Notes on The Romance of Magno Rubio
Editor's Note: Bulosan's short story was adapted for the stage by Ma-Yi Theater of New York and toured the Philippines after a successful run in New York . OOV acknowledges Ralph Peña, Artistic Director, for permission to use the production stills. All photos are from the stage runs in New York , Manila and Laguna. For reviews of the play go to www.ma-yitheater.org
What could make you feel good about love spurned, faith exploited, trust betrayed? This is what we see in The Romance of Magno Rubio , a romance that takes place in the heart of a "Filipino boy. Four-foot six inches tall. Dark as a coconut. Head small on a body like a turtle's." Magno is in love with a girl he has never seen except for a blurry photo in the Lonely Hearts section of a magazine. Clarabelle, the object of his love, is a young woman living in Arkansas, nearly six feet tall and weighing almost 200 pounds, "a girl twice his size sideward and upward.."
Magno and his bunkmates are part of the first wave of manongs who came to Hawaii and Alaska and California—100,000 strong— in the early 1900s believing, as they had been told in school, that all men were created equal and that they, in particular, were the cherished little brown brothers spoken of by the American Colonial powers in the Philippines. They were not. On the contrary, they were subject to Asian Exclusion Acts and were prevented from buying land, owning a business or a house, and were often the victims of beatings and even lynchings. And they had no legal recourse as they were not citizens of a sovereign nation nor were they citizens of America. They were in a limbo-land and were called "nationals." So, there they were, in America, not much better off in any way than they had been working the fields for their patrons under Spanish Colonial rule. At least then they could have a wife and children. They could, as was so especially dear to the mountain men, have one place to live that is home and not have to wander the earth alone.
In California, and in many other states, Filipino men could not marry Caucasian women; if they did the women were liable to lose their American citizenship (and some did). Even if they could find a way around the law, the existence of the law itself was enough to discourage the men, to make them shamefully aware that they were not just men without a country but men without a place in the scheme of life.
The bunkhouse would have to be their home. If it was not the bunkhouse, the servants' quarters; if not the servants' quarters, it was the tiny rooms in boarding houses or residential hotels in the worst part of town where they did not have signs up saying "No Filipinos or Dogs Allowed." Too often, giving in to cynicism or despair, the young men turned to lives of crime, so they were soon making their homes in prisons. (Bulosan himself said that the racism he experienced in America had made him feel murderous and had nearly driven him into a life of violence.)
Businesses from Hawaii to Alaska to California lured young Filipino men to America with big promises and big ad campaigns that probably cost more than all the money these thousands of men, collectively, earned in a year. In California, the "boys" worked in the fields, picking strawberries or lettuce with short handled hoes that did not allow you to sit or stand. They worked even when the temperatures hit 115 and even when the crop dusters swooped down over the fields to spray insecticides.
Bulosan shows us, however, that like the lotus flower, growing in fetid waters love can find its way in the most inauspicious places under the worst of circumstances and even (or especially) in the short, dark, ugly, uneducated, and unwashed personage of one Magno Rubio, a man who almost fits the racist caricatures drawn in those times of the Filipino savages so feared and despised in the country they had been taught to believe would welcome them with open arms.
Well, there were some white women who welcomed them, and they weren't all women they met at dime-a-dance halls. There were a few who betrayed the trust of Carlos Bulosan, but, luckily, there were also the white women who took him in, who loved him, who helped him with his education and writing. But it is not the love for any of these women, not even Clarabelle, that Bulosan is writing about in Magno Rubio . It is, instead, the great desire to experience the America of racial equality, the place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were espoused and seemed to be principles enjoyed by the majority. These principles, along with the many promises American businesses made, carved out a place in the hearts of the young Filipino men, drove them to America, and stood, like Clarabelle, large and tantalizing but always just beyond their reach. Some, like Magno, could find purpose and meaning in the vision he held of the beloved, a vision that blinded him to what was cruel and tawdry in her.
