Sunday, February 24, 2008
HISTORICIZING CARLOS BULOSAN: TOWARD THE ANATOMY OF
ETHNIC CANON FORMATION
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Director, Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Storrs, CT
This year 2006 officially marks the centennial anniversary of the arrival in U.S. territory of 25 natives from the new colony, the Philippine Islands, acquired as one of the spoils of the Spanish-American War together with Puerto Rico and Cuba. These colonized un-speaking “subalterns” (as trendy postcolonialist would now categorize them), first recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, may have been veterans of the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902, America’s “first Vietnam,” which killed more than 8,000 American soldiers and 1.4 million Filipinos. Today, approximately three million Filipinos constitute the largest of the Asian American immigrant group originating from one nation-state, the Republic of the Philippines, which is also perhaps the biggest exporter of low-paid migrant contract workers (ten million of 84 million Filipinos) to all the continents.
Apart from the pioneering efforts of now forgotten chroniclers like Carey McWilliams and Emory Bogardus, only one Filipino among several thousands—Carlos Bulosan—succeeded in capturing in expressive form the ordeals and traumatic experiences of Filipino workers (called the “Manongs” in the West Coast and Hawaii) in the United States in the first half of the last century. Although elevated to the status of a “politically correct” ethnic icon by the civil-rights struggles of the sixties and seventies, Bulosan’s position as an authoritative “spokesperson” of the Filipino American community—now mainly “middle-class” after the 1965 relaxation of immigration law--has always been precarious from the start, contingent on the vitality of the progressive social movements that inspired his own singular artistic development. Today, many doubt if Bulosan’s “message” is still relevant or meaningful for thousands of Filipinos working in the Las Vegas casinos or in the care-giver industry of Florida, California, and other states. With the decline of labor insurgency during the Cold War and the predominance of the neoconservative ethos of the last decades, we can now begin to take a critical, skeptical look at the way the formation of the academically sanctioned “Bulosan” may have contributed to the demobilization, if not defusing, of the radically subversive energies immanent in the subterranean folds of the author’s “unread” texts. A review of Bulosan’s genealogy as a producer of texts and their historical re-inscription might help us understand the nature of scholastic canon-making in the putative U.S. multicultural archive and recover its original democratizing, emancipatory impulse.
It will be fifty years now since Carlos Bulosan died in Seattle, Washington, on September 11, 1956; but up to now we have not settled the real year of his birth, whether 1911, 1913 or 1914. Commentaries on his work abound, but a definitive reliable biography is still wanting; Susan Evangelista’s pioneering effort in this regard is valuable for suggesting what more needs to be done). What is certain is that he has become canonized, his 1946 testimonio called American Is in the Heart (hereafter AIH; originally entitled “In Search of America”) celebrated as a classic ur-text of the Asian-American, more specifically, Filipino American experience. Because Bulosan is now required reading for thousands of college students and an icon for local folks, he is in danger of becoming an allergy or aversion. We may cite here places or sites honoring his memory and example: the Carlos Bulosan Memorial Exhibit in Seattle’s International District; the Carlos Bulosan Theater in Toronto, Canada, a community-based professional theater company run by Filipino Canadians; a rumored plan of the National Press Club in Manila to set up a Carlos Bulosan Foundation Prize; and a Carlos Bulosan Heritage Center recently inaugurated in New York City. Is there a Bulosan Pizza Parlor or Bulosan Shopping Mall around the corner? Like Rizal, Bulosan is in danger of becoming inutile, trivialized, taken for granted and museumified as a literary “high priest,”or monumental anito (ancestor).
Some archival background may be useful at the outset. In hindsight I am perhaps chiefly to blame for having started a trend when the University of the Philippines Press published Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle in 1972, the first book-length commentary on his major texts. Subsequently I edited the first anthology of his writings as a special issue of Amerasia Journal (May 1979) and Bulosan’s novel The Power of the People (1977; originally titled The Cry and the Dedication, hereafter The Cry) was issued by Tabloid Books in Ontario, Canada. This was followed by a volume of unpublished stories, The Philippines Is in the Heart (published in 1978 in Quezon City, Philippines), most of which were excluded from The Laughter of My Father (hereafter The Laughter). By the time the next collection of his works--On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan (Temple University Press) came out in 1995, Bulosan was already a canonical author, included in Paul Lauter’s Heath Anthology of American Literature and in assorted readers. However, the real “angel” of Bulosan’s works is the late Dolores Feria, a life-long friend of Bulosan, to whom all of us owe a great debt. Aside from several insightful commentaries on Bulosan, Feria edited the indispensable selection of Bulosan’s letters, Sound of Falling Light (1960); her effort to publicize his works and call attention to the plight of Bulosan’s compatriots remains unacknowledged and in fact unconscionably forgotten. Meanwhile, when the Filipino youth movement burst into the scene inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the late sixties and ripened into the anti-martial law movement from 1972 up to 1986, Bulosan’s AIH (reprinted in 1973 by the University of Washington Press) was already being quoted in Filipino community newspapers, programs, forums, and Filipino festivals. I understand that AIH has gone through 15 printings and is selling 4,000 copies every year. And yet, especially in the last two decades, I have found many Filipinos and Filipino Americans who have never heard of Bulosan nor read any of his now acclaimed works.
One truth cannot be doubted: the changes in the political and social milieu from the thirties to the fifties here and internationally, in particular the relations between the Philippines and the United States, will explain to a large extent the position, meaning, and significance of Bulosan’s writings—why they were forgotten immediately after coming out, why they were re-discovered and acquired new significance, and why they have become institutionalized and rendered safe. Lest I be charged for being guilty, or at least complicit, for the direction history is taking with regard to the unpredictable reception of Bulosan’s texts, and also in fear of repeating myself, I take this occasion to speculate on possible answers to these specific questions and by implication to the vicissitudes of the Filipino presence in the United States—only a part, of the ten-million strong Filipino diaspora around the planet.
