America is in the Heart: Bulosan in the Philippines (Part I)
Updated: Jan 6
Carlos Bulosan is a Filipino immigrant known for his semi-autobiography, America is in the Heart: A Personal History, which tells the story of his childhood and journey in America. Bulosan was born in 1913 in Binalonan in the Philippines to a peasant and at the age of 17, he bought a voyage to America in hopes of giving up his peasant life. Here, we will give a brief description of Bulosan's story, but no one could tell his story as well as himself, whose words are forever contained in his novel, America is in the Heart, which so vividly describes his life.
During Bulosan's childhood, the Philippines was undergoing radical change after the Philippines was colonized by the United States. Education grew in popularity as it opened the door to new opportunities, hence Bulosan recalls, "My father and mother, who could not read or write, were willing to sacrifice anything and everything to put my brother Macario through high school" (14). But boarding fees were high and they had deprived themselves of "any form of leisure and simple luxury" until they sold all but one hectare of land so his brother could finish school (14). The entire family was working to support his brother Macario, whom Allos (the name Carlos Bulosan is referred to during his childhood), had never met before he finished high school. When Macario returned upon graduating high school, they were sure that Macario, who would become a teacher, could make enough money to repay the moneylender and gain their land back. But at the time, their family had only a narrow strip of land left, plus a small clearing they had borrowed from the Church nearby.
But soon after they celebrated Macario's graduation from high school, Carlos' father was presented with a paper signed by the Church that stated the land given to them by the Church did not belong to them anymore. In a conversation between Carlos and his father on pg. 27, he says,
"It belongs to a man in Manila now. We will have to look for another land tomorrow."
I could not understand why. "You mean the land does not belong to us any more? I asked.
"The land never did belong to us," said my father. "It belonged to the church. But now it belongs to a rich man in Manila."
"What about our corn?" I asked.
"They paid me for the corn, son," said my father. "But it is not enough to cover the seeds we have used. I accepted it because they told me that I had no right to plant corn in a land that did not belong to me."
I did not ask my father again about the agreement between him and the church. It was only fifteen months since we had cleared the land, and we had had a good crop of corn. But a strange man appeared from nowhere and claimed that the land belonged to another man in Manila.
After that, tragedy after tragedy occurred and Carlos' father had only their narrow strip of land and his grandmother's stony ground remaining which was "good for nothing, not even sweet potato" meanwhile Carlos left to live with his mother in town, and that would be the end of "the bitter days of childhood...the end of my life with my father, the end of my farming life in the Philippines, the end of blinding heat and heavy rains" (30).
Carlos went on to help construct the road that connected Manila with Baguio and help his mother with her trading business selling boggoong, or salted fish, "an essential food to the peasants, for without it their simple fare of rice and leaves of trees is tasteless" and beans (33). Carlos vividly describes his time selling beans with his mother in Puzzorobio saying "It was five in the morning when we started with big baskets of beans on our heads" wading through the muddy road to their booth (36). He says when his mother "dished out the beans with a polished coconut shell her hands trembled and the beans spilled over the pavement. She did not pay too much attention to her work, but was admiring the delicately embroidered dresses of the rich women" until suddenly a young girl said, "What are you looking at, poor woman?" and "struck the basket of beans and dashed off" (37, 38). That was Carlos' first clash with the Philippine middle class, but despite those hateful acts, they still "went to the peasants in the villages and traded with them. [They] piled the beans and rice in [their] house" and went to Puzzorobio on Saturdays (38). One day, it was raining and by five o'clock, their "baskets of beans were still untouched" and as they held their baskets above their heads to go home, the river began to flood and his mother "had gone past the danger zone when her foot caught on a stone in the bottom of the river" and "the basket of beans [disappeared] into the water" (38, 39).
From then on, Carlos and his mother turned to harvest yellow beans in San Manuel instead and on an unusually successful day, they spent their extra earnings on a "piece of cotton cloth with polka dots" to make a dress for Irene, Carlos' sister (40). Unfortunately, toward midnight, Irene became sick and "blood began to pour from her nose, choking her" until she died while his mother "knelt beside Irene, holding the polka dot cotton cloth" (41, 42).
The rest of Carlos' childhood was filled with tragedy; one day, "a young girl came to [his] house and sat in the living room waiting for Macario" and she refused to leave and came back with all her possessions in hopes of marrying Macario (44). When he refused and struck her, Macario lost his job as a teacher and would one day make his way to America, in search of a better life. Shortly after, the rest of their land was taken away by the moneylender because they couldn't repay their debt. Then, on pg. 55, Carlos says,
My father stopped and looked eagerly into my brother's eyes. "Can a stranger take away what we have molded with our hands?"
"Yes, father" said [Carlos' brother] Luciano. "It is possible under the present government. There are no laws to protect the tao against the unscrupulous practices of wealthy men in our country. I am afraid you will have to give up your land."
My father could not believe it. Sadly he glanced at his ugly, dark hands, then looked into my brother's eyes, his face dim with broken hope.
And from there, Carlos' restless journey would begin. Below is an excerpt from pg. 63-64 of the scene where Carlos leaves his family and the childhood he grew up in.
"I am leaving now, Father," I said one day.
My father said nothing. He simply looked at me. He was trying hard to hold back tears that were gathering in his eyes. He was remembering and looking through me into the uncertain future and the dark fate that awaited me there, and his mouth trembled a little because he knew what it was I was forsaking, what I was plunging into so desperately, because he, too, had been young once and broken by a wall that stood between him and the future.
My mother wept silently. She was a woman who had shed few tears for anyone; but now that her last son was leaving, the reserve that had kept her composed for so long broke down in one disturbing maternal agony. Like my father, she was afraid to foresee what would happen to me now that I was leaving them and would be alone in the world.
..."Allos!" my mother cried. "You are too young to go out into the world."
I was thirteen years old...
My father lifted my bundle and put it on his back. I walked after him witout looking back at the house that was my childhood, because that time of my life was gone forever and there was no return. There were fears in that house of childhood, and I was leaving them forever. I was fleeing into manhood, into another struggle against other fears...
I said. "Maybe I will be able to go to America someday."
Like countless other Filipinos, Carlos Bulosan made the journey to America in search of a better life, away from the bitter peasant life of his childhood. They were attracted to America because of its ideals thinking that in America one could go to school or make a decent living as a dishwasher and become a U.S. citizen. This sentiment is evident on pg. 88 when Carlos sees his family for the last time before leaving for America. After breaking the news to his family that he would be leaving for America, he recalls:
Then [my sister] Francisca unwrapped the bit of cloth where she kept her earnings and put the money in my pocket.
"I cannot take your money, Francisca," I said.
She looked at me as though she had something important to say. Then she said: "Take it anyway, brother. When you are in America go to school, and when you come back to Binalonan teach [little sister] Marcela and me to read. That is all I want from you. We will be working hard with mother while you are gone."
There was a big lump in my throat. A little girl giving me five pesos so that I could go to school in America! It was her whole year's savings.
At the age of 17, Carlos Bulosan would save enough money to go to Seattle where he would begin his journey in America. He would be leaving behind his childhood for good, "all my years in the Philippines, my father fighting for his inherited land, my mother selling boggoong to the impoverished peasants...my brothers and their bitter fight for a place in the sun" (56).
Speaking little or no English, Bulosan arrived in Seattle in June of 1930 with the dream of becoming part of America as a naturalized citizen. But he never obtained his U.S. citizenship and never returned to the Philippines. His story continues in Part II.
Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart: A Personal History. University of Washington Press, 1973.
Carlos Bulosan, ca. 1940s. circa 1945, photograph, Portraits Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, POR0017, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/portraits/id/32/.