Some Notes for Reconsidering
Carlos Bulosan’s Third World Literary Radicalism
During the spring of 2004, we witnessed the unfolding of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal through horrifying photos that flashed across television screens, the internet, and the front pages of newspapers around the globe. These shameful and sadistic images of grinning male and female American soldiers torturing naked and hooded brown bodies uncover a buried, repressed history of American racism and Empire.1
| Several reporters for
the U.S. mainstream
and alternative presses have noted that Katrina unearthed the existence of a “Third World”
(or “internal colonies”) within the United States.
When we confront American history, we will discover a narrative of deep shame, one which revolves around the interconnectedness of race and class. This becomes clearer once we inventory the crimes committed against people of color and the poor: the genocidal campaign against Native Americans, the development of Manifest Destiny through the U.S.-Mexican war (mid 1840s), the denial of basic rights of Chinese workers in the United States (leading to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), the brutal colonization of the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico at the turn of the 20th century; unspeakable acts of racist violence against African Americans (legalized segregation/Jim Crow and widespread lynching); the gruesome slaughter, in the name of the “White Man’s Burden,” of Filipino nationalists by the American military at the turn of the century; the massacre of Vietnamese people at Mei Li.2
This history is evoked in everyday acts of racism, which, in many cases, end in death and suffering. Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit Michigan, 1982. Filipino post office worker Joseph Ileto in California, 1999. Racial profiling and deportation of immigrants of color in our post-911 period.3 The displacement of thousands of poor people, many of whom are African American, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina debacle in the U.S. South. Several reporters for the U.S. mainstream and alternative presses have noted that Katrina unearthed the existence of a “Third World” (or “internal colonies”) within the United States.4
Given the expansive reach of U.S. Empire, we can no longer ignore how racism informs global capitalism (international racialized and gendered divisions of labor) and sustains U.S. imperial hegemony around the globe. Today, against the backdrop of the intensification of global capitalism and the sharp divide between the Global North and South, we find that the economic conditions in the Philippines (a U.S. neo-colony) continue to deteriorate and that 70% of Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) from the Philippines are women. To be sure, these New Times in the shadow of U.S. Empire demand that we renew the following: 1.) An analysis of the function of racism as an “international political force” and 2.) Our commitment to developing a “Third World” feminist critique.5
I’d like to suggest that the work of Carlos Bulosan remains relevant in this era of U.S. Empire. Bulosan’s bold and unique form of class analysis enabled him to generate dynamic critiques of racism and sexism in his work, which we could use in our current struggles for human dignity and freedom.
Race, Class and Third World radicalism in Bulosan’s America
| ...Allos encounters white Americans who, unlike Lincoln whose sole interest is to preserve the U.S. nation-state, betray their allegiance
to “whiteness” and U.S. nationalism by forging lines of working class solidarity across race and national boundaries.
In his 1946 classic “ethno-biography” America is in the Heart, Bulosan juxtaposes the everyday local struggles of the Philippine peasantry with those of Filipino migrant workers in the United States in order to dramatize the ways in which U.S. capitalism has created peripheral nation-states (the “Third World”/Global South) in relation to an internal U.S. “Third World”—both spaces are inhabited by racialized “Others”. America is in the Heart not only deconstructs U.S. capitalism from within; it also seizes its fundamental contradictions by attempting to fuse both ends of the race-class dialectic upon which the U.S. nation-state operates as a racial formation.
In Part One of America is in the Heart, the protagonist, Allos, begins to grasp the fundamental contradiction of U.S. capitalism while working as a domestic for an American woman, Mary Strandon.6 In his conversations with another houseboy by the name of Dalmacio (an indigenous Filipino, an Igorot), Allos is struck by what he perceives as one of the possibilities of U.S. capitalist democracy. After work, Dalmacio brings Allos a book, which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln—the story of a “poor boy [who] became president of the United States”.7 Allos is amazed by the idea of Lincoln’s rise from poverty:
Deep down in me something was touched, was springing out, demanding to be born, to be given a name. I was fascinated by the story of this boy who was born in a log cabin and became a president of the United States.8
Later, Strandon attempts to teach Allos about the role Lincoln played in the U.S. Civil War—a war in which the enslavement of African Americans divided a nation.
“… when he became president he said that all men are created equal,” Miss Strandon said. “But some men, vicious men, who had Negro slaves, did not like what he said. So a terrible war was fought between the states of the United States, and the slaves were freed and the nation was preserved. But one night he was murdered by an assassin…”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” she said. “He was a great man.”
“What is a Negro?” I asked.
“A Negro is a black person,” she said.
“Abraham Lincoln died for a black person?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “He was a great man.”9
Lincoln is upheld by Strandon as a model of white liberalism; however, the narrative pushes against this limited representation of anti-racist struggle. In the United States Allos encounters white Americans who, unlike Lincoln whose sole interest is to preserve the U.S. nation-state, betray their allegiance to “whiteness” and U.S. nationalism by forging lines of working class solidarity across race and national boundaries.
