“Why was America so kind and yet so cruel?” Carlos Bulosan wrote in “America Is in the Heart,” his 1943 semi-autobiographical novel about a young Filipino immigrant bewildered by the paradox of his new home. Here, he found racism, callousness and brutality; but he also found good will, tolerance and generosity. “Was there no way to simplify things in this continent so that suffering would be minimized?” Bulosan wrote. “Was there no common denominator on which we could all meet?”
Similar questions wend their way through the journalist Albert Samaha’s “Concepcion,” an immersive memoir about his own family’s journey from the Philippines to the United States, where he was born and raised by his mother, Lucy — a devout Catholic whose family abhorred the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In recent years, she has become a staunch Donald Trump supporter and fervent believer in QAnon. Samaha and his mother continue to love and support each other, but in some ways she exemplifies the paradoxes that Bulosan puzzled over nearly eight decades before.
Her Twitter feed, Samaha says, was like a “surreal mash-up” of her very real yet seemingly incommensurate interests. She demonstrated her affection for both Trump and her only child by promoting QAnon conspiracy theories along with Samaha’s pieces for BuzzFeed about police misconduct. “I hope @POTUS & @DOJ would read the investigative criminal justice stories of @AlbertSamaha,” she once tweeted, adding “#TRUMP2020.” It was apparently too much for even the Twitter algorithm to handle, and her account was suspended on suspicion that she was a bot.
If “Concepcion” were only about Samaha’s mother, it would already be wholly worthwhile. But she was one of eight children in the Concepcion family, whose ancestry Samaha traces in this sprawling and powerful book back to the sultanates that preceded the Spanish Empire’s arrival in the Philippines. His great-great-grandmother was a Muslim princess who converted to Catholicism. In another branch of the family, his ancestors joined the 19th-century independence movement. His mother’s parents would meet decades later in a classroom on the island of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, when the country was part of the American empire. “As history would have it,” Samaha writes, with a finely tuned sense of irony, “the descendants of revolutionaries and sultans fell in love inside a school with a U.S. flag flying out front.”
Piecing together historical records with family lore, Samaha offers striking recreations of his ancestors’ lives. When the country gained independence in 1946, the Concepcion family was well-placed to become well-to-do. His grandfather was a civil attorney; his grandmother worked as an accountant. They moved to bustling Quezon City, where they could afford a retinue — drivers and maids and nannies to help them raise their children.
But the Philippines didn’t feel stable, especially when Marcos, who was elected president in 1965, decided he wanted to stay in power and declared martial law. Nineteen sixty-five also happened to be the year when the American immigration system eliminated its race-based quotas, smoothing the way for the Concepcions to join the few relatives who had already managed to make their way to California.
This book’s tale of immigrant striving is haunted by a parallel story of American decline. The Concepcions who arrived in the 1970s and ’80s didn’t land on the placid shores of an American Dream. “In the States, life felt shaky, cramped, rushed, an endless series of complications, adjustments and sacrifices,” Samaha writes. “Everybody seemed to be toiling all the time.” His Uncle Spanky, a literal rock star in the Philippines until he left in 1988, became a baggage handler at San Francisco International Airport. His Uncle Bobby left a budding professional basketball career in the Philippines to work as a server in the restaurant of a retirement home in Sacramento. “Spanky and Bobby saw their futures twisting into indecipherable contortions with a slow burn,” Samaha writes, “like a strip of bark atop a bonfire.”
Samaha feels some guilt — “the knowledge that your comfort has come at the expense of your elders” — but his mother and her siblings insist they have no regrets. Spanky says that whenever he had doubts, his thoughts turned to his children, who he believed would find more happiness in the United States than in the Philippines. Being rich in the Philippines felt brittle and unsustainable, with the wealthy carrying guns and hunkering down in walled compounds while the poor struggled to survive in aluminum shacks. Growing up in California, Samaha and his cousins didn’t have to live in a gilded bubble of fear; they could play football, get college degrees and embark on promising careers.
This is a resolutely intimate book, but Samaha always keeps an eye trained on the bigger picture, repeatedly bringing up the question of whether a country has functioning institutions — that crucial, if often unsung, scaffolding of stability that allows individuals to imagine a future for themselves (or, in its absence, spurs them to leave). Samaha’s generation saw firsthand how the civic infrastructure that tacitly undergirded the older generation’s fantasies of American exceptionalism wasn’t as robust as it once was. In the 1970s and ’80s, cities were reeling from financial crises and austerity measures, corroding “the very corporate and public institutions that were supposed to embody what made America great.”
Still, his older relatives don’t seem to think in terms of institutional safeguards, or at least they don’t talk that way. They were delighted when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016, and seemingly unbothered by his untrammeled pursuit of extrajudicial killings. They brushed aside Samaha’s moral outrage, telling him that he simply didn’t understand what it was like in the old country. “You’re from America,” his Uncle Bobby told him. “It’s different here.”
And it is different here — Samaha knows this. But he also gestures at the possibility that what once may have seemed like a difference in kind is perhaps more a difference of degree. While Samaha unsuccessfully tries to coax his mother from the rabbit hole of right-wing conspiracy theorizing, it’s hard not to see how her faith in self-styled strongmen like Duterte and Trump is as much a reaction to institutional collapse as it is a hastener of it. She keeps a framed photo of Trump on her bookshelf, just below a figurine of Pope Francis. Samaha loves her too much and knows her too well to flatten her contradictions into a caricature. Even when he and his mother don’t agree on the basic contours of reality, he still feels irrevocably connected to her.
“At least my mom was happy,” he writes, as the Trump years filled her with hope and him with despair. “I counted my blessings, just like she taught me.”