Friday, April 2, 2021

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

I knew that as long as there was a hope for the future somewhere I would not stop trying to reach it. I looked at my brother and Alfredo and knew that I would never stay with them, to rot and perish in their world of brutality and despair. I knew that I wanted something which would ease my fear and stop my flight from dawn to dawn.

I really feel it's important to read more classics by people of color, so last year I decided to make that a permanent category in the annual Back to the Classics Challenge. I know I don't read nearly enough books by nonwhite authors, and this year I really wanted to read a classic by an Asian author. I was really happy to discover America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American author. It's a really personal connection to me because my husband is Filipino, and I'm always trying to learn more about his culture.

Published in 1946, this semi-autobiographical novel is the story of Carlos, a young man from the rural Philippines who tries make a better life for himself in America. It's been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and since Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, I was even more intrigued. 

The story begins after World War I, when young Carlos is just a boy and his oldest brother returns to the family in Binalonan after several years' absence as a soldier. The family struggles to keep the family farm and pay for the education of another brother, Macario -- basically, the only way out of poverty. The family endures hardship and heartbreak, and Carlos is badly injured more than once, just trying to make a little extra money to keep from losing their land. They are too poor for him to go to school regularly but he picks up what education he can, and reads on his own. 

At just 17, Carlos makes his way to America, but there are few jobs for Filipinos other than canning factories and migrant work, picking crops. He makes his way up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California, sometimes barely managing to stay alive. Eventually he reconnects with Macario and another brother who had previously emigrated. Carlos also gets involved with Filipino union organizers who are fighting for better working conditions. His English improves and he also begins writing. However, the attempts to organize labor unions is violently opposed, and Carlos and the other organizers are constantly threatened by arrest and violence. He also becomes ill with tuberculosis and at one point is hospitalized for two years.     

This was a tough read for me. The writing isn't difficult, but it was really painful to read about how badly Carlos and the other minorities were treated -- terrible working conditions, no benefits, unable to find housing in any place but the worst parts of town, unable to own property, unable to become a citizen. The racism is just appalling. For me, it was even worse than reading about the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath because at least the Joads had some rights -- and they wouldn't be subjected to generations of racist bigotry because of the color of their skin. It's so infuriating that Filipinos and other Asians had so few rights -- Asians weren't allowed to become US citizens until the 1940s, and there were still immigration quotas until 1965.

It's not a long book, 327 pages in my edition, and there are lot of very short chapters. But the subject was so difficult to read that it took me a long time to finish for such a short book. This did make it harder to keep some of the recurring characters straight -- Carlos would run into an old friend or colleague and I couldn't always remember how they'd met. But I'm really glad I finished it. Immigrant stories are really important and this was especially personal to me. 

Carlos Bulosan

I glanced out of the window again to look at the broad land I had dreamed so much about, only to discover with astonishment that the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. I felt it spreading through my being, warming with its glowing reality. It came to me that no man -- no one at all -- could destroy my faith in America again. . . . It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers in America and my family in the Philippines -- something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contribute something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faith in American that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.

I'm counting this as my Classic by a BIPOC author for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

7 comments:

  1. I'm so glad to see you read this one. It's a very important text in American and Filipino literature. It is indeed a painful read. I was stunned that he remained hopeful to the end.

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    1. I plan on finally reading Noli Me Tangere in the next few months, I hope it isn't as painful.

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  2. I have read America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo which was published a couple of years ago and have been curious about this title ever since, since clearly Castillo was in conversation with this book.

    Interesting too the comparison to The Grapes of Wrath. When I read that book, I though about the Mexican migrant workers who were possibly displaced by the influx from the dust bowl and how Steinbeck didn't address them at all.

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    1. Yes, and now I'm wondering if there is a novel about the Latino migrant worker experience. There must be but I'm can't think of one off the top of my head.

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  3. Your description is intriguing to me, too! I'll have to put this on my list. I'm almost sure I purchased a Bulosan for work (library) recently; I'll have to check. I too have just finished a book by a Filipino author -- in my case it's Nick Joaquin's short stories. I meant to write up my post today, but it's almost dinnertime and I haven't yet...

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    1. I don't know Joaquin's work but will look for it, and for your post!

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    2. Half of them take place during Spanish colonialism, and the other half post-WWII.

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