Sunday, January 20, 2008
AN INTRODUCTION TO CARLOS BULOSAN
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Of the Asian American population in the United States, the Filipino community (based on the 1990 Census) is now the second largest constituency--the largest in the state of California. By the year 2000, it is estimated that there will be over two million Filipinos in this country (Patel). But in the study of contemporary U.S. culture and society and in the multiethnic literary canon, Filipinos don't exist--or else they are tokenized and subsumed within the larger official racializing category of "Asian American."
Given the genuine historical, political, and cultural differences between people of Filipino ancestry and other Asian ethnic groups, together with the current interrogation of the hegemonic claims of a unitary "American common culture," I propose that Filipinos and their practice of cultural production should now be appraised as a force in its own right, in its difference and integrity, in its complex dialectical relation with the distinctive histories of other peoples of color in the U.S., with the dominant consensus, and especially with the power alignment within the present globalized world-system of late capitalism.
One approach to this task of retrieving the Filipino presence in the United States, of locating the space for a process or project called "becoming Filipino," may be accomplished by examining the life and writings--their singular intertextuality as practices in the field of cultural production (to use Bourdieu's term)--of Carlos Bulosan.
Discovery and Self-Awakening
Long forgotten since his brief success in the 1940s, Bulosan was rediscovered in the 1960s by a generation of Filipino American youth radicalized by the antiwar and civil rights struggles. This self-awakening of Filipinos born in the United States arose in counterpoint with the worldwide resurgence of "Third World" national liberation movements, particularly in the Philippines. Coinciding with this is the climax in 1965 of the Filipino farmworkers' movement led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, as well as the founding of the United Farm Workers of America (Scharlin and Villanueva). Initially sparked by an identity crisis, the Filipino youth movement inaugurated the birth of political self-reflection--the intensity of "becoming" of a subject claiming to be "Filipino." The reissuance of America Is in the Heart (hereafter America) in 1972 catalyzed this process of recuperating the past, interrogating the present, and revisioning the future. (I address the countours of this process in the next sections.)
With the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and the ascendancy of a neoconservative trend in the United States, however, the energies mobilized by this process have been rechanneled once more into either hedonist or neoSocial Darwinist preoccupations, leaving a sizeable number of young Filipinos growing up into the twenty-first century with no alternative but hedonistic lifestyles, crass consumerism, and a generally unreflective conformity to the official dispensation. Symptoms of the decadence of the Empire at the end of this millenium?
This impasse in the evolution of the Filipino community in the U.S. is then the conjunctural pretext for this new reappraisal--the fourth after those in my previous works: Toward a People's Literature, Writing and National Liberation, and Reading the West/Writing the East. What does Bulosan, with his unique sensibility shaped by the Depression and the circumstances of the 1940s and 1950s, have to offer in articulating that still intractable and anarchic desire called "becoming Filipino"? What in Bulosan's writings, given the disparity between his peasant/working class background and the petty bourgeois cosmopolitan milieu of recent immigrants, can help us understand the unresolved predicament--the powerlessness and invisibility--of being labeled a "Filipino" in postCold War America?
My intervention here aims less to provide answers than to initiate a forum for exploring the pertinacity and resonance of these questions which, in their initial formulations, I wrestled with when I wrote the first scholarly treatise on Bulosan in 1972 and while editing several collections of his works in the last two decades. The publication of Bulosan's novel, The Cry and the Dedication (hereafter The Cry), in 1995 also seeks to open the space for a dialogue between the first "wave" of Filipinos in the United States and those migrant professionals who have arrived since 1965, an exchange made more necessary and urgent by the unprecedented resurgence of racism in the United States and the intensification of civil war in the Philippines. Whatever our personal biases and situational contingencies, Bulosan will not ignore us even if we remain indifferent or pretend to be unconcerned.
Search for Roots
To find our path once again to the heart of the earth....
For it is the power to see beyond ourselves,
And to give ourselves....
--"Five Poems for Josephine"
When Bulosan was born on 2 November 1911, in Binalonan, Pangasinan, the Philippines was already a full-fledged U.S. colony after Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898. After the disastrous Filipino-American War (1898-1902) that killed an estimated one million Filipinos and several thousand Americans, the United States proceeded to transform this Southeast Asian archipelago into a classic colonial dependency, a source of raw materials and cheap labor power (Constantino). After almost half a century of nationalist resistance both peaceful and violent, and three years of savage rule by the Japanese military, the Philippines gained its political independence in 1946.
Unlike China or Japan, the homeland of the Filipino people was an emergent sovereign territory when it was forcibly invaded and annexed by the United States. With the destruction of the first Philippine Republic, Filipinos were subjugated as "natives," "a semi-barbaric population" (Samuel Gompers' phrase) soon destined to be "civilized." While white supremacist ideology informed then President McKinley's policy of "benevolent assimilation," the logic of U.S. liberal capitalism dictated a recognition of the long-enduring tradition of indigenous resistance to colonialism; hence Filipinos remained aliens. In 1903 William Howard Taft, the first civil administrator, proclaimed "Filipinos for the Philippines," inaugurating the advent of the neocolonial order under which, up to now, thousands of Filipinos continue to migrate to the United States every year.
Except for a few hundred pensionados or scholars sent by the colonial government to be trained for bureaucratic positions, the entry of Filipinos into U.S. territory in sizeable numbers first began in 1907: 150 workers were recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (Chan). From then on up to 1946, at least 125,000 Filipino workers sold their labor power as commodity to the Hawaian plantation owners and alienated their bodies to the Alaskan canneries and agribusiness of the West Coast. From 1900 to 1946, Filipinos in the United States were thus not immigrants in the conventional sense, nor settlers; rather they were, in today's parlance, "economic refugees." They were colonized "subalterns" (in Gramsci's sense of ideologically subjugated groups) whose bodies were transported from the hinterland to the metropolis, their physiognomies studied and their customs classified by the appropriate ideological mechanisms (which included school teachers and Protestant missionaries) to legitimize the supremacy of U.S. knowledge/power and its disciplinary regime over an entire nation.
Thus, unlike the Chinese and other Asian groups whose first experience of victimization was mediated by the immigration authorities, the Filipino may be considered exceptional precisely because of his origin as the object of colonial subjugation at once coercive and consensual. In general, the Filipino was the product of what Louis Althusser calls the machinery of "interpellation" in which individuals, addressed by the ideological apparatuses of race, class, and gender, become the subjects/bearers of specific functions within the framework of an overdetermined, uneven, and combined modes of production and reproduction geared for worldwide capital accumulation.
Driven by poverty and feudal oppression at home, Filipinos under imperial tutelage began their travel to the United States to pursue the "dream of success" via thrift, hard work, and unrelenting self-sacrifices (Buaken; Pido). By 1930 there were 108,260 Filipinos all over the country--mostly farmworkers in the West Coast--with indeterminate status: neither protected wards nor citizens, they were subjected to various forms of racist discrimination and exclusion, circumscribed by (among others) laws of antimiscegenation and prohibited from employment in government and from ownership of land (McWilliams). Neither citizens nor strictly aliens then, Filipino "nationals" (mostly males) suffered class, national, and racial oppression directed by agribusiness functionaries or administered by technocratic state bureaucracies--the legislature, the courts, and the police. Categorized in this irreconcilable alterity, Filipinos endured as victims of exploitation perpetrated by labor contractors, farmers, gamblers, racist vigilantes, and by state laws, and so on (Melendy; Takaki). Deterritorialized in this way, members of this "internal colony" fought to survive and affirm their human rights and dignity. In doing so they forged a rich and complex culture of resistance linking their homeland (site of dispossession) and the metropolitan power (site of commodification). Examples may be cited here.
Parallel to the endemic revolts of peasants in the colonized islands, Filipino workers organized one of the first unions in Hawaii in 1919, the Filipino Federation of Labor, which spearheaded industrywide, multiracial strikes in 1920 and 1924 (Chan). In 1934, the Filipino Workers Association was established in California with 2,000 active members; it organized the strikes of 1934 in Salinas, El Centro, Vacaville, and the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley, California (referred to in America). This reservoir of experience eventually enabled the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to lead the historic grape strike of 1965, the matrix of what became the United Farm Workers of America (Catholic Institute).
Equipped only with textbook stereotypes of American society and its affluence, Bulosan landed in Seattle, Washington, in 1930, during the worst crisis of the twentieth century: the Great Depression. Laboring in restaurants and farms in those years of poverty, homelessness, and racial antagonisms, he was exposed to the suffering of migrant workers scattered from California to Alaska and, in the process, learned their survival craft. The Depression inflicted on Filipinos (100,000 in Hawaii, 30,000 in California) severe unemployment, intense labor exploitation, and rampant vigilante violence. In 1928 and 1930, Filipinos were attacked by racist mobs in Yakima Valley, Washington; Watsonville, California; and other towns (Bogardus). Filipinos were also threatened with deportation. On top of this, in 1935, immigration from the Philippine Commonwealth was limited to fifty. From the 1898 annexation of the islands to 1946, Filipinos in the United States (called "Pinoys") inhabited a limbo of indeterminacy: neither citizens nor complete foreigners, they were "nationals" without a sovereign country.
Education of an Organic Intellectual
Bulosan's apprenticeship as an organic intellectual of the masses (in Gramsci's sense of leaders who conceptualized their coherent identity) started with the trials of his family to overcome feudal tyranny in a colonized social formation. While Bulosan followed his two brothers, Aurelio and Dionisio, to California in order to escape the hopeless destitution of his village where unequal property relations were sanctioned by U.S. colonial power, his life in the West Coast exposed him to the hazards of itinerant work (Kunitz). In the early 1930s, he became involved in union organizing through his friendship with Chris Mensalvas of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA); he also participated in the activities of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organization). He served as editor of The New Tide in 1934; this bimonthly workers' magazine brought him into contact with progressive writers such as Richard Wright, William Saroyan, William Carlos Williams, Louis Adamic, and others. He also wrote for the Philippine Commonwealth Times and two other newspapers in the Stockton and Salinas areas.
When Bulosan was confined in the Los Angeles General Hospital for tuberculosis and kidney problems, it was Sanora Babb and her sister Dorothy who helped Bulosan (according to his poignant testimony in America) discover through books a new "world of intellectual possibilities--and a grand dream of bettering society for the working man." From 1936 to 1938, the convalescent Bulosan read voraciously the works of Neruda, Dreiser, Farrell, Nazim Hikmet, Steinbeck, Gorky, Marx, Whitman, Agnes Smedley, Hellman, Nicolas Guillen, Edgar Snow, Gandhi, Shaw, Rizal, among others, and periodicals like New Masses, The New Republic, and Nation (Feria). His further adventures in the Los Angeles Public Library completed his rudimentary high school education and endowed him with a working knowledge of human behavior and a grasp of world history. But it was his partisan experience as journalist and union activist that actually laid the groundwork for his becoming a committed "tribune" (in Lenin's sense of collective spokesman) of the Filipino people.
The responsibility of the tribune involved the twin tasks of critique and prophecy. Even while in the hospital, Bulosan began composing his vignettes indicting patriarchal despotism (both religious and domestic) and the tyranny of the feudal/comprador elite. He depicted the lifeworlds of plebeian rebels and outcasts, outlawed subalterns who bore the stigmata of inhabitants from a dependent economy. These comic-satiric fables would later be collected in the best-selling The Laughter of My Father (hereafter Laughter) published in 1944. Contrary to the philistine dismissal of this book as commercialized folk humor and mere local "exotic" color, Bulosan himself emphasized its allegorical thrust (its aesthetic decorum is elaborated in the article "I Am Not a Laughing Man"): "My politico-economic ideas are embodied in all my writings. The 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" ("Sound" 273).
