by Peter McLaren
Filipinos living in the United States today, over four million, comprise the largest Asian group originating from one country, the Philippines. When the U.S. defeated Spain in 1898 and annexed the islands as its first imperial acquisition, it had to suppress the native army of the revolutionary Republic which had already defeated the Spanish rulers. The Filipino-American War lasted up to 1913, with 1.4 Filipinos sacrificed for McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation” policy. The Philippines was the first and only Asian colony of the United States, and then after 1946 virtually a neocolony up to now. Thus, when Filipinos arrived in 1906 in Hawaii, they were colonial wards, or “nationals,” not immigrants, who distinguished themselves in militant worker organizing and union strikes, a tradition of solidarity with multiethnic communities that endured up to the founding of the United Farmworkers Union in the 1960s. Agribusiness warned the public of those dangerous “Flips” prone to go amok.
Carlos Bulosan, now a central figure in Asian American history, is studied for his classic quasi-autobiography, America Is in the Heart, published in 1946, the same year the Philippines was granted nominal independence after World War II. He grew up in a society dominated by feudal landlords and comprador bureaucrats that inculcated ideals of democracy and equality under American tutelage. Landing in Seattle in 1930, at the height of the Depression, he experienced the racist violence that his compatriots were suffering from the canneries in Alaska and Seattle to the farms in Oregon and California. This shock of recognition produced a Du-Boisean “double-consciousness” in the naive romantic sensibility of the peasant-worker initiated into a world of alienated labor and class-racial antagonisms. His education pursued a dialectical process of painful ordeals and agonizing reflections, a metanarrative fusing realistic judgment and moral distancing. The young Bulosan shared the common experiences of multiethnic migrant workers and participated in vibrant leftwing circles of cultural activists (including Paul Robeson, John Fante, William Saroyan, Sanora Babb, among others) that sustained and encouraged him to memorialize their struggles in an impressive body of novels, poems, stories, essays, including the manifesto “If You Want to Know What We Are,” published in 1940 by the Philippine Writers League the last stanza of which reads:
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!
Summing up that episode of his life before the war, Bulosan confessed in a letter to a friend in April 1941: “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.” Recently, FBI files on Bulosan’s life from 1946 to 1956 (the year he died) were released, proving that he was under government surveillance as a suspected member of the U.S. Communist Party. Among the documents shared in 1951 between Philippine and US agencies was a confiscated letter signed by Bulosan to one of the Huk leaders. The news report singled out this statement: “I like to extend my congratulations to you through Amado [V. Hernandez, the nationalist poet-union leader, with whom San Juan collaborated in editing and translating his poems], whose presence in America cemented the progressive spirit of peoples on this continent and in that island, with the fond hope that I will be able to put all our efforts into a big book for the world.” The “big book” he referred to is the novel The Cry and the Dedication, clearly inspired by Luis Taruc’s autobiography, Born of the People..
Bulosan was already a popular-democratic artist after the appearance of Chorus for America (1942), The Voice of Bataan (1943), and the widely circulated The Laughter of My Father (1944). His stories and poems appeared in prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, Saturday Review of Literature, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town and Country. Once adopted as a canonical author in the U.S. academy from the eighties on, Bulosan’s radical edge was blunted, his oppositional tendencies sanitized in the service of a model-minority myth. He was sacrificed to the assimilationist altar of “Americanism.” No one today is afraid of reading The Cry and the Dedication, or Bulosan’s powerful Popular Front testimonios praised by Michael Denning and Filipino progressive scholars. But in this neoliberal marketplace, Bulosan is dismissed as an obsolete “Marxist” without credibility, and so it is usless to retrieve or recuperate other aporetic texts devoid of relevance to a changed lifeworld of postcolonial intertextuality and hybrid cosmopolitanism. We are urged to move on from the end of ideology to the end of history, and enjoy the blessings of chic transnationalism.
