Life in Little Manila:

Filipinas/os in Stockton, California, 1917-1972

by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Ph.D.
Adapted from the book manuscript

Carlos Bulosan Biography


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Writer, activist, and community leader Carlos Bulosan is one of the most widely-read Asian American writers of recent history. His classic novel about the Filipino immigrant experience in California, America Is In the Heart, is read in Asian American Studies, labor history, California history, and ethnic studies classes nationwide. Born into poverty in the rural farming village of Magusmana in Binalonan, Pangasinan, Philippines, on November 24, 1913. At the time, the Philippines was a United States colony. Urged by his American teachers who bragged of the incredible opportunity awaiting him and other Filipinos in that country, Bulosan arrived in the United States in July 1930, with only a grade school education. Disabled by a childhood accident that crippled his leg, Bulosan turned to writing and labor organizing. Bulosan traveled up and down the West Coast, organizing workers into the newly-formed United Cannery and Packing House Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in the Alaska salmon canneries, and in agriculture, and collecting the stories of his fellow Filipino immigrants.

An ardent leftist political activist and union organizer who believed that Filipinos should be allowed to become citizens (at the time, Filipinos and other Asians were barred from naturalization), Bulosan along with Filipino immigrant Claro Candelario, founded the Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights, which lobbied Congress in the 1930s for Filipino citizenship rights. With Candelario, Bulosan moved to Stockton in 1939 to organize for the citizenship campaign. Though Bulosan also had occasional residencies in Seattle and Los Angeles, he lived in Stockton intermittently through his entire life, making Stockton’s Little Manila one of his main residences (for years, he received mail at 110 S. El Dorado Street, which was a Filipino-owned barbershop, and at 50 E. Lafayette Street, Ambo Mabalon’s Lafayette Lunch Counter, according to his papers at University of Washington).

His dream was to become a writer, however, and in the late 1930s, he began writing poetry and short stories, becoming a largely self-educated and self-taught writer. He is remembered as a gentle young poet with a fiery pen by Stocktonians who read his columns and poetry in local Filipino American newspapers such as The Philippine Journal and the Philippine Examiner. In 1942, he published a poetry collection, Letter from America. In 1943, he gained national fame when he was asked to write “Freedom from Want,” a companion essay to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech and Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings in the Saturday Evening Post. Bulosan’s moving essay in the Post reminds readers of the struggle against poverty, and for justice for working people. He writes, “But our march to freedom is not complete unless want is annihilated. The America we hope to see is not merely a physical but also a spiritual and an intellectual world. We are the mirror of what America is.” He published Voice of Bataan, poems in tribute to that battle and its fallen soldiers that same year. The following year, he published the bestseller The Laughter of My Father.

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In the 1940s and 1950s, his essays and poetry were published in the New Yorker, The New Republic, The Writer, Books Abroad, Midweek, Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar and in Filipino American ethnic newspapers based in California, such as The Commonwealth Times. But his most lasting, and important, achievement is his semi-autobiographical novel, America Is In the Heart, nominee for a National Book Award in 1946. The book chronicles the trials, tribulations, heartbreak and triumphs of the thousands of Filipino immigrants who were living in the United States during the Depression and before World War II. Stockton plays a critical role in the book. In the book, Bulosan writes of the vibrant Little Manila community in downtown Stockton. The book’s protagonist, Carlos, is given a political education in labor organizing and social justice by a character in the book, “Claro,” a character based on his old friend and Stockton community leader Claro Candelario. Of Stockton’s Little Manila, Bulosan writes in America Is In the Heart:

…some of the hoboes told me that there were thousands of Filipinos in
Stockton…It was twilight when the train pulled into the yards. I asked some
of the hoboes where I could find…my countrymen.
“El Dorado Street,” they said.

It was like a song, for the words actually mean “the land of gold.” I did not know that I wanted gold in the new land, but the name was like a song. I walked slowly in the streets, avoiding the business district and the lights…I saw many Filipinos in magnificent suits standing in front of poolrooms and gambling houses. There must have been hundreds in the street somewhere, waiting for the night…I walked eagearly among them, looking into every face and hoping to see a familiar one. The asparagus season was over and most of the Filipino farmhands were in town, bent on spending their earnings because they had no other place to go.

Bulosan is one of the most widely recognized figures in Asian American history. “Of the one million Filipinos who found themselves in the United States in the two decades before and after World War II, Carlos Bulosan, his entire life and works, represents the heroic struggles and sacrifices of the Filipino community,” writes scholar Dr. E. San Juan, Jr. In 1948, Bulosan lived in the Mariposa Hotel at 132 E. Lafayette Street, where he helped labor organizers Chris Mensalves, Ernesto Mangaoang, Rudy Delvo and Larry Itliong organize the 1948 Local 7 Asparagus Strike, one of the largest farm labor strikes in American history. But Bulosan was concerned with oppression everywhere, not only in the Filipino community. A section of America Is In the Heart illustrates Bulosan’s dedication to using his writing to fight oppression in the largest context possible:
America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat…America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipinos, native born or alien, educated or illiterate -- We are America!

Bulosan is the author of a number of short stories, books and poetry collections published during his lifetime and posthumously (see selected bibliography). Stricken with tuberculosis since his arrival in the United States, he moved from Stockton to Seattle in the late 1940s because of the more pleasant climate; the heat aggravated his health during Stockton summers. By the early 1950s, McCarthyism and red-baiting of labor union leaders made him an FBI target along with other Filipino labor leaders considered “radicals.” Bulosan died September 11, 1956, of bronchopneumonia in Seattle in the 1950s, and is buried at Queen Anne Hill. He died jobless and penniless, but left a rich legacy behind. Today, Bulosan lives on amongst generations of college students who read his books, poetry, short stories and other writings in required readings in their courses in Asian American, Filipino American, and California history and literature. He is widely regarded as one of the most important writers in California during the mid-century.

Several theatrical productions of America Is In the Heart have been staged worldwide. In 2003, Lonnie Carter adapted Bulosan’s short story The Romance of Magno Rubio into an off-Broadway smash that earned eight Obie awards. Bulosan’s short story tells the tale of Magno Rubio and his four friends, Filipino migrant workers in the Delta yearning for love, companionship, and the American Dream during the Depression. Presented by the acclaimed Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York and directed by Loy Arcenas, the play has performed to sell-out crowds worldwide since its 2003 New York debut. The play and the New York cast and crew will come to Stockton October 4 and 5, 2008 to the Bob Hope Theatre in two benefit performances for the Little Manila Foundation, and Oct. 9-12 to the Skyline College Main Theater for benefit performances for Philippine International Aid.