This exchange between Allos and Strandon is a pivotal moment in the early development of Allos’ political consciousness regarding race and class in U.S. society. On the one hand, Allos begins to learn about the existence of a broad history of anti-racist struggle in the United States (as signified by Strandon’s representation of Lincoln). On the other, Allos begins to develop an awareness of the severe limitations of U.S. capitalist democracy (its history of slavery and racial genocide). This becomes a moment in the text where Allos is on the verge of creating a Third World perspective, which will enable him to make connections between the U.S. internal colonies and the “Third World” (Global South).
Later in life, Allos recalls his time with Strandon when he learns about the life and work of African American Marxist writer Richard Wright.
I was fortunate to find work in a library and to be close to books. In later years I remembered this opportunity when I read that the American Negro writer, Richard Wright, had not been allowed to borrow books from his local library because of his color. I was beginning to understand what was going on around me, and the darkness that had covered my present life was lifting. I was emerging into sunlight, and I was to know, a decade afterward in America, that this light was not too strong for eyes that had known only darkness and gloom.10
Bulosan, himself, was inspired by African American struggles for racial justice and was drawn to politically progressive African American artists such as Richard Wright (his unflinching critiques of U.S. apartheid/Jim Crow) and Paul Robeson (his Freedom journal supported the national liberation struggle in the Philippines).11 In a letter written in 1947, Bulosan states:
The Negroes’ crystallizing struggle against the racial myth in this country is gaining strength every day… I find [in their struggle and history] a theory and course of action.12
| These lines of solidarity forged within the multiethnic U.S. labor movement provide
an opportunity for Allos to give new meaning
to the struggles of the Philippine peasantry during his childhood.
The developing African American movement for Civil Rights sharpened Bulosan’s ability to critique how race and class function within capitalism as well as provided a context within which to understand the significance of the collective Filipino experience in relation to other exploited racialized groups within U.S. “Third World”.
What Allos learns through his experiences in the Philippines and in the United States is the history and reality of the U.S. nation-state as a racial formation. According to philosopher Charles Mills and Filipino cultural theorist E. San Juan, Jr., racism (alongside its ideological twin, white supremacy) functions within U.S. society as the organizing principle of the division of labor and unequal distribution of resources and wealth.13 This “racial divide constitutes ‘a form of stratification built into the structure of U.S. society’ as a Herrenvolk democracy.”14 Political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood explains that although capitalism possesses the potential to “maximize [the] material well-being for everyone” (as is signified by Lincoln’s rise from poverty), its very logic (exploitation of surplus labor of workers) and (I would add) the ideology of white supremacy prevent it from ever fulfilling its potential.15 This fundamental contradiction becomes sharper for Allos once transplanted, during the turbulent years of the Great Depression, onto U.S. plantations where Filipinos are exploited as migrant farmworkers.16
The narrative seizes this contradiction by bearing witness to the creation of a radical worker-peasant subjectivity that emerges from the “interstices” of the United States and its neocolony, the Philippines. By resisting the conventions of Naturalism (in Part Two Allos is thrust into a “world of brutality and despair” and is in “constant flight from fear”), Parts Three and Four of America is in the Heart trace Allos’ immersion into the U.S. labor movement where he creates friendships with radical Filipino labor organizers, such as Felix Razon from the Tayug peasant uprising (Part One), and with progressive whites invested in abolishing their possessive investment in whiteness. These lines of solidarity forged within the multiethnic U.S. labor movement provide an opportunity for Allos to give new meaning to the struggles of the Philippine peasantry during his childhood. Part One of America is in the Heart marks Allos’ Homecoming, his return to the Philippines to recover a radical tradition of peasant insurgency.17 Bulosan advances this radical “Third World” imagination during the post-war years with his novel titled The Cry and the Dedication (posthumously published in the 1970s), which dramatizes the Hukbalahap (People’s Anti-Japanese Army), a militant and progressive peasant- based movement against Japanese colonial occupation of the Philippines.18 In a letter dated January 8, 1950, Bulosan discusses this particular approach to his writing:
What I am trying to do, especially in my writings since I left Stockton, is to utilize our common [Philippine] folklore, tradition and history in line with my socialist thinking… in the long run we are pooling our knowledge together for a better understanding of man and his world; not to deify man, but to make him human, that we may see our faults and virtues in him. That is the responsibility of literature and the history of culture.19
Notes for a “Third World” materialist feminism
| As Marcuse might suggest, this strange moment of distancing within the text—
of breaking into song and dance amidst tragedy—makes “perceptible, visible,
and audible that which
is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life.”
I’d like to suggest that the process of exploring new forms of Filipino subjectivity (worker-peasant) enabled Bulosan to begin to create a Third World materialist feminist critique, which grounds the specificity of Filipino women’s oppression within the division of labor of Philippine society.
In The Cry and the Dedication, while anxiously waiting for Hassim and Old Bio to return from one of the rendezvous of their political mission, the other underground insurgents encourage their comrade Linda Bie, a flute player, to perform a folksong titled “The Lady Dayang-Dayang” (originally an Igorot folksong, revised in Ilocano). The song releases the group from despair (they suspect that Hassim and Old Bio were captured and killed) and enables them to “return to the source” of Filipino radicalism (they are reminded of their peasant origins, their “common denominator”) in order to meditate upon a possible alternative society.
