- Emily Pan
"Be American" by Carlos Bulosan
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Author of "Be American", Carlos Bulosan was a Filipino activist and writer who came to the United States in 1930 at the age of 17. "Be American" incorporates autobiographical elements of his life in the United States, and shares the struggle Filipinos faced in living the American Dream. Scroll down for a summary of his story.
"Be American" follows the story of Carlos and his cousin, Consorcio. The story begins after they arrive by boat in San Francisco; they came as wanderers who could neither read nor write English. But like many others, they came to live the American Dream. Consorcio tells his cousin that he plans to live permanently in the United States, and that he wishes to be an American citizen right away. Yet Carlos reminds him that Filipinos must wait five years before obtaining a legal citizenship. Frustrated by the law, Consorcio defends himself and says he will change the law and prove himself.
The first two weeks of adapting to his new life was difficult, for he had never slept on a mattress, worn shoes, nor seen bread & butter. But like many other hardworking people, he quickly learned how to do things the American way, and began to make a living. He began by washing dishes in a restaurant, and when he saved up enough money, he bought classic books until they lined the walls of his room. He hoped that reading these books would make him an American faster. Yet a year later, he was no longer washing dishes nor reading books; instead, he worked in a bakery. When asked where his books went, he responded that he sold them, because he couldn't read.
As can be seen, life in America was a struggle, but soon enough, thanks to the help of his cousin, he was enrolled in a night school, where he was to learn basic grammar. Carlos said many people are wanderers and would send him boxes of fruit, or letters, but unlike others, Consorcio had not learned the "unwritten law of the nomad," so Carlos had no idea where his cousin was. But everything soon changed, when Carlos ran into his cousin in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, when they met five years later, Carlos asked Consorcio, (on pg. 247-248 of "Be American" by Carlos Bulosan, from the collection titled: Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., et al. Asian America: a Primary Source Reader)
"Not American citizen yet?"
"You should have told me," he responded.
"Told you what?"
"Filipinos can't become American citizens."
"Well, I could have told you, but I wanted you to learn."
"At least I speak better English now."
"This is a country of great opportunity."
"You have a wonderful dream," Consorcio responded and left.
Carlos did have a wonderful dream, but he dreamed that for himself, his cousin, and all of the other Filipinos. Just a few years later, he started receiving fruit and letters from his cousin, who had finally learned the "unwritten law of the nomad." Moreover, he could write in English, and for five years, he was writing publications for a press in Pismo Beach, and defending the rights of all Americans: native and foreign. From then on, Carlos received all of Consorcio's publications and letters. Without a doubt, "His letters were full of wondering and pondering about many things in America. How he realized his naivete when he landed in San Francisco. But he realized also that he could not ask too much in a strange land. And it was this realization that liberated him from his peasant prison, his heritage, and eventually led him to a kind of work to which he dedicated his time and life until the end."
And just like that, Consorcio was a true American. This was a dream that he finally conquered. But this was also a dream that was out of reach for many Filipinos.
"Be American" by Carlos Bulosan, from the collection titled: Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., et al. Asian America: a Primary Source Reader. Yale University Press, 2017.
Carlos Bulosan, ca. 1940s. circa 1945, photograph, Portraits Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, POR0017, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/portraits/id/32/.