Angel de la Luna is just 14 when we’re introduced to her story; she’s on the cusp of adolescence in the tumultuous, equatorial city of Manila in the Philippines.
On the first page she confides in us about the trouble that’s erupted: “The day my father, Ernesto de la Luna, disappeared he gave me one thousand pesos. ‘I’ll be home in three days,’ Papang said, counting the money. ‘But just in case. Take care of your ináy, Angel.’ It’s been two weeks. My mother is out of her mind.”
Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery is written by M. Evelina Galang, director of the creative writing program at the University of Miami. Her previous books, which include One Tribe and Her Wild American Self, explored the Filipino and Filipino American experience. The new work, which is being marketed as a young adult novel, focuses on the same subject. But its intimate storytelling style will appeal to teenage readers and adults.
Galang draws us into a foreign world with beautifully rendered sketches: “The moon is still out and by her light we follow the muddy road, through thickets and down paths where overgrown trees seem to slip in our way. The kuliglíg are louder than the roosters now, chirping wildly. Underneath our feet we hear the squish of red mud, the crack of a stick, the rustle of trees.”
But despite such poetic descriptions, Angel is an authentic teen, who texts her friends and likes to bang on drums, just like her musician father. She rebels against her mother, who urges her to follow her own path as a traditional healer. In English, with bursts of Tagalog, American slang, and “Taglish” (a mashup of both languages), our heroine struggles to understand the abrupt changes taking place in her universe.
After Angel’s beloved father’s death, her mother plunges into a mad grief, and the world suddenly seems treacherous and unreliable. In a quest to assert her own personality, Angel develops a fervent interest in learning about the present and the history of her nation. No longer willing to keep quiet, the “lolas” (grandmothers or older women) in Angel’s life reveal what happened to them under Japanese occupation during World War II. They became so-called Comfort Women, abused by soldiers on a daily basis.
“ ‘They tied us at the waist with a rope, like this. And they dragged us for I don’t know how long. When we slept we were like that. Even to relieve ourselves, we were like that. At night they throw us down. Ginagmit nila kami. Sometimes four soldiers at one time.’ ”
Angel is captivated by the lolas’ tales of atrocity. At the same time she becomes caught up in the rising political tension of 2001. This was the year of the second Philippine People Power Revolution. Accusations of corruption against President Joseph Estrada, his family and his cronies have inflamed the public. Meanwhile, her mother finishes her nursing degree and obtains a visa for the United States, with the intention that the rest of the family will follow.
For Angel this departure is a desertion and a liberation. She feels increasingly sympathetic to the protestors and eventually joins in the public demonstrations that sweep Estrada from office. But after the euphoria of that victory, her mother sends for her. Next stop: cold, wintery Chicago.
The new reality is daunting, to say the least. Angel must face American school, the unfamiliar social codes of American teenagers and a harsh climate in a strange city.
To bring her family to America, her mother married an older man, Manong Jack, who has his own ideas about how a wife and children should behave: “He is like a block of ice stuck in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm. He makes it hard to see her over him, to see her all by herself.”
The more comfortable Angel becomes with her American peers, the more distance grows between her and her mother. Galang closes with novel, however, not with politics or acts of teenage rebellion, but with a quiet miracle, as Angel comes to a new understanding of the extraordinary reach of a parent’s love.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.