INTRODUCTION to CARLOS BULOSAN’s
AMERICA IS IN THE HEART
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies & Comparative Literature, Washington State University
When America Is in the Heart (AIH) appeared in 1946, the Philippines was about to receive formal independence from the United States after four harrowing years of Japanese devastation. Filipinos thanked the troops of General Douglas McArthur for their “Liberation.” Bulosan’s book was praised less for its avowed democratic sentiments than for its affirmation of the sacrifices made in Bataan and Corregidor memorialized so eloquently. It captures the pathos of a long-expected agonizing moment of rendezvous. Victory against Japan seemed to wipe out the trauma of the U.S. bloody pacification of the islands from 1899 to 1913—the first chapter recounts Bulosan’s farewell to his brother Leon, a veteran of the carnage in Europe. His brother fought thousands of miles away from Binalonan, Pangasinan, where Bulosan was born on November 2,1911. Two years later, the Filipino-American War ended on June 11, 1913 when General Pershing’s troops slaughtered about ten thousand Moros in the Bud Bagsak massacre (Tan). Add this toll to about a million killed earlier, we arrive at the final fruit of President McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation” policy justifying the new empire’s conquest. Soon the public school system and William HowardTaft’s “Filipinization” program gave rise to an entrenched bureaucratic caste with close ties to the feudal landlords and compradors that colluded with colonial administrators up to the Commonwealth period (1935-1945). When this newly formed native oligarchs accepted the onerous conditions of independence in July 1946, Stanley Karnow wryly remarked that “they submitted voluntarily to their own exploitation,” dreaming of becoming “a favored and exemplary party within a Pax Americana” (330). Bulosan’s advent into the world was thus counterpointed with such paradoxes and seemingly intractable aporias. His initiation was self-contradictory, his psyche charged with conflicting impulses and dispositions. It reflected the quandaries of the times. Historian Jaime Veneracion noted that “while the Americans supposedly introduced land reform, the effect was the intensification of the tenancy problem” (63). Throughout U.S. colonial rule, fierce antagonisms convulsed and shattered the pacified countryside up to the Cold War era. One charismatic folk-hero, Felipe Salvador, was hanged for leading a massive peasant rebellion against landlords and their U.S. patrons. Between his birth and departure for the U.S. in 1930, Bulosan was cognizant of the desperate revolts of impoverished farmers in the Colorums of Luzon, Negros, Leyte, Samar, Panay and Surigao (Constantino; Sturtevant). In Part I, chapter 8, of this memoir he vividly describes the 1931 Tayug uprising which he didn’t personally witness. It was led by Pedro Calosa, a veteran of union organizing in Hawaii who was jailed for instigating multiethnic strikes and summarily deported back to the Philippines in 1927.
How did Filipinos suddenly appear in Hawaii? After three decades of imperial tutelage, the Philippines was transformed into a classic dependency providing raw materials and cheap labor. From 1907 to 1926, more than 100,000 Filipinos were recruited by the Hawaiian sugar plantations. Driven by poverty, feudal abuses, and colonial repression, Filipinos plotted their journey to the metropole to pursue “the dream of success” depicted so seductively in the mass-circulated textbooks and newspapers that Bulosan and his generation memorized. Neither citizens nor aliens, they moved around as “wards” or “nationals, neither immigrants nor foreigners, not eligible for citizenship though carrying U.S. passports, As Carey McWilliams observed, “they were neither fish nor fowl” (x). They inhabited an ambiguous terra incognita filled with utopian fantasies and tragicomic comeuppances. It was the analogue to W.E. B. DuBois condition of “double consciousness”(11), a sensibility of permanent crisis born in the turbulent years of transition from feudal barbarism to capitalist alienation, a tortuous passage that may explain the ironic turnabouts and the precarious ambivalence encountered at every turn of the page. In this zone of indeterminacy, Bulosan found himself struggling to survive with his cohort in 1931 upon arrival in Seattle. They became easy victims of exploitation by labor contractors, agribusiness operatives, gamblers, racist vigilantes, and state laws (prohibiting their marriage with whites) from Hawaii and California to Alaska. Naïve and vulnerable, they nurtured a rich and sophisticated culture of resistance. Bulosan’s friendship with militant organizer, Chris Mensalvas (his later avatars would be Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, leaders of the 1965 Delano Grape Strike), involved him in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1933, about 4,000 Filipinos in Stockton and Salinas, California, staged numerous strikes (San Juan, “Filipinos”). As editor of The New Tide in 1934, Bulosan became acquainted with progressive authors such as Richard Wright, William Saroyan, John Fante, Louis Adamic, and Sanora Babb. When he was confined at the Los Angeles General Hospital for tuberculosis and kidney disease in 1936-38, it was Sanora Babb and her sister Dorothy who virtually educated him to write. They helped him discover through books “all my world of intellectual possibilities—and a grand dream of bettering society for the working man” (San Juan, Balikbayan 161). While convalescing, he composed the stories satirizing feudal despotism and patriarchal authority, later gathered in the best-selling The Laughter of My Father (1944, hereafter Laughter) and the poems found in the rehearsal for AIH: Chorus for America (1942), Letter from America (1942), The Voice of Bataan (1943), and his signature ode to dissidents, “If You Want To Know What We Are” (On Becoming 166-68).