Other more trenchant stories attacking the predatory excesses of the oligarchy and the horrors of profit accumulation in the first three decades of U.S. rule are now available in The Philippines Is in the Heart. By mobilizing folk/plebeian memory and the carnivalesque resources of his heritage, Bulosan devised a strategy of cultural resistance that would subvert the Eurocentric representation of Filipino "Otherness," an alterity captured in the perception that it was "a crime to be a Filipino in America."
Bulosan's art was thus born in the gap between colonial bondage and capitalist "freedom." His obsessive theme revolves around the Filipino people's project of attempting to deconstruct their anonymity/subordination and thus gain autonomy, the power of self-determination. To help perform a cognitive-ethical mapping of the future as a space of national emancipation and attainment of full "species being" (Marx's term), his works seek to harness ideas, dreams, memories, and images flashing in moments of danger to reconstitute the ideals of the aborted 1896 revolution and numerous insurrections thereafter. In this process he memorializes the figure of the resolute, strong, persevering mother (see, for instance, "Passage into Life" or the first part of America) associated with planting/harvest rituals. He celebrates the beauty and fertility of the homeland which, amid his panicked flight from lynchers and police, become symbolic of an immanent harmony, relics of a fugitive but incarnate happiness. This cathexis of the soil/mother imagery (transposed to the geography of the U.S. west coast) serves as a counterpoint to the linear rhythm of historical development and generates the tension of semantic horizons in Bulosan's narratives.
When the mystique of kinship dissolves and the promise of security and heirs vanishes, the Filipino worker discovers multiple affinities with his compatriots and recuperates the submerged impulse of racial/national solidarity in the wasteland of capitalism: gambling houses, labor barracks, union halls, and brothels. While exploding the illusion of mobility, the mythical "dream of success," these tabooed, peripheral sites become the matrix of Bulosan's historical imagination. This imagination extrapolates from the past, from the determinisms of loss and expenditure, the emerging free play of mutual recognitions. Eventually the Filipino finds allies and collaborators among white workers, middle-class women in particular, and other nationalities and races participating in picketlines, strikes, and other militant struggles for justice and equality.
Before that crisis of global capitalism (the Great Depression) ended, Bulosan had already plotted out his long-range program of anatomizing the political economy of the colonized psyche. His mandate was to "interpret the soul of the Filipinos.... What really compelled me to write was to try to understand this country, to find a place in it not only for myself but my people" (Selected Works 81). "Self" here does not mean the paranoid denizen of Lacan's Imaginary register, that phase of psychic development characterized by identifying the self with illusory models. It does not only allude to the Filipino ethnic particularity or its constrained ethnogenesis but also envisages a nascent collective agency of all subordinated people inventing new forms of subjectivity. Such a place in the U.S. cultural canon and public consciousness has yet to be claimed and staked out by all people of color following in Bulosan's wake.
Crisis and Catharsis
And all will move forward
On the undiscriminate course of history that never
Stops to rectify our tragic misgivings and shame.
--"Letter in Exile"
We are not pure in blood but one in living deed.
--"Meeting with a Discoverer"
On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Bulosan summed up his years of experience as union propagandist-agitator and nomadic exile: "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.... It was now the year  of the great hatred; the lives of Filipinos were cheaper than those of dogs" ("Sound" 199). This moment signals the birth of the writer's dialectical sensibility. We observe a totalizing urge on Bulosan's part to inventory what has been achieved by the popular resistance in the Philippines to the oppression of the first three decades of U.S. colonial rule. In a time when "life was swift and terrible," Bulosan had to repudiate liberal individualism and the hubris of the intellect. He was compelled to realize that without the organized resistance of the working masses and the discipline of cooperative labor, the individual is condemned to recapitulate the ignominy of the past: the painful vicissitudes of colonial servility and self-contempt as well as the atrocities of the 1930s when Filipinos in the United States were stigmatized, quarantined, and lynched.
The exemplary text of such a counterhegemonic strategy is America Is in the Heart, Bulosan's novelistic synthesis of Filipino lives written in the middle of World War II. Because of its centrality in the Bulosan canon, its popularity, and its problematic challenge to the critical consensus, I would like to sketch here an approach to this text that would serve also as a framework or point of departure for appreciating the art and craft of his stories, poems, essays, and letters.
Originally acclaimed as a classic testimony of immigrant success when it appeared in 1946, America (hereafter AIH) presents a massive documentation of the varieties of racism, exploitation, alienation, and inhumanity suffered by Filipinos in the west coast and Alaska in the decade beginning with the Depression up to the outbreak of World War II. Scenes of abuse, insult, neglect, brutalization, and outright murder of these colonial "wards"--natives of the United States's only direct colony in Asia--are rendered with naturalistic candor along with their craft of survival and resistance.
Except for Part One (12 chapters), the remaining three parts (chapter 13 to 49) of this ethnobiography--a polyphonic orchestration of events from the lives of the author and his generation of compatriots--chart the passage of the youthful narrator (doubling also as protagonist and witness of events) in a land of privation, terror, and violence. It begins with his victimization by corrupt labor contractors on his arrival in Seattle (99-100), his anguished flight from lynch mobs, his first beating by two policemen in Klamath Falls (156-57), his desperate flirtation with Max Smith's cynicism (164-65)--vicissitudes punctuated in the middle of the book by his testicles being crushed by white vigilantes (208).
A hundred pages after this episode replete with more degrading ordeals, "Allos"--the fictional representative of about 30,000 Filipinos resident in California--concludes by reaffirming his faith in "America," now the name for a metaphoric space, "sprung from all our hopes and aspirations" (327). How do we reconcile this stark discrepancy between reality and thought, between fact (the social wasteland called "United States") and ideal ("America," land of equality and prosperity) ? Is this simply an astute ironical strategy to syncopate naive narrator with subversive author, thus multiplying polyvalent readings and celebrating the virtues of schizoid jouissance (Roland Barthes' term for the unique pleasure of reading)?
One way to approach this aporia, this impasse of divergent views, is to reject the conventional thesis that AIH belongs to "that inclusive and characteristic Asian American genre of autobiography or personal history" (Kim 47) designed to promote assimilation or co-optation. Challenging received doxa, AIH invents a new genre, the antithesis to the quest for Americanization. The address to the "American earth" at the end is cast in the subjunctive mood, sutured in an unfolding process whose future is overshadowed by Pearl Harbor and the defeats in Bataan and Corregidor. The last three chapters reiterate the bitterness, frustration, loneliness, confusion, "deep emptiness," and havoc in the lives of Filipinos in America (315-25). This explains the paradox of the ending vis-a-vis the caustic naturalism of what precedes it. Whatever the pressures of the Cold War and marketing imperatives, to construe Bulosan's chronicle of the Filipino struggle to give dignity to their spoiled or damaged lives in the U.S. as a plea for patriotism or imperial "nationalism" is quite unwarranted. It is surely meant to erase all evidence of its profoundly radical, popular-democratic inspiration.
Critics have alleged that because of the pressures of the Cold War and the publisher's marketing ploy, Bulosan was forced to disseminate in the text praises of American democracy sharply at odds with the message of almost total victimization. I suspect there is some truth to this charge. But what demands clarification is how we are able to perceive the discrepancy and assay the text's "cunning" in using alternating perspectives to convey something more complex. But to construe Bulosan's chronicle of the Filipino endeavor to salvage dignity from damaged lives as an advertisement for majoritarian "nationalism" (Fuchs) or an exhibitionist pluralism (Lim) is simply wrongheaded if not deliberately perverse. This publicity, however well-intentioned, works to erase all evidence of the book's profoundly radical, anti-Establishment motivation.
Who is “America”?
Perhaps the easiest way to elucidate this crux is to highlight the trope of personification, the wish-fulfilling Imaginary of this artifact. Who is "America"? The text replies: Eileen Odell, one of Bulosan's companions and mentors, "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" (235; on Bulosan's relations with American women, see Evangelista). If "Eileen" and surrogates function as a synecdoche for all those who demonstrated comradeship to a stranger like Bulosan, then the term should not to be conflated with the abstract referent "U.S.A." as a whole. Overall, the caring maternal figure with her multiple personifications (the peasant mother, Marian, the Odell sisters, Mary, and others who serve as icons of mutual recognition) is the singular desire thematized as "America."
Viewed from another angle, the idiomatic tenor of the title may be read as a metaphor of an inward process of self-becoming, more precisely of parthenogenesis: it is in Bulosan's "heart"/sensibility that "America" (the text) germinates. By metonymic semiosis, the trope of containment gestures toward deliverance: discovering he could write after striking back at the white world and feeling free, Bulosan translates his life into the text of AIH. Of crucial importance is the equation of "heart" with "one island" (323), the Philippines. Literally and figuratively, then, the "heart" becomes a polysemous vehicle that signifies either inclusion or exclusion--a fantasy/romance metaphor (what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a "chronotope" or space-time configuration) integral to the task of adumbrating a community within the treacherous, alienating, heartless metropolis.
This utopian theme of imagining a home, an extraterritorial enclave, within the fold of a disintegrated polity explains the didactic portions of AIH. The climax of Bulosan's project of educating his countrymen about the unifying trajectory of their fragmented lives allows him to displace their hopes into the vocabulary of America as "our unfinished dream" (312). Purged of his narcissistic malaise, he writes, "I was rediscovering myself in their lives." This counters the Robinson Crusoe motif of individualism and replaces it with the Moses/mother motif of collective concern. The narrator's private self dissolves into the body of an enlarged "family"--recall that he originally travelled to America to find his brothers and reconstitute the broken family--whose members are affiliated by purpose or principle, anticipating what Bulosan calls "the revolution...the one and only common thread that bound us together, white and black and brown, in America" (313).
The ideal of fraternity among races (nurtured by the fight against a common global enemy, fascism) grounds the virtues of patience and hope underlying his "prophecy of a new society." It can be conceived as a "structure of feeling" that motivates the obsession with the Spanish Civil War, the key historical conflict polarizing events and characters, and a touchstone of authentic solidarity. Framed by Bulosan's cathartic discovery of his ability to write and his acquisition of a socialist vision of "the war between labor and capital" (Bulosan, "Labor" 1), the apostrophe to the multiracial masses as "America" gravitates around a cardinal principle: unity of all the oppressed across class, gender, and racial lines which precedes the restructuring of state power. This appeal to "America," a word whose meaning--can one still doubt it?--is subject to constant renegotiation, is better grasped as part of Bulosan's strategy to rearticulate the liberal discourse of civil rights toward a socialist direction. This of course incurs risks and liabilities, hence the quoting of "America" as a doublebind.
So far the theme of popular-front democracy versus fascism (Japanese aggression in the Philippines evokes an earlier one by the U.S.) at the outbreak of World War II may be used to resolve the tension between naive idealism and realist mimesis. This is the utopian resolution that mediates the idea of "America" as a classless society and the actuality of racism and exploitation. It is achieved at the expense of extinguishing the historical specificity of what is indigenous or autochtonous, the primal event of colonial subjugation and deracination.
