Carlos Bulosan Biography


ph_0111226215-Bulosan.jpg Carlos Bulosan Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Carlos Bulosan emigrated to the United States from his native Philippines in 1930. Like countless other young men who had been driven to the United States by the promise of better jobs, Bulosan found instead the crushing defeats of the worst economic depression in U.S. history. The story of his struggles during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, chronicled in the autobiographical America Is in the Heart (1946), had a profound impact on ethnic writing after it was republished by the University of Washington Press in 1973.

It is difficult to piece together Bulosan’s real life story, in part because his most important literary legacy is itself a creative mix of fact and fiction. Even the basic outline of his life is in some dispute: Scholars disagree about the date of his birth, the date and location of his death, and his age when he died. What is known is that he was born in the village of Mangusmana, near Binalonan (in Pangasinan province, on the island of Luzon) in the Philippines and was one of several children. Like many rural Filipino families at that time, his parents suffered economic hardship due in part to U.S. colonialism. He completed only three years of schooling and, drawn to the United States by the promises of wealth and education and the dream of becoming a writer, he followed two older brothers and purchased a steerage ticket to Seattle for seventy-five dollars, arriving on July 22, 1930, while still a teenager. He would never return to the Philippines, and he would never become an American citizen. He worked at a series of low-paying jobs in an Alaskan fish cannery and as a fruit and vegetable picker in Washington and California. Conditions in the early 1930’s were miserable for all migrant workers (as documented in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath) but particularly for Filipinos (then called “Pinoys”) such as Bulosan, and he experienced racial discrimination and poverty. However, he slowly improved his English, befriended other immigrant laborers suffering similar conditions, and soon was writing for and editing union and immigrant papers such as...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Carlos Bulosan’s career has been unique in American literature. An ethnic writer who found fame before most others, he fell into obscurity, died young, and was rediscovered when the recovery of ethnic American literature accelerated in the last decades of the twentieth century. America Is in the Heart came to be considered a major work in the Asian American literary canon, but that is where agreement ends. Part myth, fiction, and history, America Is in the Heart puzzles critics, for it breaks the genre boundaries that scholars are usually intent on establishing. Still, the work remains Bulosan’s most important legacy, a powerful retelling of one important chapter in Asian American history, what the critic Elaine Kim has called “a composite portrait of the Filipino American community, a social document from the point of view of a participant in that experience,” and what E. San Juan, Jr., considers “a massive documentation of the varieties of racism, exploitation, alienation, and inhumanity suffered by Filipinos in the West Coast and Alaska in the decade beginning with the Depression and extending to the outbreak of World War II.” Carlos Bulosan will hold his place in American literature as long as this country’s rich multiethnic history is celebrated.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Carlos Bulosan never forgot his background as a Filipino farmer’s son. He expressed the pride he had in this background as well as the severe social situations which small farmers as well as other hired workers faced in their day-to-day attempts to earn a livelihood. A turning point in Bulosan’s life, which fixed in his memory and conscience the small farmers’ and hired workers’ need for a voice, came when Bulosan’s father lost the family’s small farm and entered the world of serfdom—slavery—in his native Philippines.

Bulosan learned one important lesson from his father: By confronting his daily tasks and hardships with laughter and cunning, Bulosan saw his father retain his personal identity. Bulosan’s father showed his son how one is able to speak as loudly against injustices through satire and laughter as through political diatribe. Bulosan recounts many stories of his father in the many pieces which appeared in leading American publications.

In search of a better life, Bulosan worked his way to America, landing in Seattle on July 22, 1930, and found himself on the streets with others looking for work during the Depression. The good life escaped Bulosan because jobs were few and because of the extreme jingoism rampant in America at the time. Although Bulosan never intended to lose his identity as a Filipino, those with whom he came into contact constantly berated him for being an outsider and a Filipino.

Bulosan began to take whatever job he could find, always being relegated to secondary positions because of his ethnicity. As hard as he tried to fit into the American Dream of a better life, he was denied entrance. Bulosan chronicles his father’s difficult life in America as an unwanted outsider in his autobiographical novel, America Is in the Heart. Bulosan’s dream of a life better than that of his father was never realized. He soon learned that he, too, was a slave to those controlling the jobs. This no doubt contributed to Bulosan’s strong support and activity in the many workers’ movements that arose during his life. Bulosan’s hard life also, no doubt, contributed to his early death.