To Carlos Bulosan | Alicia Upano
I am writing to you because I keep moving and I keep finding you there. Even now, I write to you from San Jose, Calif., where I’ve recently re-settled, and where you, some decades before me, arrived to organize Filipino and Mexican workers in the lettuce fields. Somewhere in this city–now touted as the safest big city in America–five men found you and friends and shoved you into a waiting car. Through the car window, you saw a deserted country road, fields of beets. Death, you said, was at the end of the road.
You imagined Mangusmana, the little village in Pangasinan where you grew up, but it was a place your mind leapt to in helplessness, dreaming of freedom in the very country where its promise remained elusive. In the woods, where the car stopped, you lost a tooth in the beating. You watched your friend stripped, tarred and feathered; they burned his crotch hair. They called you monkeys.
San Jose was not the exception. You, and the Filipinos of your generation, criss-crossed this large country. Indeed, transience became the major marker of your lives, which shifted with the seasons: apples in Moxee City, asparagus in Stockton, cauliflower in Santa Maria, lettuce in Lompoc, peas in Modesto, fish in Alaska, sugar beets in Oxnard. In my native Hawaii, sugar and pineapple companies enticed more than 100,000 men like you. You were among the first to migrate over en masse: terribly young and largely uneducated. Provincianos full of Amerikano dreams.
I’ve been told that no one wants to recount our messy history and warned not to believe everything I’ve read in your 1943 memoir, America is in the Heart. Instead, I should mention how in this city, years after you, Cesar Chavez made his mark, that Filipinos are eligible for U.S. citizenship and now occupy positions of power in the U.S. government. We are not, a friend once told me, an oppressed people.
As tempting as it is to leave it at that, I still wonder why your story remains relevant, even for someone like me, the daughter of a Filipino man and his American wife, a union that would have been illegal during your own time. I have had the benefit of education and an American accent. No matter how dire the economy gets, I know that I’ll never have to risk my fingers in cannery machines or my back in the fields. But still, in my own way, I have been nomadic, chasing promise. And seventy years after you set sail from the Philippines, Filipinos are also still chasing promise abroad, not to mention every immigrant who steps foot on American soil.
Take San Diego, another city we’ve shared. Here, you were refused service, met compatriots, huddled together for strength and companionship. Work-worn, you called them. Fear-stricken. My neighborhood, nicknamed Ellis Island, was home to immigrants from Latin America and Africa.
Still, in this city, I taught literature in a university classroom and my students–many who felt long removed from their families’ immigrant histories–struggled to empathize with immigrant stories like yours. They asked a lot of whys: Why do they choose to be janitors? Why do they choose not to speak English? Who do they complain? Yet sometimes, they asked the more discerning question, the one that seeks understanding: Why do they come?
Again, I return to your story mingled with my own, for I had made your journey in reverse. I thought of you as I roamed through the provinces of Luzon. Winding between rows of highland rice fields, largely unchanged from the ones you worked as a child, I recalled how you saw your brother leave, running from “the cruelty of our hard peasant life.” It marked the beginning of a journey away from the homestead. Your brother’s story became your story, when you left the provinces for the promise of work in the U.S.
On the train to Manila, you met a young man pressured into university by his father, stayed at a boarding house full of barefoot provincianos looking to go to America, gambling away their scant pesos. The cockfights, the young prostitutes who arrived in the city with nobler purposes, the thousands of willing workers on the docks. In many ways, it is still the same. It is a country whose biggest export is its labor, from the cooks in Saudi Arabia to the throngs of domestic helpers in Hong Kong who spend their Sundays sitting on cardboard scraps in train stations, for there are so few places for them to go. You would recognize some of the indignities they face abroad.
And in that sweltering city, Manila, I read the work of F. Sionil Jose, whose words are fitting here: “If the Filipino dream cannot be fulfilled here, perhaps, just perhaps, it will be in the gilded cities of America, in the pitiless deserts of the Middle East, and even in the yakuza brothels of Japan.” Filipinos are simply, Jose states, the “proletariat of the world.”
This is what I think of when I think of the Philippines: abundance. Desperation. Corruption. Laughter. Not necessarily in that order. And this is partly why they come.
So what I want to say is that your story is a story as old as America. We are a country of immigrants, each moving, searching, settling, coming to terms with the promise and reality of America. Generations cyclically dismiss and embrace and negotiate what it means to be here.
To me, what we call Asian American literature is really a sum of the larger parts of new and old immigrants who can, as you aimed to do, speak candidly and eloquently about the American experience. It is, by its nature, limiting, for we are a subset of an even larger whole. But just as the Filipinos in your time found strength in community, Asian American literature is gaining ground to become an undeniable voice in America.
And this understanding must come through literature. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum tells us, “Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist’s interest, with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusals of visibility.” Literature, she says, exposes us to our common vulnerability.
Thank you for refusing to be invisible, for your vulnerability, your courage, and most of all, for writing,
Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.
Jose, F. Sionil. To the Young Writer and Other Essays. Manila: Far Eastern University, 2008.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Ã¬The Narrative Imagination.Ã® Mind Readings: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Gary Colombo. Boston: Bedford/St. MartinÃs, 2002. 416-426.
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