On the 75th anniversary of his arrival in Seattle on July 22, 1930, a news report in the The News Tribune juxtaposed two items that signify two themes often replicated in response to Bulosan’s life and work. First, a quotation from a letter dated April 27, 1941: “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.” And second, Bulosan’s essay about “Freedom from Want” published in the Saturday Evening Post (March 6, 1943) and displayed in a Federal Building in San Francisco. The lesson seems unambiguous: despite the suffering and disillusionment, Bulosan was a success story. He personified the platitudinous tale of the immigrant-become-famous public personality. However, there was an unexpected turn: we are told that “his star faded, he returned to Seattle to do organizing and publicity work for Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).” So how the twist of the plot happened needs to be spelled out.
As in any news report, the gaps and lacunae shape the form and substance of what we read. What is puzzling to me is surely of interest to many: up to now, no one, least of all our highly credentialed ethnic-studies experts, seems to have asked the simple, obvious but seemingly intractable question: why and how did Bulosan become a writer, specifically the producer of such texts as The Laughter, AIH, stories such as “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow,” The Cry—(as for the recently found All the Conspirators, I am doubtful that this is a genuine Bulosan text, so discrepant is the style, tone and structuring of the materials).
Allos—let us call him by the name of the protagonist in the sketch “Passage Into Life”--became a writer by accident, by force of circumstance, and necessity. In the middle of AIH, after surviving blows of adversity fighting racist white men, Allos stops at a hotel in San Luis Obispo, California, and composes a letter to his brother Macario: “Then it came to me, like a revelation, that I could actually write understandable English. I was seized with happiness….When the long letter was finished, a letter which was actually a story of my life, I jumped to my feet and shouted through my tears: ‘They can’t silence me any more! I’ll tell the world what they have done to me!’” Two motives are intertwined here: the need to communicate with kin, a part of the family, becomes also the means to break the silence of subalternity, to act and strike back. It is a mode of decolonizing body and psyche. Achieving solidarity, fraternal communication, is part of the process of liberating oneself from the necessity imposed by a complex conjuncture of political and economic forces, by history. In short, Allos began writing as an act of rebellion against the condition he was born into, against the circumstances and exigencies he shared with others.
One cannot understand this encounter of forces by refusing the read the narrative of AIH integrally, in its composite whole. Most commentators of this synoptic life-history, disturbed by the masochistic irony of the narrator proclaiming faith in America while being beaten up and mutilated, focus on this dissonance and allied incongruities. They usually set aside Part I, chapters 1-12, unable to connect the colonial subordination of the peasant, the forcible maintenance of feudal/patriarchal despotism, with the landscape of isolation, violence, and solidarity leading to an affirmation of democratic ideals in the face of fascism and imperial aggression in the Philippines. This failure is a symptom of either academic ignorance, or, most likely, a cultivated blindness: ignorance of U.S. racial supremacy hidden behind American Exceptionalism, blindness to Filipino aspiration for freedom and national independence. The long and durable history of Filipino resistance to three hundred years of Spanish colonialism and then to U.S. aggression from 1899 to 1915, and thereafter—the Tayug uprising described by Allos is an insurrection against U.S. rule and its local agents—underwrites the subterranean currents of revolt in Allos and his compatriots, currents that motivated union organizing with the CIO in the mid-thirties, supporting the Spanish republican forces against fascism, and passionately volunteering to join the fight against Japanese imperialism.
I hazard to state here that any scholarly comment on Bulosan, or any Filipino writer for that matter, that elides the enduring impact--the forcible subjugation and the resistance to it—of U.S. colonial domination of the Philippine is bound to be partial, inadequate, and ultimately useless. I am constantly surprised at the recurrent mistake of scholars equating the repressed “nationalism” of subordinated Filipino “wards” (voiced by the chief protagonist of AIH ) with American nationalism, or imperial chauvinism; these two are worlds apart. Even though they throw around words like “capitalism” or “colonialism,” they cannot distinguish the disparity, nor really appreciate the flagrant parasitic relation, between colonial master and subjugated nationality. Of course, for hegemonic reasons, that is what we habitually get; and rare are the exceptions, depending on the climate of dissent and critical awareness of the systemic crisis we are all at present laboring under.
Allos’ plight was part of a collective predicament. All the known evidence indicates that Allos left the subjugated territory as part of the recruitment of Filipino labor for the sugar plantations of Hawaii and, later, for agribusiness in the West Coast and the Alaskan canneries. Most of those permitted “nationals” under indefinite tutelage, neither aliens nor citizens, were in search of an opportunity to work and earn enough to support themselves and help their parents, brothers and sisters back home. Although the “push” factor (to use the cliché of official discourse) was compelling, namely, the extreme poverty and brutalization of peasants in the administered possession (for a long time, the Philippines was under the Bureau of Indian Affairs), the “pull” factor that America was the land of promise, prosperity, and easy success exercised its seductive power on most natives, especially desperate peasants. This myth, of course, was exploded by the reality of experience.
And so it was neither personal ambition nor dire want that made Allos a writer. Rather, it was history and a body configured by the colonial milieu that converged to lead him to his peculiar vocation. Consider this history: his arrival in 1930 in the depths of the Great Depression, when 13 million people were out of work, with thousands of homeless workers foraging in garbage for food. This was punctuated by the brutal Watsonville anti-Filipino riot of January 19-22, 1930, when “Flips” were beaten up and driven out of town. It was the climax of years of racist scapegoating and vigilante atrocities against immigrant and colonized minorities. Exposure to these incidents quickly dissolved all youthful illusions in Allos whose search for his brothers in order to reconstitute the semblance of family life gave a stabilizing purpose to his nomadic existence. Consider next the breakdown of the body: in 1936 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent two years at the Los Angeles County Hospital. He had several lung operations, lost the ribs on his right side—later, in the fifties, a cancerous kidney had to be removed. It was this physical infirmity that prevented Allos from fulltime continuous work in the fields thereafter; his period of convalescence (for two years, at least) allowed him to read and educate himself, thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library, but more to the love of two sisters, the socialist writer Sanora Babb and her indefatigable sister, Dorothy Babb (Alice and Eileen Odell, in AIH). A fortuitous encounter, equivalent to Allos’ friendship with Josephine Patrick when he moved to Seattle, Washington, in the fifties. Deterritorialized and dispossessed, the uprooted native tried to reconstitute home and family in the network of communing minds and collaborating affections.
