America Is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan, 1946
- Philippines, #11
- Paperback, received as a gift
- Read January 2018
- Rating: 2.5/5
- Recommended for: enthusiastic communists
This was the first of many immigrant stories that I read from the Philippines (most, though not all, of these dealing with the experiences of Filipinos in the US; America has a special relationship with the Philippines, by which I mean we colonized the country at the turn of the 20th century under the pretense of liberating it from Spain, then abandoned it to the Japanese during World War II, while also recruiting Filipino soldiers to fight for the US with the promise of full veterans benefits, a promise upon which we promptly reneged when the Philippines won its independence after the war). It also represents an abrupt shift from the stories of wealthy Spanish and mestizo Filipinos that have been the focus of the novels I’d read up to this point. Bulosan’s story is one of extreme poverty, hardship, and tragedy. It tells of the brutally difficult lives of working-class Filipino immigrants to the US in a time when they had few rights or protections and faced a great deal of racism and prejudice. As a labor activist and writer, Bulosan helped to bring attention to the plight of Filipino and other Asian workers in the US, and as such this semi-autobiographical book is a key piece of Philippine literature.
Bulosan (or Allos, his alter ego in the book) was born to a penniless farming family in the Philippines, who scraped all their money together to send one son to school, while the others labored in fields and selling crops. Their lives were hard and itinerant, with Allos and his mother and an ever-changing rota of siblings living in the town, while their father stayed in the countryside working on their small parcel of land. One by one, Allos’s brothers left for a better life in America, and in 1930, at age 17, he followed after them. But their life in America was no better: just as itinerant, just as hungry. During his first fifteen years in America—the period covered in the course of this book—Allos wandered from Alaska to San Diego, looking for work and purpose. His brothers became estranged from each other and he drifted between them. Despite his involvement in the labor movement and his importance to Filipino-American history, his life in America was hard and cruel and lacking in love. And then, despite his promise to his parents that he would return to the Philippines one day, he died alone in a foreign country.
And yet. All this pathos is pretty much drowned in a soup of names and places and acronyms. There are friends and acquaintances and roommates, who pop in and out of Allos’s life as he moves from place to place, often reappearing after years (and, in the book, dozens of pages) with little introduction. A million little towns in California are mentioned by name. And there are so many organizations—communists, labor unions, political groups, immigration activists—all of which have their own names and acronyms and factions. In that way, it reminded me of Funu, one of the books I read (or kind of read, anyway) from East Timor: not quite fictionalized enough to allow the reader to get at the truth (though, of course, perhaps someone with more background knowledge of Filipino American history and the labor movement in midcentury California would find it less confusing). It is difficult to distill down the whole complicated mess of truth and history into a set of ideas that a reader can grasp and follow. Hard enough when writing about someone else, maybe impossible in recording one’s own life. But I felt, by the end of the book, rather stunned by the sheer variety of names and facts and events that I had attempted to absorb. There is no doubt that it is important history, but a history textbook doesn’t always make for great reading.