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Bulosan's Laughter
The Making of Carlos Bulosan

[Bulosan] frequently remarked that he would drive
biographers and literary historians crazy with his
carelessness toward his manuscripts—and he might
have added...his reticence in revealing details
of his life...
Susan Evangelista
Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography and an Anthology.

...his biography is also characterized by a number of key gaps that—depending on how you want to look at it—entail mysterious and fascinating ambiguities.

By the 1940s Carlos Bulosan was known both nationally and internationally as a writer and one of the leading Filipino American intellectuals and activists. Fame notwithstanding, Bulosan remains a mysterious and even enigmatic figure in terms of his life in the Philippines as well as in the United States. In part, some of the mystery about Bulosan's life has been generated by controversies surrounding his most successful book, America is in the Heart (1943). Was this book literally autobiographical from beginning to end? Or was it partly autobiographical, partly the product of people and things that Bulosan had observed in the Philippines and the U.S.A., first-hand, and partly a matter of things Bulosan had been told? Or are many of the accounts in America simply stories that Bulosan had heard over the years, and then synthesized into the "life history" of the book's fictional protagonist, "Carlos"? (Alquizola, Marilyn. "Subversion or Affirmation: The Text and Subtext of America is in the Heart,” papers from the meeting of the Assn. for Asian American Studies, Hunter College of the City Univ. of New York, 1989. Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives. Eds. Shirley Hune et al. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1991. 199-209.)

Above and beyond this controversy, the published literature on Bulosan's background and biography is not only quite sketchy for such a famous, pioneering, figure: his biography is also characterized by a number of key gaps that—depending on how you want to look at it—entail mysterious and fascinating ambiguities.

To cite some pertinent questions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was immersed in, some of which remain completely or partially unresolved, were: What was his real name? When was Carlos Bulosan actually born? Who were his parents, and how many siblings did he actually have? What, exactly, was the nature of his family's class background in the Philippines? How extensively was he educated in the Philippines? When and why did Bulosan come to the U.S.A.? What were his initial experiences in the west, including the jobs he worked, and his activities on behalf of labor? What were the nature of Bulosan's illnesses, which began to plague him in his mid-20s, and which put him in the hospital, on the verge of death, only six years after his arrival in the States? Did Bulosan ever petition to become a naturalized U.S. citizen? Was he ever married, and if so, how many times? And what were his feelings about returning to the Philippines, for a visit, or for research, since he did write about the islands? And most importantly to the FBI: was he ever, once, or on an on-going basis, an official member of the Communist Party, U.S.A.?

These biographical facts are important in their own right but also because they may help explain the conditions that facilitated Bulosan's transformation from a Filipino immigrant and a working class wage-laborer, to an internationally-recognized author and intellectual. Our unique contribution to this project revolves around Carlos Bulosan's declassified FBI files which we petitioned for in 1996 and received from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2001.

It is a revelation to see how much manpower, how many resources, and how much time the Federal Bureau of Investigation was willing and able to spend in order to find out who Carlos Bulosan was, and if he was a possible threat to the domestic or international security of the United States of America. The declassified documents represent an intense five-year investigation into Bulosan's background, life, and activities in the Philippines and the U.S.A. If and when they are carefully read and analyzed, these files shed light on a number of the above topics, as well as on others that we do not have time to explore here. Here, we will draw from both Bulosan's FBI files and the extant literature in order to conjecture as best we can some of the basic facts about Bulosan's pre-immigration life in the Philippines.

Why would a literate person, and a famous author to boot, not want to reveal his or her actual birth date—especially in terms of two dates that differ by only twelve days?

In terms of our analysis, we present an original interpretation that accounts for why Bulosan himself may have mystified elements of his life story. If we are right, then biographers should accept the fact that they may never learn many of the actual facts about Bulosan's life, whether this has to do with his activities in the Philippines or in the United States. And, finally, in this fashion, we hope to explain the image we've used to title this essay: Bulosan's laughter.

