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Challenging racial barriers, Carlos Bulosan rose from an impoverished childhood in the colonial Philippines to become a celebrated author in the United States. Bulosan’s education made him the first Asian American immigrant to document his life experiences in the language that could bridge the gap from the Filipino alien to the American mainstream. Because his books and poems bear witness to the racism and hardships Filipinos encountered in their adopted home, Bulosan is looked upon as both a pioneer in Asian American writing and a brave voice of the oppressed.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Family’s Struggles
Carlos Bulosan was born to a peasant family in Binalonon, a rural area of the Philippines, on November 1911. As a child, he helped his mother sell vegetables at a market and worked as a laborer in the mango fields. In America Is in the Heart (1946), Bulosan describes his father’s losing battle to keep the small parcel of land that supported their large family. In his vivid portrayal of the setbacks that continually dashed any hopes for improving his family’s conditions, Bulosan captures the forces that ultimately drove him—just as it had thousands of others—to seek a better life in America. After saving enough money for his passage, Bulosan boarded a ship bound for Seattle, Washington.
America: Land of the Unexpected
Filipinoimmi grants entered America with an undetermined status. Because the Philippines were then a U.S. territory, Filipino immigrants were known as “nationals” and could freely enter America until 1934, when the Tydings-McDuffie Act promised independence to the Philippines in ten years. However, Filipinos were not considered citizens until President Truman signed the Filipino Naturalization Bill granting Filipinos citizenship in 1946.
Bulosan arrived in the United States in July 1930, less than a year after the 1929 stock market crash that devastated the American economy and marked the beginning of the bleak period in American history known as the Great Depression. With unemployment high and competition fierce for the few available jobs, some white Americans, afraid the immigrants would prevent them from supporting their own families, resented the Filipinos. Immigrants too new to know their rights were often exploited. With no money or family in Seattle, Bulosan worked in the fish canneries of Alaska. After an entire season of hard labor, his earnings—after his bosses had made some questionable deductions—totaled only thirteen dollars. When he left Alaska, Bulosan headed to Los Angeles, finding occasional work as a field hand or crop picker along the Pacific Coast, including the Salinas Valley, the setting for many of John Steinbeck’s novels.
Because he was sickly and had difficulty holding jobs, Bulosan lived in Los Angeles with his brother, who helped support him. In Los Angeles, Bulosan witnessed extensive prejudice against Filipinos. At a pool hall there, Bulosan saw two policemen gun down a Filipino. In California, miscegenation laws made it illegal for Filipinos to marry white women, and cars with Filipino men were routinely stopped by police and searched. ”I came to know afterward that in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California,” Bulosan wrote in his autobiography. ”I came to know that the public streets were not free to my people.”
The New Tide of Radical Politics
During the times when he was too ill to work, Bulosan spent his free time in public libraries, reading voraciously. He was fascinated by philosophy and sociology, particularly in the way these disciplines related to the labor movement. He became interested in the communist theorist Karl Marx, often telling friends about the rising power of the working classes and what they would achieve in the coming revolution. Soon, Bulosan became involved in an effort to organize independent unions for Filipinos as a way to fight the arbitrary firings and wage cuts they routinely suffered. The organizing effort led to the formation of a new international union known as UCAPAWA, United Cannery and Packing House Workers of America, representing fish cannery workers in Seattle and packing house workers in Salinas, California, who were often the same workers at different times of the year.
In a time when radical politics were widely discussed in the United States and the labor movement began to emerge as an important force, thousands of small working-class magazines and newspapers were established all over the country. Bulosan took advantage of these avenues to write several political articles that focused on the problems of Filipino workers in America. In 1934, he founded The New Tide, a bimonthly radical literary magazine that brought him into contact with some of the great writers of the era, including the poet William Carlos Williams and the novelist Richard Wright.
Wartime, Racism, and Freedom from Want
When the United States was drawn into World War II, the Philippines became its ally against the Japanese in the Pacific theater, and attitudes toward Filipinos in the United States improved slightly when President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted enlisted Filipinos U.S. citizenship. During this time, Bulosan began to receive wider acceptance as a writer. In 1943, he published The Voice of Bataan, a collection of poems dedicated to the men who died in that crucial battle of the Pacific war. That same year, the Saturday Evening Post published articles about the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Bulosan was chosen to write the article on freedom from want, a topic he knew well after living in hunger and deprivation for years. The result was a biting essay about the oppression of the working class, the police-state intimidation techniques routinely used against unions, and the rampant racism in America.
