America is in the Heart: A New Look at Carlos Bulosan’s Classic Memoir

First published in 1943, America is in the Heart—a classic memoir by Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan—describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer following the harvest trail in the rural West. In the new 2014 edition of the book, Marilyn C. Alquizola and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi eloquently situate this classic work within a contemporary context while also highlighting the book’s legacy in Filipino American literature as well as in labor and immigration history. Below, we feature an excerpt from this introduction.

On October 2, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 123, a bill that will require public school instruction featuring Filipino Americans’ contributions to the farm labor movement in California. Assembly member Rob Bonta, who sponsored the bill, explained:

The goal of AB 123 is to supplement California’s rich farm worker history with the contributions of the Filipino American community. The Filipino American population composes the largest Asian population in California and it continues to grow, yet the story of Filipinos and their official efforts in the farm labor movement is an untold part of California history.(1)

Sadly, as is thoroughly documented in publications such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States (2013), the plight of farm laborers—not from the Philippines, for the most part, but now mainly men, women, and children from Mexico and Central American countries—is as horrific and unsettling in the new millennium as ever. Perhaps public awareness of today’s exploitation of field-workers will be heightened by AB 123, as well as by the continuing circulation of Filipino American author Carlos Bulosan’s masterpiece of labor history, America Is in the Heart.

bulosanSince its original publication in 1943, America Is in the Heart has appealed to a wide variety of audiences that continue to have differing interpretations of the book’s conclusion. The responses of a 1940s postwar readership reflected a relative innocence bordering on naiveté with regard to American foreign policies. The paranoia of the subsequent McCarthy era may have generated receptions that were less open to Bulosan’s socialist underpinnings. With its republication in 1973 by the University of Washington Press in the midst of anti–Vietnam War protests and progressive student movements, Bulosan’s work was taught in many ethnic studies and other politically progressive classes that utilized America Is in the Heart as a vehicle to reveal social injustices. From the 1970s onward, the classroom use of the book in college courses was diverse, running the gamut from literature to sociology to history to psychology.

America Is in the Heart stands apart from the body of American literature in its form as well as in its content. In its noncompliance with traditional novelistic form, America, which was written about Filipino immigrant experiences of the 1930s, defies inclusion in the traditional Anglo-American canon. With Bulosan’s disregard—perhaps tacit defiance—of novelistic conventions, America stands as a de facto redefinition of aesthetic principles. Moreover, the protagonist’s geographic and emotional journey forces readers to redefine the spatial parameters of the United States, a place in which geography is written on the historical map of imperialism and etched into the hearts of immigrants of color who sought a life framed by falsely sold ideals.

In its accessibility and the seeming simplicity of its narrative style, America can be read as an expression of hope and belief in the United States’ ideals, in spite of the terrible struggles that had to be endured by the protagonist and his compatriots. To gain an appreciation of the narrative’s actual complexity, we suggest that readers adapt a simple reading strategy: be aware of the different voices or vantage points that Bulosan has woven into the book’s narrative. Two distinct narrative voices should be readily apparent to the mindful reader. One is that of an analytical Carlos Bulosan, who has grown wise and politically savvy with hard experience, while the younger voice, Allos (presumably a nickname for Carlos), is bewildered, naive, and prone to questioning the reason for the hardships that befall him and his fellows.(2) [….]

Initially heralded by some as a poignant autobiography, expressing the dreams of downtrodden immigrants of color, America still stands today as both an indictment of twentieth-century American imperialist designs overseas and a testament condemning a pre–World War II domestic regime of racialized class warfare. At its most explicit and compelling level, the book documents how Filipino immigrants suffered brutal treatment in the Anglo-oriented west of the United States before the war, evolving a specifically race- and class-oriented consciousness as a response. However, their evolution of an awareness from a racialized “class in itself” to a “class for itself” was not a linear, orderly, or clear-cut process.(3) It is amazing that Bulosan was able to conjecture both the transnational and global dimensions of the larger working-class Filipino immigrants’ trajectories in terms of conditions at home and conditions abroad. And, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us, for farmworkers these conditions remain as material and compelling today as they have been in the past. Beyond this, America endures because Bulosan was wise enough to know that the path of racialized class consciousness may be a necessary route, but it may also be a provisional one, if we are to truly grapple with the miasmas of global capitalism.

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi is “The George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community,” at UCLA, and coauthor of A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States. Marilyn C. Alquizola has taught Asian American literature at several universities nationwide, and is author of numerous articles including “The Fictive Narrator of America Is In the Heart” and co-editor of Privileging Positions: The Sites of Asian American Studies.

Alquizola and Hirbabayashi will be signing copies of America is in the Heart in the Kinokuniya Books booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books from 2:00-3:30 on April 13.

(1) Assemblyperson Bonta’s quote appears on his official website, (accessed July 26, 2013).

(2) We draw here from two previous essays by Marilyn C. Alquizola: “The Fictive Narrator of America Is in the Heart,” pp. 211–17 in Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary, ed. Gail M. Nomura et al. (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989), and “Subversion or Affirmation: The Text and Subtext of America Is in the Heart,” pp. 199–209 in Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, ed. Shirley Hune et al. (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991).

(3) The distinction between a “class in itself” and a “class for itself” (that is, between a group that can be seen as holding a similar relationship to the means of production and a group that is self-consciously aware of itself as holding similar class interests) has been a conceptual tool that sociologists, political scientists, and historians have all drawn from and found useful in their analyses. Although attributed to Karl Marx, some scholars dispute that claim; e.g., Edward Anrew, “Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 16, no. 3 (1983): 577–84.

The new edition of America is in the Heart was published into the University of Washington Press’s Classics of Asian American Literature series. Other titles in this series include:

Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone; with a new introduction by Marie Rose Wong
With charm, humor, and deep understanding, Monica Sone tells what it was like to grow up Japanese American on Seattle’s waterfront in the 1930s and to be subjected to “relocation” during World War II.


Citizen 13660 by Mine Okuba; with a new introduction by Christine Hong
Mine Okubo was one of over one hundred thousand people of Japanese descent – nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – who were forced into “protective custody” shortly after Pearl Harbor. Citizen 13660, Okubo’s graphic memoir of life in relocation centers in California and Utah, illuminates this experience with poignant illustrations and witty, candid text.

3 thoughts on “America is in the Heart: A New Look at Carlos Bulosan’s Classic Memoir

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