CARLOS BULOSAN'S BACKGROUND

From the best available information, Carlos Bulosan was born in the province of Pangasinan in the village of Mangusmana, near the town of Binalonan, which in turn is located on the northern island of Luzon in the Philippine Islands. There is a wide range of dates cited in the extant literature, as well as in the FBI files, in regard to the exact year of his birth. Examining both the files and a range of published sources, at least seven different years are cited in terms of Bulosan's actual birth date: 1911; 1913; 1914; 1915; 1916; 1917; and 1919. While we realize that new immigrants are prone to alter details of their biography such as their birth date, such a set of years, that span almost a decade, seem unusual.

Susan Evangelista's claim that Carlos Bulosan was actually born on November 2, 1911, seems most credible in our view. Although we have not seen this for ourselves, Evangelista notes that this is the date listed on Bulosan's baptismal records which she located in the Philippines. What seems rather strange is that Bulosan himself recorded different birth dates in different autobiographical accounts. For example, in an autobiographical statement, in a supplement of Twentieth Century Authors published in 1955, which he surely wrote (or at the very least, personally approved of) Bulosan's name is followed by a birth date in parentheses. In this case, his birthday is listed as being "November 24, 1914." However, an agent with Seattle field office of the FBI stated that, Bulosan told him on June 14, 1954, that he (Bulosan) was born on "November 12, 1912." While the matter of a day, a month, or even a year or two might not really make that much difference to anyone, we wonder about this. Why would a literate person, and a famous author to boot, not want to reveal his or her actual birth date—especially in terms of two dates that differ by only twelve days?

Details about the Bulosan family's composition and economic circumstances in the Philippines have been a matter of some debate. Toward the end of his life, Bulosan himself wrote this in regard to his family:

I lived in Mangusmana with my father until I was seven years old. We lived in a small grass hut; but it was sufficient, because we were peasants. My father could not read or write, but he knew how to work his one hectare of land, which was the sole support of our big family. The rest of the family lived in a palm-leaf house in Binalonan. It consisted of four brothers and two sisters. Here my mother was the driving force, who sold salted fish in the public market to feed and clothe her children.

In the very next sentence of this same account, however, Bulosan writes, "Being the youngest of the five brothers..." (our emphasis). So did he include himself in the latter instance, and omit himself in the former? Or is this an out-and-out inconsistency? If the latter, what would its purpose be? We don't mean to beat a dead horse, here, as this is a rather insignificant error. The larger point is that, whether one checks his various autobiographical accounts or statements, and those of his biographers, many aspects of Carlos Bulosan's background and early life are equally sketchy and contradictory. In fact, in part because of such contradictions, it seems doubtful that some points about Bulosan's life will ever be fully resolved.

According to the FBI file, Bulosan's father and mother were Simeon Bulosan and Marta Sampeyan. (Her name is also spelled as "Sampayan" in some of the FBI reports, although "Sampayan" is actually the correct spelling). About his mother, Bulosan wrote:

Being the youngest of the five brothers, I was obligated to help my mother in the house and in the marketplace. My mother could not read or write; but she was such a dynamic little peasant woman that, when her sons had all grown up and were scattered in many lands, she gathered the numerous grandchildren in fold and raised them alone as she had done to her own children.

Today [i.e., circa the early 1950s; MCA, LRH] she is still supporting her last five grandchildren by selling salted fish in the public market of Binalonan.

Some biographers even claim that Bulosan spoke little English when he arrived in the States in 1930, but this is not clear to us because of what we know about the average Filipino's educational trajectory.

In terms of his siblings, what we have determined is that Carlos's eldest brother was Aurelio Bulosan who had finished high school in the Philippines, became a teacher, and emigrated to the U.S.A. Aurelio was followed by Dionisio, a second brother who had gone to America before Carlos. Another brother was named Joe, and one of his sisters was named Escolastica (which is the name of a Catholic saint, and is Spanish for "the scholarly one").

