Remembering Carlos Bulosan
This month marks the 100th birth anniversary of Carlos Bulosan, the writer, activist, labor leader who moved to the US. as a young man from Binalonan, Pangasinan and became a powerful voice of workers and immigrants in America.
It was a journey of pain and courage.
Bulosan came to America hoping for a new life. That search took him to towns and cities on the U.S. West Coast, where he toiled as a dishwasher, as a field hand picking fruits and vegetables, as a worker in canneries in Alaska.
He worked alongside other immigrants and working class whites and blacks, and eventually found himself joining them in struggles against oppressive employers and abusive law enforcers.
Eventually, he was recognized for his commitment to social justice. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Bulosan to write one of the essays based on his “Four Freedoms” State of the Union Address.
In the essay, titled “Freedom from Want,” Bulosan said:
“If you want to know what we are, look upon the farms or upon the hard pavements of the city. You usually see us working or waiting for work, and you think you know us, but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history…
“We march on, though sometimes strange moods fill our children. Our march toward security and peace is the march of freedom—the freedom that we should like to become a living part of. It is the dignity of the individual to live in a society of free men, where the spirit of understanding and belief exists; of understanding that all men, whatever their color, race, religion or estate, should be given equal opportunity to serve themselves and each other according to their needs and abilities.
“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 painted a compelling portrait of the Filipino American experience in the ‘30s and ‘40s in his classic novel, America Is in Heart.
Bulosan’s book influenced a generation of Filipino American activists who got involved in the Civil Rights movement and in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.
In fact, for many young Fil-Ams, Bulosan helped them embrace activism that that was rooted in both the struggles of their community in the US., and of the homeland their parents and grandparents left behind.
Seattle activist Cindy Domingo called America Is in the Heart “probably the most influential novel for developing activists in the early 1970s.”
“At the time, there was not a lot written about Filipinos especially about those involved in more radical politics or labor organizing,” she told me.
Bulosan’s book, she added, “reminded us of the harsh experiences of the manongs that we grew to know in our work in the Alaska cannery workers union and the International District/Chinatown” in Seattle.
This was in the ‘70s and ‘80s when young Filipino Americans became involved in campaigns for civil rights and minority rights, while working with activists in the Philippines in the fight against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Cindy Domingo said Bulosan and other union leaders of his generation “showed us that the radical leaders in the union continued to have ties to the Philippines especially the radical movement there. “
“Their sense of international solidarity was clear,” she said.
Among the Fil-Am activists deeply inspired by Bulosan was Cindy’s brother, Silme Domingo.
An outspoken labor activist and opponent of the Marcos regime, Silme became a target of the dictatorship. In 1981, he and Gene Viernes were assassinated in their union headquarters. A Federal court later ruled that the Marcoses had ordered the murders.
Nearly 60 years after his death in 1956, Bulosan is still considered the most important Filipino American writer in history.
His story and writings remain relevant, Cindy Domingo said.
“While Bulosan’s writings were first published decades ago, his political analysis remains contemporary in terms of the roots of the harsh realities of the immigrant experience,” she said.
“He gives us hope that our lives can be bettered through organizing and the development of community. Despite the harsh realities of the immigrant experience in America, people can keep their humanity and love for each other and that all people share in their want for that new world that Bulosan so clearly envisioned in his writings.”
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