In 1944, Bulosan published his first collection of short stories, The Laughter of My Father, which was an instant wartime sensation. The book was included in the War Department’s arsenal of propaganda, translated into several languages, and transmitted worldwide over war time radio. In 1946, Bulosan published his most enduring work, the autobiographical America Is in the Heart. A merciless critique of a racist society immersed in the Great Depression, the book was a critical success. Although The Laughter of My Father and America Is in the Heart established Bulosan’s reputation as a writer, his fame was not accompanied by fortune.
Blacklisted into Poverty
In the conservative postwar climate of the early 1950s, Bulosan fell from favor. His left-wing politics and involvement in union activities were at odds with the fanatical anti-communism of the McCarthy era, a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy led a nationwide hunt for communists and their supporters.
Bulosan was blacklisted—put on a list of allegedly disloyal people whom employers were pressured not to hire. While debate exists about whether he was actually a member of the Communist Party, Bulosan’s apparent association with communism negatively affected his reputation not only in the United States, but also in the Philippines, where politically radical writing was denounced. Even Bulosan’s friends destroyed letters he had sent them. As he faded into relative obscurity, Bulosan once again fell into poverty, and his health progressively declined. He spent his final years in Seattle and was hospitalized periodically. On September 11, 1956, he died of tuberculosis and malnutrition.
Works in Literary Context
For nearly twenty years after his death, Bulosan and his works were largely forgotten. However, a generation of Asian Americans rediscovered him when America Is in the Heart was reprinted by the University of Washington Press in 1973. It has since become a fixture in Asian American Studies programs across the nation, and Asian American writers and academics such as Jessica Hagedorn and Maxine Hong Kingston have been influenced by Bulosan’s exploration of how Filipinos fought for an American identity.
The Dark Side of the Immigrant Experience
Today, Bulosan’s poetry is widely read and serves a socio political function not only in the creation of an ethnic consciousness among Filipino Americans, but also in the creation of a nondiscriminatory consciousness among all Americans. Capturing the realism of immigrant life, Letter from America (1942) includes some of Bulosan’s best-known poems. These poems speak of the Depression and lines of unemployed men; the injustice of the jail cell; Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who were persecuted for their political views; the terror immigrants feel and experience; painful memories of their now-inaccessible homeland; and starving children. The poems are characterized by an uneasiness that is conveyed through repeated images of nightmares, dreams of being hunted down, threats of execution, and planes circling overhead. The poems are ragged, honest, and especially critical of the racism and economic inequality that had once shocked the idealistic young immigrant.
Works in Critical Context
Carlos Bulosan, one of the first wave of Filipinos to immigrate to the United States during the 1930s, is considered the foremost Filipino expatriate writer. Though his work was very successful and critically acclaimed in the 1930s and 1940s, his reputation was tarnished when he was blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the anti-communist movements of the 1950s. Not until America Is in the Heart was rediscovered and republished in 1973 was his work placed among classic Asian-American literature.
America Is in the Heart
America Is in the Heart has been treated by scholars as Marxist, third world, and postcolonial, but it is most often valued by Filipino Americans as simply a narration of racial consciousness, of the way things were. Scholar Roland L. Guyotte comments that America Is in the Heart reflects Bulosan’s ”self-conscious awakening to his Filipino identity, an awakening that occurred in the United States.” In that regard, America Is in the Heart has become one of the most important works of Asian American literature. Its reach, however, transcends nationality or ethnicity. According to Saturday Review of Literature writer Clara Savage Littledale,
People interested in driving from America the scourge of intolerance should read Mr. Bulosan’s autobiography. They should read it that they may draw from it the anger it will arouse in them . . . the determination to bring an end to the vicious nonsense of racism.
- Bulosan, Carlos. America Is in the Heart. Reprinted with an introduction by Carey McWilliams. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1973.
- Epifano, San Juan. Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines Press, 1972.
- Espiritu, Augusto F. Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.
- Evangelista, Susan. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography and Anthology. Quezon City, Philippines: Ateno University Press, 1985.
- Kim, Elaine H., ed. Asian-American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia.: Temple University Press, 1982.
- Morantte, P. C. Remembering Carlos Bulosan: His Heart Affair with America. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day, 1984.
- Feria, Dolores S. ”Carlos Bulosan: Gentle Genius.” Comment 1 (1957).
- Guyotte, Roland L. ”Generation Gap: Filipinos, Filipino Americans, and Americans, Here and There, Then and Now.” Journal of American Ethnic History (Fall 1997): 64.
- Littledale, Clara Savage. ”The Way Father Stretched His Mouth.” The Saturday Review of Literature (June 3, 1944): 22.
- Mejia-Giudici, Cynthia. Bulosan, Carlos (1911?-1956). Retrieved September 12, 2008, from http://www. historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=5202.
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