Pinay’Merican is a series of personal entries about exploring identity, as a Filipino-American, an aspiring writer, and a millennial. This is also kinda sorta for my final project in Asian American Media this semester.
(Originally written in October. But because of school and extra-curricular activities and Life in general, I’ve decided to post this now.)
October is Filipino American Heritage/History Month. This designation of my culture to fit into a month aims to celebrate and honor the history of Filipinos that contributed to American society, starting from the time of the manongs (first wave of Filipino Americans). However, it is essential for everyone, especially young Fil-Ams, to learn the histories of Filipinos and the Philippines.
Coincidentally, this semester I am taking a course called Filipino American Literature. (I should also mention that my professor is Luis H. Francia, who is a poet, journalist, and non-fiction writer.) Currently I am reading Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart, a semi-autobiographical novel about Allos, a boy from Binalonan, Pangasinan (in the northern region of the Philippines, Luzon) who grows up in poverty and migrates to the United States to seek better opportunity, in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Though I am only halfway through the novel, I can see and feel the internal struggle Allos (fictionalized version of the author) experienced as a young person trying to find his way through a chaotic world that contradicts his expectations for a better life. Granted, Allos and I are born in different time periods, under different circumstances, but the internal struggle he expresses in his novel are emphatic to one who can imagine and identify with as a young person, a Filipino, or someone trying to meet his/her goals by overcoming certain obstacles and surviving through them. I’m not trying to make a universal claim to the novel or the protagonist, but his experiences are similar to the ones I’ve grown up listening to from my parents and relatives. In a way, I can identify with Allos and the book because I have an understanding–or more like, a better understanding–of family relations, the history of my mother country and its underlying class struggles, and the history of the United States, through the lens of a first-wave Asian American.
Allos was born into a provincial, working class family, along with many brothers and sisters who would some day inherit the land and try to bring prosperity to the family through a good education and a well-paying job. But unlike in the United States, where education is funded by the state, families must fund their children’s education, from elementary to secondary school (I’m not sure about college, but most likely that as well). This is done through selling property, possessions, or even personal services, and sometimes asking a relative who is fortunate and willing enough to lend money, in hopes that the generosity will be returned in the future.
After spending much of his childhood and adolescence working in the fields and selling fish and beans with his mother, Allos decides to move to the United States to seek better opportunities and then return home to provide a more fortunate life for his family. He gets the idea from learning about American life, through the stories of Abraham Lincoln (“a poor boy who become President!”) and other self-made men. Once he gets to Washington on a boat, Allos experiences hardship in finding work (moving from city to city, according to the harvesting season), facing discrimination as a Filipino, and witnessing the shady underground scene of Chinatowns and labor houses. (He also meets two of his older brothers in California, but they are also in similar bad situations.) This goes on for the next 7 years of his American life, until he ends up in the hospital for two years, diagnosed with TB. During this time, Allos educates himself by reading numerous books and writing poems and letters. Eventually, he becomes well enough to help organize labor unions in the West coast. The story ends in a bittersweet way, but with vague hope for the young man.
This summary does not do the novel justice. Reading this book made me feel anger, shame, and sorrow. To learn about the conditions the early Filipinos lived and experienced during that time was surreal and eye-opening. It’s a wonder why this part of US history is not revealed to students in schools, which is disappointing. When it comes to early immigration in the United States, we only hear about Ellis Island and urbanization of the East coast. But we barely hear anything about Angel Island in the West coast, or the Asian immigrants who were quartered on that island because they were not “eligible” to enter the country, or the rise of Asian-specific towns to house the newcomers in an unfamiliar land. There is a lot history that remains hushed until we are exposed to it later on (mostly in college, where there are courses offered that survey certain aspects of early American life).
And yet, the idea of the American Dream is still alive. How far will people go to make their dreams come true? How much animosity must one face, in order to obtain the satisfaction of becoming self-made? How can these values of hard work and persistence be instilled in future generations who are facing new problems in a technological age? I will return to these questions as this series progresses. But the main point is that the idea of the American Dream means hope, and America is more of a state of mind than a geographical location. Allos’ brother, Macario, gives an uplifting speech on how that is:
America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that know no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of freemen. […] All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate — We are America! (Bulosan 189)
(Reminds me of Walt Whitman, in a way.)
So for any young Fil-Am who wants to know more about our heritage and the history of our ancestors, I highly recommend reading this book by Carlos Bulosan. He has also written poems and short stories, most of which can be found in anthologies on Filipino-American literature (my professor edited two of them). Bulosan’s writings are just a glimpse into what Filipino-Americans have experienced in the early 20th century, but our history goes further back to pre-colonial Philippines.