Linda Bie started the song on his flute. Dante approached Mameng, who curtsied in the manner of a princess in the presence of a king; then, when Legaspi raised both hands and tapped a foot on the grass, held hands and started to swing round and round. And Legaspi sang happily:
“When the Lady Dayang-Dayang opens
The sun comes down the weeping sky
And the whole world smiles even to the
Ay-yay-yay! Ay-yay-yay! Ay-ay!
When the Lady Dayang-Dayang closes
The sun withdraws from the weeping sky
And the whole world frowns even to the
Ay-yay-yay! Ay-yay-yay! Ay-ay!”
Again and again Linda Bie played the rollicking folksong, and Legaspi sang it at the top of his lungs. Their merriment filled the air.
… And Linda Bie, watching them dancing above the length of his reed flute, was touched beyond words. Where had he seen such happiness last? In what house, in what village, in what town? This was the life he knew and would like to know again.20
This song temporarily allays their fears. They are enraptured by its melody and compelled to dance. It is within the distance between the brutal, everyday reality of attempting to survive under colonial occupation (Hassim and Old Bio may have been murdered) and the ecstasy of the flute playing/dancing (its evoking a collective experience) that the members of the group are able to obtain a glimpse of a future in which (as Old Bio puts it in his observations of Hassim) they no longer “have to waste [their] live[s] fighting instead of creating beautiful things for others to admire or copy.”21 As Marcuse might suggest, this strange moment of distancing within the text—of breaking into song and dance amidst tragedy—makes “perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life.”22 In other words, it reveals the promise of what is to come, but also suggests that this promise cannot come to fruition in the current society.
In the folksong that Linda Bie performs, a female figure saves the world from despair. The function of the Lady Dayang-Dayang resonates with the ways in which Mameng (the only female insurgent) is positioned within the text to heal Dante’s psychic-sexual wounds of emasculation, which are the result of racist acts of violence in the United States. The sole function of the Lady Dayang-Dayang, Mameng, and the Philippines (its physical landscape is imagined as a woman’s body) is to embrace male bodies ravaged by the violence of colonial occupation/U.S. racism and to re-invigorate the radical desires of Filipino male insurgents.
According to Asian American literary critic Viet Thanh Nguyen, the America in America is in the Heart signifies a white woman, that which is desired but unattainable.23 He situates this reading within the larger context of global capitalism in order to highlight how Filipino men are incorporated into the U.S. nation-state as exploited and racialized migrant workers whose sexuality and bodies are constructed (interpellated) as a threat to the masculinity of white male owners of the means of production. The desires of Filipino male migrant workers for collective freedom and sexual agency, which are undergirded by a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment by the U.S. nation-state, are displaced onto the bodies of white women, the “property” of white men. In The Cry and the Dedication, according to Nguyen’s reading, there is a shift in Bulosan’s gendered forms of representation. In America is in the Heart, America is a site of loss—where Filipino men experience betrayal and psychic-sexual trauma. In The Cry and the Dedication, the Philippines, which is imagined as a Filipina, becomes a site of renewal—where Filipino men can reclaim their masculinity through participation in the country’s revolutionary struggle. We see this in the way Dante’s relationship with Mameng unfolds against the backdrop of a feminized Philippine landscape.
| Mameng signifies
a burgeoning immanent (feminist) critique within Bulosan’s radical Third World literary imagination as well as anticipates the emergence of an organized women’s movement in Philippine society decades later.
Although it’s critical to deconstruct the masculinist assumptions within the text, it’s imperative, I think, to simultaneously recognize Bulosan’s attempt to represent women as progressive political subjects.24 Here, I’m thinking of how Mameng in The Cry and the Dedication alludes to a long tradition of Filipina insurgency dating as far back as the 18th century with Gabriela Silang, followed by others such as Teresa Magbanua, Teodora Alonso, Gregoria de Jesus, and Tandang Sora.25 The limitations and possibilities of Mameng’s character represent Bulosan’s ideological struggle to grapple with gender inequality in Philippine society. Mameng signifies a burgeoning immanent (feminist) critique within Bulosan’s radical Third World literary imagination as well as anticipates the emergence of an organized women’s movement in Philippine society decades later.26
Bulosan’s representation of Mameng, the only revolutionary female character in The Cry and the Dedication, is fraught with major contradictions. Although Mameng participates in the Huk underground—she is armed and adept at field combat—her main role, for their particular mission, is strictly confined to that of the sexualized Other. Her function is to heal, through the use of her body and her reproductive labor, the psychic-sexual wounds inflicted upon Dante and Felix Rivas, two Filipino American migrant workers and labor organizers who return to the Philippines to participate in the national sovereignty movement. What’s ironic is that by the end of the novel, Mameng’s sexual embrace does not guarantee Dante’s recovery from racist acts of violence in the United States.
