fact that she can “weep without shame” over the soap operas and Tagalog songs “a delicious tradition” rather than something that “appeals to the lowest common denominator,” as Rio’s father states critically behind his mother-in-law’s back. As Rio matures, she moves into the modern age but maintains respect for the traditions of the past. Rio is a coming of age character searching for her identity among her varied cultural heritages. She is not always sure where she belongs and complains of having to “reconstruct her genealogy.” In this sense, her character is symbolic of the uncertainty of the post-colonial Philippine national identity. At the end of the novel, she still has not resolved her identity. By then, she has moved to America, still “anxious and restless, at home only in airports,” living in a limbo between where one comes from and where one is going.
Pucha is Rio’s cousin. Except for a final chapter, everything about her is revealed by Rio. Pucha is fourteen when Rio’s narrative begins. Rio describes her as an “overripe” flirt with “overdeveloped 36B” breasts who enjoys the attention of boys. “Everything reminds Pucha of sex,” Rio reports. Pucha is Rio’s movie buddy. Chaperoned by either Pucha’s “ya ya” (nanny), Lorenza, or one of the girls’ older brothers, the cousins attend American movies and debate the virtues of American actresses and actors. In Rio’s narrative, Pucha becomes enamored with the rich Boomboom Alacran and embarks on a quest to snag him for a husband. Pucha acknowledges that Boomboom is a bit “gordito” (chubby), but that he is rich and that makes him “cute enough for me.”
Pucha symbolizes the aspect of colonial Philippine culture that mimics the United States in that, like many Americans, she wants to forget the past. Pucha’s character is a foil to Rio’s. Unlike Rio, Pucha is comfortable with her upper-middle class social status. She is not conflicted and knows what she wants out of life, although Rio believes her goals are shallow. Pucha would never be caught eating Filipino food with her hands. She is contemptuous of the Filipino servants, either treating them with disdain or as if they were invisible. She ignores her chaperone’s warnings and continues to flirt and carry on unabashedly with the boys in the Café España. Rio is often embarrassed by the way her cousin treats the servants and waiters.
Pucha wants to elevate her position even further by marrying into the wealthy Alacran family. Rio explains that “Pucha’s been climbing so fiercely since the day she was born.” Pucha and Rio have a “weekly manicure, pedicure, and complimentary foot massage” at Jojo’s New Yorker, but Pucha constantly complains about the “unpretentious beauty parlor with its modest neighborhood clientele.” She would prefer to patronize the ritzy salon of Chiquiting Moreno, hairdresser to the stars and to The First Lady, but the girls cannot afford the exorbitant prices. Pucha assures Rio that when she is “Mrs. Doña Pucha Alacran” she will be able to afford a Chiquiting Moreno hairdo whenever she feels like it. It is “one of her goals in life,” Rio complains. Pucha is happy to ignore the Philippine’s colonial past and embrace the future as long as she can afford to go to Chiquiting Moreno’s.
The grownup Pucha sends numerous letters, “spelling errors intact,” to Rio who is living in the U.S. Pucha has married Boomboom right after high school, a terrible marriage that does not even last a year. Boomboom “is insanely jealous” and locks Pucha in the bedroom while he plays golf, drinks and gambles all day. He beats her and accuses her of being unfaithful. Pucha escapes in her nightgown to her parents’ house. Boomboom threatens to kill himself on Pucha’s front lawn. Pucha finally divorces Boomboom but she keeps the surname “Alacran.”
Rio’s account of these events is very dramatic, almost like an American movie, but all very untrue, according to Pucha. Pucha gives her version of events in a final letter to Rio in the only chapter that she narrates. Rio’s story is all wrong. She never married Boomboom, she tells Rio. Her first husband was Ramon Assad. “You like to mix things up on purpose,” she accuses Rio. “If I were you, prima (cousin), I’d leave well enough alone.”
Delores Gonzaga is Rio’s mother. She is the daughter of an American father and a Filipina mother, a beautiful woman who is nevertheless ashamed of her half-breed ancestry. She keeps her dark ancestry hidden just like she hides her dark-skinned little Filipina mother, Lola Narcisa, while Lola lives with the family during her husband’s hospitalization.
Rio refers to her mother as “my Rita Hayworth mother.” Delores is a former beauty queen whose goal in life is to maintain her beauty. She is thin because she does not eat. She nibbles. Rio says she has “smooth skin, the color of yellow white ivory.” Delores avoids the sun, and spends her days slathering on “cold creams and moisturizers” while taking daily naps “with masks of mashed avocado” and “red clay from France.” She has her hair tinted regularly at the posh Chiquiting Moreno salon. She meets weekly with her manicurist Salvador and her transvestite dressmaker Panchito, who is also her closest friend. Delores’ husband Freddie detests Panchito and Salvador, calling his wife and her two pals “The Three (dis) Graces.”
