SON OF THE SOIL

An im­mi­grant en­chained damnably to his race in times of eco­nomic strife.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - WORDS BY PAULINE FAN

We are the liv­ing dream of dead men. We are the liv­ing spirit of free men. —Car­los Bu­losan

On July 22, 1930, 17-year-old Car­los Bu­losan ar­rived on the shores of Seat­tle af­ter months aboard a steamer trav­el­ling as an em­i­grant in steer­age. He had come in search of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity far from the poverty that plagued his moth­er­land, the Philip­pines. Bu­losan was one of the thou­sands of Filipinos who em­i­grated to Amer­ica dur­ing the ’20s and the ’30s, who came to be col­lec­tively known among their peo­ple as the “Manong gen­er­a­tion”—manong mean­ing “older brother” in Ilo­cano.

The East­ern Ho­tel near King Street and a cou­ple of restau­rants in Chi­na­town made up what Bu­losan called “the heart of Filipino life in Seat­tle.” The in­flux of Filipino mi­grants was so sig­nif­i­cant that the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Courier de­clared that a “New Manila” had sprung up in the vicin­ity of Chi­na­town and Lit­tle Tokyo. The pa­per wel­comed Filipinos as a new cus­tomer base for Ja­panese mer­chants af­ter the Ex­clu­sion Act of 1924 had re­stricted im­mi­gra­tion from Ja­pan.

Not all of Seat­tle’s com­mu­ni­ties greeted the ar­rival of the Filipinos with open arms. There were many in­stances of anti-filipino vi­o­lence, par­tic­u­larly aris­ing from re­sent­ment among white males for sex­ual com­pe­ti­tion. In his study of Seat­tle’s Cen­tral District from 1870, his­to­rian Quin­tard Tay­lor de­scribes Seat­tle’s Manila Dance Hall, “where Filipino can­nery work­ers and do­mes­tic ser­vants vied for the at­ten­tion of ‘brightly dressed white women,’ who ‘smoked mar­i­juana in the back room’ and then charged ‘10 cents a minute’ for a dance.” Ac­cord­ing to Tay­lor, “with the ex­clu­sion of black men, with whom they were of­ten com­pared, Filipinos gen­er­ated the great­est amount of sex­ual jeal­ousy and fear.”

So­cial in­tol­er­ance against Filipino im­mi­grants was com­pounded by eco­nomic hard­ships in their new land. The Great De­pres­sion that was tight­en­ing its noose around the United States in the ’30s rel­e­gated Filipino im­mi­grants like Bu­losan to low-wage jobs and poor work­ing con­di­tions, deny­ing them prospects of eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and so­cial mo­bil­ity. Most of them be­came mi­grant farm labour, mov­ing sea­son­ally from the hop and grape farms of Cal­i­for­nia to the can­ner­ies of the Pa­cific North­west and Alaska.

Hope of new be­gin­nings soon gave way to dis­il­lu­sion­ment among many Filipino mi­grants, who en­coun­tered racism and ex­ploita­tion in their “promised land”. In a let­ter to a friend, Bu­losan wrote: “Do you know what a Filipino feels in Amer­ica? He is the loneli­est thing on earth… He is en­chained damnably to his race, his her­itage. He is be­trayed, my friend.”

Born in 1913 to a fam­ily of farm­ers in a vil­lage in the Pan­gasi­nan prov­ince on Lu­zon is­land, Car­los Bu­losan ex­pe­ri­enced the des­ti­tu­tion and the mis­ery of ru­ral life. Hav­ing been weak­ened by four cen­turies of Span­ish im­pe­rial rule, eco­nomic hard­ship and so­cial in­equal­ity in the Philip­pines wors­ened un­der Amer­i­can colo­nial rule af­ter the Span­ish-amer­i­can War of 1898. These se­vere con­di­tions led count­less able-bod­ied Filipino men to set sail for Amer­ica, an ex­o­dus that Bu­losan later cap­tured in his writ­ings:

In the prov­inces where the poor peas­ants lived and toiled for the rich ha­cien- deros, 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.

Bu­losan thrust him­self head­long into the drudgery of mi­grant farm labour in Amer­ica, never los­ing sight of his pur­suit of the Amer­i­can dream of free­dom and equality for all. He be­came in­volved with the Can­nery Work­ers and Farm Labour­ers Union, founded in 1933 as the first Filipino-led Amer­i­can labour union. Bu­losan’s growth as an ac­tivist co­in­cided with his blos­som­ing as a writer. He was the ed­i­tor of a mag­a­zine for work­ers called New Tide, and wrote oc­ca­sional ar­ti­cles for news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the Philip­pine Com­mon­wealth Times. A few of his sto­ries ap­peared in mag­a­zines such as Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker. In 1944, a col­lec­tion of Bu­losan’s short sto­ries based on Filipino folk­tales, The Laugh­ter of My Fa­ther, be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller.

Bu­losan’s bril­liance as a writer was un­de­ni­able. His themes in­vari­ably re­volved around the lives of Filipino work­ers, the dark re­al­i­ties of racism and in­tol­er­ance, and the uni­ver­sal val­ues of free­dom and jus­tice. He elo­quently hu­man­ised a de­hu­man­ised class of men and women: “If you want to know what we are, look at the men read­ing books, search­ing in the dark pages of his­tory for the lost word, the key to the mys­tery of the liv­ing peace. We are fac­tory hands, field hands, mill hands, search­ing, build­ing and mould­ing struc­tures.”

In 1946, Bu­losan wrote his most fa­mous book, Amer­ica is in the Heart,a

semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of Filipino im­mi­grants in the United States. It was a love song to his peo­ple and new home, pro­claim­ing that: “Amer­ica is in the hearts of men that died for free­dom… in the eyes of men that are build­ing a new world.” One of Bu­losan’s most pow­er­ful pas­sages from this book res­onates stronger still against the xeno­pho­bic ges­tur­ing of pre­sent-day US lead­er­ship:

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!

Bu­losan’s left­ist views and labour ac­tivism brought him to the at­ten­tion of both Amer­i­can and Philip­pine author­i­ties. He was in­ves­ti­gated by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Un-amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee, and later came un­der sur­veil­lance by the FBI dur­ing the era of Mc­carthy­ism. He was also black­listed by the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Magsaysay for his rad­i­cal­ism.

Bu­losan never re­turned to the soil of his moth­er­land. The harsh con­di­tions of his life took a toll on his frail health, and he suc­cumbed to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis at the age of 42. In death, he seemed to ful­fil his own prophecy, once ex­pressed in his fine es­say, “How My Sto­ries Were Writ­ten”: “Every­body dies, but no man comes home again. No man comes to bathe in the cool water of the river, to watch the golden grain of the fields, to know the grandeur of the meadow lark on the wing. No man comes home to feel the green loam of the land with his bare feet, to touch the rich soil with his lov­ing hands, to see the earth move un­der him as he walks un­der his silent skies.”

Above, top to bot­tom Filipino boy of a labour gang cut­ting cau­li­flower near Santa Maria, Cal­i­for­nia, 1937; Filipino let­tuce field labourer, Im­pe­rial Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, 1939. Op­po­site page Filipinos wait­ing for the sig­nal to start cut­ting let­tuce near West­mor­land, Im­pe­rial Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, 1939.

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