Carlos Bulosan

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Post by Hanna Lee, Jarren Santos and Lisa Oyolu

Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle, Washington during the Great Depression and faced firsthand the struggles of being a Filipino migrant worker within a hierarchical society [1]. Bulosan saw the unjust treatment of Filipinos to be antithetical to America’s ideology of self-determination and equality. In response, he became a labor activist and a self-taught writer who navigated the intersectionality of race, ethnicity and class through his writings [1]. Bulosan’s work as a Filipino activist challenged the subordinate position that Filipinos filled in American society and his cultural praxis provided the Filipino community with a discourse for self-determination of their holistic identities within a greater American narrative [1].

Filipinos in the early 1900s were positioned within a liminal space of legal inclusion yet political and social exclusion. Many Filipinos came to the Unites States to achieve economic success working as farm laborers but instead found themselves oppressed and exploited by discriminatory labor practices [1]. The U.S. was easily able to exploit Filipinos, who were considered American nationals, by promising them work in agricultural labor, mostly along the West Coast [2]. Filipino migrant workers occupied a vulnerable position within a racially stratified agricultural economy, often receiving low wages and enduring poor living conditions [3]. Bulosan refused to submit to the harsh, degrading treatment of Filipino migrant workers by engaging in labor organizing and framing Filipino migrant work from a wider, political perspective, especially in respect to U.S. imperialist efforts in the Philippines.

Rising to the challenge of addressing these issues, Bulosan worked with several labor unions to improve working conditions for people like himself. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and Alaska Cannery Workers Union International Longshore and Warehouse Union, both of which Bulosan was involved in, represented fish cannery and packing house workers in Seattle and Alaska, respectively [4]. Additionally, Carlos Bulosan’s work with the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) provided the groundwork for future labor organizing, specifically the United Farm Workers of America, led by Larry Iltiong [3]. Bulosan’s labor activism, which stemmed from his own experience as a Filipino migrant worker, forged the path for greater Filipino political identity and visibility in the U.S.

Bulosan’s status as a Filipino colonial subject gave him insight into what it meant to be a working class person of color. This made his writing unique and influential in framing Filipinos’ existence in the United States. Bulosan’s powerful writing was first recognized in 1943 after his response to Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want in the Saturday Evening Post Magazine. In his essay, Bulosan criticizes the ironic tragedy of how agricultural workers starved and lived in slave-like labor conditions although it was these same workers who were the “creators of abundance” [1]. Bulosan’s writing became a voice for the often mistreated Filipino workers who labored under an oppressive social structure that did not treat Filipino Americans with respect [4]. Bulosan framed his experience through a cultural praxis in order to grasp a transnational understanding of oppression and to empower others to strive for self-determination.

Although he died in 1956 due to health complications, notably bronchopneumonia, his legacy lives on through his literature and memorialized exhibits across the United States.  If he were alive today, we could easily see him writing his next segment on the present status of Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States.  His words continue to be used as inspiration, a vehicle for social change in the treatment for working class people and immigrants. Carlos Bulosan was undoubtedly a pioneer in Asian American activism, a political presence that dared to challenge the obscure boundaries of being a Filipino American in both domestic and global contexts during his time.

For our creative work, we originally had planned to construct a poem.  However, we felt it was more fitting to write to Carlos Bulosan as if he were still alive and describe the impact he has had on our lives and how he has contributed to the development of our identities as student activists.  We present the letter to Carlos Bulosan down below:

The Development of Student Activism: A Letter to Carlos Bulosan

 

Works Cited

[1] Carlos Bulosan, On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, ed. E. San Juan, Jr. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).

[2] Chase Smith, “The While Transpacific West and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart,” English Language Notes

[3] Dawn Mabalon, “Toiling in the Valley of Opportunity”, Little Manila is in the Heart.

[4] Oscar V. Campomanes and Todd S. Gernes, Two Letters from America: Carlos Bulosan and the Act of Writing, Melius (Oxford University Press, 1988).

[5] Carlos Bulosan, Letters to his Nephew, JSTOR Online Scanlation (JSTOR, 1948).

[6] Image from International Longshore and Warehouse Union. (https://www.ilwu.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/carlos-img-Z17094047-0001.jpg) Accessed on September 11, 2016.

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