Remembering Bulosan

In My Eyes: By Edward Antonio

(First of two parts)

At a time when the United States was “fighting for democracy” around the globe in two world wars and succeeding against totalitarianism, dictatorship and fascism, the great Uncle Sam was failing miserably in his own native land.

Dubbed as the New World by early Europeans, the United States had long masqueraded as the melting pot of all races, the defender of democracy, and the home of the homeless until one Ilocano writer spilled all the beans and America, the conqueror of General Gregorio del Pilar, suddenly became one of the foremost leaders of racism in the 20th century.

I shudder to read from Prof. Ambeth Ocampo that when del Pilar and his men fell, the Americans swept on the poor victims and looted everything with value, including General Goyo who was stripped to his undergarment. I tremble in shock of the burning of Samar by the Americans who murdered more than a thousand men, women and children and employed their own version of scorch-earth tactic, literally flatting the province to ashes.

The Ilocano writer I am referring to, fellas, was Carlos Bulosan, an Ilocano self-made writer who suffered and witnessed what is meant to become a victim of first class American racism right in the united States.

When their little piece of land in Pangasinan was usurped and claimed by the elites, Bulosan, fed of the poverty hounding his family, fled to America aboard a ship, hoping to find the luck and wealth in America which had long been heralded across the globe. Following the pattern of many Filipinos during the American colonial period, he left for America on July 22, 1930 at age 17. He never again saw his Philippine homeland.

Upon arriving in Seattle, he was met with racism and was forced to work in low paying jobs. He worked as a farmworker, harvesting tomatoes, grapes and asparagus, and doing other types of hard work in the fields of California. He also worked as a dishwasher in the famous Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and as a factory worker at the canneries in Alaska. Ill fed, homeless and hopping from one place to another in search for food, clothing and shelter, Bulosan became a vagabond, sleeping anywhere his back could lay and battling the chill of winter until his health gave way.

It was during these times when restaurants would post at the front door signs like: “Dogs and Filipinos not allowed” that Bulosan wrote America Is in the Heart one of the few books that detail the migrant workers’ struggles in the United States during the 1930s through the 1940s. The struggles included “beatings, threats, and ill health.”

In this book, Bulosan also narrated his attempts to establish a labor union. Bulosan’s book had been compared to The Grapes of Wrath except that the main and real characters were brown-skinned. Despite the bitterness however, Bulosan revealed at the final pages of the book that because he loved America, no one could ever destroy his faith in his new country. In this personal literature, Bulosan argued that despite the suffering and abuses he experienced, America was an unfinished “ideal in which everyone must invest time and energy, this outlook leaves us with a feeling of hope for the future instead of bitter defeat.”

According to Carlos P. Romulo when he was interviewed by The New York Times, Bulosan wrote America Is in the Heart with “bitterness” in his heart and blood yet with the purpose of contributing “something toward the final fulfillment of America.”

America Is in the Heart tells of the life of a Filipino migrant worker during the Great Depression. In reality, the life of any Filipino in the United States during this time period was “lonely” and “damned,” as Bulosan described in a letter to a friend.

When he and his friend José arrived in California in 1930, “the lives of Filipinos were cheaper than those of dogs.” As the Filipino population grew and the Great Depression worsened, the anti-Filipino movement flourished. This attitude towards Bulosan and his people was led by the same forces that previously condemned the Chinese and the Japanese, and in 1928, the American Federation of Labor encouraged an “exclusion” of the race, which was warmly received in Congress. Despite the fact that most of these immigrants were modernized and able to speak more than one European language, there was a persistent tendency to portray them not only as primitive savages but also sexual threats against white women.

The anti-Filipino sentiment that plagued the American mindset during this time period can be observed in a few separate events. The most violent and well known incident occurred in California in 1930: four hundred white vigilantes attacked a Filipino night club, injuring dozens and killing one. In 1933, California and twelve other state legislatures restricted Filipino-white marriages. Lastly, in 1935 the Welch Bill volunteered a fixed sum of cash to pay for the fare of Filipinos who would voluntarily go back to the Philippines. Events such as these prove the anti-Filipino sentiment that afflicted Carlos Bulosan and the rest of the Filipino population.

(To be continued)