Carlos Bulosan

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While debate about Bulosan’s life continues to exist, the importance both of his career and particularly of America Is in the Heart is clear. In this fictional immigrant narrative, he combined fact and myth to create an ethnobiography of his people’s experience in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. He fictionalized much of his own life in the story but was true to the oppression and discrimination that he and his fellow Filipino immigrants experienced during the 1930’s. Unlike the authors of ethnic autobiographies that had been produced in earlier waves of immigration (such as the Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie or The Americanization of Edward Bok, both published in 1920), Bulosan stressed the class struggle which he saw played out in his own life and created a counterpoint to the standard American Dream portrayed in such works. The result is a powerful story which tells of his own life and that of his people from an anti-imperialist and working-class perspective.

Bulosan’s other works have broadened his reputation, but America Is in the Heart remains the book by which he will be best remembered. Like other Asian American fiction (written by, for example, Amy Tan and Gish Jen), it explores a number of ethnic issues, including the theme of dual identity—the conflict between the protagonist’s roots in an ethnic community and culture and the character’s search for an individual identity. Furthermore, like a number of classic American works, from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), America Is in the Heart is also the story of a journey of self-discovery. The narrator witnesses countless instances of violence and discrimination but by the end of the story comes to an understanding of himself and of the country he has chosen as his own. Like a number of works from the 1930’s (not only that of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but also the novels of writers such as Jack Conroy and John Dos Passos), the book depicts life at its most miserable during the worst economic depression in American history.

Many ethnic American literary works have uncovered an American history that the dominant culture has arguably ignored, including slavery, the extermination of Native American tribes, and the expropriation of Mexican lands. Bulosan’s work amplifies two important aspects of these ignored topics, first exposing what U.S. imperialism meant in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century and then what further injustices befell the victims of that imperialism who fled to the United States looking for its fabled riches. In the first part of America Is in the Heart and in numerous short stories and the later novel The Cry and the Dedication, Bulosan writes about his homeland and what has happened to it as a result of American intervention, beginning with the Spanish-American War in 1898. Moreover, in much of Bulosan’s works, including the remaining four parts of America Is in the Heart and his short stories and essays, to say nothing of the trajectory of his own career, Bulosan documents how he and his fellow Filipinos have been systematically mistreated and brutalized in the American land of promise. Few ethnic writers can ignore their history, but Bulosan lived his and wrote about it almost obsessively.

America Is in the Heart

First published: 1946

Type of work: Autobiographical novel

Allos emigrates from his native Philippines in 1930 and spends a decade working as a migrant laborer up and down the West Coast before finding his calling as a labor organizer and writer.

Carey McWilliams, who wrote...

(This entire section contains 1596 words.)

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a classic study of migrant farm labor in California titledFactories in the Field (1939), also wrote the introduction to the University of Washington reprint of America Is in the Heart, the paperback which brought Bulosan’s work back into national literary consciousness. McWilliams called the book “a social classic” that “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 work must thus be read on multiple levels at the same time: as a greatly fictionalized memoir or life story but perhaps even more important, as a study of Filipino immigration—which in turn is also part novel, part autobiography.

The work is divided into four parts. In part 1, the narrator (named “Allos”) describes his life in rural Luzon following World War I, when his brother Leon returns from service. His family is slowly disintegrating under multiple economic pressures, as absentee landlords are crippling the peasant farming economy, and eventually Allos is sent to the city to work. However, the perspective is not that of a young boy: Bulosan is clearly looking back as a writer in the United States. This adult narrator understands the exploitation of the peasants by landowners and the church and sees that radical social change is on the horizon. (The parallels to the events on the West Coast—the labor organizing and strikes—in the 1930’s of part 2 are clear.) Part 1 ends with Allos standing on the deck of the ship that will take him to the United States “and looking toward the disappearing Philippines” that he will never see again.

Part 2 focuses largely on the racial discrimination and violence that Filipinos and other minorities experienced in the United States. Allos arrives in Seattle with twenty cents, he says, and he is immediately exploited by a Filipino labor contractor who sells him to the fish canneries in Alaska. “It was the beginning of my life in America, the beginning of a long flight that carried me down the years, fighting desperately to find peace in some corner of life.” His “pilgrimage, this search for a door into America,” takes him instead through a world of gamblers and prostitutes, brutality and bestiality, and disorientation and oppression. He travels south in search of work and comes to realize “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. . . .” Bulosan relates a series of awful stories in this section, of hunger and pain, poverty and loneliness, racism and exploitation. Unlike the traditional American rags-to-riches story (compare Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography from 1793, and the story of how he arrived in Philadelphia with only pennies and within weeks had found friendship and success), Bulosan’s story in this second part is an almost unremitting tale of violence and persecution. His “flight” here has taken him to a “crossroads” in his life journey, and he commits himself to broadcast his experience and organize his people.

Part 3 documents Bulosan’s intellectual awakening. He becomes part of the labor movement, participates in a strike, and starts writing for New Tide. Just as he is beginning this activist role, however, he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized. Yet, despite his illness, his “insatiable hunger for knowledge and human affection” begins to be satisfied. Several white women help him get books—he claims he reads a book a day, “including Sundays”—and encourage his literary ambitions. Throughout the work, Bulosan identifies with Robinson Crusoe and his castaway loneliness, but Bulosan’s survival was possible only because of the various communities, both white and Filipino, that he found or forged in his new home.

In the short, concluding part 4, he continues to detail the writers who are influencing him—Younghill Kang, John Fante, Louis Adamic (all, like Bulosan, ethnic authors who wrote about their life journeys)—and to describe his organizing activities as his radical consciousness grows. He also begins to write in the same period that the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and World War II begins in the United States. Bulosan concludes his narrative with a song of praise to an America that the text itself seems to deny: “the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. . . . It came to me that no man . . . could destroy my faith in America again.”

The contradictions within America Is in the Heart are everywhere. At the same time operating as both history and fiction, a work that praises America at the very moment that it is describing its multiple injustices, the book is a perfect metaphor for the paradox of America itself—its possibilities and cruelties. As a number of scholars have pointed out, the story fictionalizes much of Bulosan’s life; on one hand, he came from a better-off family in the Philippines than Allos, and on the other, given his frail health, he could never have worked all the arduous jobs he describes Allos undertaking on the West Coast. The book is, however, true to his ethnic life story and is an accurate collective biography of the first wave of Filipino immigration to America, where exploitation and discrimination were the rule. Its theme thus places it in the mainstream tradition of American autobiography, from Benjamin Franklin through to Younghill Kang (East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, 1937), as a story of someone who will, against almost insurmountable odds, overcome the obstacles thrown in his path. The two closest comparisons, however, are Depression-based autobiographies: Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945). Like both these writers, Bulosan fictionalizes his experience and blurs the distinctions between fact and myth. Moreover, also like these authors, he tells a story of internal exile, of living in America and drawn to its dreams and yet feeling separated from real participation in American life.