Carlos Bulosan was born in Pangasinan, a province on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, on November 2, 1911, near the end of a tumultuous period in his country’s history. In 1896, the Filipinos had begun a successful revolt against Spanish rule, and they expected to be granted independence after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War of 1898. Instead, the United States annexed the islands, and American troops brutally suppressed the Philippines Insurrection of 1899-1902, though fighting continued until 1913. The years of bloody conflict, during which an estimated two hundred thousand to one million civilians died of disease and starvation, left the country impoverished. Although little is known about his childhood, Bulosan recalled:
I lived in Mangusmana with my father until I was seven years old. We lived in a small grass hut; but it was sufficient because we were peasants. My father could not read or write, but he knew how to work his one hectare of land, which was the sole support of our big family.
Bulosan attended American-style schools, but he left high school after three semesters in order to work to help support the family. Like thousands of other Filipinos, including two older brothers who had gone to California, Bulosan believed that he would find greater freedom and economic opportunity in the United States. He consequently booked passage in steerage aboard a steamer bound for Seattle, Washington.
Bulosan arrived on July 22, 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. Along with other expatriate Filipino Americans – or “Pinoy,” as they called themselves – he endured terrible poverty and hardship in his new country. In fact, it could not truly be his country, since as immigrants from an American colony Filipinos could not become citizens of the United States. Bulosan was quickly disillusioned by the violence, prejudice, and exploitation the Pinoy suffered as farm or cannery workers, virtually the only jobs available to them. “Do you know what a Filipino feels in America?” he wrote a friend during the 1930s. “He is the loneliest thing on earth…He is enchained damnably to his race, his heritage. He is betrayed, my friend.” As a migrant farmworker, Bulosan followed the crops from Washington through Oregon to California. After he reached Los Angeles, he helped organize the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America. Bulosan edited the New Tide, a bimonthly magazine for workers, and began to write articles for various newspapers, including the Philippine Commonwealth Times. In 1936, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent two years in the convalescent ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital. Friends provided him with dozens of periodicals and books, and he studied the works of Karl Marx and American writers from Walt Whitman to Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and their younger contemporaries William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. Bulosan also wrote constantly, and his verse regularly appeared in little magazines such as the Lyric and Poetry, which published several groups of his poems between 1936 and 1942.
After the entry of the United States into World War II, Bulosan became the major literary voice of Filipino Americans. The war was a complicated issue for the Pinoy, who were intensely aware of the injustices in the United States but who were eager to participate in the effort to drive the Japanese from the conquered Philippines. At first, Filipino Americans were classified as aliens and denied admission to the military services. Bulosan and others worked to change the law, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed a special proclamation that led to the formation of the First and Second Filipino Regiments in the United States. Too frail to serve in the military, Bulosan fought the war with his pen. He published a collection of his poetry, Letter from America (1942), and The Voice of Bataan (1943), a poetic tribute to the American and Filipino soldiers who had died defending Bataan Island in the Philippines. Bulosan also began to publish stories in mainstream magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, the New Yorker, and Town and Country. He became even more widely known when his article “Freedom from Want” accompanied one of Norman Rockwell’s famous “Four Freedoms” paintings, which were published in successive issues of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The following year, Bulosan’s collection of short stories based on Filipino folktales, The Laughter of My Father, became an international bestseller. He then wrote his most famous book, the autobiographical America Is in the Heart (1946), an often grim depiction of the collective experience of Filipino Americans and an eloquent plea for the end of racism and intolerance in the United States.
During the final decade of his life, Bulosan struggled against illness and the anti-Communist hysteria generated by the cold war. Despite his rising stature as a writer in the 1940s, Bulosan came under suspicion for his leftist views and labor activities, and he was investigated by the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. Beginning in 1950, he was also under constant surveillance by the FBI, which effectively blacklisted Bulosan. Unable to find work, he spent the last years of his life in poverty and poor health, nursed by his companion, the labor activist Josephine Patrick. Looking back over his life and literary career, Bulosan in an autobiographical sketch written in 1955 observed that he had been impelled to write by his “grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all,” as well as his desire “to translate the desires and aspirations of the whole Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad in terms relevant to contemporary history.” Bulosan died in Seattle of tuberculosis on September 11, 1956, leaving behind the manuscript of a posthumously published novel about the twentieth-century history of the Philippines, The Cry and the Dedication (1995).