By ANCHI HOH
To younger generations of Filipino Americans, Carlos Bulosan (1911-1956) is a forgotten name. To reintroduce the Filipino literary icon – nearly 50 years after his death – and to celebrate the centennial of the first wave of Filipino migration to Hawaii and America, a daylong symposium was held at the Library of Congress on April 28.
Titled "America Is in the Heart for the 21st Century," the Carlos Bulosan symposium was sponsored jointly by the Library's Asian Division, the Asian Division Friends Society (ADFS), the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines and Our Own Voice (an online literary journal).
"We owe it to Carlos Bulosan, the writer, to rescue his works from oblivion and bring him to his rightful place in the literary annals of America," said Reme Grefalda, editor of Our Own Voice.
Our Own Voice is the ADFS's partner in the project to reintroduce the writings of Bulosan to the public. By focusing on the body of literature contributed by Bulosan, the symposium illuminated the ideology, philosophy and vision of an important author of Filipino heritage, who valued the idea and ideals of America. In conjunction with the symposium, attendees had the opportunity to view the Philippine collections on display in the Asian Reading Room. On April 29, the Carlos Bulosan Archives was established in the Library's Asian Division.
The year 1906 marked the first wave of Filipino immigrants to the United States, beginning with the arrival of Filipinos as contract laborers. Hawaiian sugarcane companies recruited Filipino workers, who could enter the country freely as American "nationals" (but without citizenship) because of the Philippines' status as an American territory.
For decades, Filipino as well as other ethnic immigrants experienced discrimination caused by ethnic difference, economic hardships and language barriers. Bulosan, who came to the United States as a teenager in 1930, was one of these early migrant workers. He rose from poverty to become a labor movement activist and a literary voice for Filipino Americans.
He is best known for his novel, "America Is in the Heart," published in 1946. The novel not only portrayed the appalling living and working conditions that Filipino migrant workers endured, but also served as a personal account of one man's struggle against racism in America.
The symposium brought together nine Bulosan scholars who presented their papers on his life, work and legacy. Following opening remarks by Hwa-Wei Lee, chief of the Library's Asian Division, and Evan Garcia, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines, the following panelists presented their papers: E. San Juan Jr., retired University of Connecticut professor; Tim Libretti, Northeastern Illinois University; Richard A. Baldoz, visiting fellow at Stanford University; Susan Evangelista, Bulosan biographer from Palawan State University in the Philippines; Asian American scholars Lane Hirabayashi and Marilyn Alquizola; Jorshinelle Taleon-Sonza, Rutgers University; Jeffrey Cabusao, University of Michigan; and Cindy Domingo, labor activist and co-founder of the Bulosan Museum in Seattle.
"Up to now, no one, least of all our highly credentialed ethnic-studies experts, seems to have asked the simple, obvious but seemingly intractable question: Why and how did Bulosan become a writer?" said San Juan.
Jorshinelle Taleon-Sonza observed that through his book title, "America Is in the Heart," Bulosan might have prophesied the concept of globalization.
Several speakers pointed out that although Bulosan never returned to the Philippines, the Filipino culture was intertwined in all of his endeavors, from his efforts to fight racism to the voice in his literary works.
"Bulosan's writing seeks repeatedly… to return to the source, to the national dimensions of Filipino life both within the Philippines and the United States, as he works to capture representationally the U.S. imperial system that conditions both," said Libretti.
According to Jeffrey Cabusao, Filipino Americans and Filipino nationals have much in common in Bulosan's novel. Cabusao observed that the first wave of Filipino Americans lived as though they were in a Third World country. Richard Baldoz discussed the racism and oppression that greeted Filipino migrants.
Marilyn C. Alquizola and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi discussed the challenge of researching Bulosan's biography, as the FBI blacked out much of the information in his files. (During the McCarthy era, extensive FBI files were kept on Bulosan, who was under suspicion for communist activity due to his involvement in the labor movement).
"When they are read carefully and critically, the FBI files can reveal new and useful information about Bulosan," said Alquizola.
Cindy Domingo highlighted Bulosan's contribution to organizing a labor union for cannery workers.
The symposium also featured a showing of the film "The Romance of Mango Rubio," adapted by Lonnie Carter from Bulosan's short story of the same title.
The story not only explored the loneliness of Filipino migrant workers, but also revealed the love-hate relationship between Bulosan and his adopted country. A musical tribute to Bulosan, titled "Songs in Exile," featured works composed by musician Rod Garcia.
The Carlos Bulosan symposium offered many thought-provoking lessons for the Filipino American community as well as other minorities. The legacy of Bulosan is a body of literature that immortalizes the blood, sweat and struggle of America's early immigrants.
Symposium co-sponsors included Remedios G. Cabacungan, the Philippine American Writers & Artists Inc., Carayan Press, Arkipelago Philippine Books and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Anchi Hoh is special assistant to the chief of the Library's Asian Division.