Thursday, October 11, 2018

Re-Visiting Carlos Bulosan's AMERICA IS IN THE HEART


by E. San Juan, Jr.  
Professorial Chairholder, Polytechnic University of the Philippines

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 barbarism. Filipinos thanked the troops of General Douglas McArthur for their “Liberation.” Bulosan’s book was praised less for its avowed progressive sentiments than for its affirmation of the sacrifices made in Bataan and Corregidor, sacrifices memorialized for their promise of complete national redemption. Bulosan tried to capture the pathos of a long-expected moment of rendezvous among waylaid brothers and lost compatriots. Victory against Japan seemed to wipe out the trauma of the U.S. bloody pacification of the islands from 1899 to 1913, an experience alluded to in Bulosan’s farewell to his brother Leon, a veteran of the European carnage that occurred thousands of miles away from Binalonan, Pangasinan, where Bulosan was born on November 2,1911. 

Two years after his birth, the Filipino-American War ended on June 11, 1913 when General Pershing’s troops slaughtered ten thousand Moros in the Bud Bagsak massacre (Tan). Add this toll to about a million natives killed earlier, we arrive at the initial fruit of President McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation” policy justifying the new empire’s possession. Soon the newly established school system and William Howard Taft’s “Filipinization” program produced an entrenched bureaucratic caste with close ties to the feudal landlords and compradors that colluded with tne new rulers up to the Commonwealth period (1935-1946). When this oligarchy accepted the onerous conditions of independence in July 1946, Stanley Karnow wryly remarked that “they submitted voluntarily to their own exploitation,” wishing to become “a favored and exemplary party within a Pax Americana” (330).

Bulosan’s advent into the world was thus counterpointed with such paradoxes and intractable ironies. His initiation was self-contradictory, his psyche charged with aberrant impulses and dispositions. It reflected the quandaries of the times. Jaime Veneracion remarks that “while the Americans supposedly introduced land reform, the effect was the intensification of the tenancy problem” (63). Throughout U.S. ascendancy, fierce antagonisms convulsed the pacified  countryside. 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 might have agonized over the desperate revolts of impoverished farmers in the Colorums of Luzon and elsewhere (Constantino; Sturtevant). In Part I, chapter 8, he describes the 1931 Tayug uprising which he didn’t personally witness. It was led by Pedro Calosa, a veteran of union activism in Hawaii who was jailed for instigating multiethnic strikes and summarily deported back to the colony in 1927. 

Transversal Border-Crossings

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 bureaucratic repression, Filipinos plotted their journey to the metropole to pursue “the dream of success” broadcast so seductively in the mass-circulated textbooks and mass media that mesmerized Bulosan and his generation. Neither citizens nor aliens, they moved around as “wards” or “nationals.” Neither immigrants nor foreigners, they were denied citizenship, wandering from rural countryside to city ghettos and back. As Carey McWilliams observed, “they were neither fish nor fowl” (x). They explored an enigmatic terra incognita filled with perverse fantasies and tragicomic comeuppances. These derelict expatriates shared W.E. B. DuBois syndrome of “double consciousness”(11), a condition of permanent crisis born in the years of transition from feudal bondage to capitalist alienation. It was a hazardous passage that may explain the ironic turnabouts and precarious balancing acts encountered here, a plight analogous to the misfortunes of the peasantry in Europe when the enclosures of the commons engendered banditry, anarchic mayhem, reprisals, together with the fabled gallery of rogues, tricksters, vagabonds, and rambunctious fugitives.

In this zone of contingencies, Bulosan found himself struggling to survive with his cohort upon arrival in the midst of the Great Depression (1929-33). They became easy victims of labor contractors, agribusiness operatives, gamblers, racist vigilantes, and state security agents (prohibiting their marriage with whites) from Hawaii and California to Alaska. Na├»ve and vulnerable, they nurtured a sophisticated culture of resistance. Bulosan’s friendship with militant organizer Chris Mensalvas plunged him in the campaigns of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), such as the 1933 strike of 4,000 Filipinos in Stockton and Salinas, California (San Juan, “Filipinos”). As editor of The New Tide in 1934, Bulosan became acquainted with Richard Wright, William Saroyan, John Fante, Louis Adamic, and Sanora Babb. When he was confined at the Los Angeles General Hospital in 1936-38, it was Sanora Babb and her sister Dorothy who shrewdly apprenticed him to a writer’s vocation. They helped him discover through books “all my world of intellectual possibilities—and a grand dream of bettering society for the working man,” as he confessed (San Juan, Balikbayan 161). While convalescing, he composed fiction satirizing feudal savagery and patriarchal despotism, later gathered in The Laughter of My Father (1944, hereafter Laughter). He also wrote poems rehearsing the themes of AIH collected in Chorus for America (1942), Letter from America (1942), The Voice of Bataan (1943), and in his impassioned ode, “If You Want To Know What We Are (On Becoming 166-68). 

U.S. colonialism dissolved traditional affinities and salvaged pastoral folkways. Bulosan’s adolescent years drew energy from the survival craft of a poor peasant clan in which the fathers and uncles had to reckon with maternal wisdom and bureaucratic humbuggery. In his numerous letters, fiction and essays, Bulosan pays homage to the cunning spirit of his father trying to outwit landlords, merchant-usurers, and petty officials to eke out a bare subsistence. In reconstructing his past, Bulosan revitalized the rich insurgent culture of the dispossessed among whom he grew up. He learned the ethos of a rapidly changing society, its strategy of compromises and tactics of ambivalent temporizing. In response to the philistine putdown of his vignettes as a mode of commercializing exotic mores, Bulosan urged us to attend more to their subtle 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 (in The Philippines Is in the Heart) exuded “hidden bitterness” couched in dark humor, his antidote to an imputed trademark optimism. They retold folktales attacking the predatory impostures of the oligarchy and the iniquitous property/power relations afflicting the majority.

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 began with the effort to understand the trials of his family to overcome feudal-colonial privations. Although Laughter and AIH demonstrated his creative potential, unlike his contemporary Jose Garcia Villa, Bulosan was never genuinely accepted by the Establishment literati. He remained suspect, a subversive pariah from the “boondocks.” His radicalization began with an act of “popular memory” triggered by the circumstances of uprooting and rabid ostracism. Even before the imperialist crisis subsided, Bulosan had already plotted his project of remapping the U.S. cultural-political landscape with his claim in an autobiographical manifesto: “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” (“Autobiography” 267). 

Mapping the Terrain of Friends and Foes

Originally acclaimed as a poignant testimonial of ethnic success, AIH’s epilogue gestures toward a popular-front strategy against global fascism. Written during the war, Bulosan’s quasi-autobiography functions as a geopolitical annal of those years of struggle against white-supremacist violence. It serves as a critique of the paradigm of immigrant success still celebrated by self-serving opinion-makers. Obliquely parodying the Bildungsroman model, AIH presents a massive documentation of the various patterns of racism, exploitation, and spiritual injury suffered by Filipinos from the Depression to the end of World War II. Drifting in a limbo of indeterminacy, the untutored subaltern with libertarian affections and perceptions, Bulosan (refunctioning the author’s name to signify the novelistic persona) survived years of ignominy and unquiet desperation. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, he summed up his group’s ordeals: “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).