We noted earlier that Bulosan’s adolescent years drew energy from the survival craft of a large poor peasant clan in which the fathers and uncles had to reckon with maternal wisdom. In the letters collected in “The Sound of Falling Light,” as well as in Laughter, Bulosan pays homage to the earthy cunning spirit of his father trying to outwit landlords, merchant-usurers, and petty bureaucrats to eke out a bare subsistence. Above all, he celebrated the exuberant resourcefulness of his mother, that “dynamic little peasant woman” who nurtured his bold, adventurous, genial spirit. Her figure is sublimated in the feisty samaritanic women in AIH. By transference she is reincarnated in his loyal female companions who, while complex personalities in themselves, function as emblems of the hidden ‘Other,” the caring double mask of an indifferent if not hostile America. Seen from a larger historical perspective, Bulosan revitalized the insurgent culture of the dispossessed and marginalized among whom he grew up. He learned the ethos of a rapidly changing society, its strategy of compromises and tactics of reconciliations. In response to the philistine putdown of his folkloric vignettes as a mode of commercializing exotic mores, Bulosan urged us to attend more to their allegorical thrust and immanent critique: “My politico-economic ideas are embedded in all my writings….Laughter is not humor; it is satire; it is indictment against an economic system that stifled the growth of the primitive, making him decadent overnight without passing through the various stages of growth and decay” (Feria 273). Other stories by Bulosan containing “hidden bitterness” couched in dark humor, retold fables attacking the predatory barbarism of the oligarchy and the iniquitous property/power relations in the colony, are now collected in The Philippines Is in the Heart (2017), the appraisal of which might revise the stereotyped notion of Bulosan’s trademark optimism. One might conclude that Bulosan’s return to the homeland began with the ritual of his departure. His apprenticeship as an organic intellectual of the emergent diaspora started with the effort to understand the trials of his family to overcome U.S.-sponsored feudal tyranny. Although Laughter and AIH substantiated his creative potential, unlike Jose Garcia Villa, Bulosan was never really accepted by the Establishment literati. He remained suspect, a subversive pariah author from the “boondocks.” His radicalization began with an act of “popular memory” triggered by the circumstances of colonial uprooting and accumulated experiences of violent ostracism.
Before the crisis of global capitalism subsided after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bulosan had already plotted out his project of remapping the U.S. cultural-political landscape with his claim: “I want to interpret the soul of the Filipinos in this country. What really compelled me to write was to try to understand this country, to find a place in it not only for myself but for my people.” “Self” here designates the collective agency of all excluded, subjugated persons who have been defined and categorized by the instrumentalizing and commodifying totality of global capitalism.
Inventory Between the Wars
Unlike the survivors of the internment camps of Manzanar, or the wasted Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York, Bulosan cannot be labelled as a model ethnic icon in today’s multicultural shopping mall. He survived years of privation and vigilante persecution in Yakima Valley, Watsonville, etc., drifting in a limbo of indeterminacy, “nationals” without a sovereign nation, a nomadic exile. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, he summed up his group’s ordeal: “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” (On Becoming 173). The proletarianization of Bulosan’s sensibility surpassed the imperatives of nativism, the nostalgic return to a mythical past, or a yearning for a prosperous cosmopolis invented by postmodernist transnationals. Playing his role as “tribune” of multiethnic workers writing for New Masses, CommonwealthTimes, and New Republic, the ambit of his “conscientization” transgressed borders with the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan.
Several poems that Bulosan wrote in the late thirties—“Portrait with Cities Falling,” “To Laura in Madrid,” “Who Saw the Terror,” etc. expressed his commitment to the revolutionary ideals of the Spanish Republic. It was easy for Bulosan to make the connection between the reactionary fascism of Franco’s Falangists (supported by Filipino landlords/compradors) and the violence of the empire’s ideological apparatus of courts, police, prisons. His sympathy was for the victims of the inhuman profit-centered system. His engagement with the international popular-front strategy afforded him a philosophical worldview which gave coherence and direction to his group’s vagrant existence. His astute social conscience paid sentimental tribute to the ideals of Whitmanian democracy, transforming “America” into a metaphor of an egalitarian, racism-free society deployed throughout AIH. When the Pacific War broke out, Bulosan rediscovered the homeland as the fountainhead of his prophetic, truth-telling energies. He focused his mind on another invader more brutal than the Spanish conquistadors or the American troops inflicting “the water cure” and Vietnam-style hamletting: the Japanese occupiers. This served as the germinal site for the theme of “national liberation” sedimented in AIH, but fully elaborated in The Cry and the Dedication (hereafter The Cry). This last work was inspired by Bulosan’s friendship with the leftwing vernacular poet Amado V. Hernandez; together, they collaborated with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other progressives to publish Luis Taruc’s autobiography, Born of the People (1953). Dialectical Syndrome
Originally acclaimed as a model testimony of ethnic success, AIH’s epilogue gestures toward a popular-front politics against global fascism. Written in the middle of the war, Bulosan’s chronicle functions as a testimony to those years of struggle resisting white-supremacist violence. It is essentially a critique of the paradigm of immigrant success now celebrated by apologists of assimilation into late capitalist polity. Obliquely parodying the Bildungsroman scheme, AIH presents a massive documentation of the varieties of racism, exploitation and inhumanity suffered by Filipinos in the West Coast and Alaska from the Depression to the outbreak of World War II.
