Carlos Bulosan- Poet of the Filipino American Experience

When I was young, I knew relatively little about my Filipino heritage. I was born and raised in military bases most of my life, so I knew mostly Americans of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. I am grateful for the diverse groups of people that I got to know, but I never really got a chance to know many Filipinos or Filipino Americans until my dad retired from the military and we lived among civilians. One of the things that helped me to get to know my Filipino heritage was an Asian American class I attended in college, where I was introduced to the book American Is In The Heart by Carlos Bulosan. Carlos Bulosan was a poet, writer and labor activist who used his writings to explore the gap between America’s high ideas and the American reality for Filipino immigrant farmworkers and for other American minorities.

Carlos Bulosan was born on November 2, 1911 in the rural farming village of Mangusmana, near the town of Binalonan (Pangasinan province, Luzon island) in the Philippines. He was the son of a poor farmer who decided to come to America to support his family and to continue his education. Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle on July 22, 1930 and he worked at various low-paying jobs: servicing in hotels and restaurants, harvesting in the fields, and working at the Alaskan canneries. During this time, Carlos experienced much economic difficulty and racism that gave him a more realistic view of America.

Bulosan became friends with fellow Filipino American Chris Mensalvas of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and Mensalvas introduced Bulosan to labor politics. Carlos became editor of the biweekly workers’ newsletter The New Tide, which brought him in contact with progressive writers like Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, William Sorayan, and Sanora Babb. Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, discovered Bulosan’s writings and began publishing his poetry.

From 1936 to 1938, Carlos Bulosan was confined to the Los Angeles General hospital due to tubercolisis and kidney problems. While in confinement, he read Pablo Neruda, Theodore Dreiser, Nazim Nikmet, John Steinbeck, Arshile Gorky, Karl Marx, Lillian Hellman and other leftist writers, as well as leftist periodicals like New Masses, the New Republic and the Nation. These various influences helped shaped his left wing political views and his writings that focused on social struggle.

Carlos Bulosan became a best-selling writers of books like The Laughter of My Father and American Is In The Heart. He was commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt to write the essay Freedom From Want for the March 6, 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post that described an American democracy that included equal rights for Filipino immigrants and for all racial minorities. The book The American Radical has a quote that describes Carlos Bulosan’s motivations for his writings:

The question is- what impelled me to write? The answer is- my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all. To give a literate voice to the voiceless one hundred thousand Filipinos in the United States, Hawaii and Alaska. Above all and ultimately, to translate the desires and aspirations of the whole Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad in terms relevant to contemporary history. Yes, I have taken unto myself this sole responsibility.

E. San Juan Jr. wrote an essay in The American Radical that described the struggles of Filipinos in the United States during the early twentieth century:

…over 100,000 Filipino workers had been recruited from the hinterland of the United States’ only Asian colony, the Philippines, to work in the plantations of Hawaii, the Alaskan canneries, and the farmlands of the West Coast. The Depression inflicted on Filipinos severe unemployment, intense labor exploitation, and racist vigilante violence. In 1928 and 1930, Filipinos were attacked by racist vigilantes in Yakima Valley, Washington; Watsonville, California, and other towns. On top of this, in 1935, when emigration from the Philippine Commonwealth was limited to fifty persons, Filipinos were threatened with deportation. Since the 1898 annexation of the islands up to 1946, Filipinos in the United States (called “Pinoys”) inhabited a limbo of indeterminancy: neither citizens, aliens, nor wards, they were “nationals” without a sovereign country. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Bulosan summed up his years of experience as labor organizer and nomadic exile: “Yes, I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”

Due to his leftist politics, Carlos Bulosan was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and his name was prominent in FBI files. Sadly, Bulosan died obscure and penniless on September 11, 1956. In the years since his death, Carlos Bulosan’s writings have inspired Filipino Americans like me who are proud of both our American and our Filipino heritage.

Bulosan would write a fitting description of what it means to be an American:

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 peapickers. 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 of suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of free men.

America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from 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 Adam to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate- We are America!

Here are a few of Carlos Bulosan’s poems from the book On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan.

FOR A CHILD DYING IN A TENEMENT

How hard it is to see you go;
to watch the shame of starvation in your face.

Dear child, you are among the first to know
the terror of plenty, the crimes of innocence,
the anguish of poverty…

I guess I know
the cold of winter, the despair of being poor,
the terror of loneliness and of not having fun.
I guess I know the perplexed look in your face,
the unanswered question, the wordless answer;
all the faces that could not stand pain.

Fear is dying. Now try to sleep off
the agony of hunger, the lion in the hollowed breast,
the spreading fire snapping the walls of the lung.
You are among the first to go. Now try to sleep.
And now goodbye till we meet again.