Whle reading, we are confronted with scenes of abuse, insult, and ruthless murder of these “wards” rendered with naturalistic candor. Their successive dilemmas are spliced with snapshots of escape and recovery--a haunting montage mixing history, confessional diary, and quotidian reports from the frontlines. Except for Part I, the remaining three parts of this book—a polyphonic orchestration of fractals from lived experiences—chart the passage of the youthful sensibility through a landscape of cruel privations and melodramatic entanglements. Performing as both protagonist and witness of events, Bulosan’s itinerary of self-discovery begins with his victimization by corrupt contractors on his arrival in Seattle. This is followed by a series of ordeals after which he, Pollyana-like, concludes by vindicating his faith in “America”—“America” is no longer the arena of painful bloodletting but a magical space “sprung from all our hopes and aspirations.” 

Readers are stunned by the stark disjunction between the brutal reality and the compensatory frame of the interpretation. How do we reconcile this discrepancy between actuality and thought, between fact (the chaotic wasteland) and the honorific label “America” erotically identified with equality and freedom?  Is this simply a sly maneuver to syncopate deluded narrator with subversive author?  Is this Bulosan’s subterfuge of multiplying perspectives in order to demystify the neurosis of his life while investing hope and trust in a future chimerical utopia?    

One way of approaching this incommensurability, this impasse of discrepant readings, has become routine. We can reject the commonsensical thesis that this work belongs to that species of personal reminiscence designed to promote easy assimilation into the proverbial “melting pot.”  Alternatively, one can propose that AIH invents a new literary genre which operates as tne negation of the mythical quest for Americanization—the whitening of dark-skinned indigenes. One can also urge a probing of rhetorical nuances, such as the address to the “American earth” which is deliberately cast in the subjunctive mood, tied to an unfolding process whose horizon is overshadowed by the disasters of Pearl Harbor, Bataan and Corregidor; this procedure culminates in the last chapters which recapitulate the anger, moral panic, and dissidence saturating the lives of Filipinos in the “New World.”  

Hermeneutic Interlude

The mainstream approach to Bulosan’s work is charitable but disingenuous. Whatever the pressures of the Cold War and marketing imperatives, to judge Bulosan’s chronicle of the Filipino struggle to give dignity to their damaged lives as an advertisement for ethnocentric “nationalism” seems unwarranted, if not invidious. It is surely meant to erase all evidence of its profoundly radical, communalist motivation. Perhaps the formalist way to correct this mistake is to identify the trope of personification, the wish-fulfilling imaginary underlying the fictive structure. Who is “America’?  The anguished 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 compassion for strangers like Filipino migrant-workers, then the abstract referent “America” cannot be conflated with this specific locus signified here. Overall, the redeeming figure is a maternal character with manifold personifications (explored later), insinuated in the author’s solicitous, imploring stance. She represents the singular desire called “America” invoked by the novel’s title.

Viewed from another angle, the idiomatic tenor of the title designates an inward process of acquiring self-awareness. It may be construed as a mode of self-reflexibility, a mode of psychic parthenogenesis. Note the symbolic 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 intimates pregnancy and deliverance, a symbiosis of outside and inside forces. Although victimized, Bulosan feels remolded into “a new man.” Of crucial importance is the equation of “heart” with “one island, the Philippines,” expanding the image. Bulosan deploys Robinson Crusoe’s individualistic predicament as antithetical comment.  Literally and figuratively, the “heart” becomes a polysemous vehicle that signifies inclusion and exclusion. It functions as a device to reconcile warring drives, tendencies, dispositions.  Its figural use serves to characterize the text as belonging to the allegorical type 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 embattled community germinating within the confines of an anomic, disintegrated metropolis.
By deploying imaginative ruses, Bulosan grapples with the bifurcating 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 morbid realism punctuating the text. It lends plausiblity to the didactic sections where the assured authorial voice seems to compensate for the disoriented protagonist and the episodic plot. The climax of Bulosan’s scheme of educating his compatriots about the unifying thread of their fragmented lives transpires in his extolling the “simplicity of their hearts, nourished in the conviction that ‘America’ is still our unfinished dream.”  Purged of his narcissistic malaise, he confesses: “I was rediscovering myself in their lives.” He thus reject the social-Darwinist postulate of the wolf embedded in every person, replacing it with the Moses/mother motif of empathy and conviviality.  

Forking Arguments, Discordant Flows

We soon observe how the narrator’s ego merges with the spirit of an enlarged “family” whose members are bound by a transcendent purpose, a universal principle: the fight against fascist terrorism. This moment anticipates what Bulosan would later call “the revolution” where ordinary workers would “play our own role in the turbulent drama of history…the one and only common thread that bound us together, white and black and brown, in America.” In Chapter 25, we find the narrator harping on the metaphor of the old world dying while a new world is struggling to be born, intuited from the belief that “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 writing ability linked to his vision of “the war between labor and capital,” the  apostrophe to the multiracial army of workers as “America” is better cognized as part of Bulosan’s project of re-articulating the discourse of popular rights in a socialist direction. But the invocation of a divided “America”—a unity of opposites—presages a recursive aporia, a troubling paradox, an irksome undecidability.  Note that the theme of solidarity was broached first in Bulosan’s desire “to know [the hoboes in the freight trains] and to be a part of their life.” Eventually, the call for partisanship animates the dialectical structure of feeling, the ethico-political disposition concerning the Spanish Civil War, the key historical contradiction here that inflects the binarisms of city/countryside, metropole and colony, consciousness and the public sphere. 

So far the categorizing principle of popular-front-democracy-against-fascism occupies the foreground of Bulosan’s historiography. Here Japanese aggression evokes the earlier U.S. pacification of the islands, the primal event of conquest and deracination. The dissolution of the old order signaled by the war’s outbreak seems to resolve the tension between trivializing idealism and empirical mimesis.  It offers the opportunity for a fantasized resolution, one that will mediate between the notion of “America” as a classless society and its institutionalized racist exclusivism. A poetic mechanism of compensatory fulfillment is rendered here when the truth of colonial subjugation becomes the repressed traumatic object returning to the surface of quotidian existence. Bulosan himself points out that as exiles “socially strangled in America,” instrumentalized and commodified, Filipinos find it easier “to integrate ourselves in a universal ideal,” with organic intellectuals serving as the tribune of the “wretched of the earth” (Fanon), enslaved and disenfranchised peoples mobilizing around the planet.

We discern the crucial turn of Bulosan’s life at the exact middle of the book (Chapter 23).  Struggling to communicate to his fugitive brother, he reconstructs his past and gains release from the prison of silence to “tell the world what they’ve done to me.” The victim thus recovers poise and mutates into an agency fusing theory and practice. This discovery of the capacity for inspired speech-acts occurs after he rebels two chapters earlier: “I had struck at the white world, at last; and I felt free.” Finally, when he meets the lawyer Pascual, Bulosan assumes his role as witness/spokesperson for the grassroots movement. Now he conceives literary art as the symbolic theater of his death and rebirth, and his role within it as a transformative agent, a productive “transindividual” (Goldmann) empowering the rise of a community of equals.

