Carlos Bulosan collapsed on the lawn of the King County Courthouse one day in 1956 and died at the age of 44, poor and unemployed, with...
Carlos Bulosan collapsed on the lawn of the King County Courthouse one day in 1956 and died at the age of 44, poor and unemployed, with none of the trappings of a famous author. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
It was the end of a life of backbreaking work, illness and suffering. It also was a life of literary achievement that won accolades from an American president.
Bulosan’s literary works — buried and forgotten during the later stages of his life — have been resurrected and are now read widely, thanks to the efforts of Asian-American scholars and the University of Washington Press. And his 1946 masterpiece, “America Is in the Heart,” is one of the most widely used books in Asian-American studies classes around the world.
“It is considered the premier text of the Filipino-American experience,” said Greg Castilla, a scholar and social-work supervisor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bulosan. “He was a migrant worker who became a prolific writer.”
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A Bulosan tribute mural and pictorial exhibit grace the lobby of the Eastern Hotel in Seattle, where Bulosan first landed in the United States on July 22, 1930. His once-unmarked grave now has a fancy granite headstone, bought by community activists.
Bulosan was 17, an uneducated peasant boy from Pangasinan province in the central Philippines seeking a new life when he came to Seattle. The 75th anniversary of his arrival gave those who knew him here a moment to reflect on his life.
Fred Cordova, 72, co-director of the Seattle-based National Filipino American Historical Society, knew Bulosan during the author’s union organizing in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“He was a little guy, very slim, and he was always very well-dressed all the time,” Cordova said. “He was not what you’d call a charismatic speaker. He was unassuming and very quiet — a very gentle person. But he wrote like a lion.”
Cordova said he and Bulosan visited family homes, union halls and other gathering spots for activists.
Much of “America Is in the Heart” details the hard life of the Filipino migrant worker in the post-Depression years.
Bulosan worked up and down the West Coast in low-paying hotel service jobs, in fields and in fish canneries. He became bitterly disillusioned, started getting involved in union organizing and taught himself to read and write. He wrote of Filipino workers putting in 12 hour-days — picking fruit, washing dishes, cutting fish and cleaning houses — for less than $1 per day. Many were exploited, beaten and robbed of their meager wages.
“I feel like a criminal running away from a crime,” he wrote in one of his earlier works. “And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Bulosan to write an essay about America and its “Freedom From Want.” It was published in the Saturday Evening Post along with three essays by other famous authors.
Bulosan first gained national acclaim with a book of poems, “Letter From America,” published in 1942. Another poetry collection, “Voice of Bataan,” came one year later. His first best seller, “Laughter of My Father,” was published in 1944 and was translated into seven languages. “America Is in the Heart” was published two years later and propelled Bulosan to literary stardom.
When 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, now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
The 1970s brought a wave of ethnic awareness, and with it, a new appreciation for authors such as Bulosan.
The University of Washington Press, the caretaker of Bulosan’s literary properties since 1973, first republished “America Is in the Heart” in 1974. It has had 15 printings since then and sells about 4,000 copies yearly.
Several other Bulosan titles have been published by the UW Press. Last April, the UW Press published its latest Bulosan book, “All the Conspirators,” a mystery novel set in the Philippines.
“Because of UW and because of Asian-American scholars who have promoted his work, Bulosan has become one of the high priests of Asian-American literature,” Cordova said.