For decades after the death of Carlos Bulosan (1911-1956), his works languished in obscurity and his extraordinary achievements were virtually forgotten. But in his short life, Bulosan rose from an impoverished childhood in colonial Philippines to become a celebrated man of letters in the United States, despite deeply entrenched racial barriers. His books and poems bore unsparing witness to the racism and hardships Filipinos encountered in their adopted home.
While America failed to live up to his dreams, Bulosan continued to lay claim to his vision for the land that rejected him and his countrymen. "America is not a land of one race or one class of men," Bulosan wrote in his autobiography, America Is in the Heart. "We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and know oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino peapickers. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering." The book, when rediscovered by another generation of Asian Americans in the late 1960s and 1970s, would later become an instant classic in the emerging canon of Asian American literature.
Poverty and Flight
Although there is conflicting information on the exact date of Bulosan's birth, Susan Evangelista, author of Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography and Anthology, believes he was born on November 2, 1911, in Binalonan, Philippines. Bulosan's parents were peasants who eked out a living from the land. In his autobiography, Bulosan described his father's losing battle to keep the small parcel of land that supported their large family, and the setbacks that continually dashed any hopes for improving their lives. In his vivid portrayal of his family's poverty, Bulosan captured the forces that ultimately drove him—just as it had thousands of others—to seek a better life abroad.
After striking out on his own and saving enough money for his passage, Bulosan left Manila aboard a ship bound for Seattle. He never returned to the Philippines. During the harrowing transoceanic crossing, an epidemic of meningitis broke out and several of the Filipino passengers, who were confined to the steerage section, became ill or died. When Bulosan arrived on July 1, 1930, the United States was a country deeply mired in the Great Depression. With unemployment high and competition for the few available jobs intense, immigrants who were drawn by promises of opportunity instead encountered resentment and racism. Those who were too new to know their rights were often exploited. With no money or family in Seattle, Bulosan was quickly recruited to work in the Alaskan fish canneries. After a season of hard labor, his total earnings, after some questionable deductions, were only thirteen dollars.
Once back from Alaska, Bulosan started working his way south, toward California, where two of his brothers lived. Along the way, he found occasional work as a field hand or crop picker, and came to know the marginalized world of the Filipino immigrants. Ostracized by the mainstream, Filipino men (few women immigrated) created their own rough-and-tumble bachelor societies.
On the West Coast, Filipinos were often the target of racial violence. While working in an eastern Washington orchard, Bulosan and other Filipino workers were driven out by a group of white men, their bunkhouse set on fire. At a pool hall in Los Angeles, Bulosan saw two policemen gun down a Filipino. In California, racist 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."
In California, Bulosan became involved in an effort to organize independent unions—a reaction to the wage cuts, unemployment, and the exploitation of the Depression and a protest against the drive to exclude Filipinos from unions in the early 1930s, noted Carey McWilliams in his introduction to America Is in the Heart. McWilliams, who was the editor the Nation magazine, knew Bulosan. 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— often the same workers at different times of the year.
An older brother helped Bulosan find enough work to keep them alive. McWilliams described Bulosan as sickly. Because of a limp, the kinds of jobs open to him were limited, although he did manage to get work now and then, mostly as a dishwasher. McWilliams quoted John Fante, the novelist and screenwriter who was also a friend of Bulosan's, who described him as a poet-saint, having "an exquisite face, almost facially beautiful, with gleaming teeth and lovely brown eyes, shy, generous terribly poor, terribly exiled in California."
Reading and Writing
To pass time during the periods when he was not well enough to work or when he was unable to find jobs, Bulosan spent long hours at the Los Angeles Public Library, where he read everything from children's books to Freudian psychology, said Evangelista. When he left the Philippines, he had only three years of formal education and spoke little English. Although he hadn't written much before coming to the United States, once he discovered writing, he never stopped. Bulosan sold his first story while he was working in a fish cannery in San Pedro.
