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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956)

[6061] Anonymous, Filipino Man Processing Fruit (c. 1930), courtesy of the James Earl Wood Collection of Photographs Relating to Filipinos in California, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

About 150,000 Filipinos immigrated to the United States between 1906 and 1946. Early on, many Filipinos came to America to seek an education and then return home. But starting in the 1920s, most came looking for work. Along the West Coast and in Hawaii and Alaska, they sought jobs as migrant workers, cannery workers, and domestic servants. They were subject to intense racism and discrimination, and Filipino men were beaten and driven out of town by mobs if they were seen with white women. It was within this atmosphere that Bulosan arrived in the United States.

Carlos Bulosan is the first important literary voice for Filipinos in the United States. Bulosan’s most famous novel, America Is in the Heart, was published in 1946. It depicts the terrible living and working conditions of Filipino immigrants struggling to survive in America. Bulosan came to the United States from the Philippines in the early 1930s. He washed dishes, worked in canneries, and picked fruits and vegetables up and down the West Coast, including the area in the Salinas Valley where many of John Steinbeck’s novels take place. He eventually became a labor activist and tried to address racial and economic discrimination in the United States. After meeting labor organizer Chris Mensalves, he helped organize a union for fish cannery workers in California. During a long period of poor health, Bulosan read the works of many American writers, which helped improve his English and inspired him to become a writer. Bulosan gradually gained recognition and respect as a poet and social commentator. His work appeared in a number of prominent magazines and journals in the 1940s, including the Saturday Evening PostNew YorkerHarper’s Bazaar, and Poetry. Bulosan’s works include poetry collections, Letter from America (1942), Chorus from America (1942), and The Voice of Bataan (1943), as well as the novels The Cry and the Dedication (written in the 1950s and published posthumously in 1995) and The Sound of Falling Light (1960).

In the 1950s, at the height of the anti-communist movement, Bulosan’s labor-organizing activities and early involvement with the communist party prompted Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee to blacklist him. Bulosan died in Seattle in poverty and relative obscurity in 1956. In the 1970s his works were “discovered” by the Asian American community, which recognized their historical and cultural importance. As one of the first writers to explore how Filipinos were forging an American identity, Bulosan influenced such Asian American writers as Jessica Hagedorn and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Teaching Tips

  • To give students a better contextual understanding of Bulosan’s works, divide them into groups and have them prepare class presentations on (1) a brief history of the Philippines before 1895, (2) the interaction between the Philippines and the United States between 1895 and the 1950s, (3) the treatment of Filipino immigrants in the United States, especially in the mid-twentieth century, and (4) a recent history of the Philippines, focusing on the Marcos family.
  • Bulosan’s writing depicts the economic and racial prejudice he encountered and observed in the United States. However, even after enduring open hostility, continuous threats, violence, and insufferable living and working conditions, he still fills his work with the hope of equality for all people. What other stories, films, or television programs can students recall where characters face constant adversity but never give up on their hopes and dreams? Examples might range from classical works, such as The Odyssey, to Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to more recent works such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. They might also include works from popular culture, like The Lord of the RingsStar Wars, or Billy Elliot. Discuss these examples in the context of Bulosan’s works.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: America Is in the Heart was criticized for its negative portrayal of the lives of Filipinos in the United States. Why would Bulosan show such a dark side to Filipino life in America, from constant drinking and gambling to stealing, prostitution, and murder? How do these portrayals help him make a point about the lives of these immigrants?
  2. Comprehension: According to the narrator of “Be American,” in what ways has Consorcio “become” an American?
  3. Context: The status of Filipinos who immigrated to America was often indeterminate. Since the Philippines were a U.S. territory, immigrants were known as “nationals” and could enter the country freely until 1934, when the Tydings-McDuffie Act promised independence to the Philippines in ten years. At the outbreak of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted Filipino military enlistees U.S. citizenship, but it wasn’t until 1946, when Truman signed the Filipino Naturalization Bill, that Filipinos became citizens. Keeping all this in mind, locate passages in Bulosan’s work that demonstrate a sense of homelessness or a longing for identity and place.
  4. Exploration: In America Is in the Heart, Bulosan recalls the creation of a culture of anti-colonial insurgency by Filipino peasants against those who had attempted to control the Philippines in the past (Spain and the United States). Why would this past make immigrant Filipinos especially good organizers of labor and trade unions to stand against the U.S. businesses and farms that exploited migrant workers?
  5. Exploration: America Is in the Heart, an autobiography, includes stories and tales of incidents that did not actually happen to Bulosan but were culled from the lives of other Filipino Americans much like himself. How does Bulosan’s use of the autobiographical genre compare with other famous American autobiographies, such as Franklin’s Autobiography, Douglass’s Narrative, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams? Consider stylistic as well as thematic similarities and differences.

Selected Archive Items

[1891] Rand McNally & Co., New and Enlarged Scale Railroad and County Map of California Showing Every Railroad Station and Post Office in the State (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division [LC Railroad maps, 189].
Building railroads, a major force in California’s economic development, required extensive mapping of geographical features. Later maps like this one redefined territory through industrial transportation, political units, and government communications outposts, which guided investment and commerce.

[5385] Anonymous, Carlos Bulosan (n.d.),
courtesy of Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans
Posed portrait of author Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical work America Is in the Heart describes the lives of Filipino immigrants in America, particularly their difficult working and living conditions.

[5869] Dorothea Lange, Filipino Migrant Workers (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018671-D].
Large field with Filipino migrant laborers working in row. Filipinos migrated to the United States in three major waves. The first and second wave faced exploitative working conditions in agriculture, canneries, and other manual labor industries.

[6060] James Earl Wood, Filipino Laborers, Wide Shot (n.d.),
courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley, Bancroft Library. 
Young Filipino working with boxes from cannery in field. Many Filipino immigrants found work at canneries, where conditions were often poor.

[6061] Anonymous, Filipino Man Processing Fruit (c. 1930),
courtesy of the James Earl Wood Collection of Photographs Relating to Filipinos in California, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 
Photograph of a Filipino man preparing fruit to be sold. Despite the Philippines’ status as a U.S. territory, Filipino immigrants faced discrimination and racism in twentieth-century America. Carlos Bulosan worked as a fruit picker when he first arrived in the United States.

[8976] Louis Owens, Interview: “Bulosan’s View of American Capitalism” (2002),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Professor Louis Owens discusses Carlos Bulosan’s view of American capitalism.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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