Bulosan's own accounts of his family in sources like Twentieth Century Authors highlight his class origins in a poor Filipino peasant family. Bulosan's close friend and biographer reaffirms this fact. Some biographers even claim that Bulosan spoke little English when he arrived in the States in 1930, but this is not clear to us because of what we know about the average Filipino's educational trajectory. In the early 1900s in the Philippines, that is, one generally spent four years in the equivalent of primary school, and then another three years at the intermediate level. If one's education continued, four years of high school followed. Instruction at all levels of the educational system in the Philippines since its annexation by the U.S.A. was in English.

According to Bulosan, he attended the primary and secondary school when he could. By his own account, he also began a high school-level education in the Philippines.

Off and on I went to the public school of Binalonan until I was thirteen then to the high school in Lingayen, where I stayed for three semesters. Then I quit school forever and went to work in Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. Later I returned to Binalonan and worked on the farm.

Some biographers have claimed that Bulosan did a stint with the high school newspaper while in Lingayen, but no examples of Bulosan's high school writing have been located to date. In any case, it seems unlikely to us that Bulosan could have spoken little to no English upon his arrival in the U.S.A.

FROM WORKER TO WRITER

Carlos soon left the Philippines in order to join his elder brother, Aurelio in California. The family apparently sold some property in order to pay $75 for a ticket in steerage, the cheapest passenger section of the Dollar Line. Thus, in his late teens—somewhere between 17 and 19 years of age—Carlos Bulosan landed at the port of Seattle, near an area which is now Pier 91. The year was either 1930, (Susan Evangelista gives the date: July 22, 1930, specifically) or, according to E. San Juan who cites the date given in one of Bulosan's autobiographical statements, a year later, in 1931.

According to Evangelista, after arriving in Seattle, Carlos Bulosan immediately made his way to Lompoc, California. Lompoc is a small agricultural community on the California coastline, located almost directly between the towns of San Luis Obispo, to the north, and Santa Barbara, to the south. He went there in order to join a brother, Dionisio, who was about nine years older than Carlos. Carlos sought employment and worked for a spell as a dishwasher in Lompoc. According to one of Bulosan's autobiographical statements:

[This] period of my life is recorded in my autobiography, America is in the Heart. Between 1931 and Pearl Harbor day, I lived violent years of unemployment, prolonged illnesses, and heart-rending labor union work on the farms of California.

Bulosan's friend, P.C. Morantte's account, however, is somewhat different. Noting that Carlos's health was already poor when he arrived, Morantte claims that Carlos left Lompoc after only a few months in order to join his older brother Aurelio in Los Angeles. According to Aurelio Bulosan's account, at first Carlos tried to enroll in a local high school but quickly dropped out when he realized that he wasn't really learning anything there. Aurelio then supported Carlos while the latter began his life as a self-educated intellectual, who read everything he could get his hands on in the Los Angeles Public Library as he also began to write.

Interestingly enough, although it may surprise (and disappoint?) some of his admirers, both of Bulosan's biographers, Evangelista and Morantte, indicate that Bulosan himself did not do much farm labor, although it is true enough that Bulosan wrote for and did publicity work on behalf of the union movement. This runs contrary to Bulosan's own autobiographical statements (see, for example, the seeming "autobiographical statement" presented in his essay "My Education," which does not correspond very closely to Bulosan's biography as we know it now), as well as the supposedly autobiographical account presented in America is in the Heart.

He began to work as a writer on behalf of the incipient union movement in California and the west, and thus sought to express the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the working class.

Bulosan's career as a writer took off soon after his arrival in the U.S.A.—again, casting doubts on any claims that he was a person who had limited education in the Philippines, or was someone who was unfamiliar with the English language when he first arrived. In point of fact, Carlos was already submitting his original poetry to various publishers in California as early as 1932. According to Dorothy Cordova, his efforts were so impressive that Bulosan was selected to be the "poet laureate of the state," no mean accomplishment for a young man, somewhere in his early 20s, who had been in the U.S.A. for only three years.

What is certain is that, during the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Carlos Bulosan initiated a line of work that was to become an integral dimension of his evolution as an author. He began to work as a writer on behalf of the incipient union movement in California and the west, and thus sought to express the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the working class. We will give some key examples of this seminal development in Bulosan's life and career.

Evangelista, San Juan, Jr., and Cordova all note that, by 1934, Bulosan became the publicist for what was to become the "United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America," a Congress of Industrial Organizations (or, CIO) -related union. Bulosan's efforts on this union's behalf included helping to edit and produce a bi-monthly workers' magazine titled, New Tide. During this period Bulosan became fast friends with Chris Mensalvas, who was an active union organizer based in Seattle. Work on the New Tide also linked Bulosan up with a number of literary figures, including a "struggling socialist writer" named Sanora Babb (Campomanes 1998:113), and Harriet Monrose, the editor of an influential publication in its genre: Poetry Magazine.

Similarly, Evangelista notes that Bulosan also wrote pro-labor, pro-union, pieces during this same period for the Philippine Commonwealth Times, which was a local Filipino American newspaper. He also wrote for "at least two other newspapers in the Salinas-Stockton area." This initial period, doing editing and writing for local papers didn't last for long, however. By 1936 Carlos Bulosan had become very seriously ill.

The FBI files on Bulosan are filled with all kinds of information about his state of health. While some of this information seems accurate, some accounts are either partial or distorted. Other information will be difficult to verify one way or the other, and some claims are simply laughable. One of the most egregious statements that the FBI recorded was entered into a summary report out of the FBI's San Francisco field office, dated January 30, 1953. An agent dutifully recorded the fact that an anonymous informant had claimed that "...the subject [i.e., Carlos Bulosan] only had one lung and had a wooden leg," the latter being a patently false statement.

By 1936, it was true that Carlos Bulosan was already seriously ill with tuberculosis and a range of other disturbing ailments. In fact, his illnesses were already so advanced that Bulosan had to be confined at the Los Angeles Country Hospital where he stayed from 1936 to 1938. During that period, one biographer indicates that his brother, Aurelio, gave permission for the doctors to remove several of Carlos's ribs on his right side, and through the course of a number of operations, a diseased portion of Carlos's lung [Cordova 1999:35]. E. San Juan, Jr. emphasizes that, by 1937, Bulosan himself thought he was dying. In addition to tuberculosis, Bulosan also had a cancer in his leg that resulted in a separate operation to remove a kneecap. (His pronounced limp, resulting from this operation, was surely the basis of the false rumor that Bulosan sported "a wooden leg.") Finally, during this period Bulosan, who had started drinking in the States (as is repeatedly emphasized throughout the dossier), had to have a kidney removed.

Bulosan's confinement to bed in the Los Angeles County Hospital was critical to his subsequent evolution as a writer.

Indeed, as a result of all of these medical problems and surgeries, there is little doubt that Carlos Bulosan had been gravely ill between 1936 and 1938—almost to the point of death. When he was released from the hospital in 1938, as San Juan puts it, "his body was frail and vulnerable." Ill health, in fact, would plague Carlos Bulosan for the remaining eighteen years of his life. In light of his ill health, Carlos Bulosan's spirit, in terms of both his creative and his political energies, is amazing.

We know from his biographers' research on the topic, as well as in terms of his own statements, Bulosan's confinement to bed in the Los Angeles County Hospital was critical to his subsequent evolution as a writer. This period and evolution is fairly well documented in extant literature, and not touched upon at all in the FBI files, and so we will merely summarize what is known about this.

In essence, although he was critically ill and most certainly in tremendous pain, Bulosan made good use of his time in the hospital. Close and influential friends, such as the Babb sisters—Dorothy and Sanora, the latter being the wife of famed Chinese American cinematographer, James Wong Howe—visited him and brought him many books. By all accounts, Bulosan read voraciously. During these two years, all of his prior experiences, his reading and ideas began to coalesce in qualitatively new ways.