Even at the doorstep of death, Dante must confront white racism in the Philippines, which is signified by the presence of a white American couple, Dr. and Mrs. O’Brian. Shot at a rendezvous, Dante is rushed by his comrades to Dr. O’Brian, who, at first, refuses to do anything to save Dante’s life because of the “ungodly hour” of their request. Despite Dr. O’Brian’s (half-hearted) attempt to operate, Dante dies. Reflecting upon Dante’s life, Hassim engages Dr. O’Brian in a heated exchange concerning Dante’s bitter struggle in the United States to come to grips with the daily terror of white racism. The latter exclaims, “I hate the Filipino people too!” At this point, Mrs. O’Brian attempts to intervene:
“No, Jack”… “Not that, dear.” It was a whispered scream, the call of one who had known pain: the call to stop the flow of blood from someone who had let blood flow into the world of hating men, who was always alert to violence like animals that feed on blood. Then she said to Hassim, “Have we not done enough for you? Have we not endangered our lives for your safety? Let us live in peace. Please go now.”27
Despite her admiration for Dante’s writings, Mrs. O’Brian aligns herself with her husband, who refuses to acknowledge his role—and the role of white racism—in justifying and sustaining U.S. imperial domination of the Philippines. Hassim’s observation reveals the interconnectedness between “whiteness” and U.S. Empire: “Even in our own land you try to run our lives.”28 In the process of refusing to transcend racialized, gendered, and national boundaries, Mrs. O’Brian ends up burying Dante’s book Tales of My People with his body: she “tucked it inside Dante’s shirt.” An opportunity to forge lines of solidarity is thwarted by white racism. If white racism forecloses critical spaces, a Third World feminist critique could possibly shed light on new possibilities: forging solidarity between women as an oppressed and exploited sector in the U.S. and Philippine societies (Mrs. O’Brian, “one who had known pain”) and “Third World” subalterns (Dante, Hassim, Old Bio) involved in the Philippine struggle for national sovereignty.
If Mameng is positioned as Dante’s sexual Other (or supplement), his death, then, is inextricably interlocked with the way in which Mameng’s radical potential for change is reduced to her sexual difference. Mameng’s role in the political mission is to confirm, through the use of her own body and sexual labor, Felix Rivas’ identity (he had been castrated in the United States) at their final rendezvous in Manila, where he will be waiting with one million pesos for the movement.29 Upon discovering the reason why Mameng is assigned to the mission, Hassim becomes angry and the other male insurgents feel ashamed.30 The text does not offer more than a brief moment of recognition of the reduction of Mameng’s political agency to her sexual difference. Hassim acknowledges that Mameng’s “duty is a painful one.”31 To be sure, this is not enough to generate a critique of sexism within the national sovereignty movement and in Philippine society. The text yearns—by its very silence, its inability to articulate a feminist critique—for a deeper, concrete analysis of sexual difference.
| Allos’ observations and the mother’s response reveal a larger picture within which we must grasp the specificity
of Marcia’s experience —that her experience
of class oppression and exploitation is mediated through gender.
The novel ends with the collective of insurgents forging ahead to the final rendezvous of their mission, Manila. At this point, the movement for national sovereignty is at a crossroads. Without Dante, Mameng is the only one who can identify Rivas. Not unlike the Lady Dayang-Dayang who “opens her door [and]/The sun comes down the weeping sky/And the whole world smiles even to the poor,” Mameng is the key to the future—the key to fusing both ends of the dialectical relationship between subaltern struggles in the Global North and South. Mameng’s position at the end of the novel brings our attention to the issue of women’s political agency within the national sovereignty movement and within Philippine society.
In the next section, I will focus on one of Bulosan’s short stories titled “Passage Into Life,” which, in my opinion, moves beyond the silences and gaps within The Cry and the Dedication by illustrating what a Third World materialist feminist critique could look like as well as how it could enhance the struggle for genuine Philippine national sovereignty.32
Passage into Life: Concretizing a Third World materialist feminist critique
“Passage Into Life” is a series of vignettes in which the young protagonist of poor peasant origins, Allos, comes to terms with the class conflicts of a semi-feudal Philippine society, and “first [becomes] aware of the world.” Allos’ ability to meditate upon personal tragedies and the text’s layering of the various vignettes produce 1.) A critique of unequal relations of power within Philippine society; 2.) A Third World materialist feminist perspective.33
The fifteen vignettes trace Allos’ growth from the age of five to fourteen. We observe the development of Allos’ awareness of the world, and we become cognizant of the conditions of possibility for his radical worldview. The opening scene dramatizes the sharp class divisions within Allos’ milieu. Allos is sent by his peasant father to deliver goat meat to their landlord at dinnertime. Upon entering their home, the landlord and his family immediately express their disgust at the smell of goat meat, the food of peasants. The landlord requests that Allos identifies himself and his father.
“What is in that basket?” asked the landlord.
“Goat meat, sir,” Allos said.
“Why did you bring it here?” asked the landlord’s wife.
“My father told me to give it to you, Madam,” he said.
“Who is your father?” asked the landlord.
“My father works on your land, Your Excellency,” Allos said humbly.34
Reminded of his “invisible” subject position within the gaze of the landlord, Allos leaves the landlord’s house “weak with shame.” Both shame and the pain of hunger propel Allos to question issues such as poverty, gendered exploitation and oppression, patriarchal authority, and death. The rest of the vignettes bear witness to ways in which the eventual dissolution of the patriarchal family and the exposure of the everyday reality of women’s oppression generate a materialist feminist analysis, which enables Allos to politicize his worldview.
