The Legend of Carlos Bulosan: The man, the literary icon

Richard Gurtiza December 4, 2014 0
“Empire is in the Heart: A conference to mark the centennial birth of Carlos Bulosan” was held at the University of Washington HUB on November 14, 2014. • Photo by Isaac Liu

“Empire is in the Heart: A conference to mark the centennial birth of Carlos Bulosan” was held at the University of Washington HUB on November 14, 2014. • Photo by Isaac Liu

The name Carlos Bulosan has been a name many in the literary, academic, and activist circles have come to revere and admire. Carlos Sampayan Bulosan (circa. 1911-1956) was a very talented and gifted writer, poet, and activist. His most renowned contribution to the literary world has been his prize achievement titled America is in the Heart.

For many who are familiar with Bulosan’s work, he may be considered an enigma of sorts—this may stem from his premature death. Bulosan’s literary work and political convictions focused on the working class. His literary work remains unprecedented especially during his time in Seattle struggling for social justice and experiencing systemic racism. As a result of Bulosan’s personal idiosyncrasies, he is today considered a more renowned and acclaimed social reformer than an accomplished author.

Busosan’s essay, “Freedom of Want,” published in the Saturday Evening Post of March 1943 had been an inspiration to millions of American and his words continue to be as significant and applicable even to this day.

Richard Gurtiza speaks about Carlos Bulosan at the "Empire is in the Heart" conference on November 14, 2014. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Richard Gurtiza speaks about Carlos Bulosan at the “Empire is in the Heart” conference on November 14, 2014. • Photo by Isaac Liu

I have been a huge fan of the famed Filipino author Carlos Bulosan since I first read America is in the Heart. Being Filipino American, I became not only inspired by his writings but became more mindful of my existence of being an Asian American of Filipino ancestry. Bulosan’s style and effective use of imagery in his storytelling was compelling for me to understand the significance of his words.

I must also admit of my bias to Manong Carlos because of our personal connection to the Alaska Cannery Workers Union, ILWU/IBU Local/Region 37, respectively. Bulosan was an elected official to the then ILWU, Local 37 and I am currently the Executive officer of the current IBU, Region 37. Naturally I take great pride in Bulosan’s association with the Union and especially his priceless writings and passages that were penned during his tenure with the Union. I still find it hard to believe that through all the years I’ve been working with the union I’ve been given the honor of being associated with a historical and brilliant icon. My personal experiences have coincided with some of Bulosans personal accounts of his life’s journey but not to the extent of the horrendous tension and hostility that he was subjected to in those early days of the union’s infancy.

There has been ongoing research and debate on the life and contributions of Carlos Bulosan. On November 14, 2014 there was an academic conference held at the University of Washington, HUB room 145 that was titled, “Empire is in the Heart: A conference to mark the centennial birth of Carlos Bulosan.” It was an all-day conference that examined the brief life span of the famed writer/poet. Some of the presentations were in depth and insightful and provided information into the various interests Bulosan pursued, which he became very passionate about furthering the cause.

Most of the academic discussion was based on framing Bulosan’s work entirely on his ideological perspective as a left wing sympathizer and union activist. Bulosan was considered a subversive and threat by the FBI during the 1940’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, but was able to avoid the U.S. government’s effort to deport him. It was also discussed how academic institutions could better utilize and teach students the main principles of America is in the Heart.

Part of the conference was dedicated to a reception at the end of the conference that was hosted by IBU, Region 37 and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. The reception was meant to update conference attendees of the current state of Carlos Bulosan’s Union and to highlight for the local labor community the notable achievements by the remarkable union brother. Part of the reception also offered guests the opportunity to view the Carlos Bulosan exhibit, which is currently on display at the Allen Library, Special Collections area until mid-March 2015. The collected archival materials on Bulosan on exhibit in Special Collections are a testimony to the sheer brilliance of an individual who was able to master the basic tenancies of interpersonal communications.

Scenes from the "Empire is in the Heart" conference on November 14, 2014. (Right) The poem "Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday" by Carlos Bulosan is read. • Photos by Isaac Liu

Scenes from the “Empire is in the Heart” conference on November 14, 2014. (Right) The poem “Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday” by Carlos Bulosan is read. • Photos by Isaac Liu

Bulosan, through his writings, was never considered self-serving with his radical consciousness and ideological beliefs. He was more inclined to organize against the status quo and seek the truth while disregarding the potential of a harmful personal outcome. His roots and modest upbringing in the Philippines served as his inherent barometer for his life’s work. Busosan served minority and immigrant low wage workers who were usually disenfranchised and exploited by the employer and were naturally considered at-will employees. Bulosan recognized this stratum of unfairness and tried to organize the masses to collectively unite into a union. It was important to Bulosan that workers and people of color needed to have hope and direction and Bulosan was instrumental in providing the necessary narrative for that sector of society in allowing them to discover their power and leverage in the workplace.

I am convinced that Bulosan had made inroads into many circles and that his life’s work can be measured in the respect given to the man and not his achievements. The legacy of Carlos Bulosan will continue to be relevant to those individuals that seek the basic introspection of wisdom and compassion that would allow a person a much broader perspective of self-examination. Most of Busosan’s storytelling was based on a protagonist character who was mostly under duress and always over-matched, which created the biblical imagery of a David vs. Goliath scenario. The public can’t help to marvel at how an underdog as Bulosan may be portrayed in a literary sense and still be such a master at his craft despite the enormous disadvantage. His plight of becoming one of history’s literary icons could be considered another great American tragedy.

For more opinions, click here

Related Stories:


Carlos Bulosan continues to inspire legacy of activism

Author, poet, and worker: The world of Carlos Bulosan
Chris Mensalvas: Daring to dream
Bulosan: A reading guide to the poet and union activist

Leave A Response »

You must be logged in to post a comment.