A dialectic of compensatory fulfillment is offered here when the fact of colonial domination becomes the repressed of the text. Bulosan himself points out that as exiles "socially strangled in America," rootless, Filipinos find it easier "to integrate ourselves in a universal ideal" (241). It is personified by Felix Razon who connects the peasant uprising in Tayug, Pangasinan, with the Loyalist cause in Spain (240). This is the thrust of the autobiographical schema of the narrative oriented around the development or education of a young man who matures into an artist; the vocation of writer should be conceived not so much as a status with prestige--a possibility foiled by circumstance--but a consciousness able to comprehend the world through ideas and a broad and impassioned knowledge of other cultures, transcending locale and origin (246).
This theme of growing up, of initiation into adult reality, is the most commonly emphasized feature of AIH. From the time he learns the facts of landlord exploitation and sexist corruption in Part I to the abuses of labor contractors (101), repeated racist violence (110, 129) and his discovery that it was "a crime to be a Filipino in California" (121), together with the terror, hunger, and loneliness of the "alien" in a dehumanizing milieu, the narrator-becoming-antihero undergoes a test of character. He succeeds in his initial objective of linking up with his brothers Amado (123) and Macario (129)--this search for deracinated kins, ostensibly to reconstitute the broken family, counterpoints the usual immigrant story of labor recruitment. Eventually the brothers' fighting at the end (304) dissolves the mystique of kinship and impels Bulosan's entry into an emergent community whose festival is suggested in Ch. 46--but this fulfillment of a vow to unite the dispersed family serves to provide the occasion for writing, for the composition of the narrative itself.
In effect, the condition of possibility for art is imperial racist violence. This occurs in the exact middle of the book, the end of Ch. 23; struggling to communicate to his brother, the protagonist narrates his own life and gains release from the prison of his silence to "tell the world what they've done to me." This is repeated later in Ch. 41, where he laments his brother's suffering and tries to piece together "the mosaic of our lives" (289). This discovery of the capacity for expression comes after he revolts against his employer at the Opal Cafe two chapters earlier: "I had struck at the white world, at last; and I felt free" (163). When he meets the socialist lawyer Pascual, Bulosan assumes his role as witness/spokesperson for the union movement (he helps edit The New Tide and later The Philippine Commonwealth Times) and envisions literature as the allegory of his death/rebirth betokening a social type, of the ongoing metamorphosis of social formations.
However, this theme of the native's development as wordsmith, literally letter-writer, is quickly displaced by another narrative schema when Pascual, the first Filipino identified as a socialist, dies at the end of Part II and the first half of the book culminates in the rhetoric of "We are all America...." (189). The apprenticeship with Conrado Torres in the Alaskan cannery; with Julio, Luz, Pascual, Max Smith (whose exploits mirror the duplicity of the system) and particularly Jose (whose mutilation becomes the stigmata of the outlaw/rebel) is of course a composite of many lives; its chief function is to indicate what the potential is for ethnic Filipino unity. Partly sublimated in the act of writing, Bulosan's fear of the barbarian and sentimentalist in himself, his anger at social injustice, and his desire for synthesis and participation in a "dynamic social struggle" are registered in the vicissitudes of union activism in Part II.
What any reader would have noticed at this point is that the realistic style of this memoir and its affinities with picaresque naturalism (recurrent scenes of petty crimes, squalid surroundings, raw violence, rough language), however, are frequently disrupted by lyricized memories of the homeland (108, 114, 123, 127, 132, especially 139, 155, 166, 172, 187). By this time, the generic conventions of the memoir and autobiography, with their drive for chronological verisimilitude and linear plotting, have already been eroded by a strongly emergent comic rhythm of repetition and uncanny resourcefulness: characters appear and disappear with inexhaustible gusto, incidents multiply and replicate, while the narrator's comments and the dialogue he records are recycled, quoted, and redistributed in a carnivalesque circulation of energies in the narrative. The crisis of hegemonic representation arrives at this juncture.
From Dream to Nightmare
In Part III, a decisive break occurs which permanently cancels out the model of the successful immigrant or the ethnic "melting pot" archetype: Bulosan's "conspiracy" or dream of making "a better America," a forgetting of himself, is suspended by the breakdown of the body--product of the years of hunger, brutality, and anguish. History or the past materializes in the return of the "child" as invalid, the time of drifting and wandering displaced by the stasis of physical breakdown.
We discover contained within the disfigured bosom of "America" representatives of its other, its negative. The introduction of Marian signals the establishment of dialogue and empathy: she resurrects the "good" side of America ruined by the treachery of Helen and the patriarchal debasement of women (159). The prostitute Marian, the ambiguous embodiment of commodification and self-sacrificing devotion, resurrects all the other images of maternal/feminine care from the peasant mother, Estelle (108), the nameless girl raped in the train (113), Judith (173), Chiye (184), all the way to the most important influences in his life, Alice and Eileen Odell and Dora Travers, followed by other lesser maternal surrogates like Mary Strandon, Harriet Monroe, Jean Doyle, Anna Dozier, Laura Clarendon, and Jean Lawson.
The mysterious Mary of Ch. 44, the last fleeting incarnation of American "hospitality" (the term is used as a pun on Bulosan's hospitalization which converts him into a reading/writing subaltern), assumes iconic significance as "an angel molded into purity by the cleanliness of our thoughts," giving Bulosan "a new faith in myself" (301). In retrospect, Bulosan's illness--his confinement at the hospital where the notion of a community larger than the male-bonding of Filipino bachelors in gambling and dance halls manifests itself--is not a gratuitous interruption but a functional device. It halts the spatial discontinuity, the alleged "Necessitous mobility" (Wong 133), of the narrative line. It ushers him to a recognition (the numerous recognition scenes in the book comprise the comic refrain that belies individualistic fatality and environmental determinism) of his new vocation: not so much the ignored author of The Laughter of My Father (index of Bulosan's acknowledgment of the folk sources of his art, 260) as the historian/guardian of collective memory and covenant with the "associated producers" of the islands, the peasantry as matrix of production.
What should be given a close symptomatic reading is the structure of the dream Bulosan records in Ch. 40. Mislabelled as "the Filipino communist" strike leader, he flees from the police and falls asleep on a bus. He dreams of his return to his hometown in Mangusmana, Philippines, where he rejoices at seeing his mother and the whole family eating (280-81); awakened by "tears of remembrance," he asks himself how the "tragedy" of his childhood had returned in a dream "because I had forgotten it" (283). This dream functions as the crucial synecdoche for what is repressed--not only by the text but by the scholarly archive. It is the whole of Part I, in particular the resourcefulness, insurgent courage, and strength of the peasantry epitomized by the mother (Chs. 4-9), that practically most critics and scholars have forgotten that is bound to haunt them.
Here I would like to underscore the desideratum of an interpretive framework that necessarily structures all possible "horizons of expectation," a framework centered on this insight: what the bulk of this narrative wants to forget but cannot, what is in fact the absence or lacunae whose manifold traces everywhere constitutes the text, is U.S. colonial violence--the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 and its aftermath in the neocolonial system--that subjugated the natives, reinforced the semifeudal structure called "absentee landlordism," and drove Bulosan and his brothers to permanent exile. Its other name is "fascism" whose genealogy includes Spanish falangists and Filipino sympathizers, American racist vigilantes and police, and Japanese aggression--this last evoking what the text dare not name: U.S. invasion of the islands at the turn of the century.
I cannot overemphasize this point. What the text's archaeology of repetitions seeks to capture, above all, is the time of the islands, of the mother and other producers, of all the women who have been victimized by patriarchal law and exchanged without the singular value of their desires acknowledged. What this narrative attempts to seize is "woman's time" whose surplus or excess value is measured, calculated and dispersed into the derelict space of "America" where Filipino men--including the witnessing, conflicted sensibility named "Bulosan"--found themselves "castrated" under its regime of violence premised on the rationality of white supremacy, the logic of capital and commodity-reification.
The project of AIH, then, is the reinscription of this inaugural moment of colonial dispossession in the hegemonic culture by a text that violates all generic expectations and foregrounds the earth, the soil, and the maternal psyche/habitus as the ground of meaning and identity. This text viewed as cultural practice valorizes both the oppositional and the utopian negated by the dominant ideology. What is needed is to elucidate the process whereby the unity of opposites (for example, individual rationality versus tradition) shifts into the protagonist's trial or agon of unearthing duplicities (147) and multiple causalities, and discriminating what is fraudulent from what is genuine.
Finally, the text interrogates all readers with the ethico-political reflection in the penultimate chapter: "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" (324). Bulosan's species of "magical" or "fantastic" realism allegorizes this radical transformation from the old to the new, that is, from colonial bondage redeemed via analysis/critique to witness/testifier of that history of decolonization: the project of becoming-Filipino. This task is accomplished by AIH without the luxury of consolation afforded by the blandishments of traditional aesthetic form.
Rite of Initiation
What makes America Is in the Heart thus the first example of a new genre, a popular-front allegory which articulates class, race, nation (ethnicity), and gender in a protean configuration, is its narrative schema. The stages of Bulosan's awakening follow a path away from a focus on "workerist" unionizing to a concern with broader social issues in a force-field of diverse collectivities.
This is the thrust of the plot of becoming-Filipino, the odyssey of a young native who matures into an artist; the vocation of writer is realized through imperial, racist violence which is paradoxically also the condition of possibility for his art. By the time Bulosan joins the socialist-oriented union movement and helps edit The New Tide, he has already acquired a consciousness able to comprehend the world through a historical-materialist optic, a philosophy of revolutionary praxis transcending family, ethnic chauvinism, and bourgeois nation. Against the tribalism of government representatives, Bulosan counterposed a socialist outlook informed by the ecology of heterogeneous civilizations. He is cured of the symptoms of the Hegelian "Unhappy Consciousness" exemplified in AIH.
What any reader would have noticed by the middle of the book is how its realistic style and its affinities with picaresque naturalism (recurrent scenes of petty crimes, squalid surroundings, raw violence, rough language) are frequently disrupted by lyricized memories of the homeland. At this point, the generic norms of the memoir and confession, with their penchant for chronological verisimilitude and linear plotting, have already been eroded by a subterranean comic rhythm of repetition: characters appear and disappear with uncanny resilience and gusto, incidents multiply and replicate, while the narrator's comments and the dialogue he records are disaggregated, shuffled, and redistributed in a circulation of energies which thwart the drive for organic unity. The crisis of hegemonic representation ripens at this juncture.
As I noted above, Bulosan's dream of making "a better America," a forgetting of the Filipino unconscious, is suspended by the breakdown of the body. His hospitalization concretizes U.S. hospitality. History, the incommensurable waste of injustice, materializes in the return of the "child" as invalid; the time of wandering metamorphoses into physical immobility. In retrospect, Bulosan's illness is not a sleight-of-hand interruption but a functional device. It inaugurates his new vocation as the ventriloquist of collective memory and guardian of the covenant with the "associated producers" of the islands. We encounter finally the limit of liberal idealism.
But what I think constitutes the originality of the text, something no one has so far noticed, is its rendering of what Julia Kristeva calls "woman's time," virtually the subtext of the self-constitution of the Filipino nationality, the subject of the metropolis' internal colony. Comedy and the flows/flights of the unconscious interact with the realist code in defining this new genre. The fundamental mythos of comedy, the alternation of death and rebirth in "monumental" time, organizes the allegory of a transported native who "died many deaths" in his itinerary of exile and fantasized return. The suicide of the writer Estevan precipitates a mutation, a turn-around: "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" (139). Those deaths impregnate the psyche, inducing the self-production of the text noted earlier, recovering the ruins of archaic plenitude in the language of dreams.
Earlier I called attention to how the theme of popular-front democracy versus fascism (Japanese aggression in the Philippines eclipses the earlier one by the United States) at the outbreak of World War II is deployed to negotiate the tension between naive idealism and realist mimesis. It is also utilized to induce amnesia of U.S. imperial conquest of the Philippines. This alliance with bourgeois democracy is achieved at the expense of almost forgetting the primal event of colonial conquest and deracination, hence the compulsive repetitions of scenes/events in the narrative. Bulosan testified that as exiles "socially strangled in America," rootless, Filipinos find it easier "to integrate ourselves in a universal ideal." But a dialectic of compensatory fulfillment insinuates itself when the fact of colonial domination registered in feudal and comprador rule becomes the repressed, the hermeneutic sine qua non, of the text.
Indeed, what most readers of America have ignored by virtue of dogmatism or inertia is the whole of Part I, in particular the resourcefulness, perseverance, and courage of the peasantry, which could not be fitted into an implicit Asian American canonical paradigm. U.S. imperial subjugation of the Philippines is what even scrupulous scholars have forgotten, an omission that is nonetheless bound to haunt them. What the rhetoric of the book wants to elide but cannot, the absence or lacuna whose manifold traces everywhere constitute the text, is U.S. colonial violence--the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 and its legacy as manifested in the patronage system--that subjugated the natives, reinforced the oppressive structure Bulosan called "absentee landlordism," and drove him and tens of thousands of Filipinos to permanent exile. Its other name is "fascism," phallocentric law driven to violence, whose personifications include Spanish Falangists and their Filipino sympathizers, American racist vigilantes and police, and Japanese aggressors--the last evoking what the text dares not name: U.S. invasion of the islands at the turn of the century.
This is what the text's archaeology of reiterations seeks to capture: the scenario of beginning and apocalypse, of loss of indepencen and its promised recovery. What Bulosan's testimonio attempts to transcribe is "woman's time" whose exorbitance reaches the faultlines of the American landscape where derelict Filipinos found themselves "castrated" under its regime of violence.
What Bulosan strove to accomplish then is the reinscription of the Filipino experience of symbolic mutilation in a discourse of exposure and refusal. It is a discourse intending to demystify the illusions bred by a utilitarian commodity-centered society. Its mode of wayward realism seeks to foreground the labor of mutual recognition, collective praxis, and the maternal sensibility against the Manichean theologizing of the "Other," the logic of capital and exchange-value. When capitalism begins to decay, the corpus of the project called "becoming-Filipino" materializes in its putrefaction.
Promises Kept and Betrayals
Can you read the secrets of history in my face?
--"The Shadow of the Terror"
We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,
the unquenchable truth that class-memories create....
--"If You Want To Know What We Are"
Charting in America the evolution of his life from childhood to the outbreak of World War II, Bulosan succeeds in establishing connections between the multiracial proletarian movement in the United States with over four hundred years of dissidence, protests, and revolts against colonial impositions in the Philippines. His mosaic of Filipino lives pays homage to the grassroot initiatives found, for example, in the 1931 Tayug uprising of peasants which may be interpreted as an anticipatory emblem for the strikes of multiethnic farmworkers in Hawaii and the West Coast. That nexus in turn ruptures U.S. jingoist patronage.
In retrospect, America, now a classic text of vagrancy and failure, becomes implicitly a critique of the official assimilationist ideology, the paradigm of immigrant success, that apologists of free-enterprise individualism continue to uphold, a teleology that up to now serves to underwrite the distortion and/or exclusion of Bulosan and other Filipino artists from the mainstream cultural archive. Only a change in the global circumstances that produced their works can undo this status quo.
Profound geopolitical changes separate this ethnobiography and its popular-front milieu from the postCold War situation of the 1990s. Are fascism and racism dead? Or do we see their resurrection in new disguises? In any case, today I would stress Bulosan's serviceableness as witness to and conscience of that transitional passage in Filipino life in the United States. Bulosan returns to what Amilcar Cabral calls "the source" to recover a submerged tradition of indigenous revolutionary culture, the deeply-rooted insurgent ethos of workers, peasants, and intellectuals against imperial racism and violence. He recalls the 1931 peasant uprising against landlords, merchant compradors, and bureaucrats--local agents of the American suzerain, and, before that, the 1896-98 insurrection against Spain. One leader of the Tayug uprising, Pedro Calosa, was in fact a veteran of the 1924 strike of Filipino workers in the Hawaiian plantations (Sturtevant). It seems a not wholly fortuitous coincidence that Calosa lived in the same province of Pangasinan where Bulosan was born.
Bulosan's adolescent years were deeply influenced by the survival craft of a large impoverished family barely subsisting on a small plot of land. In his letters collected in Sound of Falling Light, as well as in Laughter, Bulosan describes the earthy, sometimes shrewd, but always carnivalesque spirit of his father trying to outwit landlords, usurers, politicians, and petty bureaucrats in providing for his family. With the father's authority dismantled, Bulosan then begins to focus on the quiet, durable resourcefulness of his mother--that "dynamic little peasant woman" who sold salted fish in the public market of Binalonan and nurtured Bulosan's open, stoic but adventurous spirit. Her image is sublimated in the samaritanic women crisscrossing the faultlines of AIH, miscegenating female companions exuberant with ideas and plans--the force of these heterogeneous characters represent, for Bulosan, the "other" half of a schizoid America.
In such representative texts as "Be American," "Story of a Letter," and "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," Bulosan tracks the vicissitudes of migrant alienation and analyzes the predicament of return/self-recovery of the sojourner manque. In the process he also unfolds those scenes of solidarity with women of various nationalities and other progressive elements occasioned by the search for his brothers, in effect, for meaning in his life. Personal anecdotes thus become synecdoches of collective fate.
Since I have already written at length on the import and architectonics of those stories (see, e.g., Carlos Bulosan; Racial Formations), suffice it to recall the semiotic dynamics of "Be American." Here a Filipino youth's quest for recognition plots his identity on the objective rhythm of seasonal harvests; this precarious modality of existence in turn undermines the concept and fact of private ownership of land and the private appropriation of the collective fruit of labor (San Juan, Reading the West). This alien "national," however, destabilizes the foundational logos of business society and must be put in his place. Somehow Consorcio becomes a journalist fighting for the rights of everyone, "native or foreign born," and goes to jail for his ideas of freedom and peace--the substitute for the citizenship he originally wanted to possess. In a concluding note, the narrator (Consorcio's friend) pronounces an elegiac hymn to the land, "a great mother...rolling like a beautiful woman with an overflowing abundance of fecundity and murmurous with her eternal mystery." By way of such unexpected metonymic displacements, Bulosan reminds us of the relevance of Gilles Deleuze's insight that "a society or any collective arrangement is defined first by its points or flows of deterritorialization," its lines of flight (233).
Episodes of the Pilgrimage
To illustrate further the distinctive cultural praxis embodied in Bulosan's fiction, I offer these brief comments on two stories. They display Bulosan's mode of using the technique of montage to deconstruct the raw materials of experience and reshape them into a teaching-learning artifice or "organon" (to use Bertolt Brecht's term) so as to provoke critical reasoning. This tactic of defamiliarization is performed through the genre of allegory/fantasy which is designed to undermine the convention of mimetic realism or at least unsettle the axioms of orthodox formalism. One virtue of this mode lies in its capacity to subtly fuse two antithetical tendencies, a distanced "imitation" of action and the narrator's passionate critique, thus permitting the exercise of both judgment and sympathy at the same time. While we grasp difference, we also apprehend the possibilities of synthesis, however heuristic and provisional, which ultimately enable agency and historic intervention.
Just as AIH evinced in its fabric the problems of fragmentation and fetishism in a market-centered polity, "Passage Into Life" and "I Would Remember" evoke and in the process deconstruct them. In the first story, key events in Allos' life from the time he was five to fourteen register the ravages of feudal greed, suicide, clan violence, poverty, and gratuitous cruelty. It depicts the child's initiation into the reality of a disenchanted world characterized by prejudice and the cash-nexus. How can he survive and continue to trust and hope? Not only the boy's intimacy with nature (section 2) but also his compassion for the weak (sections 5, 6, 12) enable him to confront the catastrophic loss of his father. The narrator's choric voice foreshadows the encounter with the figure of the stranger and the utopian denouement: "Oh, Allos, hide in the thorns and thickets of the world!...Oh, Allos! don't be afraid! The good earth will comfort you in her dark womb!" His greatest fear--his mother's death--is displaced by concern for the plight of his sister and the old Chinese beaten to death; his cry to the dead Chinese--"Wake up, old man. I will tell you we are the same!" signifies a release from archaic dependency on parent and kins. By juxtaposing scenes of violence and despair with images of solidarity or communion with the natural world, this seemingly arbitrary sequence of episodes sets up the stage for Allos' acceptance of the stranger/prophet whose voice echoes the Enlightenment principles of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness": "No one is really an orphan as long as there is another man living.
As long as there is one man living and working and thinking on the earth." And so the knowledge of death's nonfinality inspires Allos to transvalue his life with a totalizing choice: "Now Allos knew: there in the known world he must go to seek a new life, seek it among the living until he would have enough time to pause and ponder on the mystery of the dead" with "a song of joy warming his whole being until it became the song of all his living dreams." While the figure of the welcoming stranger and the parable in the mountain might suggest a transcendence remote from worldly engagements, what needs foregrounding is how the episodic pattern itself logically produces the strangeness (degrees of alienation and the unknown) and the dialogic contract (the boy seeking answers) that coalesce into the emancipatory vision of the last section.
A variation of this defamiliarizing method is enacted in the second story, "I Would Remember." Here the problem is how to frame and distance what would otherwise be a horrifying, even morbidly disgusting, scene of Leroy's mutilation: genitals cut, left eye gouged, tongue "sliced into shreds" and entrails "spread on the cool grass." Leroy's slaughter by vigilantes, his "screaming like a pig about to be butchered," was witnessed by the "I" together with several compatriots. The drift toward sensational naturalism is checked here by the narrator who identifies Leroy as a "stranger" preaching unity and whose life manifests a charismatic aura that detaches the body from the spirit. Leroy, testifies the narrator,"had a way of explaining the meanings of words in utter simplicity, like 'work' which he translated into 'power,' and 'power' into 'security.' I was drawn to him because I felt that he had lived in many places where the courage of men was tested with the cruelest weapons conceivable." Hence Leroy's dismemberment proves the power of unity: individuals become a community in the act of sharing and struggling together.
Violence thus yields a vision of communicative rationality and a ritual of exchange. Bulosan pursues here the task of linkage, the suturing of that cleavage or split between the uncertainties of life in the United States and the struggle for freedom and dignity in the colonized Philippines. How does history materialize in that fissure between past and present, between the domain of affection and the territory of alienation? What lines of flight can rescue the adolescent soul in its solitary passage? We are engaged at the outset with two traumatic childhood experiences: the mother's dying at the birth of his brother, and his father's killing of the carabao. Although the grandmother's love and sensuous nature assuage the boy's grief, the spectacle of the carabao's slaughter triggers panic: "I wanted to strike my father, but instead, fearing and loving him I climbed out of the pit quickly and ran through the blinding rain to our house."
In the United States, the narrator encounters two deaths before Leroy's in which he discovers a complexity that exceeds the metaphysics of naive humanism: with Marco, it was sincerity, honesty, his gift of laughter; with Crispin, it was gentleness coupled with a redemptive promise, an epiphany of home in exile. Regarding Crispin, "There was something luminous about him, like the strange light that flashes in my mind when I sometimes think of the hills of home. He had been educated and he recited poetry with a sad voice that made me cry. He always spoke of goodness and beauty in the world."
The personalities of Marco, Crispin, and LeRoy and their deaths reproduce that uncanny oscillation of fear and love the narrator felt for his father who possesses the authority to castrate and kill. We sense in the tone of the discourse not only resignation and intense watchfulness but also the will to affirm something that survives bodily contingency: "When I saw his cruelly tortured body, I thought of my father and the decapitated carabao and the warm blood flowing under our bare feet. And I knew that all my life I would remember Leroy and all the things he taught me about living." What is achieved by this method of analogic rendering in both stories is not just verisimilitude but also a stance or susceptibility that can absorb the negative and at the same time convert it into material for one's growth. Loss and expenditure become occasions for self-renewal. By probing for contradictions and intervening in the politico-ethical dilemmas of all the victims of democracy, Bulosan's art takes up the challenge of fragmentation, anomic dispersal, reification or reduction to exchange-values, and other dehumanizing symptoms of the Filipino "Babylonian captivity" in the United States.
Return to the Beginning
You too were the face of the land, the tongue
Of the people, the voice of time.
--"Who Saw the Terror"
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.
--"Song for Chris Mensalvas' Birthday"
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941 and subsequently occupied the Philippines, Bulosan "rediscovered" his homeland as the fountainhead of his creative originality and strength. It was not just a mere return to a mythical origin, a sublation or inversion of the past. He illuminates this conversion experience in "My Education": "...I realized how foolish it was to believe then that I could define roots in terms of places and persons. I knew, then, that I would be as rootless in the Philippines as I was in America, because roots are not physical things, but the quality of faith deeply [ingrained] and clearly understood and integrated in one's life." In short, roots were "not physical but intellectual and spiritual things," a common faith that Bulosan found in the socialist tradition, a vision of empowering "the wretched of the earth" (in Frantz Fanon's phrase) that transcends nation-state boundaries.
While Bulosan reaffirms the dedication of his work to "the cause of my own people," he also asserts that writing is not self-sufficient and that his sensibility had been nourished by the praxis of class struggles: "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" (Bulosan, Selected Works 35). These sentiments and thoughts were underscored in his contributions to the 1952 Yearbook, in "Letter to a Filipino Woman," "The Writer as Worker" and also in two letters to his nephews written in 1948. In the latter Bulosan, expropriating "the Name of the Father," expressed the paramount motivation of his work by resurrecting the primal scene of wholeness before deracination occurred--an imagined exodus from captivity. I would privilege these texts where Bulosan enunciated first principles as guiding coordinates for any just, rigorous, and substantive appreciation of his achievement.
Earlier Bulosan had written verses in sympathy with the defenders of the Spanish Republic beleaguered by reactionary forces. He personified his internationalist creed in the character of Felix Razon--otherwise known as "Felix Rivas" in The Cry--who connects the peasant uprising in Tayug, Pangasinan (described in America) with the Loyalist cause in Spain. Bulosan's commitment to a "popular front" against capitalism in its fascist phase (confirmed by the expansionist militarism of Germany, Italy, and Japan) afforded a philosophical orientation that gave coherence and direction to the nomadic plight he shared with others. An islander stranded in inhospitable shores, Bulosan was desperately searching for the "heart" or destination of his journey; he found it in the Spanish Civil War, the prelude to World War II.
During the war he affirmed his partisanship via orature and polemic, resulting in three books: Chorus for America (1942), Letter from America (1942), and The Voice of Bataan (1943); the latter was broadcast overseas by the U.S. Office of War Information. Invited by the exiled government of the Philippine Commonwealth to work in its Washington office, Bulosan opted to remain in the "battlefront" of union organizing. Meanwhile, he contributed to numerous magazines, among them New Masses, Harper's Bazaar, Town and Country, New Yorker, and Arizona Quarterly.
In my opinion, Bulosan's craftsmanship in the prose genres (fiction, the reflective or familiar essay, letters) is far superior to his attempts at versification, despite exceptions like "Biography," "In Time of Drought," and "Meeting with a Discoverer." Susan Evangelista has heroically endeavored to present the best case for Bulosan as a "Third World" poet, with emphasis on themes of alienation, internal colonialism, and the lived experience of Filipino immigrants in general; her argument is vitiated by her downplaying Bulosan's radical-democratic, socialist vision.
Contrary to the critical doxa, Bulosan's Whitmanesque style exhibited in such poems as "If You Want To Know What We Are" and "I Want the Wide American Earth" is not typical nor recurrent. The rhetoric of identification and panoramic catalogue found in those two poems, as well as their Filipinized versions in "Land of the Morning" and "Prologue," springs from the will to valorize the power of multitudes. The poet envisages serial monads in a market society converging into an irresistible force for change: "...we are the subterranean subways/of suffering; we are the will of dignities;/we are the living testament of a flowering race." But we apprehend that behind this impulse is the quest for secular transcendence, for pleasure-filled alternatives invested in the hitherto unacknowledged labor of "deathless humanity." Except for the instrumental or programmatic verses like The Voice of Bataan and the unfinished drama, Jose Rizal, Bulosan's poems configure the Horatian injunction to instruct (prodesse) and delight (delectare) with what I would call the pathos of the folkloric sublime that defines his unique poetic signature.
A majority of his poems meditate on the difficulty of representing the nuances and indeterminacies of exile. They strive to delineate the anxious maneuverings of the native caught in the ravaged cities of the Depression, alarmed by the barbarism of war; his predicament inheres partly in his failure to contrive an objectifying equivalent to his apprehension of disaster. "Biography Between Wars," for instance, stages the reminiscence of the halcyon past in which the death of a friend's husband in Teruel, Spain, and the carnage of war can only be filtered through a surreal perspective: "Then the planes swarmed like swallows/And ripped the night with lilies of screaming fire."
Reification blights urban life in "For A Child Dying in a Tenement" anguished by the "terror of plenty." In "Portrait with Cities Falling," the speaker's spiritual crisis is rendered with phantasmagoric intensity; his portrait of an industrial wasteland, however, can only evoke a prophetic longing: "Will they [the headless man and the starlight woman] come to remake the world?" "Letter in Exile" escapes this difficulty of representation via the detour of self-estrangement: the speaker transports himself back to the peaceful islands threatened by enemy planes and then recounts his identification with Jews, Negroes, and with beauty ravished by power, greed, and "the naked blasphemies of money." He counsels his brother: "But all this will come to pass...."
Meanwhile, in "Waking in the 20th Century," Bulosan mediates the exile's predicament by summoning the image of his father, patient and hopeful, plowing the soil against the background of worldwide destruction. At the end he confides to his woman friend that "there will be days when we will stand together," mindful of the antimiscegenation law against Filipinos. Overwhelmed by chaos everywhere, the language of Bulosan's poems during this period becomes repetitive, desultory, extremely uneven. His performance as poet culminates in a bravado gesture: the act of staking "a claim on the world" in "To My Countrymen": "And across the flaming darkness of life,/I flung a sword of defiance to give you freedom." Here the dramatic protocol of communicating a purpose that will bind the interlocutors together acquires a sublime connotation when the concept or idea--obscured by the contradictions between city and countryside, between the rapturous past and the tormented present, hinted in "Biography"--proves unrepresentable. Using those few quotes as touchstones, we can speculate that Bulosan intuited the limits of his poetic skill and range (he was heavily influenced by T.S. Eliot, Auden, MacLeish, and other modernists) and chose thereafter to concentrate his energies on cultivating the narrative and expository genres.
But there were also limits of another kind to prosaic sublimations. At the peak of McCarthyism in the 1950s, Bulosan was a blacklisted writer (perhaps the only Filipino writer on the FBI's hit list)--he mixed with the wrong people such as Chris Mensalvas and Ernesto Mangaong, leaders of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union (ILWU), Local 37, and dangerous subversives who were scheduled for deportation. (For his inspirational poem "I Want the Wide American Earth," Bulosan seized the pretext of the campaign to defend the two scapegoats of the "Free World.") Amid this harassment he continued to pursue his project of revealing connections, building linkages, demonstrating reciprocities, and fostering alliances via the editorship of the 1952 Yearbook of ILWU Local 37 (Taverna). In the Yearbook, he wrote: "I believe that the unconditional unity of all workers is our only weapon against the evil designs of imperialist butchers and other profiteers of death and suffering to plunge humanity into a new world war" (21).
From Exile to Recognition
Amid the Cold War hysteria, how could the government deport this alleged "communist" agitator commissioned by then President Roosevelt to write an essay celebrating the "four freedoms"? His praise of populist democracy, "Freedom from Want" (exhibited at the Federal Building in San Francisco in 1943), fulfilled the imperative of oppositional artists capturing strongholds in the terrain of social reproduction (Benjamin). It succeeded in infiltrating a potentially explosive message that escaped the censors: "But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves." Bulosan not only extolled labor and the "desires of anonymous men," but also (with an oblique allusion to a more dangerous manifesto) the right to "serve themselves and each other according to their needs and abilities."
By this time, Bulosan, the author of best sellers like Laughter (translated into more than a dozen languages) and America Is in the Heart (reviewed in the leading trade periodicals), was internationally famous, listed in Who's Who in America, Current Biography, and other directories of notable personalities. In Twentieth Century Authors, his own account of his uprooting and vagrancy--from birth in the village of Mangusmana, Binalonan, Pangasinan to his life in Los Angeles--was reproduced without editorial qualification. He anchored his wandering with this conviction: "What impelled me to write? The answer is--my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all...." Bulosan's testimony was lucid, controlled, generous.
But his claim may sound banal or premature for an aspiring intellectual from the hinterland whose literary fortune, together with a generation of "fellow travellers" and progressive artists around the world, would soon be blasted by the fury of the Cold War. Nevertheless I think we need to contextualize his ambition in historically specific, differential terms.
We might take the distance between two stories, "To a God of Stone" (1939) and "End of the War" (1944), as a measure of Bulosan's success in dramatizing the complex predicament of Filipinos (and, metonymically, of all people of color) in the internal colonies of the metropolis. In the early story, the narrator's obsession with gambling is interrupted periodically by Dan, a failed and lost spirit, whose idiosyncrasies and "strange smell of unknown cities" puzzled the narrator. But Bulosan couldn't decide whether to focus on Dan's alienation or the narrator's; at one point, his persona muses on his confusion: "What have I done? Where am I headed for? What do I know about the world?"
Meanwhile Dan kills two musicians--a gesture of absurd revolt, it seems--but the narrator concludes with the thought of Dan personifying the truth that "man will always be at the mercy of his invisible creations." The inadequacy stares us in the face: Bulosan assumes that a simple mechanical reproduction of his thoughts plus a portrayal of one derelict would be enough to epitomize the decay of bourgeois society. In the later story, however, he succeeds in inventing an "objective correlative" to concretize a large constellation of ideas and feelings. Private Pascual Fidel's dream of the surrender of the Japanese in the Philippines becomes transformed as it circulates into a collective one, a prophecy of the country's liberation overcoming the limits of fetishized individualism (typified by Dan and the musicians): "It was a dream that belonged to no one now...." Gambling, the historic index of Filipino victimization, is overcome at every instance when the dream becomes the signifier of exchange between public and private spheres. Meanwhile the American "dream of success" is displaced and its fraudulence exposed as the pathos of subaltern innocence is captured in that telltale idiom of simultaneous acquiescence and vexed refusal:
Ten years I worked peacefully in America, minding my own business, when the salomabit come stabbing me at the back. Maybe it is not much I make, but I got the beautiful Ford from Detroit....In the bank I got money--maybe not much, but it is my money. When I see the flag, I take the hat off and I say, "Thank you very much!" I like the color of the flag and I work hard. Why the salomabit come?....If only I was there!"
Mess Sergeant Ponso's anger at having been left out, his conflation of dream and reality, his gesture of self-justification, his sense of futility--all these elements of Filipino "becoming" in that transitional conjuncture may be conceived as precisely what Bulosan's vocation sought to engage with humor and humility. He took his bearings with that reflexive critical distance and political sophistication he had gained in almost two decades of loneliness, suffering, and friendships cutting across the barriers of class, gender, nationalities, and race.
Separation and exile always summon their binary opposites: reunion and return. While Bulosan continued his role as "tribune" of multiethnic workers (including EuroAmericans) in writing for newspapers like New Masses and Commonwealth Times (founded by Mensalvas and Bulosan in 1936), as well as various periodicals in the Philippines, his conscientization widened to embrace the world system in crisis with the entrenchment of fascism in Europe and Japan. Several poems such as "Portrait with Cities Falling," "Who Saw the Terror," and "To Laura in Madrid" recorded his loyalty to the socialists and anarchists defending the Spanish Republic against Franco's forces. It was easy for him to make the connection between the reactionary authoritarianism of the Falangists who had the support of Filipino landlords/compradors and the thugs of U.S. agribusiness assisted by the state's ideological apparatus (legislature, courts, prisons) and the military (Bulosan, "Manuel Quezon"). His acceptance of a simplistic version of the united-front strategy explains in part the somewhat melodramatic and sentimental paean to pre-Civil War democracy, as well as his deployment of the utopian metaphor of "America" as a classless and racism-free society, which pervade the texts of this period. All the rhetoric of democracy and "Four Freedoms" was soon quickly overtaken by McCarthyism.
Homeward again under foreign stars....
--"Landscape With Figures"
Where I knelt, where I wept, where I lived
To change the course of history; because I love you.
--To My Countrymen"
When Japan occupied the Philippines in 1942-44, Bulosan's attention shifted to the popular resistance to another invader--this time perceived as a more brutal repeat of the Spanish and American conquests. When the Hukbalahaps (acronym for "People's Army Against the Japanese") who led the underground resistance were suppressed by the U.S. military and its puppet regimes, full-scale people's war erupted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This period of the Cold War, punctuated by the Korean War, became the time for testing the limits of bourgeois democracy.
Bulosan reinscribed the exile's predicament in the problematic of "national liberation" in his letters and particularly in his novel, The Cry, composed in the last five years of his life. This remarkable novel, unprecedented in portraying the lives of left-wing guerrillas in the Philippines, was directly inspired by his friendship with the imprisoned vernacular poet, Amado V. Hernandez, by his own memory of peasant radicalism in Pangasinan, and by his close association with farmworkers in America, who were veterans of similar struggles. Moreover, I believe that the Huk-rebel Luis Taruc's autobiography, Born of the People (1953), exerted an incalculable influence on Bulosan's thinking, based on his writings of this period.
With the direct intervention of the CIA and the Pentagon in the Philippine military, the United States crippled the Huk insurgency as part of its global strategy to contain the "communist conspiracy" then ascribed to the Soviet Union and China (Bulosan, "Terrorism"). Before the Korean War ended, Bulosan was driven to move beyond the parameters of trade-union reformism (rationalized by the U.S. Communist Party's identification of itself with "Americanism")--he was always looking across the Pacific for signs hovering over turbulent tropical shores. After his stint with ILWU Local 37, he realized that U.S. monopoly capital had become the immediate and long-range threat to the aspiration for justice and independence of Third World peoples. Indeed, the logic of the Cold War compelled a reassessment of his "love affair" with the phantasmal notions of equality and fraternity celebrated in AIH.
When U.S.-sponsored fascism erupted with renewed virulence in the Philippines, Bulosan had no choice but to enact a long-deferred "return" to the primal scene of dispossession. It was now impossible to resuscitate the America of the puritans and pioneers whose legitimacy had been rendered suspect, if not refuted and refused, by the transcontinental revolt of people of color, including those in the internal colonies, against western messianic hegemony headed by the United States. With the symbolic capital of American democracy exhausted, what was the alternative then for Bulosan?
A wishfulfilling trial to respond to that question is made in the story "Homecoming." It is general knowledge that the majority of Filipino bachelors who came to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s never returned, for the reason that Mariano, the successful sojourner, rehearses in his mind. Paralyzed by anger and fear, however, he is unable to confess the truth: "How could he make them understand that he had failed in America?...America had crushed his spirit." We, the readers, understand the plight of the author's surrogate who after twelve years in the U.S. now believes there is no other place for him in the world but home. A pre-Oedipal fantasy materializes: Mariano "knew that the fate of his mother was in his hands," but as though castrated he lacks some organ for unburdening himself of "all the sorrows of his life." The bliss of return, an eternal moment he has been waiting for, overwhelms him: "The mother was in his arms...." Yet he regrets having come home because "he could never make them happy again." After discovering that his father is dead, the reality of his own failure assaults him in the shape of palpable misery at home:
Now he could understand his mother's deadening solemnity. And Marcela's bitterness. Now it dawned on him that his mother and sisters had suffered the same terrors of poverty, the same humiliations of defeat, that he had suffered in America. He was like a man who had emerged from night into day, and found the light as blinding as darkness.... This was the life he had found in America; it was so everywhere in the world. He was confirmed now. He thought when he was in America that it could not be thus in his father's house. But it was there when he returned to find his sisters wrecked by deprivation....
In Chapter 40 of America, Bulosan records a dream analogous to this story which can perhaps help decipher its meaning. Assuming the role of a "Filipino communist" strike leader fleeing from the police, he falls asleep in a bus and dreams of his return to his hometown in the Philippines where he rejoices at seeing his mother and the whole family eating; awakened by "tears of remembrance," he claims that the "tragedy" of his childhood returned in a dream "because I had forgotten it" (283). Could this story be an act of remembering, a re-enactment, so as to forestall what had already happened? Is the artist's imagination assuming the role of the redeemer-messiah of the past?
In any case, "Homecoming" performs a symbolic remapping of the world system when he encounters the depredations of the old enemy in the homeland. The climactic event graced by "the vision of his father" as he departs--an ambiguous one since Mariano has usurped his place only to mark it as preempted by someone else--epitomizes the lesson of the homecoming: "America" now turns out to be one huge self-deception. But it is a hard lesson that can only be symptomatically glimpsed, one which assumes full-bodied articulation in Bulosan's last ambitious work, The Cry (originally he planned to write four massive novels covering one hundred years of Philippine history, a tetralogy meant to rival the mammoth dynasty epics of Balzac, Dreiser, and Sholokhov.)
Shaping the Filipino Novel
In The Cry, Bulosan tries to diagnose what happened to him in the United States, the causes of Filipino self-deception and misrecognition. In general, the novel assists in this task of unraveling the mystery, the absent source of the shock in "Homecoming," namely, the uneven topography of the imperial system and its hierarchical power relations. Alternatively one can categorize this absent cause as the totality of class/gender relations on a multinational scale fully present in all of Bulosan's writings in the form of damages wrought upon colonial subjects. While America grappled with the antinomy of the real and the ideal, a tension defused only by the advent of war and the united front against world fascism, its protagonist failed to return (if only by anamnesis) to his origin in the indigenous revolutionary tradition of the Filipino masses. In The Cry the return is made.
What The Cry deploys is the trope or figural schema of homecoming enacted by members of a guerrilla detachment as preparation for a rendezvous with a certain Felix Rivas, the disfigured bearer/herald of "good tidings" from the United States, whom no one except Dante (the author's alter ego) can recognize. The meeting never takes place. And that is the salient lesson to be learned. What this fabula conveys over and above the immense tragedy of Filipino lives is the szhujet or plot of permanent revolution. This is the subtext in which every character mobilizes the communal "spirit of place" (genius loci) of his/her birthplace in order to reconstitute his/her identity by way of wrestling with the demons (promises, disavowals, transgressions) of his/her individual past. For Bulosan subscribed to Marx's axiom that individuality equals the ensemble of social relations at any given time and place.
Through the character of Hassim, Bulosan finally repudiates the aristocratic and even obscurantist idealization of homeland, blood, soil, romanticized childhood, rural harmony, and other kindred mystifications; instead he reaffirms the necessity of collectively reinventing the future. And through the demise of Dante, a variation of Mariano and other bitter "old-timers," Bulosan induces a catharsis of melancholia, narcissism, and diverse sentimental pieties afflicting the text of America. The returned exile Dante, however, fails to make the rendezvous with his other half (the disfigured Felix Rivas) when he is killed by his priest brother, Father Bustamante, who has never left home.
By extinguishing (through death) the schism in Dante's psyche--Bulosan's trope for the reconciliation of the split psyche, for healing the paranoia and ambivalence complicit in the condition of being an exile/refugee--the authorial intelligence of the novel decides to subsume this problem of the bifurcated subject in the larger goal of enunciating an allegory of national liberation, what Cabral calls "a regaining of the historical personality" of a whole people. By tapping the resources of autochtonous humor, indigenous rituals of resistance, and a popular memory charged with socialized passions and ressentiment, Bulosan finally settles accounts with the duplicitous tricksters and sirens inhabiting the space called "America." His project of "becoming Filipino" in the conqueror's terrain, anticipatory and prefigurative, becomes the only way to realize what the mother, natural abundance, and childhood happiness all represent: freedom, dignity, recognition of personal worth.
A passage from one of Bulosan's letters may serve to cast light on the title of the novel: "I felt that I would be ineffectual if I did not return to my own people. I believed that my work would be more vital and useful if I dedicated it to the cause of my own people" ("Sound" 259). In an earlier essay, he described the Filipino writer's response to the "twists of history," the "labyrinthine circle of revolutionary upsurge and temporary defeat": "Filipino writers went back to their social roots--the peasantry and the proletariat--and began to weave the threads of their folklore with the national tradition. It was only then that cultural activity became a national consciousness..." ("The Growth" 12-13).
About the time when Bulosan had completed his narrative of Huk guerillas articulating their nation's agon in their individual fates, he expressed the fundamental drive of his art in an autobiographical sketch published a year before he died:
The question is--what impelled me to write? The answer is--my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all. To give a literate voice to the voiceless one hundred thousand Filipinos in the United States, Hawaii, and Alaska. 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 (Kunitz 145).
In one letter, he testified that "what really compelled me to write was to try to understand this country [United States], to find a place in it not only for myself but my people." Since he had already exorcised the specter of the American "dream of success," Bulosan was ready to assume a public role. For a decolonizing expatriate like Bulosan whose vocation is complicit with the destiny of his nation, the responsibility of the writer is "to find in our national struggle that which has a future" particularly in a time of heightened class conflict. Writing then acts as the midwife to cultural renaissance as well as social transvaluation. The old world is dying, a new world is being born from the ruins of the old--such is Bulosan's crucial insight into the dialectics of historical development. Writing is coeval with the rhythm of the national liberation struggle:
This is the greatest responsibility of literature in our time: to find in our national struggle that which has a future. Literature is a growing and living thing. We must destroy that which is dying, because it does not die by itself. We must interpret the resistance against the enemy by linking it with the stirring political awakening of the people and those liberating progressive forces that call for a complete social consciousness. ("Letter" 645)
One way of approaching Bulosan's educational value for the generation reared in the hybrid/syncretic milieu of late modernity and globalized capitalism may be suggested by the tone and disposition of the speaking subject in his letters. One can examine the two letters to his nephews Arthur and Fred (see Campomanes and Gernes) and note how Bulosan seeks to negotiate a dialogue or mutual exchange by imagining the questions and responses of his addressees. He assigns a place of responsibility to Arthur when the image of Arthur's father is evoked as a model of goodness, an inspiration that sustained him in his years of degradation--"my life of terror, my defiance against a system that treated human beings like rotten animals."
Juxtaposed with this is an aphorism that spontaneously unfolds from the signifiers of mortality (his mother and grandmother): "We will all die: it is only in the affection that we give to each other when we are still alive that keeps the world moving." One other advice is triggered by the sacrifice of Aurelio for his brother Carlos: "Never forget your family, your town, your people, your country, wherever you go. Your greatness lies in them." In the letter to Fred, Bulosan conceives of the "island" ego rejoining the archipelago by choice: "That is real genius: it is not selfish; it sacrifices itself for the good of the whole community." The context of this remark deals with the significance of Jose Rizal, the Filipino national hero, for the realization of "a free and good Philippines."
While Bulosan plays the mentor and surrogate father in both letters through gestures of advising, recalling scenes of his adolescence, and moralizing about his gambling and the confusion of the times, he never exaggerates his own status; a tone of understatement may be detected in the way he diverts attention from himself to Rizal or Gorki. And even when he boasts of hoping to leave millions of words behind, he urges Fred to remember the writer as one "who herded carabaos in Mangusmana a long time ago."
Modulating from local details of memory to fabulation, syncopating the fictive with the exhortative and subjunctive, Bulosan performs an act of healing the mutilated psyche by articulating in his letters the liaisons of self and nation, public and private domains, eros and conscience. Such letters, especially those to his American woman friend, not only substantiate the writers' claims but also release--if we can read between the lines and along the margins--those transgressive forces needed to blast what William Blake called the "mind-forged manacles" as well as those venerable institutions and practices that continue to perpetuate the "nightmare of history" for the empire's multitudes.
In his correspondence gathered in Sound, we confront Bulosan's alterity, the locus of the civic or "social individual," discernible in this passage from a letter of April 1947: "We are the only expatriates who really lived and worked with the people... while we are all alive we must try to understand each other, give each other confidence, help, happiness and goodness." The theme of concern for the Other is further elaborated in a letter to his nephew where he mentions his (nephew) mother's approaching death: "It is good to cry. But don't let sorrow kill your life. We will all die: it is only in the affection that we give to each other when we are still alive that keeps the world moving." In another letter, Bulosan counsels that "we all die...any time is as good as any other.... But try always to seek the goodness in your fellow man. That is the greatest wealth of all: goodness. And beauty, too. The beauty that you find in all good things." In spite of Bulosan's reiterated faith in life viewed as "a continuum of desire" where the proportion of empathy and rationality, dulce and utile, are always shifting, the rumor still persists that Bulosan languished in poverty, alcohol, and obscurity.
The whole truth is the opposite. Neither nihilism nor a "sense of foreboding and despair" after the atomic bombs annihilated thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a trusting, bold, steady warmth suffuses the following excerpt from a letter of December 1947: "Our task is to live and explore the very roots of life, dig deep into the hidden fountainhead of happiness; and when we die, at last, we must die accepting death as a natural phenomenon and believing also that life is something we borrow and must give back richer when the time comes." Recalling Spinoza's injunction, life, not death, obsessed Bulosan. Amid the massive destruction of the Korean War and brutalizing counterinsurgency in the Philippines, Bulosan pursued the nomadic stance of proposing alternatives--lines of flight, deterritorializing flows--that were not utopian in the pejorative sense but were in fact heuristic and realizable because they inhered in the actual everyday praxis of life endowed with meaning by the participation of creative, self-determined, responsible, equal citizens.
In Quest of Readers
I can't even dream; the whiteness of the land
Skulks in my sleep, stifling my dream....
Sleep peacefully, for your labors are done, your pains
Are turned into tales and songs....
--"Now That You Are Still"
In his fiction, essays, and poetry, Bulosan interrogated the conjuncture of class, gender, race, and ethnicity that underpins the epochal antagonism between capitalism and various emancipatory, popular-democratic experiments around the world. In retrospect the Cold War offered an opportunity for Bulosan to transcend the narrow bourgeois-nationalist program (the Filipino community in the United States can be conceived as an "internal colony" even though it lacked a sizable ghetto or barrio) toward a socialist transformation of the empire. In the process, the boundary erected by U. S. hegemony between the Southeast Asian writer-exile and his peasant heritage proved artificial when Bulosan encountered racist exclusion and exploitation in the heartland of capital.
Not only America but also stories like "The Soldier" and "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" (the title was inspired by Bulosan's enthusiasm for Black Elk Speaks) dramatized the truth that Filipinos suffered not only class disadvantage, racism, and gender discrimination (antimiscegenation laws condemned them to bachelorhood and they were constantly preyed upon by gamblers, sex merchants, and white supremacists of all kinds) but also national oppression. In this the Filipinos shared a predicament similar to that of workers of other races and nationalities. In his voluminous letters, in the novel, The Cry, in essays like "My Education," "The Growth of Philippine Culture," and "Terrorism Rides the Philippines," Bulosan argues that the Filipino nationality could not exercise its right of self-determination so long as the Philippines was a dependent colony of a power that claimed to be "democratic" but in practice fostered racial, national, and class discrimination. Overthrowing this unjust system meant cutting its stranglehold on people of color in the dependencies and other subordinate formations (the case of Puerto Rico readily comes to mind), still the source of superprofits, cheap labor, and natural resources for transnational corporations.
Earlier I remarked on how Bulosan's hitherto neglected novel, The Cry, transports his imagination back to the Philippines to explore what possible ties and reciprocal determinations there might be between peasant-worker insurgency and the Filipino diaspora. One story incorporated in the novel, excerpted here with the title "How My Stories Were Written," rehearses the direction of Bulosan's inquiry. The allegorical resonance of Apo Lacay, the folk sage who resembles the prophet of "Passage into Life," points to the genesis of the historical imagination in the encounter of innocence and experience. Apo Lacay's genealogy brings back to life the primal scene of disinheritance together with the revitalizing power of narrative:
Then it seemed to me, watching him lost in thought, he had become a little boy again living all the tales he had told us about a vanished race, listening to the gorgeous laughter of men in the midst of abject poverty and tyranny. For that was the time of his childhood, in the age of great distress and calamity in the land, when the fury of an invading race impaled their hearts in the tragic cross of slavery and ignorance. And that was why they had all become that way, sick in soul and mind, devoid of humanity, living like beasts in the jungle of their captivity. But this man who had survived them all, surviving a full century of change and now living in the first murmurs of a twilight and the dawn of reason and progress, was the sole surviving witness of the cruelty and dehumanization of man by another man, but whose tales were taken for laughter and the foolish words of a lonely old man who had lived beyond his time.
The wisdom of folly incarnated in Apo Lacay's sensibility is exemplary in bridging the gap between the 1898 anti-imperialist resistance to "the fury of an invading race" and the campaign against the anticommunist destruction of militant unions and people's organizations in the 1950s. This mode of apprehending ties, liaisons, and affinities amid disruptions and schisms in the movement's ranks became Bulosan's weapon of endurance and collective self-transmutation. In twenty years, he had persevered in mapping the itinerary of the native/alien in the territory of the enemy/colonizer, leaving marks of his ordeal in forging a new, complex identity for his people whose novelty and efficacy are still not fully recognized for reasons already discussed earlier.
In 1937 Bulosan thought he was dying in the city hospital in Los Angeles, California. Later on he would undergo several more operations for leg cancer and lung lesions until he was left slightly crippled, one kneecap and one kidney removed, his body frail and vulnerable. But he lived on until 11 September 1956 when, after a night of drinking with a labor lawyer who was a close friend, he wandered around the streets of Seattle; at dawn he was found sprawled on the steps of the City Hall, "comatose and in an advanced stage of broncho-pneumonia." He was a victim less of neurosis or despair than of cumulative suffering from years of privation and persecution.
Bulosan died at the height of the Cold War, poor but not entirely obscure--the conviviality and stamina of his creative spirit can be discerned in his "Editorial" in the 1952 Yearbook where he reaffirmed the union's "uncompromising stand to defend human rights and liberties" against the "maniacal machinations" of the anticommunist witch-hunts. His audience did not fade because postwar prosperity dispelled the appeal of the underdog; public concern shifted to civil rights and Third World national liberation and thus engendered a new audience. When the Philippines was granted independence in 1946, the need to trumpet America's colonial "success" and win allies for the antifascist cause had already become anachronistic.
Bulosan's stories, however, were reprinted in the Philippines and his legendary aura circulated in the labor camps, in the subterranean world of the "old timers," in radical circles everywhere. In 1965 the Filipino workers in the California vineyards, led by Bulosan's contemporaries, Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, launched the historic strike that led to the founding of the United Farm Workers of America. It was the fruit of dangerous groundbreaking actions initiated in the early 1930s by Bulosan and his associates in the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and its predecessors.
Bulosan never compromised his principles, his basic commitment to the socialist vision of world revolution. He reaffirmed this conviction at every occasion: "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" (Selected Works 35). Little could he imagine in those days of fear and betrayal that after his death he would be vindicated and acclaimed as one of the most eloquent tribunes of the multiracial working class, here and elsewhere; a militant chronicler of the multitudes whose struggles for freedom, equality, and justice would distinguish an era of unprecedented upheavals in the whole planet whose import and significance we are just slowly beginning to understand.
Surveying his life and work in this historical context, I consider Bulosan a formidable revolutionary artist whose contribution to shaping a Third-World narrative of people's liberation coincides with his project of resolving the predicament of uprooting and exile, that is, of colonial subjugation. Whether overseas or at home, this Filipino carried on his back the burden of history's nightmare in all his travels. Learning from the rigor of the Depression and the terror of Cold War patriotism, he worked with others to purge the poison of racist free-enterprise ideology from the mentality and habitus of his compatriots. Colonial ideology in general functions as a seductive, self-rationalizing fantasy--the hallucinations of normal common sense, as it were--shrouding the truths of exploitation and racist exclusion; this ideology, Bulosan never tired of pointing out, reproduces and legitimizes the contradiction between the labor of the many who produces social wealth and the control and distribution of that wealth by a privileged minority. Colonial servitude masquerading as freedom can only be remedied by grounding one's life in the practice of separation, distancing, resistance; and by rooting it in the ethos of a collectivity materializing as an ethicopolitical force from the convergence of individual acts of revolt.
As tribune and chronicler, Bulosan engaged in a praxis of committed (tendentious and polemical, if you like) writing intended to persuade, arouse, and instigate readers to action. He sought to integrate the popular struggles in the heartland of colonial power with those in the "uncivilized" and "untamed" hinterlands. His writings may be deemed a cogent witness to the protracted endeavor of the Filipino masses to free themselves from colonial barbarism, from the unrelenting domination of transnational business. In America Is in the Heart and elsewhere, we observed his radicalization, the ripening of his imagination, transpire in the gap between the ideals of democracy he had been taught and the violence of the reality he experienced.
Bulosan was a battle-tested combatant in the confrontation between antagonistic classes and interests on several fronts: between the multinational proletariat and the hegemonic power bloc of transnational capital, between Third World subjects and the elite of the industrialized nation-states. To the end of his life, Bulosan conscientiously strove to fuse both the political imperative of art serving the masses through the popularization of egalitarian principles and the artistic demand for wholeness, delightful release, and magical purposiveness--the ends of usefulness and pleasure. The synthesis he achieved was, in retrospect, an uncompromising but compassionate and lucid critique of the ironies, discrepancies, and paradoxes of Filipino existence in the United States.
Despite his revival in the 1960s and 1970s, and his continuing "prestige" in the field of ethnic studies and other multicultural disciplines, Bulosan actually still remains in the limbo of cultural marginality. Why? Unlike the more notorious expatriate Jose Garcia Villa (now rarely read) and despite his limited success, Bulosan was never really accepted by the U.S. literati. One can say that it was Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, who discovered Bulosan for American intellectuals and ascribed an "American" reputation to him. Given his association with leftwing intellectuals and radical dissidents before and after the onset of the Cold War, he was immediately suspect, a fringe or provincial author from the boondocks (from the Tagalog term for mountain, "bundok").
The answer to our question hinges on the powerlessness of the Filipino community in the United States, its "silence" and invisibility, historically predicated on the subordinate position of the Philippines and its dependent status in the world system of tranationalizing late capitalism. Within this global framework, Bulosan can not be categorized simply as another "ethnic" denizen in the currently thriving multicultural mall. The radicalization of his sensibility from the time he landed in Seattle in 1930 to his death in 1956 enabled Bulosan to traverse the boundaries set by the sectarianism of ethnic closure, the nostalgic melancholy of a wish to return to a mythical past, and the elitism of avantgard arbiters of taste.
Almost three million Filipinos today (circa 2007-2008) constitute the largest segment of the Asian American population in the United States, yet their creative force for social renewal is still either inchoate, repressed, or unacknowledged. Bulosan endeavored to articulate their presence in his account of multiracial conflicts and individual quests for happiness, insisting, however, on the fundamental primacy of labor or cooperative praxis as the guarantee of liberation for all humans across the barriers of class, gender, nationality, and race. Because of his radical popular-democratic orientation, Bulosan may be regarded as one of the first consciously multicultural writers in the United States whose profound and consistent involvement in anti-imperialist resistance defies assimilation into the hegemonic liberal pluralist canon. I have cited such attempts at cooptation earlier. It can be argued with more credence that he is one of the first "postcolonial" writers who accomplished the task of inscribing the power of the negative--the multiaccentual speech of "Third World" subalterns--in the archive of western knowledge, questioning its legitimacy, expropriating what was useful, and rewriting the uneven, fractured, dispersed history of the world system from the perspective of its victims.
As long as the Philippines remains a virtual neocolony and the Filipinos an oppressed nationality here and around the world (the diaspora now amounts to five million), Bulosan's texts remain necessary for carrying out the task of elucidating the predicament of the Filipino community and its varying modalities of self-affirmation within the political economy of a "New World Order." Bulosan will no doubt form part of the multiracial but still homogeneous map of a complex and rapidly changing society within which these new settlers--over fifty thousand a year--are bound to regroup, conduct reconaissance, and calculate their new bearings. The Filipino "alien" will surely find a home in Bulosan's territory, a springboard for future explorations.
One of these explorations is that of people of color everywhere claiming their right to be recognized as movers and makers of local/universal history. What Mark Twain at the turn of the century saw as the crucible of the American republic, its feat of subjugating the insurgent Filipinos--how, to quote Twain's words, "thirty thousand [American soldiers] killed a million [Filipinos]"--and thus provoking almost a hundred years of fierce resistance (of which Bulosan's oeuvre is one prodigious testimony)--this rich, complex dialectic of exchange, of challenge and response whose configuration I have partly traced here, may prove decisive in inventorying the possibilities and fate of the radical democratic transformation of U.S. society in the twenty-first century.
Alquizola, Marilyn. "Subversion or Affirmation: The Text and Subtext of America Is in the Heart." In Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, edited by Shirley Hune et al., 199-209. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991.
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Buaken, Manuel. I Have Lived with the American People. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printer, Ltd., 1946.
Bulosan, Carlos. America Is in the Heart. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973. First published 1946.
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San Juan, E. Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1972.
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ADDENDUM: Pedagogical Notes on Teaching America Is in the Heart (AIH)
Aside from standard histories of Asian American immigration (by Ronald Takaki and Sucheng Chan), students need to consult Renato Constantino's The Philippines: A Past Revisited for facts about U.S. colonial policies in the Philippines in the first three decades of this century; and, for background data about peasant conditions depicted in Part I of AIH, Sturtevant's Popular Uprisings in the Philippines (see also Schirmer and Shalom). For an analysis of the Filipino immigrant experience, one needs to compare the limited functionalist inquiry of H. Brett Melendy and Antonio Pido with testimonies such as the life-history of Philip Vera Cruz told by Craig Scharlin and Lilia V. Villanueva, I Have Lived with the American People by Bulosan's contemporary Manuel Buaken, and others included in Letters in Exile, ed. Jesse Quinsaat. Useful also are the perspectives offered by McWilliams and The Labour Trade by the Catholic Institute for International Relations.
A "new historicist" approach accords well with Bulosan's own historical-materialist perspective (143). It would compare and contrast the anecdotal account of a veteran organizer like Philip Vera Cruz operating in the Cold War arena with Bulosan's popular-front orientation. While Vera Cruz is almost an exact contemporary of Bulosan and both have peasant backgrounds, it would be fruitful for students to examine the contrastive effects of Bulosan's popular-front socialist orientation with Vera Cruz's union-centered activism. Meanwhile, Buaken's testimony as well as the oral histories of "oldtimers" (first-hand interviews of surviving "Manongs" can be a group project), and certain stories of Bienvenido Santos, would be instructive in marking the limits beyond which Bulosan was able to venture by combining various genres, styles, and discursive modalities in the unique textual web of AIH.
The architectonics of AIH can be grasped most easily by a standard structuralist approach using the binary opposition of city versus countryside. The countryside is associated with "boundless affinity" of kins (10), the father's creativity as cultivator (76), cooperative sharing (81-82), vitality (273, 311), fraternity (314); it evokes "the pleasure, the beauty, the fragrance" (270) of belonging opposed to the urban sophistication of sectarian leftists. Bulosan's recollection of village life summons images of "flight and freedom" (207). The city, on the other hand, is the locus of corruption (gambling, prostitution, criminality); the arrogant middle class (38); commodification of bodies (67, 92); police violence (Moxee City, Stockton, San Jose, Los Angeles). From the viewpoint of postcolonial theory, the city becomes the U.S. as metropolitan power and the countryside the dependent/peripheral formation; the native sensibility in the U.S. then begins to map islands (121, 134, 285), caverns (137), and discern ambivalence (109, 147, 228) and commonalities among races and genders (115, 230) that problematize fixed boundaries, including this dualism.
In terms of reception aesthetics, the student can describe the changing critical responses to AIH, from the early "patronizing" reviews to McWilliams' 1973 appraisal, and then to recent commentaries (Alquizola, Wong). Meanwhile, Cuban socialist criticism has revived Jose Marti's concept of "nuestra America" ("our America") as a hemispheric project. What will this new framework contribute to a revaluation of Bulosan's work? In this context, it would be revealing to track the itinerary of Bulosan's reading from authors like Kipling (173), Richard Wright, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe to R. Palme Dutt, Briffault, Engels; to the authors of the heroic spirit (Rilke, Kafka, Lorca, Heine, 237) and the socialist writers (Sholokhov, Gorki, Lu Hsun, Guillen, Malraux, 246), and finally to the ethnic pioneers Younghill Kang, Yone Noguchi, and Louis Adamic, among others. What intertextuality can be established among the texts of these authors adequate enough for us to formulate the semiotic principles of AIH?
But after exploring the permutations of contradictory values, what I suggest is needed is the method of metacommentary such as the one proposed by Fredric Jameson. A negative hermeneutic of demystification can be applied on such claims as U.S. democratic educational policy (14), the myth of Lincoln (70), as well as various melodramatic excesses (108). Of course, one can say that the narrative sequence of illusion and disappointment is itself auto-deconstructing; after Bulosan says that "I felt good and safe" on his arrival and he was glad to go anywhere "as long as it was in America" (104, 106), the Moxee City episode of vigilante attack follows.
Accompanying this move is a search for a latent utopian impulse, a disclosure of scenes or characters invested with pleasure or desire, ascribing creative agency to the dispossessed and oppressed. Clustered around this positive hermeneutic is the comic theme of death-rebirth, and of regeneration (65, 175, 261), which is poignantly evoked upon Bulosan's receiving the news of Luciano's death (see pages 56-57). In the metonymy of this section, several thematic strands can be pursued by researchers: the function of the hospital in the city, the Spanish Civil War affiliated with the quiet resistance of his father and brothers fighting for "a place in the sun"; remembrance as generator of courage and "vision of a better life" and, finally, of writing as restorer of life.
A fruitful comparative study can be pursued between AIH and arhetypal comic forms: e.g., Voltaire's Candide, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, even Kafka's Amerika.
From a semiotic viewpoint, metacommentary can also engage the trope of prophetic return or homecoming (76, 89, 118, 124, 172) to endow the past with meaning or, more specifically, "help liberate the peasantry from ignorance and poverty" (62, 228). Is this fantasy meant to evade the challenge of the immediate situation, or apologize for malingering and temporizing?
A feminist and psychoanalytic mode of reading would confront the enigmatic role of women in this "pilgrimage" of finding a home in inhospitable and dangerous territory (99, 104). The uncanny interventions of Marian and Mary (compared to the more secular ministry of Eileen and Alice Odell) need to be examined further; are they refigurations of the mother, of the island homeland? Patriarchal authority is suspended by this maternal signifier: "the password into the secrets of the past, into childhood and pleasant memories....a guiding star, a talisman, a charm that lights us to manhood and decency" (123, 230, 247). How do we explain the numerous examples of treacherous or seductive women (78, 141, 132, 151, 155, 179, 185, 259,), of fallen women (92, 274-75)? With Marian, Bulosan stresses care and affection; his search for affection and knowledge converges on Eileen, "the god of my youth," annihilating "all personal motives" (236); but he is uneasy with Alice Odell's "disturbing sensuousness" (234), and his portrayal of the erotic experience verges on parody (159). Is Bulosan an androgynous protagonist striving for "manhood" while being emasculated? Can we consider AIH a protofeminist text with its unique syncopation of the nomadic and sedentary lines of action?
Finally, a postmodernist perspective (within the larger field of cultural and postcolonial studies) can explore to what degree AIH is modernist in privileging individual creativity (202), existential commitment (199), imaginative transcendence (246), and Enlightenment progress? Has the postmodernist taste for pastiche and parody made AIH obsolete? Or has the generational characteristic of the new Filipino immigrants (mostly middle-class professionals obsessed with consumerism) become the main obstacle for a renewal of those social energies that lie dormant in the interstices of Bulosan's text?
Here one can compare AIH with cinematic texts like Dollar a Day, 10 cents a Dance, In No One's Shadow, or Dreaming Filipinos to map the mutations in the Filipino articulation of "America."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
E. SAN JUAN, Jr. was recently fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center at Bellagio, Italy. He was a 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. He will be a visting professor of comparative literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, this Spring 2008. 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, SALUD ALGABRE at iba pang tula, will be launched this February 2008 by the University of San Agustin Press in Iloilo City; and his new book, BALIKBAYANG SINTA; AN E. SAN JUAN READER will be launched by the Ateneo de Manila University Press early this year 2008.
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