America is in the Heart: Alienated in America (Part II)
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
Carlos Bulosan's semi-autobiographical novel tells his story in the Philippines (see Part I) and his journey in America. Bulosan, at the age of 17, bought a steerage ticket to America in search of new opportunities. Here, we will give a brief description of Bulosan's life in America, but no one could tell his story as well as himself, whose words are forever contained in his novel, America is in the Heart, which so vividly describes his feelings and experiences being an immigrant in a foreign land.
Bulosan came to America during the Great Depression to escape his bitter life in the Philippines as a peasant, but little did he know that he would be treated as "a criminal in a strange and alien society". His first encounter is on the ship to America when angry voices shouted to the Filipinos on board, "Why don't they ship those monkeys back where they came from?" (99). And this sentiment will continue to dominate Bulosan's story. He initially lands in Seattle where he is then sold for five dollars to work in the fish canneries in Alaska, and that was "the beginning of my life in America, the beginning of a long flight that carried me down the years, fighting desperately to find peace in some corner of life" (101). After working the entire fishing season, Carlos finds out that he had made only thirteen dollars, which leads him to want to go to California to find his two brothers. Carlos would experience California for himself, despite warning from his comrade who remarked, "It is hard to be a Filipino in California" (112).
Indeed, Carlos came to realize that Filipinos were viewed as criminals because of their race. This is clearly shown when Carlos and his comrade are driving through Santa Maria, only to be stopped by the highway patrolmen who curtly questioned them and asked if a White woman was in the car with them. Carlos later said, "I came to know afterward that in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California. I came to know that the public streets were not free to my people: we were stopped each time these vigilant patrolmen saw us driving a car. We were suspect each time we were seen with a white woman. And perhaps it was this narrowing of our life into an island, into a filthy segment of American society, that had driven Filipinos like Doro inward, hating everyone and despising all positive urgencies toward freedom" (121).
Even when Carlos ran into his brother Amado in California, Amado sighed a sigh of despair saying, "You shouldn't have come to America. But you can't go back now. You can never go back, Allos" (124). And with that, Carlos would learn that he would be leaving his old life in the Philippines behind for good. This is shown when Amado says, "Life is tough, Carlos," addressing Carlos using his Christian name, rather than Allos, his childhood name in the Philippines, showing how American had transformed his character (124).
Carlos would go on to Los Angeles and down to San Diego in search of more opportunities in America but everywhere he went, it seemed like, Filipino immigrants were being targeted. His labor camp was burned and everywhere he went Filipino Americans were being attacked. He says on pg. 144 and 145:
From San Diego, Jose and I traveled by freight train to the south. We were told, when we reached the little desert town of Calipatria, that local whites were hunting Filipinos at night with shotguns. A countryman offered to take us in his loading truck to Brawley, but we decided it was too dangerous. We walked to Holtville where we found a Japanese farmer who hired us to pick winter peas...
Then, from nearby El Centro, the center of Filipino population in the Imperial Valley, news came that a Filipino labor organizer had been found dead in a ditch.
I wanted to leave Holtville, but Jose insisted that we world through the season. I worked but made myself inconspicuous. At night I slept with a long knife under my pillow...
One day a Filipino came to Holtville with his American wife and their child. It was blazing noon and the child was hungry. The strangers went to a little restaurant and sat down at a table. When they were refused service, they stayed on, hoping for some consideration. But it was no use. Bewildered, they walked outside; suddenly the child began to cry with hunger. The Filipino went back to the restaurant and asked if he could buy a bottle of milk for his child.
"It is only for my baby," he said humbly.
The proprietor came out from behind the counter. "For your baby?" he shouted.
"Yes, sir," said the Filipino.
The proprietor pushed him violently outside. "If you say that again in my place, I'll bash in your head!" he shouted aloud so that he would attract attention. "You goddamn brown monkeys have your nerve, marrying our women. Now get out of this town!"
In another instance, Carlos was eating in a restaurant when he is dragged away by two policemen who ask him if he is Filipino. When he answers yes, he is placed in a cell where he is beat so that the policemen could rob him of his money, showing the racist actions towards Filipino Americans.
But Carlos Bulosan would never let the prejudice he faced stop him from sharing his experiences to the world, through his words. He realizes this one day when he has only five dollars left and decides to buy a bus ticket to San Luis Obispo. And San Luis Obispo would mark the beginning of another chapter of his life. Slowly, he sat down to write a letter about his life to his brother Macario, whose address he had received from a friend, and miraculously, the Carlos he once was, who came to America understanding little English, was able to write fluently in English.
And with this realization, the next day, Carlos awoke with a newfound dream - to become a writer! Carlos tried his hand at journalism for the first time when he ran into his comrades Jose and Gazamen in the home of Pascual, a Filipino, who ran a small newspaper. Carlos came to learn that Pascual had started a newspaper in Stockton but were driven to San Luis Obispo when a rival newspaper came out. They supported Filipino agricultural workers who were voiceless, workers who wanted unity but were excluded from established worker unions. And with that, Jose and other Filipinos created an independent workers union in San Luis Obispo and that was the beginning of "the social awakening of Filipinos in California" (183). Carlos worked with the Filipino newspaper, editing, advertising, and distributing papers, and he wrote lengthy articles about his personal reactions to the union movement.
Bulosan with Union Workers
When Pascual's days came to a close, his parting words were "It is for the workers that we must write. We must interpret their hopes as a people desiring the fullest fulfillment of their potentialities. We must be strong of voice, objective of criticism, protest and challenge. There is no other way to combat any attempts to suppress individual liberty" (187). And with that, Carlos left for Los Angeles where his brother Macario and Jose's brother Nick had started a literary magazine with Felix Razon. But in his heart, he knew, "They can't silence me any more! I'll tell the world what they have done to me!" (180). His story about fighting for workers' liberty continues in Part III.
Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart: A Personal History. University of Washington Press, 1973.
Carlos Bulosan and Chris Mensalvas with Union workers, ca. 1950s, circa 1955, photograph, Portraits Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, POR1432, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/portraits/id/1458/rec/11.