On the Trans-Pacific surveillance of Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan
These days, in the internet era when Bush’s NSA policies continue under Obama,
it must be presumed that everyone is under some kind of surveillance.
Even innocent Asian Americans.
And given the global nature of things, it would take a real leap of faith to
believe foreign governments of our ancestral countries of origin are not
interested in what some of us are doing as well.
Paranoia? We live in that kind of world.
It didn’t used to be that way.
Ah, the good old days, when the FBI would only hound innocent people like
artists, writers, and activists thought to be Communist Party members.
And that brings us to the subject of today’s American Filipino History Month
Lesson, the writer Carlos Bulosan.
Among Filipino immigrants to America in the 1920s, Carlos Bulosan stands as the
community’s literary lion. His semi-autobiographical novel, “America is in the
Heart,” (1946) endures as the seminal story of the American Filipino migrant
labor experience during the Depression.
In that novel, Bulosan wrote: “I came to know that in many ways it was a crime
to be Filipino in California…I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I
did not commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
It wasn’t just his imagination.
Despite mainstream success, including publication in the Saturday Evening
Post, from 1946 to 1956, Bulosan was hurt by accusations that he was a member
of the Communist Party.
In 2002, I
about two Asian American scholars, Lane Hirabayashi and Marilyn Alquizola, who
used the Freedom of Information Act to seek the truth about how the FBI targeted
Last year, the scholars wrote about the FBI
they obtained that showed the bureau had its eye on Bulosan between 1946 and
The FBI ultimately determined Bulosan was not a member of the Communist Party.
But it didn’t change what the surveillance had done to Bulosan, who found
himself essentially “blacklisted” and unemployable, unable to make a living as a
writer. The surveillance coincided with Bulosan’s heavy drinking and ill health.
He died on Sept. 11, 1956.
Recently, Hirabayashi and Alquizola found it wasn’t just the U.S. interested in
Bulosan’s activities. The Philippine government also wanted to know the writer’s
links to the Huks, Communist rebels who fought for land reform in the
That fact was first revealed by Professor Augusto Espiritu’s “Five Faces of
Exile: The Nation and the Filipino American Intellectuals,” (Stanford University
Press, 2005) from research in the Bulosan archive at the University of
However, Hirabayashi and Alquizola found the actual newspaper article in the
Manila Chronicle, dated January, 30, 1951, that shows U.S. military
intelligence was somehow involved in working with the Philippine government.
“Link Between PI, US Commies Bared,” blares the front page headline.
Army investigators said they had found letters from Bulosan to members of the
Huks. And it cites how the Philippines Military Intelligence Service was working
with the “intelligence service of the U.S. Army.”
But according to the newspaper, the only letter signed by Bulosan was written to
one of the Huk leaders and reads: “I like to extend my congratulations to you
through Amado, whose presence in America cemented the progressive spirit of
peoples on this continent and in that island, with the fond hope that I will be
able to put all our efforts into a big book for the world.”
It’s exactly what Bulosan did in his last novel, “The Cry and the Dedication.”
But membership in the CP or the Huks?
Alquizola said it only shows Bulosan’s research technique for an eventual book,
not his membership in any group that would require his surveillance.
Remember, the FBI ultimately concluded that Bulosan was not a CP member.
Alquizola and Hirabayashi will be among the scholars presenting at a Bulosan
conference at the University of Washington on Nov. 14. (It’s his birth month,
though there’s some dispute on the exact day and year. Some say Bulosan was born
1914, making this Bulosan’s Centennial year.)
Scholars who love Bulosan care about all this because it’s clear: the
unnecessary government scrutiny from two governments curtailed the life and art
of an innocent man who is considered an American Filipino treasure.
All the rest of us who love our freedoms should care because what was done to
Bulosan can happen to any of us today–more easily and more efficiently—than
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.