by Rose Cruz Churma
The month of August is Buwan ng Wika in the Philippines, so it is just fitting to honor the month of August with a review of Carlos Bulosan’s classic autobiographical novel on his journey as an immigrant in the 1930s.
The original is written in English, but the book has been translated into Tagalog/Filipino at least twice. The first is by Carolina Malay in 2002 and the latest is a translation by Jovianne Figueroa (2017 & 2022; Anvil Publishing).
Buwan ng Wika (or Language Month in English), is a month-long annual observance in the Philippines held every August to promote its national language.
The establishment of a “national language” started in 1935 during the Commonwealth period when the Philippines was still a colony of the United States and was led by then President Manuel Quezon who hailed from Baler, Aurora—a native Tagalog-speaking area.
In 1946 a language based on Tagalog was adopted as the national language and became “official” by 1959. However, in 1973, it was renamed “Filipino” and Filipino and English were named as official languages of the Philippines.
Initially observed as Linggo ng Wika (Language Week), then president Fidel Ramos changed its observance to the entire month of August and thus changed its name to Buwan ng Wika.
Acknowledging that the country has other indigenous languages, in 2019, the promotion of the other languages has become part of the observances in line with UNESCO’s designation of the year as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages.”
Translated into Tagalog/Filipino from the original English, Nasa Puso ang Amerika (America is in the Heart) was originally published in 1946 and was republished in 1973 by the University of Washington Press. It was regarded as an autobiography, especially with the addition of “A Personal History” to its sub-title.
According to some of Bulosan’s friends, the narrative had to be “fictionalized” by the author who considers it 70% factual (autobiographical and case histories of the Pinoys he has met) and 30% fiction.
The book was the earliest publication that depicted the life stories of Filipino immigrants to the Continental US who were seeking a better life.
The first chapters of the book describe his life in a farming community in the Philippines, where his father tended and lived on a farm while his mother and younger siblings lived in a barrio near the town of Binalonan, Pangasinan.
The subsequent chapters described his journey to the United States, as well as his fellow migrant Filipinos’ struggles that they have endured—initially in the fisheries in the Northwestern part of the US and later in California.
Despite the harrowing life he lived as a migrant worker of Filipino descent, he retained his faith and love for America and in later writings—in an essay titled Be American — he described America as “…a country of great opportunity.”
Carlos Bulosan at the age of 17, and with three years of formal education, arrived in Seattle on July 22, 1930. Carlos spoke little English, was destitute but was desperate to survive and took on various low-paying jobs.
His struggles dealing with economic hardship and racial brutality damaged his health. During his two-year recovery from tuberculosis at a hospital in Los Angeles, he spent his time reading and writing. Self-educated, he was a prolific writer and an activist and was determined to document the struggles of fellow migrants.
According to P.C. Morante (Remembering Carlos Bulosan, New Day Publishers, 1984), Carlos went to America because he was attracted to becoming a writer.
By 1936, six years after reaching Seattle, seven of his poems were published in one issue of Poetry Magazine. But it would be the publication of The Laughter of My Father in 1944 (Harcourt Brace and Co.) that placed him in the company of other notable writers.
Like most immigrants, I first read the book in its original English when I arrived in the US. I was determined to learn as much as I could about the history of Filipinos in America. It was an eye-opener.
I realized that friends I knew were related to him, or had uncles who had encountered Carlos Bulosan while living in the Pacific Northwest (where he passed away and was buried at Queen Ann Hill in Seattle).
The story of Hawai’i’s sakadas also closely paralleled the life that he lived. Reading about his struggles and his fellow migrants made me appreciate the gains that have been made to pave the way for more recent immigrants who would continue to come to seek their own American dream.
This Tagalog translation does not deviate from the English original. If Carlos Bulosan hailed from Pangasinan, he probably spoke another Philippine language—Ilocano perhaps?
I couldn’t find any mention of his native language. It would have been a better choice to have translated this seminal book into his native language—then this book review would be a better commemoration of Buwan ng Wika since it would be an acknowledgment and celebration of the other indigenous languages of the Philippines.
ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at email@example.com.
by Rose Cruz Churma