Given the resurgent anti-immigrant, white-supremacist wave under the Trump presidency, and the still subjugated character of the Filipino diaspora here and worldwide, we need to recover the submerged insurrectionary impulses in Bulosan’s discourse. San Juan’s book is such an endeavor. Continuing his first project in 1972 on surveying Bulosan’s extant limited oeuvre, this volume gathers four decades of striving to excavate those seditious strands in the texts by re-contextualizing them, first, in the anticolonial revolutionary movement of Filipinos from the 1896 revolution to the folk insurgencies of the thirties and the national-democratic rebellion of the fifties and sixties; and, second, in the popular-front movement during the Depression up to the McCarthy witchhunting hysteria during the Cold War and the post-9/11 racist terror. Such calibration of the writer’s trajectory may not resolve all the contradictions that reflect the colonial predicament, but it can reveal complex, hidden nuances susceptible to historicized intertextual elucidation. A recalculation of critical investments is in order. Re-situated in this geopolitical milieu, Bulosan’s entire body of work acquires a contemporary resonance that registers an unprecedented conjuncture from the 1999 killing of postal worker Joseph Ileto by an Aryan Nations member to the stigmatization of “undocumented” Filipinos as suspect terrorists after September 11, 2001, and their forced mass deportation.
San Juan’s recent research in the Sanora Babb papers at the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, confirmed Bulosan’s leftist sympathies. It also clarified the nature of the crisis triggered by the sudden shift of life-experience from a family-centered rural setting to an anomic milieu of wandering sellers of alienated labor-power. Although Bulosan’s FBI files are bound to arouse new interest in his career, it should not detract from the fact that it was the young generation of Filipino activists in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960-1970 decade who discovered his forgotten work. The May 1979 issue of AmerAsia Journal, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. and Russell Leong, was the first to collect his scattered texts, in response to the political mobilization of students and farmworkers in the Filipino-led 1965-70 Delano grape strike and the nationwide mobilization against the U.S.-supported Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986). Bulosan’s work energized an entire generation to re-connect with their parents’ homeland, revitalize their “roots,” and renew Bulosan’s dream of fulfilling the exile’s return in working for a just, more democratic and equal relation between the neocolonized Philippines and the United States.
We have entered a new millennium of globalized war and ecological meltdown under the reign of “disaster capitalism.” The election of Donald Trump signals a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy for the current transnationalist neoliberal order. The Trump phenomenon is not an idiosyncratic spectacle and set of conditions witnessed only in the United States. Similar conditions—attacks on elements of neoliberal capitalism, a triumphalist move towards economic nationalism, nativism, misogyny,a deepening racism, environmental catastrophe and virulent mobilizations against immigrants—are manifesting themselves worldwide in countries that define themselves as democracies.
While some observers see Trump’s political rhetoric of “America First” as a sign that neoliberalism is dead, others see it as corporate fascism or more intense privatization following the logic of the capitalist mode of production. Citizens fail to grasp the inherently rapacious and predatory nature of neoliberal capitalism becase of the media and educational system that I have analyzed and criticized in my Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution.
In this time of danger, what we need is an anti-neoliberalism movement with a long-range plan for creating a viable alternative to capitalism. What we can’t do is sink into a mournful resignation that history will continue to move backwards as it seems to be doing in the present where we could soon be facing as a planetary community levels of biolence and destruction never before experienced in history. Toward this effort, the scholarship of E. San Juan, Jr. has provided some of the most penetrating and provocative analyses of world-historical problems, as shown in his recent books, Working Through the Contradictions, In the Wake of Terror, and his path-breaking essay on “Peirce/Marx: Project for a Dialogue between Pragmatism and Marxism.”
With his substantial contribution to the humanities and cultural studies (discussed in the e-journal Kritika Kultura), I consider San Juan as one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States. His magisterial engagement with Bulosan is of the utmost importance today precisely because we believe that all human beings, like Bulosan and his compatriots, have the potential for critical-autonomous protagonistic agency. We have the potential to transform the world together. But we need to educate that potential critically and according to the politics of liberation grounded in a philosophy of praxis. San Juan reminds us of those times when American workers were united across racial lines in socialist struggles for radical change, among them the leftwing Populist Movement of the 1890s, the industrial union movement of the 1930s, the Black workers movement and the strikes by auto workers in the 1970s. We should also look beyond the borders of the United States to establish solidarity with other peoples’ organizations fighting the perils of capitalism across racial, national, gender, and geographic lines. San Juan’s book is a timely contribution to a historical-materialist appreciation of the work of a writer who crossed those lines. combating officially promoted “humanitarian interventionism” profiting from the commodified labor of the millions whom Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”
Reminiscent of James Joyce, Bulosan created the conscience of his community of proletarianized multitudes. His texts serve today as weapons in the struggle for liberation from the burden of an exploitative society of class warfare, and for the construction of a new just, convivial world in which (to quote Marx and Engels) “the development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”—##