To be sure, Allos did not journey to the U.S. to “complete his education and become a writer,” nor even to support his parents financially. He could not do it. That might have been the result of a felicitous conjunction of multiple causes. It was mainly the friendship of the Babb sisters that functioned as the enabling condition for Allos becoming a writer with a radical, progressive orientation. The cultural-political setting of Los Angeles reinforced the personal liaison between Allos and the Babb sisters, especially Dorothy. We do not know exactly when this friendship began, but I surmise that he made their acquaintance when he moved within the circle of left-wing CIO labor organizers, as well as Communist Party writers and cinema cultural producers, in Los Angeles between 1930 and 1936. Allos’ contact with dissident intellectuals like Carey McWilliams, John Fante and Louis Adamic, together with his involvement in the nationwide American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born, a popular front organization campaigning for US citizenship for Filipinos, eased his way into the sites of East Coast publications like New Yorker, Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar, aside from leftist periodicals like The Masses and so on. Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, may have inspired Allos to produce eventually a series of historically anchored poetic testaments: Letter from America, Chorus for America, and The Voice of Bataan.
We learn that in the summer of 1934 Allos was involved in the Filipino Labor Union strikes in Salinas, El Centro, Vacaville, and Lompoc. Collaborating with Chris Mensalvas, the legendary organizer who arrived in the US in 1927, Allos and Mensalvas edited a short-lived proletarian literary magazine, The New Tide, which would “interpret the struggles and aspirations of the workers, the fight of sincere intellectuals against fascism and racial oppression in concrete national terms.” Affiliated with Mensalvas, Allos participated in the unprecedented Stockton strike in 1949-50, in the activities of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and the Committee for the Protection of Filipino rights. Anchored to these collective struggles, the Bulosan Imaginary acquired “a local habitation and a name.”
We can cite Filipinos who resembled Allos but whose lives followed a different trajectory. Other possible extrapolations of his life can be drawn. If Allos did not enjoy the nurturing friendship of Dorothy Babb and was healthier, he could have pursued the path of the well-known Filipino labor militant, Chris Mensalvas, and become a charismatic union organizer. If he attempted to get a college degree and devote himself to support his family back home and also enter the pettybourgeois circle of Filipinos in Chicago, as did Philip Vera Cruz, he would not have written AIH, The Laughter, The Cry, and other artistic works whose frame of intelligibility springs from the transcendence of kinship/blood filiation by the exercise of a popular-democratic will to emancipate the colony. Both Mensalvas and Vera Cruz, of course, carved out their own distinguished niches in the history of Filipinos and the multiethnic proletariat in the U.S. Both are Filipinos, but they did not write AIH, The Laughter, nor The Cry.
Summing up, then, Allos became a writer not through any single act of choice, as may be illustrated in certain episodes of AIH. Rather, it came about through his being inscribed within what (to use Fredrick Engels’ term) a “parallelogram” or constellation of forces: the physical dis-location of Allos from colonial Pangasinan, Philippines, to the metropole’s West Coast; his initiation into the labor-capital arena of conflict (initially through his brothers, but more effectively through Mensalvas) and, eventually, into the intellectual-cultural milieu of Popular Front politics (through the Babb sisters); the breakdown of his health as a result of years of malnutrition and neglect that he shared with the Filipino peasant/working class; and so on. In effect, the historical process of U.S. colonial domination of a people with a vital revolutionary tradition and the emerging resistance of citizens and ethnic workers in the metropolitan center made Allos the kind of writer that he was in that particular and unrepeatable conjuncture of the Thirties Depression, leftist resurgence, united front internationalism during World War II, the Huk rebellion, and the McCarthy period of the Cold War in the last century.
Does this mean Allos had no agency, nor freedom of choice? On the contrary. The paradoxical truth stems from the proposition that the individual is really defined by the totality of social relations in which she/he operates. Thus Allos’ personal decisions acquired value, meaning, and efficacy in consonance with the play of those historical forces that I have enumerated, in particular the political and cultural pressures and tendencies symbolized by organizations, discourses, and institutional figures which allowed Allos’ contribution to register its distinctive signature. The dialectical principle of self-transformation sprung from the unity of opposites (the fusion of chance and necessity) explains Allos’ singular evolution as a Filipino bachelor, artist, racialized scapegoat, union militant, and socialist intellectual. No individual makes history alone, it goes without saying, except as part of the contradictory social groups and forces that constitute the map of humankind’s struggle for freedom against natural and man-made necessity. This explains Allos’ continuing relevance.
Alone among contemporary Anglo Americanists, Michael Denning, in his wide-ranging The Cultural Front, deploys a historical-materialist analytic to chart and assay the exact placing of Allos’ AIH in the precarious, ever-shifting field of hegemonic contestation. Denning, however, has limited himself by concentrating on AIH to the neglect of Bulosan’s other writings. In this he shares the prevailing tendency of current scholarship to virtually equate AIH with all of Bulosan and thus prejudice any aesthetic or moral judgment. No wonder young Pinoys sometimes say Bulosan is passé, obsolete; he no longer speaks to the hip-hop, rapping gangs in Daly City or elsewhere. He no longer speaks to the volatile and ludic desire of Pinays dreaming of becoming postmodern babaylans. Everyone knows that the few surviving “Manongs” are today an object of sanctimonious nostalgia, or exoticizing charity. Even before Vera Cruz’s resignation from the Mexican-dominated United Farmworkers of America, Filipinos have already moved from the farms to service and care industries, some to professional-managerial occupations. Some have been deported as suspected terrorists, and others as victims of the USA Patriot Act (witness the fate of the Cuevas family of Fremont, California) and the endless war on terrorism.