What’s unique about “Passage into Life” is the way it dramatizes the interconnectedness of gender and class in Philippine society. In one vignette, Allos’ sister Marcia sits by her window every day until midnight waiting for a husband. Allos notices how this dehumanizing process has reduced Marcia to her “exchange-value” on the marriage market: “Her eyes were lifeless when she looked at [Allos]”.35 When he asks his mother why it’s difficult for Marcia to find a husband, she responds, “Because we are poor, son… Nobody wants to marry a poor girl”.36 Upon acknowledging this reality, Allos is compelled to question the world: he “rushed out of the house wondering why there were poor people.” Allos’ observations and the mother’s response reveal a larger picture within which we must grasp the specificity of Marcia’s experience—that her experience of class oppression and exploitation is mediated through gender.
| Amidst her cries
of excruciating pain, Allos questions the existence and purpose of God and humanity.
He realizes how much his life, his survival, depends on his mother’s daily labor. Her productive and reproductive labor provides the necessary sustenance for the whole family.
In many ways, Bulosan’s critiques of women’s oppression in Philippine society foreshadow the later feminist movement and creation of women’s organizations such as MAKIBAKA in the early 1970s, which advanced the national sovereignty movement. In the 1980s, Filipina feminist writer and teacher Delia D. Aguilar began the groundbreaking task of concretizing a materialist critique of women’s oppression and exploitation within Philippine society. In the following, she challenges vulgar economistic analysis of women’s oppression in order to create a space, in dialogue with fellow activists and cultural workers in the Philippines, to think more deeply about the dialectical relationship between economic exploitation and the ideological oppression of women.
Now why did Marxist feminism come about at all? Marxist feminists have disagreed with Engels’ position that the entry of women into production could of itself spell the end of male dominance, and have taken issue with the concept that the family as the center of women’s oppression is simply a relic of the pre-capitalist period. They argue that the oppression of women and the sexual division of labor are entrenched in capitalist relations of production and must be analyzed in this light, stressing that Marxism must take into account women’s domestic labor, their role as poorly paid workers in the labor force, and the familial ideology that heightens their oppression.37
Merely transforming the economic base is not enough. Sustaining the two ends of this dialectic—gendered exploitative social relations of production and patriarchal ideology—is crucial for understanding women’s oppression and exploitation. This kind of analysis is necessary not only for the full participation of women in the Philippine revolutionary movement, but also for the total and complete emancipation of women. Other vignettes in “Passage Into Life” begin to illustrate this form of materialist feminist analysis.
In vignette ten, we learn that there is “one thing that drove Allos to thinking, and it was watching his mother work all day and half of the night.”38 We are given a lengthy and detailed description of the non-wage domestic labor that his mother must perform on a daily basis. She awakens at five in the morning to prepare breakfast. She cleans the house and begins to wash the laundry at the river, all before noon. She then prepares lunch and returns to the river to continue the wash. By evening, she prepares dinner and cleans up afterwards. When all family members are asleep, she irons the day’s laundry by lamplight. By midnight, she retires only to awaken at five to repeat the cycle. When Allos discovers that his mother has seriously injured her knee while carrying a large basket of vegetables to the market, he approaches a crisis in his worldview. Amidst her cries of excruciating pain, Allos questions the existence and purpose of God and humanity. He realizes how much his life, his survival, depends on his mother’s daily labor. Her productive and reproductive labor provides the necessary sustenance for the whole family.39 Traumatized by the thought of possibly losing his mother, Allos begins to distance himself from the oppressive patriarchal ideologies of the church and the family (ideological state apparatuses).40
“I will not believe in God any more if you die, Mother,” Allos said.
“Son, little son, you must believe in God always,” his mother said.
“Yes, Mother,” he said. But Allos knew that he would never believe in God, or in any man, or in himself, if his mother died.41
This critical distancing from patriarchal ideologies not only allows Allos to recognize the specificity of women’s oppression, but also creates the possibility for him to envision a transformed society.
| One wonders what Bulosan would have been able to create if he lived long enough to bear witness to the innovative forms of organizing around issues of gender and sexuality that have developed within the Philippine national sovereignty movement...
In another vignette, in a desperate attempt to save his father’s life, Allos runs to his wealthy cousin’s house for assistance. Without speaking a word, the cousin throws a dime at Allos and speeds off with his wife in their expensive car. As his father dies, Allos “pick[s] up the small silver dime [which symbolizes the exchange value of his father’s life] and look[s] at it for a long time.”42 The death of his father is followed by vignettes in which Allos comes across a stranger who tells him that death is not the end: “No one is really an orphan as long as there is another man living. As long as there is one man living and working and thinking on earth”.43 The stranger provides an image of solidarity that encourages Allos to discover (recover) the true meaning (use value) of his father’s life in relation to the lives of other members of his family who have suffered under the oppressive and exploitative conditions of a semi-feudal society.
Now Allos knew: there in the known world he must go to seek a new life, seek it among the living until he would have enough time to pause and ponder on the mystery of the dead.44
The urgency underlying the protagonist’s desire to forge local and international forms of solidarity (“there in the known world he must go to seek a new life”) stems from the ways in which the narrative unrelentingly dramatizes (through multiple vignettes) the processes by which poor peasants are exploited as well as complicit in their own oppression (hegemony through consent). The narrative simultaneously opens a space to theorize how the peasantry is able to negotiate their collective agency (hegemony is never totalizing).