Claro, one of "the boys" in the bunkhouse, was the one who showed Magno the magazine with Clarabelle's photo in it, and he charged him a dollar for reading what it said beneath her photo. This would be just the beginning of charges that would increase as Magno's love for Clarabelle grew. At first Claro (who considered himself educated as he'd gone to the second grade) charged only a gallon of wine for a letter to Clarabelle, but soon the daily letters that Claro wrote for Magno were five dollars, twice what Magno earned in a day. As Magno says later, "some men use their education to enslave others." Luckily, another bunkmate, Nick, comes to his rescue, taking over the letter-writing task, and Magno tells Nick that Claro would have enslaved him for a lifetime if he hadn't come along. But it wasn't really the money so much that he was worried about; it was that "the words were too long and deep for me.(and) how would I know if he hadn't been writing for himself?" In this we can hear the nagging suspicions of the young men who wondered how the promises of the American dream kept eluding them when they were told by teachers and other educated people that this dream could come true for them if they only worked hard enough and believed deeply enough. Was there something lacking in the system or was it something lacking within them? Claro shows us the hold and the influence the educated have on those who come to them for help.
Later we learn that, indeed, Claro had been writing to Clarabelle for himself, heartlessly exploiting Magno's lack of education and his ardent, abiding, and tremendous love, a love that gave him somebody "to work for. . ."
Clarabelle is even more expensive than Claro. Even before Magno proposes marriage to her, there was the money needed for an engagement ring and for a wristwatch, a pair of suede shoes, some clothes, a diamond bracelet. Eventually Magno has to borrow money (with interest) from his foreman.
When Nick writes the letter proposing marriage, Clarabelle replies that she'd love to come out to California but she has to stay home with her sick mother. Nevertheless, she asked him to send her the money for a ticket. Soon he learns that, unfortunately, her mother died and she had to spend the money on the funeral, and then there were all the other members of the family that she had suddenly become responsible for. So, Magno Rubio "worked like a carabao but lived like a dog," and with every gift of money or clothing or whatever it was she said she needed, his love grew. As he says to Nick, "I'm clean in my soul, thinking of her."
For three years, Magno Rubio was faithful to his love for Clarabelle, believing she would find a way to join him in California and then the two of them would go somewhere, New Mexico or Washington and get married (circumventing the California laws that made marriages between Filipino men and Caucasian women illegal).
When the day finally comes that Clarabelle arrives in California, Nick accompanies Magno to town to meet her. She does not acknowledge Magno's presence; instead she addresses Nick: "Are you Claro?" Nick quickly explains that Claro has gone to Alaska. When Clarabelle hears this she suddenly looks "like a prospector who had reached the promised hill in vain. The hill was there all right but the gold—" Nick pushes Magno forward and introduces him to Clarabelle whose "blue eyes flickered. The promised hill of gold reappeared. . . The dying prospector murmured a prayer: the vein of gold was not a mirage after all."
The manongs were a vein of gold, working as the very cheapest labor in the plantations of Hawaii, the fish canneries of Alaska and the Northwest, and like Claro, Nick, and Magno, in the fields of California.
Clarabelle has materialized only to dig for a little more gold from the all-too-willing Magno. Of course Clarabelle's arrival in California was a dream that could not come true, anymore than the dream of prosperity (or even solvency) could come true for the manongs. They went from job to job, room to room, state to state, searching for the America they struggled to believe was somewhere to be found. Magno's America was Clarabelle. On her he pinned his hopes, in her he found all that was fair and just and good, all that was worth loving.
When Clarabelle leaves within a matter of hours without having given him so much as a kiss on the cheek or even a handshake, Magno is not devastated. He "watched the car pull away. He was speechless for a moment. Then he understood everything. He brushed his eyes with a finger and took (Nick's) arm. 'I guess we'll start picking tomatoes next week, Nick,' he said."
We, the reader, also have to stop for a moment as we wonder at Magno's equanimity. It also takes us a moment to understand everything, and this is our discovery: We are not meant to love the way we invest (expecting a return). We are meant to love so that we can know what it is to be fully human and to transform our experience of life. Magno, in love, became filled with purity and beauty; there was meaning in his life of such magnitude and power that it lifted him up, out of the furrows he slaved in, away from the ramshackle bunkhouse that he slept in, alone, above all that was small and mean and ugly. His love could do all this even though it was not returned.
Carlos Bulosan said that he could love America even though it did not love him. Yet, in the last line of the story, he poses a question that reveals his continuing struggle to admire and believe in what is good in the beloved without also feeling some despair over the many things that are not. He asks, simply, "Why does everybody make it difficult for an honest man like Magno Rubio to live in the world?"
© Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier