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Carlos Bulosan and the great Filipino book fiesta

03:15 PM September 17, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—One anniversary didn’t get much attention this month. September 11 was also the 55th anniversary of the death of Carlos Bulosan.

Well, there’ll be an opportunity to remember Bulosan next month when Filipino artists and writers gather in San Francisco for the first Filipino American Book Festival.

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Just call it FilBookFest. And it’ll be one great fiesta.

I’m sure Carlos Bulosan would have loved to be there. I can imagine him now, dressed the way the old Pinoys did when they partied, in a coat and tie, and wearing a fancy hat. He’d be greeting attendees, shaking their hands, signing copies of “America Is In the Heart,” posing for pictures.

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He’d be cracking jokes with the manongs and the young FilAms, and recalling his days as a migrant worker and labor organizer during the Great Depression.

And he’d probably marvel at how far the Filipino journey in America has progressed.

For about 70 years ago, a fiesta of Filipino writers and artists in the heart of San Francisco would have been unthinkable. It not only would have raised eyebrows, it probably would have provoked a riot.

“And October is now officially designated Filipino American History month?” Bulosan would probably ask. Also unthinkable in the America of the 30s and 40s.

For back then, Pinoys like Bulosan couldn’t even venture into parts of San Francisco without being harassed or beaten. In some California cities, they would have encountered signs saying, “No Dogs and Filipinos allowed.”

There’s even that more infamous one in Stockton: “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.”

A photo of that sign has been reproduced in posters, books and t-shirts. It’s such a powerful image. I can imagine the Pinoys of Bulosan’s time seething with rage every time they saw such signs.

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I’ve always wondered why in the world the bigot who made that sign even felt the need to add the word “positively” to that warning. Maybe because people like Bulosan were known not to be so easily deterred by such insults.

‘You don’t want us in your hotels? We’ll stick around anyway.’

‘You don’t want us dating white women? We’ll still have our dances.’

‘You don’t want us to organize? Well, we’ve already got a union and we’re even reaching out to our fellow workers — Latinos, Blacks and whites.’

Bulosan is best known, of course, for his words.

This year also marks the 65th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, “America Is In the Heart,” now considered a literary classic.

In a documentary on Bulosan, writer and academic Greg Sarris says, “God bless Carlos Bulosan who left us a document of this small but great group of people who came here and played an instrumental role in the shaping of American politics and social life.”

In two weeks, an even bigger group of Filipinos will kick off an event that, in many ways, has become possible because of the sacrifices and struggles of people like Carlos Bulosan.

The two-day cultural fiesta will feature a hundred authors and thousands of books.  There will be readings, and performances, including by the Filipino American theater company Bindlestiff. There will even be a Balagtasan, the traditional Filipino debate in verse.

Two Philippine National Artists will be there.  The poet Rio Alma will speak and read some of his work. The painter and visual artist Bencab (Benedicto Reyes Cabrera) will hold a live nude sketching session (for selected guests).

The art works will be auctioned with proceeds going to the Literacy Initiatives International Foundation, one the main sponsors of the FilBookFest, and the Philippine art acquisition fund of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

There will be a tribute to the great Filipino writers, such as NVM Gonzalez, Bienvenido Santos, Al Robles and Nick Joaquin.

And, of course, there will be a tribute to Carlos Bulosan, the kid from Binalonan, Pangasinan, who worked, struggled, wrote, organized, dreamed and blazed a trail for the powerless of America.

(For more information on the Filipino American International Book Festival, check out http://filbookfest.info.)

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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TAGS: America, America is in the Heart, books, Carlos Bulosan, Culture, Festival, Fiesta, FilBookFest, Immigration, San Francisco, United States, US
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