The death of Allos’ father is the denouement that ushers in a two-headed critique. The first is a critique of the exploitative system of absentee landlordism. The second is a critique of patriarchal ideological state apparatuses such as the family and church. The disintegration of the patriarchal family system (the family chaos in vignette 5 foreshadows the denouement) enables Allos to venture beyond familial (vignette 6) and national boundaries (vignette 12) to seek others with whom he may struggle so that those very inhuman conditions that took the life of his father and destroyed the lives of his mother and sister might be radically transformed.
I would like to suggest that Bulosan’s works encourage us to think about the ways in which the collective agency of Filipinos to determine their future depends upon the development and advancement of a materialist feminist analysis of gender oppression and exploitation within Philippine society: “There was one thing that drove Allos to thinking, and it was watching his mother work all day and half of the night.” One wonders what Bulosan would have been able to create if he lived long enough to bear witness to the innovative forms of organizing around issues of gender and sexuality that have developed within the Philippine national sovereignty movement, ranging from MAKIBAKA and GABRIELLA to Pro-Gay. In a sense, this task of creative insurgency belongs to all of us.
According to the Filipino Community Support Organization in California and the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, around “300,000 Filipino immigrants are… targeted for deportations from the United States.”45 Recently, the Cuevas family, from California, was deported after living in the United States for 20 years. The massive support generated for the Cuevas case reveals the fact that Filipinos in the United States today are becoming cognizant of the interconnectedness between their lives and the lives of those in the Philippines. The surveillance and deportation of Filipino American bodies are not disconnected from current attempts by the United States to contain and annihilate the national liberation movement in the Philippines. In 2002, Colin Powell enlisted the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines—two major insurgency groups which are part of the National Democratic Front—as so-called “terrorist” organizations.
As young Filipino American activists organize to address the racial profiling and deportation of Filipinos in the United States in our post 9-11 era, they’ve discovered a tradition of international solidarity created by an earlier generation of Filipinos. In their essay “American Insecurity and Radical Filipino Community Politics,” Robyn Rodriguez and Nerissa S. Balce trace how Filipinos have been able to sustain an international approach to political organizing in a way that bridges the struggles of the Old Left period of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s. They assert:
Filipinos have engaged in continued radical movements from the 1930s to the present. By the second half of the 1930s, as Filipino laborers were organizing farm workers strikes in California and across the United States, Filipino peasant farmers in Central Luzon organized chapters of the National Society of Peasants in the Philippines (Katipunang Pambansa ng mga Magsasaka sa Pilipinas), which staged farmers’ strikes, pickets, rallies, and even armed uprisings in the Philippine countryside. As [Philippine Studies scholar] Benedict Kerkvliet wrote, ‘By the 1930s, discontent had grown to a rage that united a few hundred thousand peasants.’ Kerkvliet adds that many of the leaders and members of these peasant organizations took part in the revolutions against Spain in 1896 and against the United States in 1899. The temporal convergence of Filipino radical movements in the colonial metropole and in the U.S. colony illustrates an important but neglected history that few Asian American studies scholars and radical labor historians discuss. By the 1960s, in the San Francisco Bay Area specifically, Filipinos were at the forefront of the San Francisco State University strike for ethnic studies, the fight to save the International Hotel, and the struggle against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.46
This unique tradition of struggle has enabled Filipinos to work “in solidarity with radical movements of the Philippines and [to]… articulate their critiques of American domestic policy as linked to the project of U.S. imperialism”47. As we build upon this history of international class struggle (race-class dialectic), we must realize that a materialist feminist analysis (gender-class dialectic) must be central to our work.
History has shown us that the subaltern has always spoken. In light of current political events, we find that the voices captured in Bulosan’s texts remain relevant and fresh. They remind us that despite atrocious conditions, oppressed and exploited people everywhere continue to imagine liberatory alternatives to achieve “freedom from want.” The creation of new narratives of love and solidarity—as opposed to post-al narratives of cynicism obsessed with the politics of failure—and the development of new histories and new subjectivities in these New Times can be achieved only through a (re)new(ed) commitment to collective struggle.48
In the midst of the despair of the Great Depression, Bulosan sustained hope:
This is the way we stand in the sunset
And gawk at the sun, needing no time
For mourning in our march into the morning.49
This is our task—to sustain a politics of hope in these times of post 9-11 despair as we remember Carlos Bulosan’s life and work.
1 The Abu Ghraib prison scandal forces us to re-examine the history of United States racism as well as the material reality within which racialized bodies are constituted. Various scholars and public intellectuals-- such as Manning Marable and Norman Solomon-- have made the connection between the images of those brutalized naked bodies at Abu Ghraib and the daily torture of poor people of color in the United States . Marable points out that a majority of African Americans today “exist in conditions that exceed the devastation of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 2004, in New York ’s Central Harlem community, 50 percent of all black male adults were currently unemployed.” According to Solomon “2 million people [are] now behind bars—63 percent black or Latino.” With this increased incarceration of poor people of color, we also see the intensification of racial profiling by other repressive state apparatuses (such as the police, the FBI, etc.) under the auspices of Homeland Security.