Bulosan wrote of this period:

I stayed in this hospital for two years. But it took me another five years before I was able to put my grand dream on paper in a literate form. When it began—my relentless creative activity began. And many things followed from my typewriter for two restless years—poetry, short stories, articles on political and cultural subjects. And books—The Laughter of my Father [written in twelve days], The Voice of Bataan [three days], America is in the Heart [twenty-four days], Chorus for America, Letter from America, and two books for children, as well as The Dark People.

Incidentally, our perusal of various correspondence in the archives of the Suzzalo Library at the University of Washington, indicates that while Bulosan may have either inspired or contributed to two children's books, he was not listed as the author of either. It is another mystery to us why he would then claim authorship, when this could be checked out fairly easily, as it eventually was.

THE WAR YEARS

Carlos Bulosan was a civilian during World War II because of his already serious medical condition. Because of his growing fame, Bulosan was recruited by the Philippine Commonwealth Government (headed by President Manuel Quezon) which was temporarily located in exile, in Washington, D.C., during the war years. Both Bulosan and his old friend, P.C. Morantte, were reputedly asked to serve.

There are conflicting opinions, however, about whether Bulosan was successfully recruited or not. Evangelista indicates that Bulosan did actually sign on but that he "drifted away" from service as there was nothing tangible for him to do (Campomanes 1998:114, concurs). Morantte, on the other hand, who was personally involved in these events, asserts that Bulosan had "refused to join," partly out of concern that this job would tie him down to a routine. Morantte states that Bulosan "...was afraid to be cooped up in an office observing regular office hours." Also, as Morantte observed, Bulosan apparently didn't like to be dictated to regarding the subjects he should or shouldn't write about.

...the completion and publication of this essay in the Post was a major coup for Bulosan and his professional writing career; it undoubtedly added to his growing stature as a nationally and internationally-recognized "American" author.

A major achievement during the war for Bulosan occurred after the Saturday Evening Post magazine solicited an essay from him, and published it in a very prestigious forum. Early on, after the United States’ entry into World War II, FDR had asked the Post to find four different authors to write specially-commissioned essays on the "Four Freedoms," in order to celebrate the virtues that America stood for and that Americans were sacrificing their efforts and lives for. Bulosan was awarded one of the four commissions, and was assigned to write on the "freedom from want." To say the least, the completion and publication of this essay in the Post was a major coup for Bulosan and his professional writing career; it undoubtedly added to his growing stature as a nationally and internationally-recognized "American" author.

AN ENIGMATIC CELEBRITY?

There are additional elements to his biography that we are still exploring but the above will serve our purposes here.

So, who was Carlos Bulosan? As the quote by Susan Evangelisa at the start of this chapter indicates, it may be impossible to resolve every dimension of this complex, multi-faceted, man, once and for all. What we assert is that, when read critically, the FBI files reveal new information about Carlos Bulosan's life in the United States. In the final analysis, however, attempts then and now to pin down his "real" biography or the essence of the "real" Bulosan are doomed to failure for the following reasons.

First, Bulosan's political stance was central to his life and art. At one level, this could have meant that Bulosan was not above stretching the truth about his life in order to convey certain political messages that he was interested in supporting. This might help to explain, for example, why Bulosan might have highlighted the poverty of his family background even if the Bulosan family was more "middle class" than might otherwise be expected from Carlos Bulosan's own accounts—at least in terms of extant conditions in the Philippines, and from the point of view of Filipino nationals.

In addition, as de Vera tells us, being a labor organizer, a promoter of the union movement for workers (especially, workers of color), and a supporter of de- colonization movements, were progressive stands that got many people into hot water during the McCarthy period. (See De Vera, Arleen. 1994. “Without Parallel: The Local 7 Deportation Cases, 1949-1955.” AmerAsia Journal 20.2: 1-25 for a well-documented case study of Filipino union activists in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest during the 1950s). Thus, Bulosan may have intentionally cultivated a certain ambiguity about who he was and what he stood for in order to try and to create a kind of constructed space from which he could express, freely, a range of his evolving political assessments and beliefs.