Scenes of abuse, insult, and brutal murder of these “wards” are rendered with naturalistic candor spliced with snapshots of their craft of survival and recovery–a haunting montage suturing history, confessional diary, and quotidian reports from the frontlines. Except for Part I, the remaining three parts (from Chapters 13 to 49) of this ethnobiography—a polyphonic orchestration of events from the lives of the author and his generation of multiethnic migrants—chart the passage of the youthful narrator through a landscape of privation, bewilderment, and violence. The narrator doubles alternatively as protagonist and witness of events that he recounts. His itinerary begins with his victimization by corrupt contractors on his arrival in Seattle, followed by his anguished flight from lynch mobs, his first beating by two policemen in Klamath Falls, up to his desperate flirtation with Max Smith’s cynicism. Such misfortunes are punctuated by his testicles being crushed by svage vigilantes. A hundred pages after these ordeals, “Allos” Pollyana-like sums up by reaffirming his faith in “America”—“America” is no longer the arena of painful bloodletting but a magical space “sprung from all our hopes and aspirations.”
We are immediately stunned by the stark disjunction between the violent reality and the compensatory frame of the interpretation. How do we reconcile this discrepancy between actuality and thought, between fact (the chaotic wasteland called “America” and the ideal notion in the head of “America” as the land of equality, all “milk and honey”? Is this simply a duplicitous maneuver to syncopate brainwashed narrator with subversive author? Is this Bulosan’s subterfuge of multiplying perspectives and extolling the virtues of what postmodernist scholars call “schizoid jouissance”? One way to approach this scandalous incommensurability, this impasse of divergent readings, has become routine. We can reject the commonsensical thesis that this work belongs to “that inclusive and characteristic Asian American genre of autobiography or personal history (Kim 47) designed to promote easy cooptation into the proverbial “melting pot.” Or else, one can retort that AIH invents a new literary genre which operates as antithesis to the mythical quest for Americanization—the whitening of brown-skinned natives. One can urge a focus on sly rhetorical nuances: for example, the address to the “American earth” at the end is cast in the subjunctive mood, tied to an unfolding process whose future is overshadowed by Pearl Harbor and the slaughter of American & Filipino soldiers in Bataan and Corregidor. The last three chapters reiterate the shame, anger, confusion, and terror saturating the lives of Filipinos in the “New World.” The mainstream approach to Bulosan’s work is charitable but disingenuous. Whatever the pressures of the Cold War and marketing imperatives in the time when the book became part of college courses, to judge Bulosan’s chronicle of the Filipino struggle to give dignity to their damaged lives as an advertisement for patriotism, or imperial “nationalism,” seems unwarranted, if not invidious. It is surely meant to erase all evidence of its profoundly radical, popular-democratic inspiration. At best, It distorts the narrator’s moral impetus of enhancing solidarity among peoples, regardless of race or creed, by conceiving it simply as a self-serving attempt of ingratiation.
Perhaps the easiest way to correct this mistake is to identify the trope of personification, the wish-fulfilling imaginary underlying the narrative structure. Who is “America’? The voice of the main protagonist answers: Eileen Odell “was undeniably the America I had wanted to find in those frantic days of fear and flight, in those acute hours of hunger and loneliness. This America was human, good, and real.” If Eileen functions as a placeholder or synecdoche for all those who demonstrated trust and compassion for strangers like Bulosan, then the name should not be conflated with the abstract referent “America” or “U.S.A” as a whole because It specifies a concrete locus of humaneness. Overall, the positive figure is a maternal signifier with multiple personifications, including the feminized narrative stance. She represents the singular desire called “America” in the title. Viewed from another angle, the idiomatic tenor of the title refers to an inward process of acquiring self-awareness. It may be construed as a mode of internalization, a kind of self-gestation or spiritual parthenogenesis. Note the figurative resonance of such descriptions as he felt “love growing inside him,” leading to ”a new heroism: a feeling of growing with a huge life.” By metonymic semiosis, the trope of containment gestures toward pregnancy and deliverance. Although victimized, Bulosan feels remolded into “a new man” inhabiting a New World. We confront here a symbiosis of inside and outside. Elsewhere, the “heart” image of the title alludes to the “American earth” compared to “a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me.” And so the phrase “America in the hearts of men” attributed to Macario is interpreted by Bulosan to mean “this small yet vast heart of mine…steering toward the stars.” Earlier, when he encounters Marian after the most perverse mutilation of his genitals in San Jose, he marvels at this “white woman who had completely surrendered herself to me” and counsels himself: “The human heart is bigger than the world.” Recalling the girl raped in the freight train, who in turn evoked a memory of his sisters in Binalonan, Bulosan could not touch the prostitute Marian even when “her heart was in my heart.” Of crucial importance is the equation of “heart” with “one island, the Philippines,” expanding the image. Bulosan deploys Robinson Crusoe’s predicament as counterpointing parallel. Literally and figuratively, the “heart” becomes a polysemous vehicle that signifies inclusion smf exclusion. It functions as a device to reconcile warring drives, tendencies, dispositions. Its figural use serves to categorize the text as belonging to the romance genre of fiction where time and space (“chronotope,” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s formulation) are configured in such a way as to realize the vision of an organic community materializing within the confines of an anomic, disintegrated metropolis.
