SON OF THE SOIL
An immigrant enchained damnably to his race in times of economic strife.
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.