Discourse of Detours and Disjunctures

What becomes symptomatic at this juncture is a shift in rhetoric and style. The memoir’s realistic stance and its affinities with picaresque naturalism (marked by the intrusions of petty crimes, rough diction, squalid surroundings) are disrupted by lyricized nostalgic recalls of an idyllic homeland. By this time, the generic norms of traditional autobiography, using the typical coding for verisimilitude and linear plotting, have already been qualified by a lively comic rhythm of reiteration and recovery. Characters appear and disappear with uncanny gusto. Incidents swerve and replicate themselves while the nuances of dialogue are reprogrammed in a carnivalesque circulation of energies. Polyphonic voices fill the void of Filipino lives until the crisis of hegemonic representation arrives, with emotion-laden scenarios displaced by reflexive meditation at the end.

In Part III, a decisive break occurs. This destroys the model of the successful immigrant and its iconic aura. On this edge of the narrative looms impending failure. Bulosan’s fantasized “conspiracy” of making “a better America” is suspended by the collapse of the body and its grim endurance.  History materializes in the return of the “child” as invalid, the agony of wandering now displaced by the stasis of physical breakdown. Epitomized here is the vitality of the comic genre—the cycle of death and rebirth in “monumental” time—which manifests itself in the body of the expatriate who “died many deaths” between exile and imagined return. Bulosan has dared to transcribe a hazardous reconnaissance of the American heartland. In the process, he celebrates several deaths, one of which is the suicide of Estevan whose story about his hometown precipitates a spiritual conversion: “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.” Recalling previous disappointments, those deaths impregnate the psyche and resurrects the repressed subliminal forces in the language of incongrous, disjunctive confrontations.

In-depth semiotic inquiry would pursue the trope of prophetic homecoming informing the structure of the dream (in Chapter 40) which functions as a synecdoche for what is repressed. Misrecognized as “the Filipino communist” strike leader, the narrator flees from the police. Falling asleep on a bus, the fugitive dreams of his return to his hometown and rejoices at seeing his mother and the whole family eating together. Jolted by “tears of remembrance” at this reunion, he asks himself how the “tragedy” of his childhood had returned in his sleep “because I had forgotten it.” What had been erased from consciousness is his youth in the occupied homeland, a section of profound ethico-political significance, foregrounding the resourcefulness, strength, courage, and intransigence of the peasantry and plebeian masses. By subtle stylistic modalities, Bulosan’s narrative heightens a recursive tempo that seeks to register the power of the peasantry’s (now migrant-workers’) collective agency

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 proves regenerative—becomes not a gratuitous interruption but a pivotal event.  It halts the spatial discontinuity, the labyrinthine route of his adventure. It ushers the protagonist into a recognition of his new vocation, not so much as the fabulist of Laughter as the archivalist of popular memory. The myriad recognition scenes interspersed throughout function as the healing refrain that repudiates the vexatious 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.

Tracking the Labor of the Negative

From a broader historical standpoint, AIH may be appraised as the first example of a new genre in the archive, a popular-front allegory attuned to the frightful lanscape of the Depression and total World War (Denning). This form articulates the problems of class, race, nation, and gender in an elaborate, overdetermined configuration painstakingly unravelled in a sequence of surprising but familiar incidents. But what I think constitutes AIH’s originality is its rendering of what Julia Kristeva calls “woman’s time.” This is the subtext or “political unconscious” (Jameson) constituting the unorthodox singularity of this memoir.  Comedy and the symbolic dynamics of the unconscious interact with the realist code of story-telling to generate this new artifice. 

Examining the ambiguous role of women in Bulosan’s “pilgrimage” in inhospitable territory, we discover representatives of its Otherness, its antithetical mirror-image. One recalls how Bulosan praised the exuberant resourcefulness of his mother, that “dynamic little peasant woman”: “[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). Her genial figure is sublimated in the feisty samaritanic women interrogating patriarchal authority. She is reincarnated in his loyal female companions— emblems of the hidden “Other,” the oppositional mask of an indifferent if not hostile America.  Can we consider AIH a protofeminist text interweaving the nomadic and sedentary lines of action, of flight and confrontation?

By now we are inclined to consider AIH a complex ideological construct meant to resolve real-life contradictions by imaginary fiat, even by a counterfeit resolution, To challenge this, we can deploy an interpretive scheme revolving around women’s time, zeroing in on the image of the mother and other signifiers of need and desire. This move would structure the reader’s horizon of expectation since what, in truth, this  schizoid recollection wants to forget but somehow cannot, is a lacuna whose lingering traces serve as the stigmata of Filipino insurrectos: the genocidal U.S. conquest, with over a million natives killed and a whole civilization ruined. The aftermath preserved feudal-landlord power which suppressed the Colorum and Sakdal uprisings and drove Bulosan and his generation into permanent exile (Francisco; Guerrero; Taruc). In effect, what Bulosan attempts to salvage are the damaged lives of working men and women whose commodified identities have been calculated and dispersed into the predatory flux of “America” where Filipino bachelors found themselves symbolically, if not literally, castrated—a lifeworld libidinally subsumed in the cutthroat laissez-faire market and the mystique of commodity-fetishism now trenchantly sanctified in the dogmas of neoliberal globalization.

Architectonics of Belonging

World War II was almost over when Bulosan’s memoir was completed. McArthur’s shibboleth, “I Shall Return,” had fired up Filipino hopes, motivating Bulosan’s inventory and assessment of the total experience of his generation. In this context, the intent of AIH can be construed as the reinscription of the inaugural moment of loss (U.S. colonization refracted by the Japanese occupation) in the dominant culture by a text that violates conventional expectations. Counterhegemonic reminiscence foregrounds the earth, the tillers’ cooperative sharing, and maternal desire as the ground of meaning and identity. We witness in the end the festive, self-conscious urgent tone of the narrator as he attempts a final reconciliation of the warring forces in his life. His striving for coherence and intelligibility is simultaneously an endeavor to universalize the import and significance of his experience. The final episodes intimate “a return to the source” (Cabral), the time of expropriation and uprooting, inducing a need to retrieve a submerged tradition of indigenous resistance based on principles of solidarity, the concrete universal of this artistic performance. 

Whatever the inherited prejudices of readers, Bulosan seeks to provoke with an inquiry about one’s role in the ongoing drama of social transformation: “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). He calls for the renewal of the social energies that lie dormant in the interstices of the text, partcularly the oppositional and the utopian impulses stifled by acquisitive individualism. For this purpose, we need  a pedagogical method to transcode the unity of opposites here into humankind’s agon of exposing duplicities, reaffirming the value of scientific inquiry, and discriminating what is reactionary and what is progressive, in the heterogeneous micropolitics of daily life.  