Revisiting Embarkation Sites
By deploying imaginative ruses, Bulosan grapples with the contradictory trajectory of his passage through the American maelstrom. The utopian theme of imagining a community within the fold of an atomized society counterpoints the somewhat sensationally morbid realism pervading the text. It also explains the didactic and moralizing sections where the assured authorial voice seems to compensate for the disorientation of the protagonist and the episodic plot. The climax of Bulosan’s project of educating his compatriots about the unifying thread of their fragmented lives allows him to appreciate the “simplicity of their hearts” based on a “common understanding” that America “is still our unfinished dream.’ Purged of his narcissistic malaise, he confesses: “I was rediscovering myself in their lives.” This counters the Crusoe motif of individualistic struggle for survival dominating the early stages of his self-discovery. It also rejects the social Darwinist idea of the beast or wolf in every person, replacing it with the Moses/mother motif of compassionate mutuality. The narrator’s private self dissolves into the body of an enlarged “family” whose members are bound by purpose or principle. It anticipates what Bulosan would later call “the revolution” where ordinary workers would “play our own role n the turbulent drama of history…the one and only common thread that bound us together, white and black and brown, in America.” The theme of fraternity among races (enabled by the fight against a common global enemy, fascism) was sounded initially in Bulosan’s desire “to know [the hoboes in the freight trains] and to be a part of their life.” This idea of solidarity serves as the dominant structure of feeling that motivates the obsession with the Spanish Civil War, the key historical conflict of reaction and progress in this period and a touchstone of authentic internationalism. It is used again in the often-quoted programmatic testament ascribed to Macario in Chapter 25, where the narrator harps on the key metaphor of the old world dying while a new world is struggling to be born; here “America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom….a prophecy of a new society.” Framed by Bulosan’s cathartic discovery of his ability to write and his acquisition of a socialist vision of “the war between labor and capital,” the apostrophe to the multiracial masses as “America” in the context of the twin process of dying and birth is better grasped as part of Bulosan’s strategy to re-articulate the discourse of popular rights on the terrain of hegemonic liberalism itself toward a socialist direction. This, of course, incurs risks and liabilities, hence the invocation of “America” presages a recursive doublebind, a troubling paradox, as every reader will no doubt experience. So far the theme of popular-front democracy versus fascism occupies the foreground of a testimony in which Japanese aggression evokes the earlier U.S. pacification of the islands. This is obliquely conveyed by the civil war in the first twelve chapters. This antagonism signaled by the outbreak of World War II may be used to resolve the tension between native idealism and realist mimesis. We may consider this utopian resolution as one mediating the idea of “America” as a classless society and the actuality of racism and exploitation. It is achieved at the expense of extinguishing the historical specificity of what is indigenous or autochtonous, namely, the primal event of colonial subjugation and deracination which provides libidinal investment to the act of remembrance. A poetic mechanism of compensatory fulfillment is offered here when the fact of colonial domination becomes the repressed traumatic object returning to the surface of everyday life. Bulosan himself points out that as exiles “socially strangled in America,” hopelessly deracinated, Filipinos find it easier “to integrate ourselves in a universal ideal.” This truth is personified by Felix Razon who connects the peasant uprisings in the Philippines with the Loyalist cause in Spain. This is the motivation of the autobiographical schema of the narrative oriented around the development or education of a young man who matures into an artist, reminiscent of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. However, unlike the Irish counterpart, the vocation of writer among colonized sojourners should be considered not so much a prestigious status—a possibility foiled by circumstances—as a consciously held ethico-political disposition geared to comprehend the world through ideas and a broad knowledge of other cultures, transcending locale and origin. In short, it is a vocation of serving as the tribune of what Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” colonized people of color mobilizing around the world. Pedagogical Mutation
Let us next consider the theme of growing up, together with the initiation into a dehumanizing milieu, which is the most commonly emphasized feature of AIH. From the time he learns the facts of landlord exploitation and sexist corruption in Part I to the abuses of labor contractors, acts of anarchic terror, and his discovery that it was “a crime to be a Filipino in California,” the narrator metamorphoses into an anti-hero and undergoes a test of character. He succeeds in his initial objective of linking up with his brothers Amado and Macario, thus reconstituting the broken family. This reunion disrupts the linear plot of the conventional immigrant story of alienation and anarchy. Eventually, the quarelling brothers dissolves the mystique of kinship and catalyzes the protagonist’s entry into an emergent community of comrades whose festival is suggested in Chapter 46. But this fulfillment of a vow to unite the dispersed family serves to provide the occasion for writing, for the composition of this diasporic text. In effect, the condition of possibility for art is imperial racist violence provoking collective resistance. This crucial turn occurs in the exact middle of the book, at the end of Chapter 23. Struggling to communicate to his fugitive brother, the protagonist narrates his own life and gains release from the prison of silence to “tell the world what they’ve done to me.” The passive victim recovers poise and mutates into an actor, a creative agent of his life. This is repeated later in Chapter 41, where he laments his brother’s suffering and tries to piece together “the mosaic of our lives.” This discovery of the capacity for expression comes after he stands up against his employer at the Opal Café two chapters earlier: “I had struck at the white world, at last; and I felt free.” Finally, when he meets the socialist lawyer Pascual, Bulosan assumes his role as witness/spokesperson for the union movement. We recall that he helped edit movement newspapers, The New Tide, and later, The Philippine Commonwealth Times. Now he envisions literature as the symbolic theater of his death and rebirth, and his role as a communal protagonist, a token of a social type, empowering the genesis of a transformed community of equals. A fortuitous change occurs when this theme of the native’s development as wordsmith (literally, letter-writer) is quickly displaced by another subplot. Pascual, the first Filipino identified as a socialist, dies at the end of Part II and the first half of the book climaxes with a totalization: “We are all America.” The apprenticeship with Conrado Torres in the Alaskan cannery, with Max Smith (whose exploits mirror the duplicity of the system), and particularly with Jose (whose mutilation bears the stigmata of the rebel outlaw) serves as an epitome of many lives whose function is to indicate what the potential is for multiethnic cross-class unity. Partly sublimated in the act of writing, Bulosan’s fear of the brutish and maudlin in himself, his wrath against sexist injustice, and his desire for participation in a “dynamic social struggle.” are registered in the drama of union activism in Part II. Illusions of Verisimilitude