We need a renewal of critical practice to address the changes bifurcating Allos’ time and the present. The obsession with the melodramatic aporias and the populist Americanism of AIH needs to be rectified; the clichés and banalities are accumulating. In this light, I submit that the entire body of Bulosan criticism needs to be “decentered” if we are to free ourselves from stifling scholastic orthodoxies and “model-minority” pieties. Official protocols, concepts, and tropes need to be re-assessed and altered. What would our assessment look like if we took The Cry as the pivotal center of the still evolving Bulosan corpus, or The Laughter as the organon of interpretive strategies, or even the short fiction and letters as providing the foundational criteria of judgment? Or even the allegorical fables and pedagogical instruments such as “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” “Story of a Letter,” or “Homecoming,” and the substantial number of stories gathered in The Philippines Is in the Heart? I am quite sure we will wake up from our dogmatic slumber and breathe anew redemptive winds from a newly discovered horizon of thought and moral economy of feeling and hope.
We can learn much from Denning’s historical triangulation of the “sentimental education” of the writer caught between the old world of tribal jealousies and the new world of international solidarity against fascism. AIH certainly makes sense as a typical Popular Front expression with a “sentimental, populist, and humanist nationalism” that is qualified by its ethnic particularity, manifesting generic affinities with Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory and Ernesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy. But is it valid to consider the Manongs as immigrants similar to the Irish, Italians and so on? In becoming a positive image, the power of the Negative has been annulled. Denning’s Popular-Front optic assuredly invests AIH with larger political resonance. But its fixation on the inadequate immigrant paradigm prevents a grasp of the subversive impulses born from the condition of exile and colonial state-lessness, emancipatory impulses which transgress the vertigo-inducing play of differences in their drive for contacts, linkages, affiliations and connections.
AIH’s narrative’s political vision, Denning suggests, is “embodied in the figure of the itinerant organizer.” Let us review the background of this mediating figure. The Filipino worker in the U.S. up to 1934 was considered a “national,” a nomadic subaltern without citizenship rights, almost a refugee. We need to emphasize that between the defeat of the Aguinaldo Republic and the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth, Filipinos in the U.S. were, strictly speaking, not immigrants but exiles, deracinated subjects, displaced colonials, sojourners not settlers. Their sovereignty was wrested from them by U.S. military-economic aggression and territorial annexation. About 1.4 million Filipinos died in this extension of Manifest Destiny through Benevolent Assimilation. This is a requisite, even ineluctable, distinction. After 1935, they became full-fledged aliens and were subject to repatriation or deportation; immigration from the Philippines was restricted to fifty persons annually.
What is the consequence? Failure to recognize the colonial relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. (and the neocolonial tie-up after 1946) and the racial-national subordination of Filipinos leads to marginalizing the first part of AIH, that is, the democratic struggle of peasants against feudal exploitation, and the nationalist demand of the popular masses for sovereignty and the right of self-determination. This is what a U.S.-centered, liberal framework expunges from sight: the national-popular vision that informs Allos’ work, given that the Filipino proletariat still remains inchoate, without national cohesion or autonomy, unable to realize its ethicopolitical hegemony in a specific social formation. The problem is not one of representation, but one of presentation, of re-cognition and respect for Filipino worth. Dispossessed and dispersed, Filipinos (from Allos’ time to the present) is still in the process of becoming—in search of a true sovereign homeland.
Because of this emphasis on the vibrant desire of Filipinos for national self-determination, against dehumanizing U.S. rule, postmodernist critics have all ganged up on this writer for ignoring gender, sexuality, difference, particularity, heterogeneity, and so on. Rachel Lee, for instance, accuses leftist critics of being guilty of a “universalizing vision that oftentimes occludes the specificities and differences among various political movements,” oblivious to “homosociality” tied with the “nation.” The error here is simple: Lee mistakes Bulosan’s decolonizing nationalism—the popular-democratic aspiration of the oppressed Filipinos for national self-determination-- for the chauvinist-imperialist nationalism of the colonizing U.S., so that she identifies the Filipino sense of “fraternity” for the “masculinized fraternity” which privileges “certain identities over others.” Lee’s attack on “homosocial bonds” mutates into a barrage of indictments launched by Susan Koshy with the help of Foucauldian weapons of mass destruction. Koshy charges Bulosan for endorsing the bourgeois separation of public and private spheres, thus ignoring the role of biopower. AIH, for Koshy, structures the idea of fraternity on a “gendered imaginary,” thus its representations engender “a desiring subject incorporated within the plot of interracial heterosexual familialism.” Echoing Lee, Koshy commits the error of thinking that Bulosan (confused with the fictional persona in AIH) sought to find a “new vision of nationhood” in seeking to belong to America, or a “gendered representation of American nationhood.”
There is no denying that Allos was a product of his time and place. Yet it is imperative to make the elementary discrimination between Allos the author and the fictional construct, the “Allos” of AIH, who, as everyone knows, is a composite portrait of numerous Filipinos who embody varying attitudes, thoughts, patterns of behavior, etc. Unless proof is offered, it is wise not to fuse the narrative persona, the invented character, with the author. Trust the tale, not the author, D.H. Lawrence counseled his readers. Allos, unfortunately, did not always anticipate this possible confusion and its damaging consequences. Is sexism found in the characters’ actions and thoughts? Of course. But the heterosexism and the homosociality discerned in the narrative needs to be plausibly grounded in their concrete historical environment, just as the close fraternal intimacy of African slaves in the Southern plantations, or of colonized subjects in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Cuba, needs to be inscribed in situations of extreme deprivation. While it is true that in Allos’ time, what Koshy calls “commodification of desire” has become the regulatory principle of capitalism, it is necessary to pay close attention to the tributary or feudal social entanglements in the Philippines and the distortion or exacerbation of these feudal bonds by the colonial U.S. regime. Sexuality of the Filipino colonial subject is much more complex because of the mixture of several modes of production and their manifold layering in the fractured social formation. Clearly, the historically-derived category of “biopower” and corollary notions appropriate for developed industrial capitalism cannot be superimposed on a backward, uneven, feudal/comprador setting. Capitalist biopower by definition can not function at all inserted into a tributary kin-centered social order complicated with archaic survivals incorporated in a distorted Christian bureaucratic setup.
What postmodernist critics privilege as the valorization of semiotic differences turns out, ironically, to be a mandate for monolithic vision and straight-jacket pronouncements. This mandate is often announced in a theater of consumption where hedonistic lifestyle and consumerist pleasure conceals the labor that produces the occasions and means of pleasure. Allos’ predicament lies not chiefly in his perverted sexuality, but in the control of his labor-power (organically tied to the dynamics of his psyche and bodily functions) by the colonial bureaucracy and later by U.S. monopoly capital. Representations of intimacy, affect, libidinal fantasies, and so on, cannot be properly assessed unless the mechanisms of reification that sustain the imperialist order are clarified; but they cannot be clarified if the concept of class and the exploitation of labor are dismissed or marginalized as useless in discussing sexuality, difference, etc., because “class” is allegedly totalizing or homogenizing. Instead of “class,” an abstract conception of particularity or singularity operates in its place which prevents the understanding and appreciation of Allos’ perennial search for community, the “concrete universal” of social justice and national-popular sovereignty.
I would argue the unorthodox position. What AIH foregrounds, after muddling through undecidables and disorienting indeterminacies fostered by a system in which “all that is solid melts into air” (as Marx lauded capitalism), is the centrality of class as a social category which Filipinos and other oppressed groups can use to understand how they can transform their condition decisively. The notion of class exploitation is more decisive than race or sexuality because it challenges directly the power of capital. Without a change in the mode of production, no significant change in social relations, including practices of sexuality and ethnic interactions, can be realized. Engagement with social class, including the colonial condition of the Filipino workers and peasants condemned to labor in occupied territory, leads us directly to confront the processes of material production and the unequal division of labor, the sociohistorical reality to which the oppressive hierarchies of gender, race and sexual preference are anchored and legitimized, made normal and common-sensical.
This is not to privilege the past, or glorify descent, lineage, ancestral origin. Because Filipinos are united in their shared condition of being colonized, and in the process racialized and gendered, the key to their liberation is the destruction of the colonizing system, its institutions and practices, which still prevail in altered forms. This is the goal of the project of “becoming Filipino” in AIH, since—amid the ruins of the homeland and the barbaric reign of white supremacy in the metropole—the chief basis on which Filipinos can unite, given the multiplicity of their languages and ethnic differences, is the political project of national self-determination, the collective project of popular, democratic sovereignty.
We are Filipinos not so much because of ethnic markers, common origin, or shared memories—they do play their part—but primarily because of being united in a political project: that of liberating the Philippines (in its geographical locus and in the diaspora) from class inequality and national bondage. A redeemed future, what Ernst Bloch calls the reality of the “not-yet,” does not exist separate from the actual movement of our minds and bodies. Allos tried to assay in the motion of events the shape of an emerging future. This is the project of actualizing a “concrete universal” in which particulars find their effective place within a determinate and differentiated totality. Frankly I do not think that postmodernist critics, trapped in the fetishism of hybridity, infinite substitution of signs, hyper-real simulations, and other “morbid symptoms” (to use Gramsci’s phrase) of reification, can really grasp and appreciate the value of this project as a “concrete universal,” a totality that embraces multiplicity and individuality in a way that can only be posited by the mystified Allos as “America,” with all its unfortunate essentializing, pejoratively utopian connotations.
This leads me to the task of historicizing Bulosan’s genealogy as producer of texts and decentering its orthodox assimilationist construal. This would primarily consist of shifting the center of gravity, the Archimedean point of critique, to the post-WW II period of Allos’ career, from 1946 to 11 September 1956, our 9/11 benchmark. Let us review the historical-empirical coordinates of this career that would constitute the field of conditions from which certain inferences about the temper of his life and the qualities of his art can be drawn:
(1) GESTATION: from 1911 to 1930, the period of youth and adolescence, coinciding with the pacification of the islands; the massacre of recalcitrant Moros; the passage of the Jones Law in 1916 (following the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act) which imposed “free trade” and confined the Philippines to feudal-agricultural status.
(2) EMERGENCE: from 1930 to 1946, the period of apprenticeship and maturity, ushering Allos into the Depression metropole; a series of anti-Filipino riots; the June 1932 “Bonus March” in Washington DC; the passage of the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act and the 10-year Commonwealth interregnum which installed neocolonialism; CIO organizing (1934-37) and the July 1934 General Strike in San Francisco; World War II, Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and the return of Gen. Douglas McArthur. This period also saw the beginning of the New Deal in 1933 with F.D. Roosevelt’s administration, and the publication of key modernist works such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson; from 1938 (when he was released from the hospital) to 1941, Allos reached the point of disenchantment and rupture; he confessed in his autobiographical testament that “it took me another five years before I was able to put my grand dream on paper in a literate form.” In one article, Allos described his meeting with ailing Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon on November 18, 1943, in Washington DC; he also met Sergio Osmena, the vice president, and Col. Carlos P. Romulo.
(3) BREAKTHROUGH: from 1946 to 1956, Allos’ return to labor-union activism as editor of the ILWU 1952 Yearbook. He was invited in 1950 by his old friend Chris Mensalvas who was president of ILWU, Local 37, the Filipino cannery workers’ union, from 1949 to 1959. FBI surveillance of Allos, dormant since his days with the leftist Hollywood circle, heated up during the attempt to deport Mensalvas and Ernesto Mangaoang, ILWU official, as communists. While the Philippines was granted formal independence in 1946, it remained economically, politically, and militarily dependent on Washington through the “parity” amendment to the Philippine Constitution; the Huks, organized in 1942 to fight the Japanese occupiers, was declared illegal in 1948; its leftist representatives were outsted from the Philippine Congress in 1946. Gradually the Huk rebellion declined beginning in 1951 with the arrest of many nationalists, including the poet and trade unionist Amado V. Hernandez whom Bulosan probably met earlier. When Bulosan died, fascist repression eased the way for the signing of the U.S.-Mutual Defense Treaty; the replacement of the Bell Trade Act with the Laurel-Langley Agreement reinforcing Philippine dependency; the U.S. National Security Council authorized expenditures to suppress the Huk insurgency. This period of the Cold War includes the Taft-Hartley Act restricting trade union power, the Korean War, McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, advent of mass television, and such works as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Within this synchronic and diachronic field of conditions, we can infer the mediating factors of culture and nature that would allow us to elucidate the complex interactions between the individual and his world. I propose that this schematic periodizing of Allos’ itinerary as an exiled native endeavoring some kind of “homecoming” be considered as a heuristic point of departure for the project of reconfiguring the archive and revising a metropole-centered criticism. In the process, it might also serve to renew its submerged liberatory energies for the next generation of Filipino-Americans (not all of whom, I trust, will be sucked into the abyss of cyber-information and commodified simulacra) in what is now a planetary diaspora of ten million overseas kababayan. This will also be a means of foregrounding the theme of exile and return that underlies, and to some extent, makes coherent the fragmentary, unravelled strands of Allos’ life.
During this last decade of his life, Allos wrote The Cry as well as numerous essays, poems, and still unpublished stories and articles. Notable is an unsigned protest against McCarthyite repression in the Philippines entitled “Terrorism Rides the Philippines” in the 1952 ILWU Yearbook. The value of this essay cannot be over-emphasized. It shows Allos in the thick of the motion of events, the “not-yet” moving to the “concrete universal.” Contrary to the rumor, Allos did not lapse into despair despite being blacklisted, ostracized from Establishment media, reviled and calumniated by reactionary Filipino journalists. Apart from the ILWU, he affiliated with the progressive group surrounding Josephine Patrick, his comrade in Seattle, who was active in the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born and in the Communist Party with its Popular Front program. At this time, together with novelist Howard Fast and Black educator W.E.B. Du Bois, Allos supported an effort to publish the autobiography of Luis Taruc, one of the leaders of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines. Taruc’s Born of the People (ghostwritten by William J. Pomeroy), was published in 1953 by International Publishers in New York.
I suggest that it is Allos’ meeting with Hernandez and encounter with Taruc’s biography that afforded the condition of possibility for the construction of what can be called “national allegory” (to use Fredric Jameson’s controversial notion), by no means a photographic documentary or “realistic” description of the Huk insurgency in the Philippines. (Bulosan never became a U.S. citizen and never visited the Philippines.) Now a cursory examination of the essay, “Terrorism Rides the Philippines,” together with selected letters to friends during this period, will easily demonstrate Allos’ sufficient understanding of the political, cultural and economic situation in the Philippines. He followed events closely, tracking the nuances and innuendoes in the news reports and communication from friends. But he was more interested in how his situation was refracted and elaborated by events happening in the Philippines, how he could make sense of his life in relation to the situation of his compatriots, than in compiling raw facts and and inventorying incidents for their own sake.
The Cry invents an example of an exceptional genre called “minor literature” by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Like AIH, it is not the usual autobiography of the individual hero confronting the problems of a “godless” cosmos, nor a psychological novel in the manner of Dostoevsky or Faulkner, but a synthesis of typical individuals and representative situations. The Cry does not claim by any means to simply document experience because “it was there.” This is at best a “mimetic fallacy,” at worst just a mistaken view of the concept of realism. Realism—specifically, a critical one where verisimilitude functions to render the typical, not the statistical average--is not mechanical reproduction of sensory data, or unmediated transcript of impressions; rather, it is a sophisticated aesthetic convention with a code of rules and protocols. It is ludicrous to oppose imagination to experience since the raw materials of experience are already mediated through the imagination. This is the mistake of Luis Teodoro Jr. who tries to fit The Cry into a formulaic Procrustean mold: its failure is caused by “Bulosan’s inadequate grasp of the details of the period of which he is writing, his development of the novel having been based largely on documents and what he remembered of the homeland.” Due to this “inadequate grasp” of information, Allos succumbed to speech-making, purveying abstract ideas lacking dramatic rendition, according to the dogmas of American New Criticism. Teodoro’s wrong-headed fault-finding exemplifies the sectarian hauteur of a putative arbiter of elite taste who preempts the reader’s judgment with obiter dicta which are totally remote from Bulosan’s, or his generation’s, concrete life-world, together with shared ideas and aspirations recorded in Allos’ numerous essays and letters (none of which Teodoro cites). Unfortunately, some reviewers replicate Teodoro’s self-satisfied ignorance and use it unscrupulously as symbolic capital for petty careerist ends.
This is the moment to return to my thesis whose import may now be obvious but still needs specification: Allos’ body of writing cannot be fully understood and appreciated without respecting his ethico-artistic motivations (which may or may not have been realized in practice) and its ideological, philosophical grounding. This can be found, among other texts, in “The Writer as Worker,” or in the letters where axiomatic principles and thought-experiments may be found. In one letter dated April 8, 1955, Allos reflects on his own work:
My politico-economic ideas are embodied in all my writings, but more concretely in my poetry. Here let me remind you that 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. The hidden bitterness in this book is so pronounced in another series of short stories [now collected in The Philippines Is in the Heart], that the publishers refrained from publishing it for the time being….
