Carlos Bulosan’s Seattle

Carlos Bulosan (Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine)

Carlos Bulosan (Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine)

"A crowd of Filipino cannery workers and other friends sat in respectful silence as the casket of Carlos Bulosan was wheeled from the Cannery Workers’ Union Hall at 221 Main St.

A handful of Skid Road hangers-on drifted by to watch and ask, ‘What’s going on?’

'It’s the funeral of a great man,' said an elderly Filipino American standing nearby.

Mr. Bulosan, small, fragile, crusading Filipino author of many novels, poems and short stories, was given his last rites in the union hall that was the subject of many of his recent writings.”

With this Sept. 16, 1956 account from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the life of Carlos Bulosan, the best Filipino American writer of his generation, drew to a close. It was the life of a man whose poignant journey in America began in Seattle some 26 years earlier.

On first seeing his new home, Bulosan wrote in his autobiographical novel America Is In the Heart, “My first sight of approaching land was an exhilarating experience. It was like coming home after a long voyage...with a sudden surge of joy, I knew that I must find a home in this new land.”

There was a small but thriving Filipino community of about 3,000 in Seattle, with a ratio of one Filipino woman to every 30 Filipino men. “Most were workers in the fields, but others ran restaurants, shops, cigar stores and other small businesses,” says Dorothy Laigo-Cordova of the Filipino American National Historical Society.

Recalling his first day in America, as a 16-year-old, in a humorous article which appeared in Town and Country magazine in 1941, Bulosan retells how he and five other newly arrived Filipinos insisted on using a tabo (dipper) in the bathroom instead of soaking in the bathtub, thus flooding the entire hotel room floor.

Bulosan arrived at a time when thousands of Seattle’s residents were living in one of the “Hoovervilles” (shanty towns named after President Herbert Hoover) that sprouted all over the nation. The impact of the stock market crash of 1929 had made its way to the West, and thousands of Seattle’s residents were mired in poverty. Even many of Seattle’s liberal residents sought convenient scapegoats for their misery. Unfortunately for Bulosan and his immigrant compatriots, they fit the bill.  

It was common for Filipinos to be derided in public and be called “monkeys” by whites. They were barred from using public facilities or even some stores and were exploited at work. Filipinos who associated with white women were often roughed up in public.

Recalling his first day in America, as a 16-year-old, in a humorous article which appeared in Town and Country magazine in 1941, Bulosan retells how he and five other newly arrived Filipinos insisted on using a tabo (dipper) in the bathroom instead of soaking in the bathtub, thus flooding the entire hotel room floor. Then there was the time they insisted on swimming in the public pool naked—as they did back in the rivers near their village of Mangusmana—catching the eye of modest hotel guests, who promptly reported them to the police.

Bulosan spent less time in Seattle than he did in other parts of the West Coast. Like other Filipino migrant workers, he went where there was work. “I followed the crops and the seasons, from Washington to Oregon to California, until I had worked every town on the Pacific Coast,” he writes in an essay.

In terms of his writing, his most productive time was in California. But Seattle remained a special place from where he drew inspiration. This was where he found his first home, met his first American friends, lived in his first filthy American bunkhouse, first came face-to-face with racism, met an enduring love, and lived the last years of his short life.

After his social consciousness had matured, and he had earned considerable literary success, Bulosan once again found himself in Seattle, commissioned by the Filipino-run Alaska Cannery Workers Union-Local 37 to edit the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union yearbook, which was completed in 1952.

“Although he was breaking into the literary world, Bulosan mingled with ordinary farmworkers who liked and trusted him because they realized he was a brilliant Filipino who could interpret their plight into words,” says Laigo-Cordova.

In the yearbook, Bulosan asserted for Filipinos in America what every free man in the world takes for granted:

“We are forced by the living spirit of the great American heritage—the uncompromising stand to defend human rights and liberties in time of war or peace—to expose in our pages the maniacal machinations to undermine the American people’s greatest and most sacred gift from the revolutionary fathers, that this nation was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Bulosan contracted tuberculosis in 1937, and his health declined. In an autobiographical sketch he wrote three years before his death, he gave an eerie premonition of the end: “I am sick again. I know I will be here—Firland Sanitarium, Seattle, Washington—for a long time. And the grass hut where I was born is gone, and the village of Mangusmana is gone, and my father and his one hectare of land are gone, too. And the palm-leaf house in Binalonan is gone, and two brothers and a sister are gone forever.”

Josephine Patrick, a Yakima, Washington native and union organizer who lived with Bulosan during the last four years of his life, recalled for Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist John Marshall the final hours leading to the tragic death of the great Filipino writer: “He was passed out on the lawn of the King County Courthouse. He contracted pneumonia, and then they took him to Harborview (Medical Center). They didn’t know who he was. They thought he was a drifter, and they never gave him anything. I’ve always been bitter about that.”

Bulosan had a Carnegie Institute Fellowship and was working on a sequel to his novel “America Is In the Heart” when he died on Sept. 13, 1956 at the age of 42. The fate of the manuscript is unknown.

Today, in a corner of tiny Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill is a marker on what used to be a pauper’s grave. On the black granite tombstone donated by the Filipino American community in 1984 is inscribed an epitaph Bulosan himself wrote in an earlier work: “Here, here the tomb of Bulosan is. Here, here are his words, dry as the grass is.”

Like dry grass that quickly catches fire, Bulosan’s words are, in these times, still fittingly incendiary.

Article first published in Filipinas Magazine, July 1996.

Carlos Bulosan's tombstone (Photo by Barbara Jane Reyes)

Carlos Bulosan's tombstone (Photo by Barbara Jane Reyes)

Herbert Atienza is a Metro reporter for the Idaho Statesman.