2 SeeThe Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons. Edited by Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel, Helen Toribio. San Francisco: T’Boli Publishing and Distribution, 2004.
3 We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories From Immigrant Communities After 9/11. By Tram Nguyen. Boston : Beacon Press, 2005.
4 “Katrina opened our eyes to America ’s ‘ Third World ’” by Alex Alben. The Seattle Times . Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005 . “Welcome to the ‘ Third World ,’ America ” by Sarita Sarvate, Pacific News Service , posted on Sept. 12, 2005 http://www.alternet.org/story/25112 “The Larger Shame” by Nicholas D. Kristof. New York Times. Sept. 6, 2005 . “Katrina Exposes the ‘ Third World ’ at Home” by Jim Lobe. Inter Press Service News Agency. Sept. 2, 2005.
5 Delia D. Aguilar. “Imperialism, Female Diaspora, and Feminism.” Red Critique. #6. Fully 10% of the population of 82 million is overseas; 70% of OCWs are women, large numbers serving as domestic workers for families in 162 countries. These women have been lauded by Presidents Aquino and Ramos as "the country's new heroines," and by Ramos as "the Philippines ' contribution to other countries' development." Without the remittances these workers send home, $7 billion in 2000, the government would not have managed its debt-service payments to financial lending agencies. It is a widely acknowledged fact in the Philippines that the survival of the economy has been made possible by the remittances of OCWs, which represent the largest source of foreign exchange. http://www.geocities.com/redtheory/redcritique/SeptOct02/imperialism femalediasporaandfeminism.htm
See E. San Juan , Jr.’s Racial Formation and Critical Transformations (1992) for a detailed discussion of the function of race within U.S. society and within global capitalism (racism as an “international political force”).
6 68-71, America is in the Heart.
7 69. America is in the Heart.
8 69. America is in the Heart.
9 70. America is in the Heart.
10 71. America is in the Heart.
11 SeeSound of Falling Light for references to Richard Wright and Paul Robeson. Also article on Amado V. Hernandez “Demand Release Of Labor Leader in Philippines ” (Paul Robeson’s Freedom, May 1951). See Paul Robeson’s Foreword to Luis Taruc’s Born of the People (1953).
12 177. On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. Edited with an Introduction by E. San Juan , Jr. Philadelphia : Temple UP , 1995. See also Sound of Falling Light: Letters in Exile. Carlos Bulosan. Quezon City : Philippines , 1960.
13 E. San Juan , Jr. Racism and Cultural Studies: Critiques of Multiculturalist Ideology and the Politics of Difference. (RCS) Durham and London : Duke University Press, 2002. (RCS) p. 25. See Charles Mills. The Racial Contract. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1997.
14 RCS, 26; Mills. The Racial Contract, 25. See also Pierre Van den Berghe’s Race and Racism. New York : John Wiley, 1978.
15 Ellen Meiksins Wood. “The Communist Manifesto After 150 Years.” Monthly Review. Volume 50, Number 1. May 1998. http://www.monthlyreview.org/598wood.htm
16 “… Filipinos were victimized by the same anti-Oriental stereotype, but with added difficulties. Filipinos had no governmental authority willing to speak for them as Imperial Japan had been prepared to speak for the resident Japanese. Their status was ambiguous. They were ‘wards’ or ‘nationals’ who could not be deported because they had not entered as immigrants, nor could they be excluded. Yet they were not eligible for citizenship. But when they traveled abroad, they used United States passports. In brief, they were neither fish nor fowl.” Carey McWilliams, Introduction to America is in the Heart . Seattle , University of Washington Press , 1973, c1946.
17 Bulosan’s radical Third World imagination was influenced by some of the most militant Filipino American labor organizers who integrated radical traditions of organizing from the Philippines into the multiethnic labor movement: Pedro Calosa (who led the 1931 Tayug peasant revolt in the Philippines ), Pablo Manlapit, Danny Roxas, Chris Mensalvas, Ernesto Mangaoang, Ponce Torres, Casimiro Bueno Absolor, and Joe Prudencio. Bulosan, himself, was active in the labor movement doing what he does best – writing and editing. In 1952, he was invited to Seattle by Mensalvas to edit the International Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union , Local 37 Yearbook. Here Bulosan includes a passionate call to release imprisoned Philippine-based poet/labor union leader Amado V. Hernandez. It is within this dialectics of struggle (international solidarity) that Bulosan envisioned, in his art, the historical possibilities of becoming Filipino.
On the one hand, Bulosan’s craft and method (which anticipates Raymond Williams’ concept of cultural materialism) exceeds the blatant limitations of narrow cultural nationalism. On the other, his unique perspective on cultural production within the context of a collective struggle for radical social transformation resists economically deterministic approaches to social change, and advances the anti-racist practices of U.S. Old Left of the 1930s —its race-class dialectic and critique of the United States as a racial formation.
18 Carlos Bulosan. The Cry and the Dedication. Edited and with an introduction by E. San Juan , Jr. Philadelphia : Temple UP , 1995. 69-77. The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance. Daniel B. Schirmer & Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, Eds. Boston : South End Press, 1987.