THE FOREIGNERS

You cannot blame us. We followed the sun
And the rain with gladness and hope .
There are many lands to go to,
But we are astounded by your horizons,
And we are glad we came with our children.
We came to share with the machinery of your greatness,
But we are unhappy to discover this:
Your people are miserable from the lack of mutual speech,
And their children are stereotyped.

We cannot by like them-
We brought our country’s speech with us.

I am afraid I cannot write our language,
But I can work and walk in the streets
People with men who know no compromise,
Till I stumble against you in the dark;
And I can rap at you and scratch you like a cat,
And I can make you feel the strength of our city.

We can jump over the tall buildings like leaves
But without words to deceive us,
And fall upon your feet
But without tears to deceive us-
We are invincible with death!
Look and examine us!

HYMN TO A MAN WHO FAILED

Evening and the voice of a friendly river
The symmetry of stars, time flowing warm,
The perfect hour sitting on the tree-tops,
And peace, birds of shy understanding, waiting.

This is your world, this tin-can shack on the dry
River bed, this undismayed humanity drinking
Black coffee and eating stale bread, this water
Blue under the dark shadows of the proud city.

Lie down and laugh your worries away,
Or sit awhile and dream of impossible regions,
While there is no hunger, no endless waiting,
No cry for blood, no deceptions, no lies.

You are lost, lost between two uncertainties,
Between two conflicts, the mastered and the unharmed.
You are altogether alone and cold and hopeless.
The end is crouching like a tiger under your feet.

Evening and returning home, finding no peace,
No embrace of devotion, my beaten friend,
O failure who returns always to the dry river bed,
We are betrayed twice under the fabulous city.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT WE ARE

If you want to know what we are who inhabit
forest mountain rivershore, who harness
beast, living steel, martial music (that classless
language of the heart), who celebrate labour,
wisdom of the mind, peace of the blood;

If you want to know what we are who become
animate at the rain’s metallic ring, the stone’s
accumulated strength, who tremble in the wind’s
blossoming (that enervates earth’s potentialities),
who stir just as flowers unfold to the sun;

If you want to know what we are who grow
powerful and deathless in countless counterparts,
each part pregnant with hope, each hope supreme,
each supremacy classless, each classlessness
nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship;

We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities;
in skies and seas and rivers, in lands everywhere;
our number increase as the wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger disease and death.

We are the men and women reading books, searching
in the pages of history for the lost word, the key
to the mystery of living peace, imperishable joy;
we are factory hands field hands mill hand everywhere,
molding creating building structures, forging ahead,

Reaching for the future, nourished in the heart;
we are doctors scientists chemists discovering,
eliminating disease and hunger and antagonisms;
we are soldiers navy-men citizens guarding
the imperishable will of man to live in grandeur,

We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,
the unquenchable truth that class-memories create
to stagger the infamous world with prophecies
of unlimited happiness_a deathless humanity;
we are the living and the dead men everywhere….

If you want to know what we are, observe
the bloody club smashing heads, the bayonet
penetrating hallowed breasts, giving no mercy; watch the
bullet crashing upon armorless citizens;
look at the tear-gas choking the weakened lung.

If you want to know what we are, see the lynch
trees blossoming, the hysterical mob rioting;
remember the prisoner beaten by detectives to confess
a crime he did not commit because he was honest,
and who stood alone before a rabid jury of ten men,

And who was sentenced to hang by a judge
whose bourgeois arrogance betrayed the office
he claimed his own; name the marked man,
the violator of secrets; observe the banker,
the gangster, the mobsters who kill and go free;

We are the sufferers who suffer for natural love
of man for man, who commemorate the humanities
of every man; we are the toilers who toil
to make the starved earth a place of abundance
who transform abundance into deathless fragrance.

We are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,
who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth
with a gleaming fluorescence; we are the new thoughts
and the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;
we are the new hope new joy life everywhere.

We are the vision and the star, the quietus of pain;
we are the terminals of inquisition, the hiatuses
of a new crusade; we are the subterranean subways
of suffering; we are the will of dignities;
we are the living testament of a flowering race.

If you want to know what we are
WE ARE REVOLUTION!

Books by Carlos Bulosan:

American Is In The Heart by Carlos Bulosan

The Laughter of My Father by Carlos Bulosan

On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan edited by E. San Juan Jr.

A youtube video of a reading of the Carlos Bulosan poem “If You Want to Know What We Are

Allan Manalo reads a section of Carlos Bulosan’s book “America Is In The Heart

Andrew Eisenman reads a section of Carlos Bulosan’s book “America Is In The Heart

Students in 2009 read various writings of Carlos Bulosan at his grave in Seattle, Washington

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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3 Responses to Carlos Bulosan- Poet of the Filipino American Experience

  1. dulzimordash says:

    Reblogged this on Spontaneous Creativity.

  2. Reblogged this on Back Porch Writer and commented:
    For all our poet friends, and others.

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