We created this unit on The Romance of Magno Rubio for the Northern California premiere of the Ma-Yi Theater production of The Romance of Magno Rubio, an Obie-award winning off-Broadway play, written by Lonnie Carter, based on Carlos Bulosan’s short story, and directed by Loy Arcenas. It is our hope that area educators will bring the short story and play, and curriculum about the Filipina/o American experience, into their classrooms. Ultimately, we hope that educators will bring their students to the play.

Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle on June, 1930 as a 17-year-old from Magusmana, Binalonan, Pangasinan. As U.S. nationals, Filipinos were not excluded by anti-Asian immigration laws; Bulosan was one of more than 100,000 mostly male Filipina/o immigrants who streamed into Hawaii and the United States between 1902, when the Philippines formally became a U.S. colony, and World War II. Deeply influenced by their colonial American teachers who bragged of the incredible educational opportunities awaiting him and other Filipinos in that country, Bulosan’s pioneering generation of Filipinas/os (most of them Ilocanas/os and Visayans from farming families in the provinces) instead found themselves struggling to survive as migrant workers, toiling in the fields across the West Coast and the Midwest and under brutal contracts on Hawaiian sugar and pineapple plantations. Though their American teachers had told Bulosan and his generation that they would “pick gold up from the streets in America,” in the words of one oldtimer, the stark reality of their lives in America could not have been further from their naïve dreams. The onset of the Depression reduced their pay to a dollar a day; the economic crash and the exploitation of Filipino laborers through low wages made it impossible for them to save enough money to return home rich, or even at all.

From the late 1930s through World War II, Bulosan split his time between Stockton, the center of Filipina/o America, and Los Angeles, doing labor union and political organizing work and publishing his poetry, essays, and short stories. In 1946, he published America Is In the Heart, a gritty ethnobiography and National Book Award nominee about the Filipino immigrant experience in the two decades before World War II. From 1948-49, Bulosan lived in a small residential hotel 110 El Dorado Street in Stockton’s Little Manila district (demolished in the 1960s for the Crosstown Freeway). That year, he helped organize the massive, yet unsuccessful, Local 7 asparagus strike. In same time period, he set to work on twelve short stories about, Bulosan wrote, “the real Filipinos.” The Romance of Magno Rubio was one of these stories. “These pieces are written in humor, anger, bitterness, love, compassion, contempt,” he wrote to a friend in 1955. “Magno” is a simple, hard-working Ilocano farm boy with little education, yet with larger-than-life dreams of love and success, like many early Filipino immigrants, and like Bulosan himself.

By the time we meet the characters in Magno Rubio, these immigrants have been toughened by loneliness, discrimination and hardships. Barred from citizenship, and from marrying whites by California’s strict anti-miscegenation code (with a sex ratio imbalance of 14 Pinoys to 1 Pinay, the law made marriage and family building almost impossible for these men), these pioneers struggled to survive on meager earnings and in horrific working conditions on West Coast farms. Magno’s pen pal Clarabelle, the six-foot tall blonde whom Magno befriends through a lonely hearts magazine, represents something even larger to Magno and his friends. By the end of the story and the play, we realize that for Magno and his bunkmates, Clarabelle represents America herself, with all her illusory promise and allure, her deceptiveness and her callous treatment of adoring Magno. Clarabelle’s rejection of Magno represents the betrayal felt by the thousands of Filipinos – American colonial subjects -- who arrived on American shores with such innocent anticipation, with open hearts and big dreams, only to be rebuffed by Jim Crow segregation on the West Coast and laws that prohibited their full integration in American society.

Though more than 100,000 Filipinas/os arrived in Hawaii and California before World War II and played an integral role in the shaping of the West Coast and Pacific Rim political economy and culture, Filipina/o American experiences still play a marginal role in American historiography and in literature. A close study of Bulosan’s short story and the play upon which it was based give us an incredible opportunity to explore myriad issues around race, ethnicity, gender and class in 20th century California history and in American mid-century literature. It is our hope that this curriculum unit and the premiere of the play in Northern California are significant steps towards bringing the Filipina/o American experience from margin to center in our classrooms and in our scholarship.

Guiding Questions:
What were the experiences of Filipino immigrants on the West Coast from the 1920’s to the 1950’s?
How did American colonialism shape the dreams, expectations and immigration patterns of Filipina/o immigrants to the United States in the first decades of the 20th century?
What were the expectations of these immigrants, and what was the reality they endured?
How are Filipina/o immigrants agents in their own history, vs. victims?
What were the impacts of the extreme sex ratio imbalance on Filipino immigrant men?
What kinds of labor were Filipino immigrants performing in the early 20th century?
How and why were they so central to the California agricultural economy in the early-to-mid 20th century? What were their working conditions, and how did they respond to these conditions?