19 181, On Becoming Filipino.
20 113, The Cry and the Dedication.
21 128, The Cry and the Dedication
22 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension. Boston : Beacon Press, 1978. (72). In that moment of “distancing,” the group is able to obtain a glimpse of a future that does not yet exist in their current society/system. Marcuse would argue that this “aesthetic autonomy” reveals something of the political unconscious of both the art and the society from which it emerges.
23 Viet Thanh Nguyen. Race & Resistance: Literature & Politics in Asian America . Oxford UP, 2002.
24 For a critical assessment of the representation of women, in Bulosan’s writings, as laboring and political subjects, see Cheryl Higashida’s “Re-Signed Subjects: Women, Work, and World in the Fiction of Carlos Bulosan and Hisaye Yamamato.” Studies in the Literary Imagination. Atlanta : Spring 2004. 37:1. See also Rachel Lee’s The Americas of Asian American Literature. Princeton , New Jersey : Princeton UP, 1999. and Lina B. Diaz de Rivera’s “The Female Principle and Woman Reading in Carlos Bulosan’s ‘As Long as the Grass Shall Grow’” Diliman Review. 1989. Vol. 37, No. 3.
25 E. San Juan , Jr. Filipina Insurgency. Philippines : Giraffe Books, 1998. Bulosan, at one point, began outlining a series of novels that would depict the unfolding of Philippine history from a materialist perspective; The Cry and the Dedication can be read as an installment for that project.
26 See Asuncion David Maramba, Six Young Filipino Martyrs. Philippines : Anvil, 1997.
27 293. The Cry and the Dedication.
28 293. The Cry and the Dedication.
29 40-43. The Cry and the Dedication
30 43. The Cry and the Dedication
31 44. The Cry and the Dedication
32 “Passage Into Life” is taken from the Bulosan collection of Dolores S. Feria. Published in On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. E. San Juan , Jr., Ed. Philadelphia : Temple UP , 1995.
33 On Becoming Filipino. In the introduction, E. San Juan , Jr. provides excellent comments on “Passage into Life.” Leaning upon San Juan ’s reading, I will focus the ways in which the short story generates a materialist feminist critique.
34 47. On Becoming Filipino.
35 55. On Becoming Filipino.
36 55. On Becoming Filipino.
37 172, E. San Juan , Jr. “Four Interventions.” Filipina Insurgency. Quezon City: Giraffe Books, 1998.
38 53. On Becoming Filipino.
39 Delia D. Aguilar reminds us that “… we need to look at what Marxist economist Lourdes Beneria refers to as women’s ‘reproductive work,’ that is to say, the sum total of the work performed in the home setting in which gender division of labor is often distinctly elaborated. What does the woman do in the home? She not only produces children, but also reproduces the social relations and the existential basis of daily life; and produces and reproduces the working capacity of the wage earner (increasingly, the category of wage earner includes herself). Household work involves meeting the needs of the wage worker in tangible (e.g., feeding and clothing him) and in less tangible ways (servicing the husband’s emotional needs, managing psychological tensions, creating a ‘good family environment,’ etc.). The woman is responsible for socializing the children congruent with society’s requirements, her own enactment of what the culture defines as ‘feminine’ and her husband’s playing his ‘masculine’ role serving as models for them to imitate. In doing so, she also reproduces the social relations necessary to maintain the hierarchical, gender-based structures of our semi-colonial and semi-feudal society” (180). “Four Interventions” Filipina Insurgency.
40 See also San Juan ’s reading of this scene, On Becoming Filipino, 19
41 54. On Becoming Filipino
42 57. On Becoming Filipino.
43 57-58. On Becoming Filipino.
44 58-59. On Becoming Filipino.
45 Filipino Community Support, California . Press Release: “End Unjust Deportations of Filipinos; No Retaliation For Troop Withdrawal.” Summer 2004
46 Robyn Rodriguez and Nerissa S. Balce. “American Insecurity and Radical Filipino Community Politics.” Peace Review 16.2, June (2004), 131-140.
47 Rodriguez and Balce. 139.
48 At this time when our literary landscape in the West is saturated by narratives that explore the existential angst and postcolonial trauma of Third World writers/intellectuals displaced in the metropole, it’s understandable that Bulosan’s narratives, with its emphasis on working class agency, might seem anachronistic. However, as global capitalism and U.S. Empire continue to unfold, we find that Bulosan’s works still speak to us, even as they speak against the grain of contemporary literary aesthetics, generated under the sign of the “post,” which produce what Aijaz Ahmad calls narratives of lovelessness.
The fact that public intellectuals such as Marable, Solomon, Davis, Saadawi, and others such as Chomsky, Moore, and Roy are speaking up is symptomatic of a broad international anti-war movement, which, we hope, will continue to open more critical spaces in which intellectuals and cultural workers would be able to creatively support and build social movements for genuine social transformation.
49 Carlos Bulosan, “Needing No Time”. Originally published in Poetry 50 (September 1937), p. 328. Also in On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. Edited with an Introduction by E. San Juan , Jr. Philadelphia: Temple UP , 1995.
© Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao