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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,199

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This is the grave of Carlos Bulosan.

Maybe born in 1913 in Binalonan, Philippines, Bulosan grew up in the Filipino working class under American imperialism. The birthdate is a guess. It could be as early as 1911. It could be as late as 1914, as the gravestone suggests. 1913 is the date provided by distant family members so maybe it’s the most likely. Anyway, the colonial Philippines had its American overlords but under both Spanish and American colonialism, there were plenty of wealthy Filipinos who collaborated and ensured that labor remain cheap. That labor included Bulosan’s parents. They sold vegetables and fish. Basically, they were peddlers.

One thing Filipinos did have during this period was the opportunity to go to the United States, since they were technically American subjects. This was not something that many of the pro-imperialist types had really reckoned with and there was a tremendous outcry among the virulently anti-Asian whites of the west coast that after they had done so much work to get rid of Chinese and Japanese immigration that Filipinos could just wander it at their leisure. In fact, this would lead to such a revolt among whites that the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 gave the Philippines gradual independence in exchange for ending the immigration. In short, the United States was too racist to be a colonial power.

This is the American Bulosan entered when he followed so many men (and they were mostly men) out of the Philippines and to the United States in 1930. He never returned. Most did not. Why would they? There was nothing for them there. Filipinos mostly entered the world of west coast farm labor. Mexican migration wasn’t really that high during these years and it declined significantly during the Great Depression. But the Depression also increased the role of white labor in the fields, keeping wages down. This was hard, brutal, and mind-numbing work. He traveled the circuit, picking fruit, asparagus, whatever the season was.

By 1936, Bulosan came down with tuberculosis, probably from the terrible housing conditions. He ended up in the hospital in Los Angeles, with no money, no resources, no nothing. He was also a member of the Communist Party, by this time a long-time labor organizer who was desperate to do anything to fight for a better life for he and his people.

This was the story of so many Filipino migrants. Farmworkers are perhaps the most anonymous of all workers. The names of any of them are mostly lost to history. It wasn’t in anyone’s interests to remember them and they didn’t generally have the resources to ensure their own memory. But we do remember Bulosan. In fact, Bulosan is probably the most well-known Filipino-American in American history. This is because while ill, he read and started writing his own story. He didn’t have anything else to do. He was in the hospital a full two years after all.

Bulosan’s first book was Letter from America, a set of poems published in 1942. But it was with America Is in the Heart, published in 1946, that he became a minor sensation. It was a big enough deal that he got Harcourt, Brace to publish it. This is one of the most important immigrant novels in American history. Like most of this genre, it was based on his own experiences. Carey McWilliams, at that time famous for his early investigative reporting on farmworkers, wrote the introduction to give it a bit more marketability among the larger progressive reading community. It describes what life was like back home, the racism he felt in America, his working experiences, and his attempts to form unions. Bulosan was an activist in the fields back into the 1930s, but it was so hard to establish unions in the fields. Now, the book itself was not a best seller. It became much better known when it was republished in 1973, a time when the revolutionary movements had swept the globe and when young people were embracing revolutionary identities more than when Bulosan was writing. So it became, after his death, considered one of the classic novels in American post-colonial literature and it is well deserving of that honor.

And how did Bulosan consider America. He wrote, “I know deep down in my heart that I am an exile in America. I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I didn’t commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.” But what makes Bulosan great as a writer is that he knows America could be better. He knew it was an immigrant nation and he wanted to embrace the melting pot ideal. So the tension in the novel is between the suffering he faced and the myths Americans want to tell about themselves and which immigrants themselves are desperate to believe. But so many find out those myths are lies. That included Bulosan.

Through the 40s, as Bulosan was still struggling with bad health due to his consumption, he also did what he could to make a living through his writing and his organizing. He sometimes had jobs in the labor movement and he sometimes worked on his writing. He became a somewhat well known essayist during World War II, when the Philippines all of a sudden became something America cared about. In fact, when Norman Rockwell did his famous Saturday Evening Post cover on FDR’s Four Freedoms, Bulosan wrote the “Freedom from Want” essay to go along with that image.

But Bulosan was sick and he was a communist. After World War II, things got much harder for him. He was blacklisted from the labor movement and was too sick to work in the fields. He certainly wasn’t making enough money from his writing to support himself. That much of his writing in this era was poetry really limited his commercial potential. The FBI harassed him, followed his movements, and ensured he could not be employed. Even Filipinos were scared to hire him, afraid of what that would bring down on them. What work he did have was things such as editing the yearbook for International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37, which wasn’t going to let his communism get in the way since they were a bunch of commies too. But that didn’t exactly pay much.

Bulosan’s health declined quickly by the early 50s. Not only were his lungs a mess, but he also was suffering from malnutrition. He didn’t quite starve to death while living in Seattle in 1956, but his lack of nutrition did contribute to his overall bad health. He also was basically homeless, either sleeping on friends’ couches or crashing in a cheap flophouse. It’s a really sad story. He might have been 43 years old upon his death. He was in his early to mid 40s in any case.

Carlos Bulosan is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle, Washington. The gravestone was only erected in 1982. No one had the money to put one up in 1956.

If you would like this series to visit other famous Filipino-Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The labor organizer Pablo Manlapit had himself buried back in the Philippines and I guess if you want to send me to Manila, I will sacrifice and go. Assuming you only want to send me around America, Philip Vera Cruz, who worked closely with Cesar Chavez in the United Farm Workers until Chavez and Dolores Huerta turned it into a cult of personality with the Synanon Game, is in Bakersfield, California and Larry Itliong, another key figure of Filipino farmworker organizing, is in Delano, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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