What becomes noticeable at this juncture is a shift in rhetoric and style. The realistic stance of this memoir and its affinities with picaresque naturalism (distinguished by the abrupt intrusions of petty crimes, rough diction, squalid surroundings, discordant tone) are frequently disrupted by lyricized nostalgic recollections of an idyllic homeland. By this time, the generic norms of traditional autobiography, using the familliar coding for verisimilitude and linear plotting, have already been eroded by a strongly emergent comic rhythm of repetition and uncanny recovery. Characters appear and disappear with inexhaustible gusto. Incidents multiply and replicate themselves while the narrator’s comments and the dialogue he records are recycled, quoted, and redistributed in a carnivalesque circulation of energies. Polyphonic voices fill the muted void of Filipino lives until the crisis of hegemonic representation arrives, with picture and drama displaced by reflexive meditation. In Part III, a decisive break occurs. This permanently cancels out the model of the successful immigrant and its place in the “melting pot” archetype. On this edge of the narrative looms impending failure, final meltdown. Bulosan’s dreamlike “conspiracy” of making “a better America,” a forgetting of the privatized ego, is suspended by the collapse of the body—product of the years of hunger, brutality, and neglect. History, the past, materializes in the return of the “child” as invalid, the time of drifting and wandering displaced by the stasis of physical breakdown. The fundamental archetype of the comic genre—the alternation of death and rebirth in “monumental” time—organizes the allegory of a transported native who “died many deaths” in between his exile and imagined return. Bulosan has dared to record a hazardous and unpredictable reconnaissance of the heartland. In the process, he highlights two deaths whose contexts prepare us for the excavation of what is buried in the “American” heart. First, the killing by Japanese contractors of the first union cannery president, Dagohoy, after the interlude with Lily and Rosaline, when Bulosan returns to the primal scene of his arrival, concluding that sequence with “I was pursued by my own life.” Second, the suicide of Estevan whose story “Morning in Narvacan” about a town resembling the author’s birthplace, precipitates a profound spiritual change: “I began to rediscover my native land, and the cultural roots there that had nourished me, and I felt a great urge to identify myself with the social awakening of my people.” Reminiscent of earlier disappointments, those deaths impregnate the psyche, inducing the self-genesis noted earlier and reconstituting the repressed in the language of personal confrontations.
A more intensive semiotic commentary would pursue the trope of prophetic return or homecoming. This would endow the past with meaning and help liberate the family and peasantry from ignorance and poverty, a fantasy Bulosan entertains, perhaps, to evade the challenge of the urgent situations in his life. One can even speculate on the reasons for his malingering and temporizing attitudes throughout. But what should be given a close symptomatic reading is the structure of the dream that Bulosan records in Chapter 40 which functions as a pivotal synecdoche for what is repressed—not only by the text but by the scholarly archive. Mislabelled as “the Filipino communist” strike leader, the narrator flees from the police. Falling asleep on the bus, he dreams of his return to his hometown in Mangusmana, Philippines, where he rejoices at seeing his mother and the whole family eating together. Jolted by “tears of remembrance,” he asks himself how the “tragedy” of his childhood had returned in his sleep “because I had forgotten it.” What had been erased from memory is his youth, the period of growing up in his natal habitat. This makes up Part I of the book, Chapters 1 to 12). As remarked earlier, this section portrays the resourcefulness, strength, courage, insurgent hopefulness of the peasantry, the laboring folk personified by his mother (see Chapters 4-9) which most critics have practically neglected or quarantined, thus repeating the erasure of the revolutionary achievements of Andres Bonifacio’s Katipunan and the ill-fated Malolos Republic by the bullets and bombs of McKinley’s”Benevolent Assimilation” policy. Catharsis and Symbolic Transcendence
AIH may be grasped as the first example of an unprecedented genre in the literary archive, a popular-front allegory attuned to the turbulent lanscape of the Depression and World War (Denning). This form articulates the problems of class, race, nation, and gender in a complex, overdetermined configuration which is painstakingly unravelled in a sequence of melodramatic incidents. It is not too much to review the milestones of his itinerary here. The stages of Bulosan’s awakening follow a path away from a focus on “workerist” unionizing to a concern wih broad social issues, first through the Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights (CPFR), which confronted the key racist law of antimiscegenation; and second, with the anti-vanguardist “communist” role of tribuneship for the masses (following Lenin’s concept of counterhegemonic alliances across class), Suspecting the orthodox left of habitual blindness to racism, Bulosan claimed to be a “revolutionist.” Against the tribalism of his compatriots, Bulosan counterposed a socialist outlook at home in symbiotic exchange with diverse, heterogenous cultures abroad. On further reflection, what I think constitutes the originality of this work is its rendering of what Julia Kristeva calls “woman’s time.” This is virtually the subtext or “political unconscious” informing the anti-generic singularity of the text. Comedy and the symbolic dynamics of the unconscious interact with the realist codes of the narrative to generate this new artifice. Space limitations forbid further gloss on the enigmatic role of women in this “pilgrimage” of finding a home in inhospitable territory. We recall the uncanny interventions of Marian and Mary (compared to the secular ministry of Eileen and Alice Odell [evoking the sisters Sanora and Dorothy Babb) resuscitating the mother/homeland, mixed with treacherous and seductive counterparts. Can we consider AIH a protofeminist text with its unique interweaving of the nomadic and sedentary lines of action, of flight and confrontation? What is certain is that patriarchal authority is questioned or suspended by a recurrent maternal signifier: “[T]o know my mother’s name was to know the password into the secrets of the soul, into childhood and pleasant memories,…a guiding star, a talisman, a charm that lights us to manhood and decency” (America 123).