Mindful of the uncouth realism mediating existential reality, we can appreciate AIH’s modernist temper in privileging autonomy, imaginative transcendence, and secular humanism. Has the postmodernist taste for pastiche and cynical deconstructivism rendered this book inutile? Conceived as an agent-provocateur, AIH allegorizes the radical transformation of the old system of colonial bondage and culture of silence into one of egalitarian freedom by way of a critical appropriation of diverse embodied ideas entangled in historic contingencies. This process of decolonization enacted by the witness/testifier of AIH is ultimately geared to fashioning a responsible transindividual subject, not a hustling entrepreneur—a task accomplished via reciprocal transactions, ecumenical dialogue, and mutual exchanges among the participants (San Juan, Carlos Bulosan)
At this point I would argue that the evolution of Bulosan’s sensibility transcended the imperatives of nativism, the nostalgic cult of a mythical past, or a yearning for a tolerant cosmopolis. No doubt Bulosan’s “conscientization” (Freire) transgressed nation-state boundaries and upheld proletarian internationalism, as evidenced in poems expressing his commitment to the radical ideals of the Spanish Republic. Bulosan’s engagement with the contentious popular-front strategy afforded him a philosophical worldview which gave direction to his group’s nomadic existence. When the Pacific War broke out,  Bulosan rediscovered the beleaguered islands as the fountainhead of his prophetic, truth-telling advocacy. This served as the germinal site for the paradigm of “national liberation” in AIH, as well as in The Cry and the Dedication (hereafter The Cry), a novel inspired by Bulosan’s friendship with the left-wing activist Amado V. Hernandez, with whom he collaborated in publicizing Luis Taruc’s autobiography, Born of the People.
Vectors of  Intervention

At the start of the Cold War, Bulosan was already a blacklisted writer. The recent discovery of his FBI files seems anticlimactic if not a fortuitous expose of “dirty linen” (Alquizola and Hirabayashi). Bulosan’s intimacy with the astute Babb sisters active in the Hollywood milieu of fellow-travelling intellectuals, was public knowledge. As a journalist with the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU), Local 37, Bulosan was regarded as a dangerous subversive, threatened with deportation. But how could the government deport a writer commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt to celebrate one of the “four freedoms” with 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 best-selling Laughter had been translated into over a dozen languages, while AIH had been favorably reviewed and the author cited in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography, etc. Meanwhile, he was drafting The Cry, his saga of Huk guerrillas reconstructing their nation’s history as they sought to establish linkage with U.S.-based sympathizers (on the Huk uprising, see San Juan, “American Witness”; Taruc).  Allegorizing the improvised self-fashioning of the Filipino subject, The Cry may be read as a performative argument seeking to concretize the right of self-determination. What impelled him to write? “The answer is—my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all…. 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). Bulosan died on September 11, 1956, three years after the Korean War ended, within earshot of the portentous rumblings from IndoChina.

In retrospect, the tensions of the Cold War offered an occasion for Bulosan to analyze and redefine the self-contradictory predicament that bedevilled the lives of his contemporaries. In grappling with life-and-death contingencies, he reinvented the intertextual conjuncture of class, gender, race, and ethnicity that articulated the epochal conflict between capitalism and the various socialist experiments since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. A decade after Bulosan’s death, Filipino farm-workers led by his younger comrades began the 1965 strike that led to the founding of the United Farmworkers of America, the fruit of pioneering efforts of the CIO, ILWU, and civic organizations whose leaders were hounded by the FBI and its ideological apparatus. It vindicated the aspiration of these disinherited Asians/Pacific Islanders for justice and respect. Filipinos joined coalitions with African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans and others in the instructive Civil Rights rebellions, all drawing their energies from a centuries-old memory of resistance—an epic of heroic “soul-making.” Its genealogy was already prefigured in Bulosan’s reflexive aide-memoire, “How My Stories Were Written,” in which an old village story-teller in his hometown is finally revealed as his ancestral progenitor, the fountainhead of all the “wisdom of the heart” (San Juan, Imagination 138-43),

Amid the disruptive controversy over immigration today, over three million Filipinos in the U.S., not counting those “undocumented,” are preponderant stakeholders in the tortuous re-shaping of civil society.  Bulosan endeavored to substantiate their  presence in this chronicle of the subaltern’s quest for recognition and equality. Befor he died, Bulosan reaffirmed his conviction in the virtue of collective praxis as emblematic of humanity’s vast potential in making history: “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). As long as the Philippines remains a neocolonial backwater, and the Filipino diaspora languishes in obsessive consumerism, Bulosan’s works will remain serviceable as speculative tools for diagnosing its “Unhappy Consciousness” (Hegel) and its ethos of ressentiment, compromise, and disobedience. What Mark Twain called “the Philippine temptation” (32) when the U.S. suppressed its armed inhabitants—the scandalous spectacle of the American republic subjugating millions who refused to be enslaved—yielded a joyful ambidextrous response, to which Bulosan’s life-work bears witness. This arena of struggle over the aesthetic worth and moral gravity of his achievement may prove decisive in extrapolating the vicissitudes and prospects of popular-democratic changes everywhere in this new millennium.—##


Alquizola, Marilyn and Lane Hirabayashi. “Carlos Bulosan’s Final Defiant Acts: Achievements During the McCarthy Era.”  Amerasia Journal 38.3 (2012): 29-50.

Babb, Sanora.  Sanora Babb Peprs in the Manuscript Collection, Harry Ransom Center. Carlos Bulosan File. University of Texas, Austin, Texas. Circa 1928-2005. 

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination.  Austin: University of Texas P, 1981.

Bulosan, Carlos.  America Is in the Heart. Seattle and London: Washington UP, 1973.

——.  “Autobiography.”  Poetry 47 (February 1936): 267.

——.  On Becoming Filipino, ed. E. San Juan, Jr.  Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1995.

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Du Bois, W.E.B.  The Souls of Black Folk.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Fanon, Frantz.  The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Feria, Dolores, ed.  “The Sound of Falling Light: Letters in Exile.” The Diliman Review, viii, 1-3 (Jan-Sept. 1960): 185-278.

Francisco, Luzviminda. “The Philippine-American War.” The Philippines Reader, ed. Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Shalom. Boston: South End Press, pp. 8-19.

Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness.  New York: The Seabury Press, 1973.

Goldmann, Lucien.  Essays on Method in the Sociology of Literature. St Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1980.

Guerrero, Milagros.  “The Colorum Uprisings.” Asian Studies 5 (April 1967): 65-78.

Hegel, G. W. F.   Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Jameson, Fredric.  The Political Unconscious.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

Karnow, Stanley.  In Our Image.  New York: Random House, 1989.

Kristeva, Julia.  The Kristeva Reader.  New York: Columbia UP, 1986.  

McWilliams, Carey.  “Introduction” to America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973, pp. vii-xxiv.

San Juan, E.  Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle. Quezon City:  UP Press, 1972.

—-.  “Filipinos.” In Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Mari John Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas.  New York: Oxford UP, pp. 224-226.

—-.  Balikbayang Sinta: An E. San Juan Reader. Quezon City: Ateneo UP, 2008.

—.  “An American Witness to the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines.” Amerasia Journal 40:3 (2014): 55-80.

—.  Carlos Bulosan: Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States.  New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

Sturtevant, David.  Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840-1940.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1976.

Tan, Samuel K.  The Filipino-American War, 1899-1913.  Quezon City: UP  Press, 2002.

Taruc, Luis.  Born of the People.  New York: International Publishers, 1953.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire, ed. Jim Zwick.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP,  1992.

Veneracion, Jaime.  Agos ng Dugong Kayumanggi.  Quezon City: Education Forum, 1987.


Sunday, September 16, 2018



Nang ika-10 gulang, nagnais akong matuto’t maging marunong
Nang ika-15 gulang, nabatid kong tama ang gurong Mang Andoy
Nang ika-21 gulang, natiyak ko na ang daan
Nang ika-30 gulang, nasulyapan ko na ang guhit-tagpuang abot-tanaw
Nang ika-36 gulang, nabilibid ako sa kasong pakikiapid (natiklo, ay malas!)
Nang ika-40 gulang, nagpasiya akong pwede nang makipag-sapalarang mag-isa
Nang ika-50 gulang, bayad na ako sa mga utang at butaw

Handa na akong umakyat sa bundok—

Napaglirip sa panahon ng paglalakbay hanggang dito, palipat-lipat ang diwa

Sa pagitan ng ibong makulay ang bagwis

nakatuon sa panaginip at pantasiya

At isdang nagtatampisaw sa putik, matimtimang dumaranas

ng udyok at simbuyo ng damdamin….

Hinahangad ko mula ngayon, sa kabila ng gulo’t panganib ng kapaligiran,

Sundin ang dragon ng isip, matimyas na pagnanais makahulagpos

Upang sa gayon makaigpaw sa bangin at makatawid

sa talampas at matarik na dalisdis ng bundok

Yapos ang ibong pumailanlang at isdang sumisid

sa pusod ng kaluluwa.



When I was ten-years old, I wanted to learn and become wise
When I was fifteen, I understood that my teacher Andoy was correct
When I turned twenty-one, I was sure of the Way
When I became 30 years old, I glimpsed the horizon within reach
When I turned thirty-six, I was imprisoned for adultery (betrayed, alas!)
When I reached forty, I decided that I can strike alone in life’s adventure
When I arrived at fifty years old, I paid all my debts and taxes

Prepared to climb the mountain,
I reflected on the trek up to here, my mind flitting here and there,
Between that multicolored bird, its wings flashing
aimed at dreams and fantasies
And the fish leaping, frolicking in the mud, experiencing to the utmost
the blows and tugs of impulses….

I desired from now on, pushed and pulled here and there by the turbulence and sur rounding danger,
To follow the dragon of the mind, deeply craving to burst through,
So that I can transcend and leap over this chasm, clambering to the other side
Crossing the chasm and cling to the cliff and the tortuous mountain-side,
Embracing that bird soaring above
and the fish diving deep into the belly, the cloaca of the soul.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

FILIPINOS. IN THE United States (Circa 1990)

Filipinos in the U.S.:
‘Where Are You from? When Are You Going Back?’

We live in a racist society, a racial formation called "the United States of America" where - and this is not news anymore at this late day - people of color suffer daily from racial, national, and class oppression.


"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." – Carlos Bulosan, from Sound of Falling Light: Letters in Exile

“Uprisings and revolutions have always occurred in countries tyrannized over, in countries where human hearts have been forced to remain silent.” Jose Rizal, "The Philippines a Century Hence"

[This essay is a revised version of a lecture delivered at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on 26 April 1992. Despite the passage of over a decade, the thrust of its message remains central to the understanding of the neocolonial situation of the Filipino diaspora. The crisis in fact has worsened since Bulosan, Philip Vera Cruz, and the generation of Manongs were stigmatized in the McCarthyist reaction of the Cold War era.

After 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act, Filipinos have been racially profiled and targetted as putative "terrorists." A distinct Filipino nationality has been invented by 9/11 right-wing patriotism.

Given the deliberate manipulation by the Bush administration of the CIA-created Abu Sayyaf as part of international terrorism (cynically linking it with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army) and the subservience of the Arroyo regime to Washington's marching orders, Filipinos in the U.S. have suffered tremendously: witness the planeloads of Filipinos summarily deported every time the need arises to pressure Arroyo and the military to submit to U.S. demands. Recall the U.S. threat to deport over a hundred thousand Filipinos after the Angelo de la Cruz release led to the withdrawal of Filipino troops from Iraq.

Despite the publicity given to General Taguba, Lea Salonga, and assimilated colonials, white racial supremacy and its accompanying institutionalized violence persist in categorizing Filipinos as subaltern subjects fit for serving the needs of a new pax Americana. Only an anti-imperialist, national-democratic struggle in the Philippines, not a reformist antiglobalization campaign of "civil-society" NGOs led by careerist intellectuals, can counter the new, more vicious racialization of Filipinos within a hegemonic protofascist regime that now prevails in the U.S.

A united front of all the internally colonized peoples of color opposed to the Homeland Security State, together with all oppressed classes, can serve to reinforce the worldwide resistance to this new "civilizing mission" of postmodern barbarians in the metropolis. The strategy of persevering in completing our unfinished 1896 revolution begun by Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal can guide us toward a world free from class exploitation and racial oppression.]

We live in a racist society, a racial formation called "the United States of America" where--and this is not news anymore at this late day--people of color suffer daily from racial, national, and class oppression. And in the same breath we Filipinos, together with others, struggle daily to survive and affirm our human dignity. Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) stated in 1987 that in the United States "racism is the state religion.... Racism is to America what Catholicism is to the Vatican. Racism is the religion, and violence is its liturgy to carry it out" (Time, Feb. 2, 1987).

Signs of the times--like Willie Horton and Rodney King, not to mention thousands of everyday incidents in university campuses and urban battlegrounds like Bensonhurst, Miami, Milwaukee, Detroit, and recently Los Angeles where the unprecedented rebellion sent tremors to the boardrooms of the ruling class; and in places where hatred of Asians and Arabs is peaking--all these indicate that Al-Amin's observation, instead of being rendered obsolete, is being confirmed in ways that might still frighten some and in other ways that paradoxically elicit the homage of its victims.

Transported but Not Transplanted

By the year 2000 the Filipino body count will surpass the two million mark. We are rapidly becoming the majority (21% of the total) of the Asian American population of nearly 10 million. [As of 2005, the Filipino population in the U.S. will easily exceed three million, the largest of the Asian American contingent of 12 million.] More than half a million (664,938 to be exact) entered the country between 1965 and 1984. This third (even fourth) wave of immigration comprise mostly professionals and technical personnel, unlike their predecessors, the farmworkers of Hawaii and California and Alaskan cannery hands memorialized in Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart (1948).

Over 170,000 Filipinos enter the country legally every year. This doesn't include about 25,000 Filipinos serving in the U.S. Navy (chiefly as stewards and mess boys), a number more than those serving in the Philippine Navy itself--an anomalous phenomenon where Filipino citizens function as mercenaries eager to serve their former colonial master.

Because of this demographic change and other reasons, it is perhaps the opportune time to assert our autonomy from the sweep of the categorizing rubric of "Asian American" even as we continue to unite with other Asians in coalitions for conjunctural political demands. There is a specific reason why the Filipino nationality in the U.S. (even though the majority of U.S. citizens are still unable to distinguish us from the Asian Others) needs to confront its own singular destiny as a dislocated and "transported" (in more ways than one) people: that reason is of course the fact that the Philippines was a colony of the United States for over half a century and persists up to now as a neocolony of the occupying nation-state in whose territory we find ourselves today.

The reality of U.S. colonial subjugation and its profound enduring effects--something most people cannot even begin to fathom, let alone acknowledge its existence--distinguish the Filipino nationality from the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and others from the Asian mainland. To understand what this means is already to resolve halfway the predicament and crisis of dislocation, fragmentation, uprooting, loss of traditions, exclusion, and alienation--tremendous spiritual and physical ordeals that people of color are forced to undergo when Western powers fight and divide the world into spheres of domination for the sake of capital accumulation, when populations are expediently shuffled around in the global chessboard of warring interests.

This crisis of deracination and exile (permanent or temporary) becomes pronounced in the phenomenon of the "brain drain," a factor that explains the continuing underdevelopment of the Third World. It is not a joke to say that the Philippines, now an economic basket case in Asia, produces every year thousands of doctors, nurses, scientists, and engineers for the world market. As exchangeable commodities, many of them immediately head for the United States--in addition, there's more than a million "warm body export" now inhabiting the Middle East and Europe--while in the Philippines where 80% of the people are poor and 30% of the children malnourished, most towns and villages don't have any decent medical/health care (not to mention other vital social services) to sustain a decent quality of life for all its citizens. [These proverbial "servants of globalization" are actually victims of U.S. imperial domination of the transnational market and finance capital.]

American Dream of Eluding Success

All studies of the 1980 and the 1990 census show that Filipinos, despite high educational attainments, enjoy the lowest average income (among Asians). We are historically denied access to occupations in management and other prestigious career positions. According to sociologists Victor Nee and Jimy Sanders, Filipinos remain a "disadvantaged minority group," concentrated in low-skilled and low-status jobs with low mean income. I am not of course referring to those Filipino doctors and a handful of corporate consultants each earning a quarter of a million dollars every year. But despite this comprehensive and more accurate picture of structural disadvantage--the collective plight of Filipinos inferred from government statistics--we are astonished at the celebratory thrust of the impressions and responses of Filipinos recorded by Ronald Takaki in his instructive history of Asian Americans, Strangers from a Different Shore. Takaki cites the following testimonies from recent Filipino immigrants:

"...In the United States, hard work is rewarded. In the Philippines, it is part of the struggle to survive." Images of American abundance, carried home by the Balikbayans, or immigrants returning to their homeland for visits, have pulled frustrated Filipinos to this country. When Carlos Patalinghug went back for a visit in 1981 after working in the United States for ten years, he told his friends: "If you work, you'll get milk and honey in America." Other Balikbayans described the United States as a "paradise." (433)

We all know of course that comparisons are always made to what the person would have been earning in the Philippines assuming she is employed--the trick of invoking the exchange rate of dollars to pesos, ignoring cost of living disparities, indeed works miracles. Isn't this mutable exchange rate--index of the unequal relations of power between North and South--the opium of the masses, not religion?

What seems incredible is this story (narrated by Lawrence Johnson in Rice Magazine, July 1988) of Maria Ofalsa who came in 1926 and two years after was hospitalized "from overwork and exhaustion"; her family experienced horrendous prejudice, harassment, eviction which they quietly bore throughout the Depression up to the fifties. Finally, after getting her citizenship in 1952 and still aware of the racism around her, she tells her countrymen: "When you come here to the U.S. remember this is not our country, so you try to be nice and don't lose your temper and try to be friendly and don't put on a sour face." Frankly I don't know whether, without much ado, Maria should be canonized or beatified.

Historical Amnesia

Some of us know that Filipinos, faced with rampant paralegal violence in Watsonville, California and in other places in the late twenties and thirties, did not act nicely when they initiated militant actions like those by the Filipino Labor Union in 1933 who were trying to organize thirty thousand compatriots. Or those by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in 1959 which led to the historic Grape Strike of 1965 and laid the immediate foundation for the establishment of the United Farm Workers of America initially led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. The epochal inter-ethnic union struggles of Filipinos and Japanese workers in Hawaii in 1920 and 1924 also deserve tribute and commemoration.

Philip Vera Cruz, a distinguished veteran union leader, declared in the sixties: "I think the only way to change things is to break up the corporations and weaken the enemy.... Agribusiness is built on the exploitation of farm workers...It's the same struggle all over the world, many fronts of the same struggle."

Contemporaries of Maria Ofalsa, Manuel Buaken and Carlos Bulosan probably lost their temper then. Buaken wrote in 1940: "Where is the heart of America? I am one of the many thousands of young men born under the American Flag, raised as loyal idealistic Americans under your promise of equality for all....Once here we are met by exploiters, shunted into slums, greeted by gamblers and prostitutes, taught only the worst in your civilization." Bulosan also lost his temper when he summed up his experiences in the thirties and forties: "I came to know afterward that in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California."

It might be instructive to recall that although over 175,000 Filipinos in the U.S. in the thirties were officially designated "nationals," wards under American "tutelage," without the rights of citizens. In 1934 with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, Buaken and Bulosan and their compatriots suddenly became aliens. They were "birds of passage" trapped in the promised land. Earlier they had been forbidden to marry Caucasians; they were barred from owning land and receiving public assistance during the Depression. In 1940 they were subjected to another humiliation: all Filipinos had to register and be fingerprinted like ordinary criminals.

Not altogether unprecedented, the sisters of Maria Ofalsa today have turned out to be "troublemakers." In another continent, amid the utter indifference of the Philippine government to the plight of thousands of domestics in the Middle East, we recently learned that one of these brutalized Filipinas, a certain Lourana Crow Rafael, 44, was accused of killing a member of the Kuwait royal family, Sheika Latifa Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, after she refused the domestic's request to travel to her home country in the wake of the enormous terrors before and after the war (USA Today, Feb. 21, 1992). Talk of losing one's temper under those circumstances! How can we even begin to imagine that scenario (even assuming that our domestic compatriot was being framed) without lapsing into another mystery-filled Hollywood banality.

Recently, two planeloads of Filipina domestics arrived in Manila from Kuwait bearing tales of cruel and inhumane treatment, rape, and all sorts of violence inflicting horrible physical and psychic tortures which some Westerners find incredible and fantastic.

Awaking from the Nightmare

With the formal independence of the Philippines in 1946, and the coordinated resistance of Filipino workers here in the late forties and fifties--in particular among Alaskan cannery workers--to racist violence and persecution, a new sensibility emerged among the second generation of Filipinos. Most of those who came of age in the great civil rights struggles of the sixties and the antiwar movement of the early seventies began to articulate the Filipino protest against racial and national oppression in sympathy with the resurgent anti-imperialist movement in the Philippines against the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship.

Many Filipinos born here in the United States matured during the "Great Transformation" of the sixties and began to connect with the heroic ordeals of the manongs in such mass coalitions around the International Hotel in San Francisco and around other programs to address still unredressed grievances. There's a whole history still to be written about these not yet forgotten itinerary of struggles. When the eighties arrived, the impulse of opposition and criticism seemed to have subsided. I quote from a letter written by a Filipina immigrant to the Hartford Courant at the time of Aquino's assassination in 1983:

For me, the killing hit home in more ways than one.

I was born a Filipino. That may seem like an easy statement to make, but even as I write it, I am amazed at the embarrassment I used to feel. Ever since my parents brought me to the United States, I had been ashamed of who I am and ashamed of my nation.

When friends at school said it was disgusting to see my mother serve fish with the head still intact, or for my father to eat rice with his hands, or to learn that stewed dogs and goats were some examples of Filipino delicacies, I took their side. I accused my own of being unsanitary in their eating habits....

And when Marcos flaunted his tyranny and declared martial law in 1972, and my aunt said that it was the best thing that ever happened to the Philippines, as long as you kept your mouth shut, I accused Filipinos of lacking the guts to fight for themselves....

