When Excel Maxino turns ten, his mother, Maxima, takes him to Pier 39 in San Francisco, revealing a life-changing secret: She and Excel are TNT: tago ng tago, Tagalog for hiding and hiding. In his new novel, The Son of Good Fortune, Lysley Tenorio tells a captivating story of undocumented immigrants and their never-ending resolve to remain invisible so they aren’t found out.
While Americans have been conditioned over the decades to be wary of so-called “illegals” pouring over the border, Maxima and Excel enter the United States the same way many undocumented Americans arrive—on an airplane. Maxima was a martial arts movie star back in Manila, featuring in such movies as Malakas Strike Force 3: Panalo Ako, Talaga! But after a failed relationship with a movie scout that left her pregnant, Maxima leaves the Philippines for San Francisco to join her mentor and father figure, Grandmaster Joker. Excel is born on the flight and when the plane lands at SFO, he has lost his chance for automatic US citizenship.
Mother and son move in with Joker in Colma, a suburb just south of San Francisco known for its seventeen cemeteries and a cardroom frequented by older Filipinos. Excel and Maxima rarely leave Colma. Life as an undocumented immigrant also means that Excel can never win at anything in school, lest his photo and name appear in the local paper and the authorities realize he’s TNT. On top of that, Excel doesn’t want his mother to feel like she’s made a mistake by moving to the US when he can’t achieve his full potential for fear of being caught.
At school, he has a difficult time completing assignments that deal with personal details. One teacher asks the class to write out their family trees. Excel doesn’t know anything about his father, not even his name. He can only fill in his own name and that of his mother.
Lying would be easier. Two weeks later, the night before the assignment was due, he filled in the family tree blanks with names as ridiculous as his own. His grandfather was named Maximilliano, who was the son of Xerxes and Fortuna; he named his grandmother Galaxina, who became the daughter of Novacento and Castleanna. By the time he finished, the sheet looked as though he’d descended from a line of wizards and sorceresses.
Joker dies from a heart attack and his brother and landlord, Bingo, raises the rent for Maxima and Excel. Since Excel doesn’t have a social security card, he’s terrified to apply to college—even community college—or to jobs that interest him. So he’s relegated to dressing up in costume and cleaning bathrooms at a gimmicky pizza restaurant with a spy theme, all under the wrath of his heartless Serbian boss. Maxima, tough on the outside but also cautious about being deported, earns money chatting online with American men looking for Filipina wives. Putting her acting skills to use, she signs up with sites like Good Catholic Filipinas, OK Filipinas, A Kiss across the Ocean, Pacific Catholic Romance, and other websites frequented by middle-aged American men.
Excel asks his mother about the men she meets online, never with any intention of meeting them in real life. Maxima explains:
They want the perfect Asian wife. And you know what ‘perfect’ means. Hardworking. Housecleaning. Loyal. A maid in the day, a whore at night. These men, that’s the kind of thing they say, believe me.
She portrays herself to these men as a woman living in extreme poverty in the Philippines, hopeful for a new start in the United States. When she and the men develop a comfortable rapport, she makes up a heart-wrenching story about natural disasters ripping through her village or a sick relative with no hope of recovery due to a lack of funds. She receives enough wire transfers to pay the rent and their bills.
Tired of hiding, Excel meets a young woman his age at the cemetery where he visits Joker’s gravesite. Sab, or Sabrina, plans to move to a commune in the desert, not far from the California/Mexico border. Excel joins her, but finds that even a place which wears open-mindedness on its sleeve is not immune from fear mongering.
Tenorio writes with great empathy and humor all while conveying the struggles of a family that just wants to feel at home. The Son of Good Fortune is a reminder that immigration is an issue that cuts to roots of many communities, the Filipino diaspora among them.