We discover contained within the disfigured bosom of “America’ representatives of its other, its negative reflection. The introduction of Marian signals the establishment of dialogue and empathy. She resurrects the “good” half of America ruined by the treachery of Helen and the patriarchal debasement of women. The prostitute Marian, the ambiguous embodiment of commodification and self-sacrificing devotion, resurrects all the other images of maternal solicitude from the peasant matriarch, Estelle, the nameless girl raped in the train, Judith, Chiye, all the way to the most important influences in his life, particularly Alice and Eileen Odell and Dora Travers, followed by other lesser maternal surrogates. The mysterious Mary of Chapter 44, the last fleeting incarnation of American “hospitality” (the term is used as a pun on the author’s hospitalization, which converts him into a reading/writing agent) assumes iconic import as “an angel molded into purity by the cleanliness of our thoughts,” affording the narrator “a new faith in myself.”
In retrospect, Bulosan’s illness—his confinement at the Los Angeles Hospital where the notion of a community larger than the male-bonding of Filipino bachelors manifests itself—is not a gratuitous interruption but a crucial organizing event. It halts the spatial discontinuity, the alleged “necessitous mobility” of the wayward adventure. It ushers the protagonist into a recognition of his new vocation, not so much as the fabulist of Laughter—the index of Bulosan’s acknowledgment of the folk sources of his art—as the historian/archivist of collective memory. The numerous recognition scenes interspersed throughout comprise the healing refrain that counterpoints the pattern of fatality limiting his hopes. This potential for reconciliation informs his covenant with the “associated producers” of the ravished homeland, peasants and farmworkers as bearers of an emancipated future. Here I would like to underscore the necessity of an interpretive framework revolving around women’s time, including the haunting image of the motherland. This view would structure all possible “horizons of expectation,” since what the bulk of this dialogic historiography wants to forget but somehow cannot is in fact the absence, or lacuna, whose manifold traces everywhere constitutes the substance of the memoir: the genocidal Filipino-American War of 1899 to 1913, with over three million natives killed and a whole civilization ruined. The aftermath produced a colonial and later neocolonial system which reinforced the feudal setup called “absentee landlordism,” and drove Bulosan and thousands into permanent exile. Its other name is tributary despotism which involves Spanish falangists operating in the Philippines, American racist vigilantes in the West Coast and Hawaii, the U.S.-supervised Philippine Constabulary that suppressed the Colorum and Sakdal uprisings, and Japanese aggression—this last evoking what the text constantly refuses to name: the U.S. invasion and occupation of the islands at the turn of the century.
We can conclude that this is what the text’s recursive rhythm seeks to capture: the time of the peasantry’s collective action, the time of mothers and all women who have been victimized by patriarchal law and exchanged without the singular value of their desires acknowledged. What this work attempts to seize is the expropriated lives of women whose manifold value has been measured, calculated, and dispersed into the derelict space of “America” where Filipino male workers—including the witnessing sensibility named “Bulosan” in this book—found themselves symbolically, if not literally, castrated. It was a regime of white-spremacist, sexist violence premised on formal democracy and the logic of the free market. the bourgeois religion of the cash-nexus, commodity-fetishism.