But everything changed for me when that man [Benigno Aquino] I had laughed at landed in my homeland and died on the airport tarmac.

For the first time I accused myself of not having enough faith in, and hope for, my own people. Maybe because I'm older now, maybe because of the assassination, I see things differently.

In the past I felt that I had no right to be proud of my people. Now, with the cruel Marcos regime tottering, I have finally awakened. Filipinos all over the world need the strength that comes with pride, now more than ever. It is time for all of us to speak up, regardless of the consequences.

This woman refused to follow Maria Ofalsa's advice to keep her mouth shut and behave nicely. Unfortunately there are few like her. Understandly enough, most Filipinos are busy making money to survive and support relatives and families in the Philippines. They don't want to have anything to do with what's going on politically in their country of origin (or even here, for that matter) even though every American (the majority of people you encounter in the shopping malls and other public sites) who encounters them cannot but connect them to those islands--are they still "our" colonies in the Caribbean?

How many Filipinos have we not heard confessing to their American hosts how "my country [of origin] is shit!" and how I am so happy and proud to finally be American citizens? These aliens--they have renounced their homeland but are not accepted anywhere--hang in the limbo of what Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, designates as the symbolic violence of the self-denying colonized.

In the Belly of the Beast

As to be expected, these Filipinos have dutifully internalized the ethos of bureaucratic individualism, the ABC of vulgar utilitarianism, inculcated by the media and other ideological apparatuses in the Philippines and reproduced here in the doxa, the received and commonsensical practices of everyday life. Although some still pay homage to the rituals of the patriarchal family, many have now transformed themselves into the living exemplars of the cult of neosocial Darwinism during a period of economic recession in the belief that they are adapting to the mores of their adopted country and are making themselves "true" Americans, "the genuine Stateside articles." This schizoid claim to authenticity seems to compensate for the trauma of dispossession and savage inferiorization suffered in nearly a century of colonial subordination.

We know that in instances where hospital strikes occur in any big city, planeloads of nurses from the Philippines are ordered by the cost-cutting management to function as "scabs," a title which her other sisters surely do not deserve. [It might be useful to note here that the 50,000 Filipino nurses in the U.S. remit over $100 million annually, more than the earnings from Philippine gold exports; and that the remittance of Middle East workers and domestics in Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, is the number one dollar earner for the Philippine government.]

In one major case in the past, in 1946, 7,000 Filipino workers and their families were recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to break "The Great Sugar Workers Strike." In due time, however, they quickly realized that they were being used by their exploiters and so joined the strikers organized by the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union.

Exodus and Pilgrimage

In the eighties, despite the fact that a larger proportion of recent Filipino immigrants possess superior technical and professional skills, we still find a pattern of consistent downgrading and underemployment of Filipino professionals. How is this to be explained or justified?

Pharmacists, lawyers, teachers, dentists, engineers, and medical technicians who have logged years of experience are often forced to engage in sales, clerical, and wage labor. We still find evidence of the routine attitude of EuroAmericans to Filipinos as good only at manual work in the fields--those images of Filipino workers in California and Hawaii plantations still predominate in the consciousness of the dominant society. (Seeing how their father, a brilliant Filipino lawyer whose acquaintance I made while he practiced in New York City, was humiliated by Americans who nourished such racist attitudes, the children of my friend experienced psychic damage.)

In the past, Filipinos were considered merchandise listed next to "fertilizer" or "manure" by farm proprietors in Hawaii and elsewhere. Today, the demand for Filipino nurses and domestics--contract labor avidly promoted by the Philippine government--may betoken for certain government bureaucrats an improvement in our international status as supplier of cheap labor and other resources to the industrialized metropoles. For the majority, it means temporary alleviation of seemingly permanent deprivation.

In the racially stratified and ethnically segmented labor market of the United States, as well as in the rest of the world, Filipinos occupy the lower strata, primarily in service occupations such as food, health, cleaning; because of this they earn only about two-thirds of the average income of white men. Despite these problems of discrimination in the labor market and underemployment, Filipinos as a group (for various reasons not entirely cultural) have not developed entrepreneurial skills for small ethnic enterprises such as those undertaken by Koreans and Indians in the big cities. And yet we boast of being the only Christian nation in Asia, or for some perhaps the most Americanized colony in the whole world.

How can we explain the persisting neocolonial subjugation of the Filipino bodies and psyches, so many "manacled minds" impoverished by learned self-denigration and beset by tribal passions (what is now fashionably labeled "kin altruism"), concerned only with the welfare of their clans if not their own creature comforts? Why is it that unlike other racial minorities Filipinos are unable to resolve the crisis of expatriation and uprooting, of alienation and national marginalization, through strong and enduring commitment to promoting the larger good of one community? Why is it that this community is non-existent, and if there, at best fragmented and inutile?

Why is it that Filipinos in the diaspora don't feel or understand their subjugation as a race and nationality? Perhaps these are all rhetorical questions. One recalls that Filipinos who followed the notorious Hilario Moncado and joined his Filipino Federation of America (founded in 1925 in Los Angeles) opposed the unionization efforts of Filipinos in Hawaii. One more proof that pursuing liberation via ethnic pride Hilario-Moncado style (and there are many examples today) would be suicidal!

Apologists for the Empire

Various American experts have ventured answers to explain the continuing "invisibility" or "forgottenness" of the Filipinos in the United States and its corollary, the underdevelopment of the homeland. Theodore Friend for one blames the historic legacy of Spain fostered by Marcos and Aquino, a legacy that plagues Latin American countries as manifested in such markers of dysfunctionality as "autocracy, gross corruption, bloated debt, a deprofessionalized military, private armies, death squads."

Remarking on Aquino's charisma as "Mother of Sorrows" unable to clean up "the patronage ridden" civil service and "the anarchy of ruling families" which define Philippine politics, Friend urges Filipinos to "shake free of Hispanic tradition." What happened to the period of U.S. tutelage, from 1898 to 1946 and thereafter, the asymmetrical power relations between "the bastion of the Free World" and its erstwhile colony? This is also the message of Stanley Karnow in his lengthy apologia for American imperialism, In Our Image. Nowhere does Friend even mention U.S. violence and its manipulation of the landed and comprador elite in its colonial conquest and domination of the Philippines for almost fifty years!

For his part, the historian Peter Stanley does mention this only to praise it as "the relatively libertarian character of U.S. rule" over Taft's "little brown brothers." The much-touted U.S. legacy of schools, roads, public-health programs, artesian wells, democratic politicians, and "the most gregariously informal, backslapping imperialist rulers known to history" serves to explain, for Stanley, why Filipinos cherish a "deferential friendship" for Americans. [Contrary to Sucheng Chan who alleges that Filipinos organized fraternal associations because American culture influenced them to do so, Masonic-like groups named after Rizal testify to the residual revolutionary culture among these early immigrants.]

The Infamous Pinoy Connection

Does this then explain why Fred Cordova, in his pictorial essay Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans (1983, 221), insist that "An estimated one million innocent Filipino men, women and children died while defending Americanism during World War Two from 1941 to 1945"? Indeed one may ask: Have all these many Filipinos been really screwed up all their lives to make that sacrifice? One million natives defending the cause of Lone Ranger and Charlie Chan--ugly racist stigmata cited by Fred Cordova--whom he lumps together with Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King, Jr.?