Delores has a sexless relationship with her husband and they fight often. The couple socializes together to keep up appearances. Delores is obsessed with keeping up appearances. They are both having extramarital affairs. They have violent fights. When her husband has a heart attack, she accusingly tells him that it is because he eats too much and his only exercise is “fooling around” and “sitting on his ass, gambling long hours at the poker table.” It is going to kill him, she complains, and she is “too young to be a widow.” Delores is dependent on her husband for her social status yet trapped by the marriage that allows her this status. She symbolizes the frustrated upper middle class Filipina woman whose role in society is defined by men. She is apolitical and does not play golf. She only goes to the country club to watch her lover play tennis.
Delores’ one sanctuary, ironically, is her bedroom. Here, she escapes her husband and gossips with Panchito and Salvador. She has designed it herself. Everything is mauve – drapes, bedspread, walls. The windows are boarded up and painted over, the air conditioner runs 24/7. When Delores looks at herself in one of the many mirrors, it is always night. In her cool, dark room, she can pretend that she is not aging, she can pretend that she is happy. When her friend Panchito calls it “creepy” she explains that it is designed to “soothe her, like a womb.”
In Rio’s tale, Delores inherits money from her American father, becomes a successful artist and moves to the U.S. with Rio. Freddie loses all his money. Pucha’s version claims this is not so, that Freddie and Delores are still together and Freddie still has money. Perhaps it is only Rio’s wishful thinking movie version of reality that has liberated Delores from the trap of being a woman in 1950s Philippines.
Freddie is Rio’s father. He is a successful businessman who works for the Alacran family conglomerate. Rio describes him as a man of connections who can always find money and can always find a way out. He believes in “dual citizenships, dual passports, as many allegiances to as many countries as possible." Although Freddie is a Filipino, born and bred, he describes himself as being a visitor in his own country. His great-grandfather came from Spain, he informs his wife. She reminds him that his great-grandmother came from Cebu, Philippines. “It doesn’t matter,” he retorts. “It’s how I feel.”
Rio describes her father and uncles as “smug, mysterious men” when they are together. Like the Gonzaga and Alacran women, the men share the same characteristics and are symbolic of the patriarchal Philippine society that objectifies women. They pride themselves on being safe men, “not fools and not cowards,” men who, no matter what they are discussing--“real estate or politics”--“want to stay alive at all costs.” Somehow, Freddie is always able to know “which side is winning.” He is an opportunist who comes from a family of opportunists. “Adaptability is the simple secret of survival,” Freddie brags.
Freddie eats and drinks too much. He puffs expensive cigars and plays golf with his cronies at the Monte Vista Golf Club where he is a “privileged member.” He is “polite and solicitous” to his mother-in-law, but he does not invite her to sit at his dinner table. He is as concerned with keeping up appearances as his wife. When his brother Agustin gambles away his inheritance, Freddie convinces his boss Severo Alacran to hire Agustin, mostly because having a deadbeat brother living nearby will reflect negatively on him.
In Rio’s story, Freddie is having an affair with a “starlet in Hong Kong” when he has a heart attack. His wife leaves him and moves to the U.S. with Rio. Freddie loses all his money. Pucha’s story refutes this. It may only be Rio’s movie version of reality that has punished the symbol of oppressive male patriarchy in 1950s Philippines.
Lola Narcisa Divino
Lola Narcisa is Rio’s maternal grandmother. Rio describes her as a “small brown-skinned woman with faded gray eyes.” Lola Narcisa is a Filipina from Davao, the southern part of the Philippines. She has married an American, Whitman Logan, “a leftover from recent wars” who is ill and in the hospital when the novel begins. Lola Narcisa is convinced he is the only white man ever to be stricken with bangungot, the mysterious tropical disease that only affects men and which all of the doctors claim is “native superstition, a figment of the overwrought Filipino imagination.” While her husband is in the hospital, Lola Narcisa lives in the Gonzaga’s guest room, behind the kitchen. She prefers to eat alone in her room or with the servants. They all eat kamayan style (with their hands) salted fish and rice. Lola Narcisa is a quiet woman who rarely speaks. She does not always recognize who Rio is and is sometimes is surprised by Rio’s visits to her room, calling Rio by her mother’s name. She allows Rio to join her and the servants as they listen to the famous Filipino radio soap opera Love Letters.
Lola Narcisa’s character represents tradition, that part of Filipino history and culture that is fast disappearing in a country that idolizes everything American. Her room illustrates the value Lola places on the old ways. Over her bed hangs a crucifix and a painting of the Madonna and child who, Rio explains, “is depicted as a native woman wearing the traditional patadyong.” The infant Jesus has the brown skin of Lola Narcisa. The sorrow of this disappearing Filipino culture is symbolized by the radio soap opera Love Letters, which Lola Narcisa loves to listen to with Rio. The plots are always sad and almost always, someone dies. The...