Vindicating Prophetic Hope
World War II was at its turning point when Bulosan’s hybrid memoir appeared. McArthur’s shibboleth of returning to the Philippines had fired up Filipino hopes, inspiring Bulosan’s summing-up of the collective experience of his generation. In this context, the purpose of AIH can be reconceived as the reinscription of the inaugural moment of loss (U.S. colonization replicated by the Japanese occupation) in the hegemonic culture by a text that violates generic expectations of migrant success. It foregrounds the earth, the soil, and the maternal psyche/habitus as the ground of meaning and identity. Bulosan’s writing practice valorizes both the oppositional and the utopian impulses negated by the dominant ideology of acquisitive individualism. To renew those impulses, what is needed is the elucidation of the process whereby the unity of opposites (for example, individual rationality versus tradition) is transcoded into the protagonist’s agon of revealing duplicities and multiple causalities, together with the task of discriminating what is fraudulent from what is genuine. Whatever the prejudices of readers, Bulosan engages everyone with an interrogation about one’s role in the drama of change and transition. It is distilled in the ethico-political reflection at the end of the book: “Our world was this one, but a new one was being born, We belonged to the old world of confusion; but in this other world—new, bright, promising—we would be unable to meet its demands” (America 324). To some extent, the narrative texture displays the modernist tendency of privileging individual autonomy, imaginative transcendence, and Enlightenment progress. Has the postmodernist taste for pastiche, irony, and cynical relativism rendered AIH suspect if not inutile? Has the millennial temper of new immigrants (during Donald Trump’s presidency) obsessed with acquiring white identity become the chief obstacle for a renewal of the social energies that lie dormant in the interstices of Bulosan’s text? In the light of postmodernist trends to allegorize everyday life, it seems fortuitously appropriate to reconsider Bulosan’s species of wild, rebarbative realism as an apt mediation of existential reality. AIH allegorizes the radical transformation of the old social relations into a new one, specifically the change from colonial bondage—the culture of silence binding “the wretched of the earth”—to freedom via critical appropriation of ideas and values embodied in conflicted characters plunged in historic contingencies. This process of decolonization carried out by the witness/testifier of AIH is ultimately the project of becoming Filipino, not a successful immigrant, a task accomplished without the guarantee of consolations afforded by canonized aesthetic forms.
Tracking the Labor of the Negative
We return to the self-contradictory, now insistent voice of the narrator as he attempts a final reconciliation of the dynamic antagonistic forces in his experience. A striving for totality, an integration of all strands in his life, is also an endeavor to universalize its meaning and significance. The final thrust appears “a return to the source,” the scene of expropriation and defiance, a project of recovering a submerged tradition of indigenous revolutionary culture rooted in over three hundred years of anti colonial struggle against Spain and the United States, as well as against the Japanese invaders. We highlighted earlier the scene of the 1931 Tayug uprising against feudal landlords and the oligarchic bureaucrats, native agents of U.S. colonialism, with allusions to the 1896 insurrection against Spain. The peasant uprising in turn brings to life the 1924 Hawaii plantation strike, repeated in the 1946 ILWU rebellion. This metonymic chain of signifiers is then syncopated with the metaphoric reiteration of principles of solidarity that generate the concrete universal, the art-work of AIH. At the peak of McCarthyism and the Cold War in the late forties and fifties, Bulosan was already a blacklisted writer. The recent discovery of FBI files on Bulosan seems anticlimactic, a public display of “dirty linen” (Alquizola and Hirabayashi) that might unwittingly reinforce the current neofascist “red scare.” Haven’t we intuited this eventuality all along? Bulosan’s enduring intimacy with the radical Babb sisters made him an organic part of the Hollywood/Los Angeles milieu of fellow-travelers and partisans of the Communist Party before the war. They were all mobilized by the CIO, League of American Writers, and popular-front groups. As a journalist in Seattle, affiliated with the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU), Local 37, Bulosan was considered a dangerous subversive, threatened with deportation along with union officials Mensalvas, Ernesto Mangaong, and others. But how could the government deport a writer commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt to celebrate one of the “four freedoms,” an art-work exhibited at the Federal Building in San Francisco in 1943? By the end of the McCarthy witch-hunt in 1954, Bulosan enjoyed a modest if surreptitious prestige. The widely circulated Laughter had been translated into over a dozen languages, while AIH had been favorably reviewed and cited in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography, and other directories of international celebrities. His paean to populist democracy, “Freedom from Want,” published in Saturday Evening Post (1943), fulfilled one strategic goal of militant artists (such as Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda): capturing the terrain of the ideological mode of production necessary to challenge capitalist hegemony. Bulosan succeeded in infiltrating a provocative message that escaped the censors of the Cold War Establishment: “But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves.” At the time he was composing his narrative of Huk guerrillas reconstructing their nation’s history as they tried to establish linkage with U.S.-based compatriots, Bulosan articulated his life-long agenda as a response to the question what impelled him 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…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” (On Becoming 216) But it was more a promise than a summing-up. Bulosan died on September 11, 1956, at the height of the Cold War, three years after the end of the Korean War and nine years before the cataclysms of the Vietnam War.