One million dark-skinned natives sacrificing their lives for Americanism? As for celebrating Filipino "firsts" in order to generate ethnic pride, what does it signify if we learn that Filipinos were the first this and that, to wit, the first Asians to cross the Pacific Ocean for the North American continent and that their descendants in New Orleans, Louisiana, fought with the pirate Jean Lafitte and the Americans during the War of 1812? Would such knowledge relieve the lostness or sublimate the pathos of a situation bewailed so often by Bienvenido Santos, inventor of the myth of Filipinos as "lovely people": "Think of the impotence of Filipino exiles in America who are displaced and uprooted wandering in strange cities."

To return to our American mentors: Stanley is able to suggest that Filipinos who come from different regions of the islands form fraternal groups based on localities of origin because they find it "difficult to conceive of each other as sharing a national identity." While such a proposition (like so many orthodox explanations) is flawed by a functionalist bias in blaming the victims for the inadequacy of their culture, it nevertheless prompts one to reflect on the following:

We Filipinos don't have any real identification of ourselves as belonging to a nation because that nation of all the classes and sectors in the Philippines is non-existent and remains a virtual hope or intention; that organic embodiment of the national-popular will has not yet come into being, has in fact been aborted and suppressed by U.S. military power when it was being born during the revolution of 1896-1898, a culmination of three centuries of revolts against Spanish rule.

We don't as yet have a popular-democratic nation as the matrix and locus of authentic sharing and belonging--that nation is still in the process of emergence through a manifold complex of antagonisms and struggles still in the agony of unfolding. What we call the Philippines today, a society where state power is controlled by a comprador-oligarchic elite whose interests center on the preservation of an unjust and unequal status quo, is for all practical purposes still a dependent formation, virtually an appendage, of the United States ruling class, notwithstanding substantial gains in decolonization during the last twenty years climaxing in the Philippine Senate's decision to remove the U.S. bases, thanks to the prodding of Mt. Pinatubo.

Blame Their Damaged Culture

Consequently, Filipinos up to the fifties were perceived as a social problem in the United States, according to the Filipinologist H. Brett Melendy, because of their "cultural backgrounds and value systems" that pivot around the family and indigenous kinship structure. Melendy blames the Filipinos for their sojourner mentality, not the racializing apparatuses of the U.S. state or the racially hierarchic institutions of civil society, for their exclusion, their exploitation, their abject poverty. The culture and value system of these poor victims have somehow survived U.S. colonial rule--they in fact maintain that system of dependency which flourishes today--amid the surface Westernization or mock modernization of the whole society.

This perspective partly explains the political nullity of Filipinos who, formally interpellated as citizens, are unable to unite and construct their community in symbolic rituals of autonomy and integrity, to represent it as a coherent, resourceful, sustainable locus of meaning and value and mobilizing strategies. Partly only because, as I said earlier, we cannot ignore the structures of racial differentiation and hierarchizing that historically constitute the elite hegemony and civic consensus of U.S. society, as well as the assimilationist strategies of the U.S. racial state and its various political techniques of cooptation and disarticulation. These techniques have confined the racial minorities, people of color, to subalternity.

This is the predicament we Filipinos face as we enter the threshold of a new century. In the crisis of dislocation and fragmentation that we continue to experience in a racist polity, how can we reconstitute a single unified community here that can generate a discourse and practice of collective resistance, of autonomy and integrity?

Agent Provocateur

In 1989, I sent a letter to Philippine News in San Francisco posing questions that elaborate possible stages of our ethnogenesis, questions such as the following:

What really distinguishes the Filipino community here in its historical formation? How is it tied to the history of the Philippines as a colony of Western powers? What specific elements of immigrant history, the suffering and resistance of various waves, should we select and emphasize that will mobilize and unify Filipinos?

What struggles should we engage in to forge a dynamic and cohesive identity, struggles that will actualize the substance of civil and human rights? What political and moral education should we undertake to develop and heighten the consciousness of a distinct Filipino identity and political presence in the U.S.?

Finally, on what moral or ethical principles (superior and alternative to the bureaucratic individualism of the free market which centrally inform the hegemonic ideology of late capitalism) should we ground this Filipino community, that is, what social goods should we articulate as the fundamental goal or end of our community within the larger social formation?

This is not just a matter of instrumentalizing the members of the group to gain material resources and goods necessary to survive and reproduce the next generation. It is not a juridical matter of entitlement. It is not just a question of the cultural norms (which the structural-functionalist doctrinaire insist is the decisive criterion of successful performance) required to make us fully participate in the political process, a question of what do I want? and with whom shall I cooperate to acquire what I want?--the pragmatic rationality of means-ends.

The question of what we are going to do cannot be answered unless we answer a prior question: In what narrative or narratives that are now proceeding in contemporary world history shall we participate? Is it a narrative of assimilation and integration, or a narrative of emancipation and national self-determination? Is there a universalizing or transcendent multiracial narrative, a global narrative that subsumes and guarantees our self-empowering if long-delayed ethnogenesis?

Return of the Dog-Eaters?

Some historians entertain the belief that the reason why Americans had the notion that Filipinos were dog-eating savages can be traced to the widely publicized ethnographic exhibit of primitive tribesmen that the U.S. colonial government in the Philippines helped to organize for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904.

But I think it is misleading to ascribe to this minor spectacle an exorbitant power that can even overshadow the now mythical stature of the Iron Butterfly's [Imelda Marcos] shoe fetish that has--for good or ill--put the Philippines in the map of the global bestiary and folklore of mass consumerism.

Whatever the narcotic power of these media spectacles may be, if we continue to delude ourselves that we are not objects of racist interpellations--that we are in fact on the way to successful incorporation into the U.S. nation-state--then history might repeat itself: we shall for the moment be paraded again as dutiful "little brown brothers" and sisters civilized by American tutelage, a hybrid subspecies soon to be made extinct in some proverbial melting-pot, a quaint cross between the comic-strip icon of the Mexican bandido and those "inscrutable Orientals" who should be shipped back as soon as possible--"go back where you came from" is the taunt often heard, thus restoring the purity of the body politic. A mythical purity as an obsession, the myth of purity feeding on and nourishing white racial supremacy, the American civic religion of superiority over the planet.

What we need to do, the agenda for constituting the Filipino community as an agent of historic change in a racist society, cannot of course be prescribed by one individual. The mapping and execution of such a project can only be the product of a collective effort by every one who claims to be a Filipino in the process of engaging in actual, concrete struggles, in conjunction with the efforts of other people of color in the United States to rid society of the material conditions that beget and reproduce class, gender, and racial oppression.

The future in the twenty-first century is there for us to shape--if we dare to struggle for a better world which is always possible, dare to sacrifice and win!-- Posted by Bulatlat



E. SAN JUAN, Jr. was recently visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and lecturer in seven universities in the Republic of China. He was previously Fulbright professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University. Among his recent books are BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY (Palgrave), RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press), and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). Two books in Filipino were launched in 2004: HIMAGSIK (De La Salle University Press) and TINIK SA KALULUWA (Anvil); his new collection of poems in Filipino, SAPAGKAT INIIBIG KITA AT MGA BAGONG TULA, will be released by the University of the Philippines Press in 2005.