Review: Sarah Kerr on Carlos Bulosan

That I know of, here are a few of the jobs my grandfather held after his dream of completing high school in Wyoming fell through. He was a butler, a driver, a cook at a mountain hotel; he had his own tiny restaurant that ended up catching fire; and he worked the land. During the Depression he rode the freight trains—the Long Cadillac, he called them—up and down the West Coast, joining other migrant laborers looking for seasonal work, harvesting most of the fruits and vegetables you can think of. Eventually he married my grandmother, a young and gentle Mexican American whom he met at a dance in Denver, and they moved to a town on California’s Central Coast. In time, he became a sharecropper, a step up. Their children would work the fields in the summer; not an easy life, but they remained in one home, the same school, year in and year out.

Growing up outside of Chicago, I was aware of these experiences, but from a confusing and in retrospect a painful distance. My mother did not speak of them expansively. I knew facts but lacked words and images to picture the distance her family had traveled, or grasp the feat that was the stability my grandparents won for them.

That changed when I recently—belatedly—read Carlos Bulosan’s novel America Is in the Heart, first published in 1946 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics, which told the story of my grandfather’s generation. They were the Manongs, or “older brothers”: teenage boys and young men from the Philippines, almost always unmarried, who started coming to Hawaii as early as 1907 and by the 1920s were arriving annually on the West Coast by the thousands.

They were born into a disorienting lurch of history. The Philippines was in the midst of a revolution against Spain, its colonizer for more than three centuries, when the United States suddenly bested Spain in the Spanish-American War, claiming the right to annex the colony for itself. A second war followed, and a famine, until US sovereignty was accepted and soon enough schoolboys under the new government were being taught to revere every beautiful promise of American democracy. They were welcomed here to work, especially in the fast-growing agricultural industry, and they were exempted from the racist quotas established to deter other Asians from immigrating—as US nationals, they were not, in fact, immigrants, but neither did they enjoy citizens’ rights.

America Is in the Heart is told through the story of Allos, a partly fictional stand-in for the author, who was of humble background but somewhat less destitute and more educated than his protagonist. As the novel opens, Allos (a nickname for Carlos) looks back from his American destiny to his impoverished childhood in a farming village in the Philippines. Absentee landowners chipped away at his peasant father’s livelihood, while work and worry and going without reduced his mother to a kind of ghost figure. Bulosan patiently and heartfully describes a stunning, sometimes treacherous natural world (a rainbow was a tragedy, heralding a crop-killing rain) and a family bond that was helpless to keep everyone fed and together.

At last, Allos follows the path of his brothers (and Bulosan himself), joining the generation that sailed steerage into Seattle. Expecting the land of opportunity, they were met with backbreaking gig work in fields and fisheries and canneries, their pay distributed at the whim of contractors, their options for living quarters either work camps or segregated and shabby strips of town shared with dance halls and gambling establishments, which promoted a rough-and-sex-crazed stereotype that further marginalized them. In California, a law was passed to bar them from marrying a white woman. The efforts of Filipino workers to secure better conditions, meanwhile, provoked a violent antiunion reaction, and their resistance became a significant chapter in American labor history (helping years later to spark the grape strikes of 1965 associated with Cesar Chavez, for instance).

Within minutes of landing in Seattle, Allos is sold into labor at an Alaska fishery, and when that job ends he starts on a ceaseless zigzag journey in search of the next. In this rhythm of involuntary rootlessness, relationships are constantly disrupted. Time hurries on, but with no sense of moving forward. Allos either witnesses or endures every category of violence, including vigilante arson and a near lynching. Minutely observant of his surroundings and his inner life, he describes pangs of hunger and humiliation, the lure of criminality, and the plight of American loneliness—almost as awful to him as the scourge of inequality in its waste of precious life. In the book’s final two sections, Allos is given hope and a path to action by reading and the discovery of his literary vocation, with the realization that these need not be separate from the fight for civil rights and unions.

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America Is in the Heart is often called a semi-autobiographical novel, but its driving intentions and motley methods make for a more undefinable reading experience. It is, for one thing, rather unevenly written for so potent a book; Bulosan worried in a letter that he had written fast and been hurried into print, and it is true that there are moments of corny prose and excess momentousness. For another thing, although major elements from Bulosan’s life are here, such as his dual identities as a writer and a union organizer and his long stay in a Los Angeles hospital to combat tuberculosis of the bone, his experiences are interpolated with episodes that he had observed or heard about. This fusion layers into the book qualities of a documentary time capsule, but also in places a feeling of mythic amplification, like in a mural.

For all the suffering, there are passages appreciating the bond of brothers and the beauty of the night sky, and Allos is a few times treated with exceptional kindness, usually by a doctor or a white woman who knows something about hardship. Kindness is acknowledged to be a part of America too, and at a few key points Allos’s voice rises in praise of the democratic dream of America—in spite of it all.

Given what Allos goes through, readers have long debated his moments of American eulogizing. Did the author mean them sincerely? Did he pull his punches, or was he signaling Allos’s naiveté? Introducing the latest edition of America Is in the Heart, the Filipino cultural critic E. San Juan Jr.reminds us that when the book came out shortly after the end of World War II, the difficult Allied campaign to end Japan’s brutal occupation of the Philippines was a fresh memory, commanding reverence. That, and the atmosphere as the Philippines prepared for independence, restricted an honest accounting of the two countries’ painful history. Early reactions to the book tended to overlook Allos’s indictments and embrace what was affirming.

By the early 1950s, though, Bulosan was blacklisted. He completed another novel, not published in his lifetime, and continued working for a Seattle union as its Filipino leaders were threatened with deportation. He died in 1956, seemingly on his way to being forgotten. When America Is in the Heart was finally published again, in 1973, it found a Vietnam-weary audience primed to question America’s legacies of racism and exploitation, and looking for diverse literary forbears. The book became, among other things, a touchstone for Filipino-American literature, so much so that in novelist Elaine Castillo’s fiery new foreword, she calls it indispensable, an inspiration—and then, taking issue with its depictions of women, she urges interested readers not to stop with Bulosan, to go further and listen to more voices. Her challenge is in the Bulosan spirit. America Is in the Heart leaves readers with a changed awareness—of the Filipino migrants’ experience and by extension of American history, and the countless stories therein that are still waiting to be heard.

Sarah Kerr has written for The New York Review of Books, Bookforum, Slate, and Vogue, among other publications.

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Coming soon: Emily Bernard on Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Mendelson on the history of typography.

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Image: Cover image of America Is in the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan (Penguin, 2019)