“I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.”
My introduction to Carlos Bulosan, perhaps one of the greatest Filipino-American writers to have ever lived, is a little late. While most of my peers learned about Bulosan and read his work in college, I finished the book just a little over a week ago.
It is the year 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. As the month of April nears its end, many of the preparations in the community are geared towards May 1st, International Workers Day.
I think about Bulosan and his words, and the significance of May Day as I write this. How a book that was written in the 30s of the last century — which detailed the simultaneous heartbreaking and back-breaking struggle of Filipino farmworkers in the Northwest, and Bulosan’s first encounter with fascism — is still relevant to this day.
America is in the Heart (Indiebound) is presented as the autobiography of Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino peasant migrant from the Philippines to the U.S. While many facts in the book are refuted, it nonetheless stands as a testimony and a witness to the early experiences of Filipinos in the country.
The book is a sweeping account of his life, from growing up poor in the Philippines, in a small village in the northern islands. Allos, as he was referred to initially, grew up helping his father farm and his mother vend small goods. At an early age, Allos was becoming more and more aware of the conditions of people like him, which made up the majority of the Philippines — the peasantry.
Most of those who were young and able-bodied, specifically men, knew that in order for their families to survive, they had to get out and look for jobs elsewhere.
In the provinces where the poor peasants lived and toiled for the rich hacienderos, or landlords, the young men were stirring and rebelling against their heritage. Those who could no longer tolerate existing conditions adventured into the new land, for the opening of the United States to them was one of the gratifying provisions of the peace treaty that culminated the Spanish-American war.
America became a dream for young Allos, and as soon as he was given the opportunity to board one of the ships that could potentially change his life forever, he immediately hopped on.
But the America that he longed for did not return the same sentiment that Bulosan poured in it — instead of being welcomed and embraced, he was constantly rejected, beaten, an unwelcome stranger in a foreign land.
I don’t know much of the history of Filipino-Americans to begin with, as my knowledge is limited to what has been happening within the last few decades. But not much has changed. While the Philippines is no longer an official colony of the U.S., there are deeper and stronger economic and military ties between the two nations. The struggle of farmers and farmworkers have only intensified, even in the new millennium. Just recently, farmers at Hacienda Luisita have launched #OccupyLuisita after landowners have continued to refuse to hand over hectares of land rightfully owned by the farmers.
What was happening then, is the reality of most Filipinos right now.
What Bulosan wrote broke my heart to several pieces, several times. Not only were Filipinos treated poorly in the homeland, they were also subjected to the kind of state and economic violence America has been notorious in perpetuating against people of color: racism, discrimination and police brutality.
I came to know afterward that in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California. I came to know that the public streets were not free to my people; we were stopped each time these vigilant patrolmen saw us driving a car. We were suspect each time we were seen with a white woman. And perhaps it was this narrowing of our life into an island, into a filthy segment of American society, that had driven Filipinos like Doro inward, hating everyone and despising all positive urgencies toward freedom.
The worst part of Bulosan’s experience was that not only were Filipinos being treated like animals by white men, they turned on each other out of desperation. This was made worse by a predatory cycle that drove Filipinos in a vicious psychological trauma: after a hard day’s work picking and/or tending to the land owned by absent landlords, what they earned would go right into gambling casinos and brothels set up nearby.
This way, they were kept in a cycle of perpetual depravity and were tied to the same loop, hamsters running in their wheels, unaware that they are still caged. Allos saw this and detested it, as he tried to stay away from it.
I had not seen this sort of brutality in the Philippines, but my first contact with it in America made me brave. My bravery was still nameless, and waiting to express itself. I was not shocked when I saw that my countrymen had become ruthless toward one another, and this sudden impact of cruelty made me insensate to pain and kindness, so that it took me a long time to wholly trust other men. As time when by I became as ruthless as the worst of them, and I became afraid that I would never feel like a human being again. Yet no matter what bestiality encompassed my life, I felt sure that somewhere, sometime, I would break free. This faith kept me from completely succumbing to the degradation into which many of my countrymen had fallen. It finally paved my way out of our small , harsh life, painfully but cleanly, into a world of strange intellectual adventures and self-fulfillment.
The worsening of the conditions of the farmers and farmworkers, along with his deteriorating health gave way to an unprecedented discovery: his education. Stuck in hospitals, he devoured literature and fed his mind, as his brother Luciano once told him.
His thirst for learning was nourished and sustained by interesting figures, mostly white women who doted on him even when he was working as a houseboy in the Philippines.
He also began writing poems, which earned him some popularity and from then, people sought him out. But his heart was set on joining and igniting the social awakening of Filipinos, to which he dedicated the remained of his life for.
Bulosan’s writing, along with the arousal of his political consciousness was a tough reconciliation with the America he longed for versus the America that nearly killed him. There are many parallels to the movement of Filipinos with those of other oppressed populations, and what I’ve firmly believed in has only been cemented after reading this book: repression breeds resistance, and it is only through collective struggle that it can be overcome.
It is but fair to say that America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom: it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of freemen.
America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling on a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate
—- We are America!
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America is in the Heart (Indiebound) by Carlos Bulosan
University of Washington Press (327 pages)
February 21, 2014
My rating: ★★★★★
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.