Agendas In Transition
In retrospect, the tensions of the Cold War offered an occasion for him to transcend the nationalist program (the Filipino community was then conceived as an “internal colony” (similar to the Latino barrio and the black ghetto) awaiting proletarian redemption. In his fiction and poetry, Bulosan reinvented the historic conjuncture of class, gender, race and ethnicity that underpin the epochal antagonism between capitalism and the various socialist experiments since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In the process of resolving inherited contradictions, the boundary erected by U.S. Exceptionalism between the exiled Asian writer and his peasant heritage eventually proved a mirage when Bulosan encountered racist exclusion and fascist violence in the empire’s heartland. Stories like “The Story of a Letter,” “Be American,” and “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” (the title was borrowed from Black Elk Speaks) dramatized the truth that Filipinos suffered not only class exploitation but also gender discrimination (anti-miscegenation laws) and national oppression. In this Filipinos shared a predicament common to other migrants from around the world. Given his dialogue with victims and masters, Bulosan may be the first “postcolonial” writer in the postwar period to underscore the Hegelianesque struggle for recognition. He posited an inscription of the negative power of the “third world” subaltern refunctioning the archive of Western knowledge for his benefit. He sought to undermine it by transforming it from a “liberationist” perspective inspired by Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, W.E.B. Du Bois, Amilcar Cabral, and other activists of color. Bulosan’s self-contradictory situation unravelled in grappling with concrete problems evinced in his letters and essays, among them “My Education,” “I am not a laughing man,” “Labor and Capital,” and his autobiographical statements. In this context, The Cry may be read as a long argument seeking to reaffirm the right of national self-determination. Bulosan believed that Filipinos cannot exercise that right as long as the homeland remained a colony of a power that claimed to be “democratic” in policy but in practice imposed class domination and racial exclusion. Overthrowing the capitalist structure of wage-exploitation also means breaking its stranglehold on people of color in the dependencies (the Philippines remains a neocolonial territory), the source of super profits derived from cheap labor (chiefly overseas Filipino domestics) and natural resources. A decade after Bulosan’s death, Filipino workers on the grape farms of California led by Bulosan’s younger comrades began the historic strike that led to the founding of the United Farmworkers of America. It was the culmination of pioneering activism initiated during the Depression by the CIO, ILWU, and earlier formations such as the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America whose leaders were hounded by the FBI. Such groundbreaking disruptions vindicated the aspiration of these disinherited Malayan “natives” for equality and justice, who eventually allied themselves with African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, etc.—all of them drawing their energies from grass-roots memory of centuries of resistance to colonizers in an epic sage of heroic “soul-making.” This vision of “soul-making” was already prefigured in Bulosan’s self-reflexive essay, “How My Stories Were Written,” in which an old village story-teller in his home province of Pangasinan, Philippines, is revealed as Bulosan’s ancestral progenitor, the source of the “wisdom of the heart” (San Juan, Imagination 138-43),
Amid the turbulent controversy over immigration today, more than three million Filipinos comprise the largest segment of the Asian-American group coming from one single country. Despite this number, their creative force for social development remains unacknowledged. Bulosan endeavored to articulate its presence in his chronicle of multiracial conflicts and individual quests for happiness, insisting on the primacy of cooperative praxis as the mode of reconciling contradictions and gaining emancipation. While there is no guarantee of immediate victory, the process of struggle itself testified to the transformative potential and power of its participants. A few years before he died, Bulosan reaffirmed his devotion to “the collective interest and welfare of the whole people” in an editorial in the ILWU 1952 Yearbook. He reiterated his conviction nourished throughout the years of hardship and convivial epiphanies transcribed in AIH: “Writing was not sufficient… I drew inspiration from my active participation in the workers’ movement. The most decisive move that the writer could make was to take his stand with the workers” (“Writer” 31). Based on his broadly socialist orientation, Bulosan may be the first consciously historical-materialist writer in the U.S. landscape whose roots in anti-imperialist mass protests and antifascist campaigns defy cooptation into the hegemonic liberal canon. Nonetheless, he has been transmogrified into a model multiculturalist icon. As long as the Philippines remains a neocolonial bastion, and the Filipino diaspora (with its colonized mentality) subsists as an oppressed nationality here and elsewhere, Bulosan’s texts remain valuable as speculative instruments for unraveling their own self-contradictory genealogies. They can also serve as safeguards in exploring the identity of this “unhappy consciousness” and its complex, often ambiguous maneuvers of self-deception, temporizing retreat, and compromise. His works remain exemplary for other people of color claiming their right to be recognized as co-makers of history. What Mark Twain at the turn of the century perceived as “the Philippine temptation”—the scandalous crucible of the American republic subjugating millions who persist in their refusal to be enslaved, a tenacity enduring up to now, to which Bulosan’s life-work bears witness—this arena of struggle or. if you like “conversation,” may prove decisive in charting the fate of radical democratic changes in a declining empire and its dependencies in this new millennium. ##
ABOUT E. SAN JUAN Jr____________________________________________
E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies, University of Connecticut and visiting professor of English, University of the Philippines last Jan-March 2018. He was previously a fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, Fulbright Professor of American Studies in Leuven University, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature at National Tsing Hua University and Tamkang University, Taiwan. He also served as a fellow of the Center for the Humanities and Professor of English, Wesleyan University; professor and chair of the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University (1998-2001); visiting professor at the Universita degli di studi Trento, Italy; and Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the Bellagio Study Center, Italy, in 2006.San Juan’s book Racial Formations/Critical Transformations won awards from the Association for Asian American Studies and the Gustavus Myers Center for Human Rights. He received the 1994 Katherine Newman Award from the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literatures in the United States and the 1999 Centennial Award for Achievement in Literature from the Cultural Center of the Philippines. San Juan received his A.B. magna cum laude from the University of the Philippines, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has taught English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Brooklyn College (CUNY), and Bowling Green State University. He is one of the internationally distinguished writers included in the HarperCollins World Reader.Among San Juan’s recent books are: In the Wake of Terror: Race, Ethnicity, Nation and Class in the Postmodern World (Lexington); Between Empire and Insurgency (U.P. Press), Filipinas Everywhere (De La Salle University Publishing House), Bakas Alingawngaw (Ateneo University Press), and Carlos Bulosan: Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the US (Peter Lang Inc.). San Juan’s works have been translated into Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages.-###