He was an adviser, a radical poet and intellectual, the radical impetus for the union work. He wasn’t an activist that went out and organized meetings. For one, he was very ill and paralyzed in one leg due to a past incident—he was beaten up and lost a knee cap. His contribution was through revolutionary poems, through cultural and intellectual forms.
When I was very young, I went out in the fields and organized in Yakima Valley, Washington. That was the first time I met Filipinos. They were the most militant section of the agricultural working class in this country at that time, and they made a great contribution to the development of trade unionism. They were also one of the most oppressed minority groups. Because of language and cultural differences, they were completely isolated and excluded from mainstream American society.
Oh, you couldn’t imagine the difficulties I went through. You couldn’t be seen with, or be seen talking to, a Filipino. I was beaten up and put in jail so many times. When we had meetings, we would go and park the car way in the sagebrush in the valley. We’d crawl from the sagebrush to a little cabin. All the blinds were drawn so no one could see us, because if we were seen together, it would endanger the lives of the Filipinos we were organizing.
When I was arrested, I would be arrested for “prostitution,” but the police couldn’t make it stick. But the Filipinos who joined the union, their lives were on the line. They could get killed. In Yakima Valley, the Filipinos came in with contractors and armed guards. Most farm laborers were white American migratory workers from the dust bowl. It was like the “Grapes of Wrath” situation. These white workers didn’t like it when the Filipinos were brought in. Just like today, white workers are still threatened by Chicano, Latino and Vietnamese workers coming here.
Two young men I went to college with said they used to think of what they’d do on Saturday evenings, and they’d say, “Well, let’s have some fun and get us a monkey”—meaning a Filipino. They’d find some in the area around the Indian reservation—the Filipinos integrated with the Indians a lot—and these college boys would take them out and just beat them up. Just like that. That was a fun thing to do for them.
We were organizing quite extensively, but there were lots of defeats. One reason was that the American Federation of Labor, the conservative wing of the labor movement at that time, came in to destroy the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), which was the progressive wing. It was horrifying. However, not everything was a defeat. From out of these experiences came the ILWU-Local 37. But the harassments continued. Local 37 was able to keep itself intact through their good organizing work and militancy. Carlos did the theoretical papers and other position papers for the union.
I was with the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born—a group committed to fight the state’s attempts to deport a number of progressive individuals. We successfully defended a number of Filipinos against deportation. We won the cases against Chris Mensalvas, the president of Local 37 then, and Ernest Mangaoang, the local’s business agent.
Carlos talked a lot about his family, his mother, the poverty they lived in—those incidents that are vividly described in his autobiography, America Is in the Heart. He knew that his work would someday make a contribution to the progressive thinking not just among Filipinos here in the United States, but also in the Philippines. Today he is almost like a folk hero.
Even though he was so sick he continued to write. In fact, one of the last things we worked on was a play about Jose Rizal. However, he didn’t finish this play and I gave the unfinished manuscript to the University of Washington. He was also working on a children’s book on the history of the Philippines to correct some of the errors that Filipino children were getting in school due to their colonial education. The book was going to be in the form of “letters to my son.” But he got too ill to finish that as well. He only managed to write four or five letters.
And then he wrote a poem for his best friend, Chris Mensalvas, as we were celebrating Chris’ birthday at the union hall. He went to his typewriter and wrote it straight. It reads in part:
Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world;
For the nameless multitude in our
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born...
Because we fight for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love.
They are afraid my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists,
They are afraid of the magnificence
of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of
love, my brother.
You know, this is such an expressive poem, not just about friendship, but also his love for his friend, Chris. Carlos was never macho about these things. In fact, he was also a male feminist in those days.
Carlos was very concerned, however, that I would knuckle under from all the pressures and prejudices. Even in the political milieu racism was very vicious. They disapproved of my going out with Carlos. Filipinos had a difficult time even in the unions and political groups because of racism in some of those circles. But despite this, he always had a love and optimism about people, and the world, and no matter how much he suffered, he did not particularly blame bitterly the people around him. He didn’t get paranoid and withdrawn. They were really a very courageous people.
Carlos believed that what was wrong with the situation in the Philippines was primarily due to American intervention. He thought that if the U.S. government had left the Philippines alone after World War II, the Filipinos could have very well handled the country. In that sense he believed in the Filipino and knew that someday his vision would come true.
He longed to go back, but he couldn’t because he was also blacklisted in the Philippines by the government of President Magsaysay. He was up for deportation here in the U.S., but the government did not pursue his case because of his prestige. You know, he was commissioned by President Roosevelt to write one of the four freedoms—the “freedom from want,” which was illustrated by Norman Rockwell—and he was listed in Who’s Who in America. He knew that if he were successfully deported, he wouldn’t survive in the Philippines. However, he always planned to take me back there—that was his lifelong dream. He always knew that his contributions would eventually be felt there. That’s why he left me some of his manuscripts so that I could share them with a lot of people.
From Filipinas Magazine, February 1999.