In 1934, Bulosan published The New Tide, a bimonthly radical literary magazine that brought him into contact with several prominent writers, including William Carlos Williams, William Saroyan, and Richard Wright. He also met and befriended Harriet Monroe, editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry, who published and championed his work. At other times, Bulosan was involved in writing more political news, working for the Philippine Commonwealth Times and at least two other newspapers in the Stockton-Salinas areas that focused on the problems of the Filipino workers, according to Evangelista.
In 1936 Bulosan, suffering from tuberculosis, was taken to the Los Angeles County hospital where he underwent three operations for a lesion in his right lung. He spent two years in the hospital, mostly in the convalescent ward. Bulosan used his long stay in the hospital to develop his education by reading voraciously and constantly writing. "Writing is a pleasure and a passion to me. I seem to be babbling with multitudinous ideas, but my body is weak and tired," Bulosan wrote at the time. "I locked myself in the room, unplugged the phone, pulled down the shades and shut out the whole damned world. I knew enough of it to carry me for a lifetime of writing."
With the end of the Depression and the start of World War II, during which the Philippines and the United States were allies in the fight against Japan, the status of Filipinos in the United States began to change slightly. It was during this time that Bulosan began to receive wider acceptance as a writer, noted Evangelista. In 1942 he wrote two thin volumes of poetry, Letter from America and Chorus for America . That year he was included in Who's Who in America. The following year he published The Voice of Bataan, written in memory of the soldiers who died there. That same year, the Saturday Evening Post published four articles on the four freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Bulosan was chosen to write the section on freedom from want. In 1944, Bulosan published The Laughter of My Father, which became an instant wartime success. The book was translated into several European languages and was transmitted worldwide over wartime radio. The following year, Harcourt, Brace and Company asked him to write what would become his most enduring work, his autobiography, America Is in the Heart. When it was published in 1946, the book was a critical success.
McWilliams, in his introduction to the reprinted edition nearly three decades later, called it a social classic: "It reflects the collective life experience of thousands of Filipino immigrants who were attracted to this country by its legendary promises of a better life or who were recruited for employment here." The Saturday Review of Literature said of the book: "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 the anger it will arouse in them the determination to bring to an end the vicious nonsense of racism."
In the conservative postwar climate, Bulosan's star started to face. His left-wing politics and involvement in union activities were at odds with the fervent anti-communism of the McCarthy era. But Bulosan became increasingly involved with UCAPAWA. In 1950, he was hired to edit the union's highly political yearbook. The repercussions for his political stand were severe. Bulosan believed that he was blacklisted in Hollywood and was unable to find work there because of his political beliefs, according to Evangelista. His friend, John Fante, reportedly said that he was barred from working at MGM studios simply because of his association with Bulosan.
Bulosan's health progressively worsened in the early 1950s. He spent his final years in Seattle, and was hospitalized for part of that time. When he died of tuberculosis and malnutrition, union leader Chris Mensalvas, a close friend of Bulosan's, wrote this obituary, as quoted in Evangelista's book: "Carlos Bulosan, 30 years old (sic), died 11 September 1956, Seattle. Birthplace: Philippines; Address: Unknown; Occupation: Writer; Hobby: Famous for his jungle salad served during Foreign-Born Committee dinners. Estate: One typewriter, a twenty-year old suit, unfinished manuscripts, worn out sock; Finances: Zero; Beneficiary: His people."
For two decades after his death, Bulosan and his works were largely forgotten. But a generation of young Asian Americans hungry to reclaim their lost history and heroes rediscovered him. America Is in the Heart was reprinted by the University of Washington Press in 1973 and it has since become a fixture in Asian American studies programs at universities across the county.
Bulosan, Carlos. America Is in the Heart . 1943; reprinted with introduction by Carey McWilliams, University of Washington Press, 1973.
Evangelista, Susan. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography and Anthology. University of Washington Press, 1985.