Carlos Bulosan was a prolific writer and poet, best remembered as the author of America Is in the Heart, a landmark semi-autobiographical story about the Filipino immigrant experience. Bulosan gained recognition in mainstream American society with the 1944 publication of Laughter of my Father, which was excerpted in the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town and Country. He immigrated to America from the Philippines in 1930, endured horrendous conditions as a laborer, became active in the labor movement, and was blacklisted along with other labor radicals during the 1950s. He spent his last years in Seattle, jobless, penniless, and in poor health.
According to his baptismal records, Bulosan was born in Pangasinan Province in the Philippine Islands on November 2, 1911. But other sources give Bulosan’s birth date three to four years later. This is just one example of conflicting versions of his younger years in a peasant family with three brothers and two sisters. The family farm was sold, hectare by hectare, to pay for boat fare for his older brothers’ passages to the United States.
The Idea of Equality
In the period of Bulosan’s birth, Americanization of the Philippine Islands was strong. In 1903, the “Pensionado” program offered promising student scholarships to attend universities in the United States to gain knowledge that could benefit their homeland. Also in 1901, the “Thomasites,” a group of teachers who went to the Philippines on the USS Thomas (hence the name), crossed the Pacific to educate Filipinos in the American Way. This American style of education highly influenced the young Bulosan as he attended high school. He was led to believe that equality existed among all classes and individuals in the United States. Then in 1906, Filipino laborers arrived in Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations (the beginning of the “Sakada” or plantation worker system).
Enticed by stories of the United States and by the departure of his elder brothers Macario and Dionisio for California, in 1930 Bulosan quit his job working for his family peddling vegetables and salted fish at the local market. He paid $75 for passage on the Dollar Line to Seattle, Washington.
Not a Land of Opportunity
Bulosan had heard how easy it was to earn a living in the United States even as a bellhop or dishwasher. He had not been told that people of color did not enjoy democracy. Notwithstanding his status as a “national” and not an “alien," Bulosan became quickly disillusioned by the reality of life in the United States. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression had devastated the country. Jobs were scarce and competition was intense for whatever was available.
When Bulosan arrived in Seattle, he was “shanghaied and sold for five dollars” to work in an Alaska fish cannery to earn $13 for the season. He picked apples in Eastern Washington and finally moved south to California to continue the familiar seasonal cycle of picking fruits and vegetables.
Years of Bitterness
In Washington, the future author experienced racism when whites torched a bunkhouse where he slept. According to Carlos P. Romulo, “it carried him into years of bitterness, degradation, hunger, open revolt, and even crime. The pool rooms and gambling houses, dance halls and brothels, were the only places he knew. They were the only places a Filipino could know.”
Bulosan would later write: “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.”
Between 1935 and 1941, he became involved in the labor movement, organizing unions to protect his fellow Filipino workers.
Writing for His Life
Writing also became a means to fight against the discrimination he had witnessed. In 1932, he was published in a poetry anthology. While living with one of his brothers in Los Angeles, he had already submitted articles for small newspapers and had done some writing for The New Tide, a bimonthly Filipino publication. The New Tide was a radical literary magazine that brought Bulosan into a wider circle of fellow writers.
Writer As Reader
Bulosan had always been sickly. He loved the public library and reportedly read a book a day. During this time, he came across the works of Karl Marx and began telling friends “of the rising power of the working classes and what they would achieve in the coming revolution.”
In 1936, Bulosan contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the Los Angeles General Hospital. He spent about two years at this hospital, the whole time actively reading and writing. “Writing is a pleasure and a passion to me,” he wrote.
In the 1940s, Bulosan gained recognition for his work as a poet and editor:
- In 1942, his book of poems, Letter from America, was published.
- Bulosan was featured in the 1942 edition of Who’s Who in America
He edited Chorus for America: Six Philippine Poets.
- In 1943 he wrote the book of poems Voice of Bataan, a tribute to the soldiers who died fighting in that battle.
- In 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published four articles on the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Bulosan wrote "Freedom from Want."
- In 1944, Bulosan's Laughter of my Father became a bestseller and established Bulosan as an important writer. It was translated into several languages and excerpts were read over wartime radio. He was praised by fellow Filipinos who “for the first time are depicted as human beings.”
- In 1946, Bulosan published the work that he is best remembered for, America is in the Heart. In it, stories loosely based on his brothers’ and friends’ experiences depict an immigrant Filipino’s life in the 1930s and 1940s. America is in the Heart has been used as symbol for the Filipino American identity movement of the 1970s and is included in many bibliography lists for college courses on Filipino American studies classes.
The 1950s ushered in the anti-Communist fervor of Senator Joe McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee. Carlos Bulosan and fellow radicals were “blacklisted” even by some Filipino writers. Bulosan continued his labor union activities and edited the 1952 yearbook of the Union Local 37 International Longshoremen Workers Union (ILWU).
In the 1950s, Carlos Bulosan was living in Seattle, jobless, penniless, and in poor health. On September 11, 1956, the poet died of tuberculosis. With his passing, Filipino Americans lost their most articulate spokesman.
His friend, Chris Mensalvas (called “Jose” in America is in the Heart) wrote in Bulosan’s obituary: “... I am willing to testify that Carlos Bulosan is dead ... but ... [he] will never die in the hearts of the people.”
Carlos Bulosan, writer, poet, labor activist was buried in Seattle in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. Until 1982 his resting place was an unmarked pauper’s grave. Finally a group of his admirers raised the funds to purchase an elaborate headstone of black granite.