America is in the Heart: Fighting for Representation (Part III)
Updated: Jan 11
Carlos Bulosan's semi-autobiographical novel tells his story in the Philippines (see Part I) and his journey in America (see Part II). 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 and the Filipino struggle for representation, 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.
About the time Carlos developed a passion for journalism, the Filipino organized labor movement had started and Carlos, along with his comrade Jose, Gazamen, and others, would become involved in the labor movement aimed at suppressing discrimination to Filipinos in America. Carlos says, "This is a war between labor and capital. To our people, however, it is something else. It is an assertion of our right to be human beings again" (186).
Pea pickers had been striking in Pismo Beach, meanwhile, in Sailinas, at the Filipino Workers' Association headquarters, there was a successful strike of lettuce workers. However, the tremendous support of the union movement by Filipinos and their hatred of low wages led to more persecution against them. For example, following the strike in Sailinas, the Filipino Workers' Association general headquarters were burned and the president put in jail in order to suppress the union movement. Nevertheless, Carlos and his comrades tried to establish a workers' newspaper and form the center of Filipino union actions in Central California. But in doing so, they had risked their health and faced fascism in California, but led to little real result.
They began by working with Helen, a white woman from Fresno who agitated the lettuce strike in Solvang to gain support of their union movement by Filipino farm workers. Strikers guarded the highway and other exists to prevent trucks that carried lettuce from reaching Los Angeles (where they were to be sold) because the crates of lettuce were harvested and transported by minorities under careful surveillance by highway patrolmen. However, when the strikers came into conflict with police officers, their efforts were soon destroyed by a newspaper report that said their actions were inspired by Communists and Helen betrayed them. Carlos remembers Helen saying, "I hate the Filipinos as deeply as I hate unions! You are all savages and you have no right to stay in this country!" (203). Likewise, a strike in the fish canneries in Alaska led a Japanese labor contractor to hire "assassins to eliminate the leaders of the union" (222).
But that didn't stop the Filipino union movement to continue. Shortly afterwards, Jose had been assigned to the Central California United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Learn more about the farm labor movement getting recognized by California Governor Newsom in 2020 here. But Bulosan's story would take a completely different turn. One night, he began coughing up blood violently and the doctor told him he had advanced stage TB. And from then on, he began writing poetry - writing about his life, journey in America, and fight for representation. Carlos says, "I knew surely that I had become a new man. I could fight the world now with my mind, not merely my hands. My weapon could not be taken away from me any more. I had an even chance to survive the brutalities around me" (224).
Carlos knew that despite his illness, his fight to end discrimination could not stop there. This is shown Dora, the wife of Jose's brother, Nick, visits Carlos and reads his poems one day, with a sad look in her eyes on pg. 227:
"What is it, Dora?" I asked.
I'm going to the Soviet Union, Carl," she said. "I'm going home."
"Home?" I did not understand her. "What do you mean home?"
"I was born there. I came to the United States with my parents when I was two years old. I'm going back to have my child born in a land without racial oppression."
"I didn't know you were going to have a child."
"It's Nick's child. I have always wanted a Filipino child. It wouldn't have a chance in America, just as Nick has never had a chance."
After Dora's departure, Carlos's condition had worsened and he spent his days in the hospital, with only books and his own words to keep him busy; hence he read a book a day. Carlos would face another significant turning point in his life when his brother, Macario, who had accompanied him during the organized labor movement, told him he was leaving for Spain because he wanted to fight for democracy and equality, just like he had tried to do in California. He says, "Maybe dying under a fascist bomb doesn't necessarily mean that Filipinos would have the right to become naturalized American citizens. But it means that there are men of good will all over the world, in every race, in all classes. It means that the forces of democracy are found in all times, ready to rally behind a cause of worldwide significance" (241). Seeing Macario and his ugly and calloused hands going to fight for democracy in a foreign country, Carlos remarked, "I wanted to shout with anger at the whole world...I knew [now] the meaning of my father's struggles to hold his land, my mother's sacrifices in order that her family might survive" (241-242).
In America, Carlos too faced countless prejudices against him. Carlos had been in the hospital for two years and wanted to be transferred to a sanitarium to recover. However, when he asked Social Service Department to be transferred, they told him, "You are ineligible to go to a sanitarium for technical reasons" because he was a Filipino who came to America as a minor and they remarked, "You Filipinos ought to be shipped back to your jungle homes!" (253). That was the sentiment against Filipinos - Filipinos, who, like countless other minorities, came to America in search of a better life. In another instance, upon leaving the hospital, when Carlos looked for a house for rent, "the landlady took away the 'For Rent' sign" and another landlady remarked, "This house is not for rent. The sign is nailed to the wall and it's hard to pull out" while the third landlady squarely announced, "We don't take Filipinos!" (256). Filipinos were not welcome and "The only section where [Filipinos] were allowed to stay was notorious for criminals, pimps, gamblers, and prostitutes" (257).
Although Carlos, other Filipinos, and other minorities were treated horribly, when the doctor told Carlos he only had five years to live, he says, "I was terrified. I loved life so much...'I would like to write...I would like to tell the story of [my] life in America" (261). Carlos knew that to all who came to America, America is in the Heart and he wanted to share his experience, and the experience of thousands of other Filipinos, who came to America in search of its legendary ideals and the prospect of a better life. And so, he wrote America is in the Heart which is a testament of his life in America, because, as he writes on pg. 188-189,
"We are approaching what will be the greatest achievement of our generation: the discovery of a new vista of literature, that is, to speak to the people and to be understood by them.
"We must look for the mainspring of democracy, but we must also destroy false ideals. We must discover the origin of our freedom and write in terms of liberty. We must advocate democratic ideas, and fight all forces hat would abort our culture.
"This is the greatest responsibility of literature: to find in our struggle that which has a future. Literature is a living and growing thing. We must destroy that which is dying, because it does not die by itself.
"We in America understand the many imperfections of democracy and the malignant disease corroding its very heart. We must be united in the effort to make an America in which our people can find happiness. It is a great wrong that anyone in America, whether he be brown or white, should be illiterate or hungry or miserable.
"We must live in America where there is freedom for all regardless of color, station and beliefs. Great Americans worked with unselfish devotion toward one goal, that is, to use the power of the myriad peoples in the service of America's freedom. They made it their guiding principle. In this we are the same; we must also fight for an America where a man should be given unconditional opportunities to cultivate his potentialities and to restore him to his rightful dignity.
"It is but fair to say that America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of freedom.
"America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling on a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate - We are America!"
Carlos Bulosan Becomes A Writer
Indeed, it was this sentiment that attracted to many people to America. And we will continue exploring Carlos Bulosan's ideas of America and his experiences within this land in Part IV.
Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart: A Personal History. University of Washington Press, 1973.
Carlos Bulosan, ca. 1950s, circa 1955, photograph, Portraits Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections POR0020, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, https://cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/portraits/id/34/rec/55.