Second, and in a similar vein, knowing that he was being watched, followed, and spied upon, Bulosan probably decided to cultivate a certain air of mystery about his biography as a means of self-protection. Mystery, that is, that might help him to avoid or deflect oppression and repression—whether emanating from individuals, informally, or from government agencies like the FBI and the CIA.

Third, we conjecture that one of the ways that Bulosan thought about things and how he formulated his viewpoint, was to write about them. Bulosan was not the kind of writer who entered into projects with fixed ideas which he merely wound up promulgating. Rather, we think there is evidence that, like many writers, Bulosan's perspectives steadily evolved throughout his life and corpus. This, incidentally, is why we do not think that critics can take any single piece of his work, such as America is in the Heart, and draw viable conclusions about "how" Carlos Bulosan felt about Euro-American women or Filipina women, specifically, or women in general, for that matter. Even if we grant that America is indicative of how Bulosan felt about women in the early 1940s, there is absolutely no reason to assume that he felt exactly the same way ten years later.

Indeed, there is evidence that, like all of us, his views on women were situationally-framed (see the depictions of his mother in the 1946 publication, The Laughter of My Father), and in any case evolved throughout his lifetime.

Finally—and as Evangelista has already emphasized—Carlos Bulosan was, and foremost, a poet and a writer. As such, he himself was constantly in the process of inventing and re-inventing himself. Much as he used his art as a way to grasp the history and future of Filipino Americans, Filipinos, the Philippines, and the world, Bulosan wrote and re-wrote accounts of his life in order to explore more fully its potential, its possibilities. In other words, his life was an unfolding creation, not a fixed phenomenon. And, although we are not psychologists, we think it is reasonable to speculate that like all good writers Bulosan's creative processes operated dialectically between conscious intentions, on the one hand, and various unconscious desires, on the other hand.

In the end, if we look flexibly, and holistically, at the many issues and questions surrounding Bulosan's biography, we may be able to approach this fascinating figure more effectively, and certainly, perhaps, more in terms of how he saw, or at least wanted to represent himself over the years. Again, his biographer, Susan Evangelista, captures this dimension of Bulosan's life and work.

[W}hat he said about himself was what he wanted us to know about Filipinos. In various articles and essays, as well as his fiction, he gives conflicting "facts" about himself. His biography as such therefore remains elusive... [Bulosan, in fact,] sought a way to transform it, as a writer.

If we keep these points in mind, our overall conclusion about Bulosan's FBI files will be clear. When they are read carefully and critically, the FBI files can reveal new and useful information about Bulosan. (In fact, on this basis, once we publish our book on the topic, we plan to deposit full copies of the declassified files in special "Bulosan Collections" like the planned Bulosan Archives here in the Library of Congress, and the University of Washington.) In the final analysis, however, attempts then as now to pin down the "real" Bulosan and delineate his "real" biography are doomed to failure at an empirical level for all of the reasons we have delineated above. In this sense, as we study page after page in the FBI files on Carlos Bulosan, impressed by how hard the agents worked to pin down "just the facts, Ma'm" about him, sometimes we think we hear the melodious sounds of Bulosan's laughter echoing softly in the background.

REFERENCES

Alquizola, Marilyn. "Subversion or Affirmation: The Text and Subtext of America is in the Heart; papers from the meeting of the Assn. for Asian American Studies, Hunter College of the City Univ. of New York, 1989. "Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives. Eds. Shirley Hune et al. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1991. 199-209.

Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart, a personal history. NY: Harcourt, Brace and company, 1946

____________. The Laughter of My Father. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1944

Campomanes, Oscar. 1998. “Carlos Bulosan.” in Encyclopedia of the American Left. Ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Vera, Arleen. 1994. “Without Parallel: The Local 7 Deportation Cases, 1949-1955.” AmerAsia Journal 20.2: 1-25.

Evangelista, Susan. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography and an Anthology. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1985.

Morantte, P.C. His Heart Affair with America, an unpublished biography, 1977. Published under the title Remembering Carlos Bulosan.

© Marilyn C. Alquizola and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi

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