Allos is more explicit and programmatic in the 1955 autobiographical sketch for Twentieth Century Authors. Notice that after recounting his life-history, the “voyage in and out,” he returns to the traumatic moment of illness—his first one in 1936-38 precipitated the discovery of his artistic vocation—against the background of a seemingly irretrievable past, a loss that cannot be healed by elegiac reiteration and memorializing prayer, against which the compulsion to launch forward erupts:
I am sick again. I know I will be here (Firland Sanitarium, Seattle, Washington) for a long time. And the grass hut where I was born is gone, and the village of Mangusmana is gone, and my father and his one hectare of land are gone, too. And the palm-leaf house in Binalonan is gone, and two brothers and a sister are gone forever.
But what does it matter to me? 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.
This vow reiterates the one made in AIH as he recalls the Tayug peasant uprising near his hometown: to “give significance to all that was starved and thwarted in my life,” the kernel of the life-long project for which he became a writer, not just any writer but an “organic intellectual” of the Filipino masses. Because of this over-riding commitment, Allos’ portrayal of all “the wretched of the earth” departed from the code of classic realism and adopted a more tendentious cast, a Brechtian teaching/learning rationale aimed at “conscienticization.” This defines more precisely the allegorical/didactic style and dialogic norm of his texts, qualities that display affinities with the “rhizomatic” poetics of Kafka and other “third world” writers. Indeed, Allos’ texts show characteristics of “minor” (employed in a special sense) writing formulated by Deleuze and Guattari--“deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” —aspects of which I have touched on here.
There is nothing minor in Allos’ intervention in counter-hegemonic revolutions. When Allos’ novel first appeared in the Philippines as The Power of the People just after the February 1986 “People Power” revolt, I argued that the work can be viewed as a kind of “national allegory” in the sense that Lu Hsun’s or Ousmane Sembene’s works functioned as polysemic indices and symbolic fables of their distinctive social formations. It addressed in an oblique way the crisis of that specific conjuncture in U.S.-Philippines history, the persecution of Filipino militants Mensalvas and Mangaong figuring as a synecdoche of the repression of the Huks by the Magsaysay puppet regime in the Philippines. Uncannily, the Huk uprising brought back images of the Tayug insurrection—an image compulsively repeated in our history. This episode spanned the early years of the Cold War era prior to the explosion of the Civil Rights struggles in the sixties and the resurgence of “third world” liberation movements from Algeria and Cuba to Vietnam and Nicaragua. The threat of deportation for Filipino activists (recall the earlier fates of Pedro Calosa and Pablo Manlapit) foreclosed Allos’ dream of returning to the land of his birth. He never applied for U.S. citizenship, fearing perhaps that he would be turned down since the FBI had already been on his trail since his days with the Hollywood suspects (one wonders if he ever met Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, or Thomas Mann, all exiles from Nazi Germany, in Los Angeles). In any case, for Allos (circa 1955), the stakes were no longer the urge to belong to a utopian “America” or return to a pastoral refuge in Pangasinan; it was now writing “for or against war, for or against life.”
Can we not consider The Cry as a sublimated sequel to AIH? Again, from a dialectical viewpoint, there was negation and affirmation across the terrain of thought and lived experience. Clearly the search for community across race, gender and class persisted, but sublated into another level: now, the guerilla contingent becomes the site of the unfolding of a concrete universal, the unwinding of a unity of opposites, the stratified totality of a nation in the process of becoming. It was an allegory of the people’s self-movement, a spontaneous but also necessary internal self-transformation, with all the inconsistencies, excesses, and contradictions that characterize such beginnings in history. It could not be just a repetition of the Manongs driven by an alienated and alienating environment until the war against fascist capital unites everyone. His letters to Dorothy Babb (the person most intimately attached to Allos) from 1937 to 1942 closes that period of beleaguered self-examination and familial anxieties. Allos’ tried-and-tested sensibility had to wrestle with the new forms of barbarism, including the vagaries of self-indulgent petty-bourgeois desire, and explore new forms of popular resistance.
A historic rupture occurred in Allos’ journey, as well as in the itinerary of the Filipino community in the U.S., marked by the Huk insurrection from 1946 to 1952. It was heightened by the anti-communist panic surrounding the Korean War and the confrontation with Communist China. Allos’ possible meeting with Amado V. Hernandez may have re-kindled memories of his impassioned solidarity with the Spanish Republican forces expressed in poems like “Biography Between Wars,” “Meeting with a Discoverer,” and others. One letter confessed his “secret dream of writing here a 1,500 page novel covering thirty-five years of Philippine history,” with the fourth one covering 1951-1961, which I consider will be a great crisis in Philippine history.”
Allos would not traverse that ten-year crucial passage, uncannily prophesied in November 1949, foiled by the combined weight of the past and the burden of the present. His involvement with the ILWU would have eventually connected him with Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, and the vanguard of the California farmworkers’ strike then training in the fields of Delano and Coachella in the early sixties. The Manongs rediscovered, or better re-invented, themselves in reaffirming the right to strike. But FBI harassment and racial exclusion would not prolong his life to the time of another renaissance of popular-democratic faith, the Civil Rights and anti-war movement of the Sixties. Refracting the leitmotif of homecoming that sutures the solitude of his stories, poems and letters, The Cry enacts the return—one traumatized character (Dante) already home from the U.S. awaits the coming of another one, the “wounded” messenger (Felix Rivas) who never appears, suspending the denouement, converting this expectation of the advent of the legendary bearer of “Good News” into a permanent condition. Is this Allos’ metaphor for hope, the “Not-Yet” pregnant in the womb of the present?
Cultural practices and artistic representations, of course, are products of history and group consciousness; and though not directly caused by practical necessities, they register both the pressure of the moment and the exigencies of the embattled artist. Suffice it here to assert, again, that the central theme of exile and return in all of Bulosan’s works can be rearticulated as the project of liberating the homeland from feudal and colonial oppression, a collective project of national self-determination. This desire to complete the “unfinished revolution” of 1898 amid the alienation and deracination of the colonized subject transplanted to the “belly of the beast” is one which, in varying historical arenas, resonates in the life and deeds of such revolutionary militants and thinkers as Jose Marti, Aime Cesaire, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and others. I cite two reviewers who articulate this theme in their own way. This is a topic that, to my knowledge, only one scholar, Tim Libretti, has so far explored in depth. From a sympathetic perspective, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes:
Poverty, shame, and shattered dreams prevented the [Filipino] migrants from going back to the Philippines. Many died in the United States, old, alone, and broken in body.
Bulosan shared that fate, but in The Cry he revisits his native land the only way he can. The anguish of the novel is not only the anguish of its characters, but of its author as well; the book represents the act of an imagination in exile attempting to carve out a space away from the confusions of America, and attempting to return home with a starkness of clarity that life in America did not allow. Bulosan saw himself in those revolutionary seven, hampered by deep physical and emotional pain, but striving for a distant yet definite goal.
While Nguyen wonders how the novel “feels contemporary in that the situation today is not any different than in 1950” so that the work of writing for the sake of justice and social change proves even more imperative, Tomio Geron reaffirms the need to move away from Popular Front categories to confront the historical necessities, both personal and collective, that transformed the naïve and trusting peasant boy from the village of Mangusamana, Philippines, to the prophetic visionary forging the “conscience of his race”:
…Bulosan writes from the perspective of “exile” rather than the traditional Asian American “immigrant.” He saw American imperialism in the Philippines as the cause of his family’s dismemberment and dislocation, and connected it directly to the exploitation he suffered at the hands of capitalists in the United States. These appraisals argue against cultural-pluralist and assimilationist notions of “multiculturalism,” examining power relations in the Filipino experience in America and the Philippines.
These testimonies argue that it is possible to offset the hegemonic doxa that endorses the immigrant story of hard work and success implicit, if somewhat parodied and undercut, in AIH. But it will need a massive consensus to offset that view, one premised on the argument that Allos’ role as exiled writer-activist cannot be fixated and reified to the early period of his struggle in the U.S., the thirties and the Popular Front agenda. When AIH ends with the united-front campaign against German and Japanese imperialism, we do not pack up our bags and go back to the disenfranchised communities to enjoy the rewards of pax Americana. Allos himself did not settle back to bask in the glories of American Exceptionalism; his utopianism, however much romanticized or displaced by a yearning for “roots” in the past growing into the future, proved resilient to compel him to re-engage with his new-found “brothers” in the ILWU.
We owe it to Lane Hirabayashi and Marilyn Alquizola that finally, after five years of waiting, the FBI records of surveillance of Allos has been released to the public by virtue of the Freedom of Information Act. This, I hope, will spur the de-centering of the Bulosan canon to liberate its emancipatory energies in a world-systemic critique. We need to undertake the task that Pascale Casanova recently reminded us, the task of re-establishing “the lost bond between literature, history and the world, while still maintaining a full sense of the irreducible singularity of literary texts.” It is analogous to recognizing the dialectical reciprocity of Allos, the singular individual, and Bulosan as representative of the Filipino collectivity, the emergent provocative voice not only of the Filipino masses of workers and peasants, but also of all the dispossessed and disinherited of the earth. This is the concrete universal we need to theorize and achieve against the temptation of model-minority success.
At about the time Allos wrote “Terrorism Rides the Philippines,” two labor-union militants were born as prophetic signs of the future: Gene Viernes in 1951 and Silme Domingo in 1952. Both young men matured in Seattle during the social ferment of the Sixties and the anti-Marcos mobilization. They also became involved early in their life with the ILWU, Local 37, Bulosan’s and Mensalvas’ union. In 1981, both were murdered by pro-Marcos thugs supported by reactionary elements of the Filipino American community. Domingo was a key militant of the leftist Union of Democratic Filipinos leading the resistance against the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship; the trial of the murderers revealed the complicity of local Filipino leaders with the brutal gangster tactics of the Marcos regime to suppress dissent in the United States. This is unequivocal proof of Allos’ belief that one cannot divorce the struggle back home against feudal-comprador barbarism supported politically and militarily by the imperialist bloc. Both fronts in the popular-democratic struggle are linked dialectically, as dramatized by the character Dante in The Cry—a shadowy double or hypothetical surrogate for Allos—whose “wounds” inflicted by his ordeal in the U.S. must needs be cauterized and cured by facing the same enemies he fled from in the guise of the local landlords, bureaucrats, warlords who safeguarded their masters’ interests. This is also what Philip Vera Cruz found when, despite his public protest, he witnessed Cesar Chavez endorsing the Marcos dictatorship in the Seventies. Vera Cruz had no alternative but to resign from the very union that he, Larry Itliong and other Filipinos helped organize with the historic Delano Grape Strike in 1965 nine years after Bulosan’s death.
This April 2006 the Library of Congress will hold a symposium honoring Carlos Bulosan and his still unassayed contribution to U.S. multicultural democracy in the light of the one-hundred year anniversary of the Filipino arrival in U.S. territory. This is an unprecedented and salutary event. The Philippines is currently experiencing a political crisis reminiscent of the imposition of military rule by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. Were he alive, Bulosan would be the first to rally Filipinos against the unprecedented political killings of lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians, and other citizens in their country of origin. Amid the “war against terrorism,” with the Philippines declared as the “second battlefront” after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is an opportune time to re-appraise Bulosan’s works, its resonance and impact. There are signs that, despite the apathy I noted earlier, Bulosan’s writings are finally being re-discovered and renewed at the same time, by a new generation of readers here, in the Philippines, and in the unprecedented Filipino diaspora around the planet. One example of renewal is the prodigiously resourceful staging of the short story, “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” directed by Loy Arenas. There is no doubt the beneficiaries (mentioned by Mensalvas in his obituary in which he inventoried Allos’ Estate as “one old typewriter, wornout socks, old suit” and “Beneficiaries” as “His people “ will now exceed the number of those heroic Manongs whom Bulosan—as Dolores Feria, his devoted friend reported a year after he died—cherished in his shy and gentle way; the kababayan (compatriot) whom he initially addressed and paid homage to a century ago.
Posted by Sonny San Juan at 7:00 PM