By Lauren Pongan
MA candidate in Southeast Asian Studies
You’ll learn many things at the UW Libraries’ exhibit “Author, Poet and Worker: The World of Carlos Bulosan,” but the main takeaway is that Bulosan shouldn’t just be important to Filipino Americans. True, Bulosan was a voice for Filipino Americans who were being discriminated against in the 1930s – 1950s. But he was also a famous writer and labor advocate that inspired many beyond the Filipino American community.
Of his experiences, he famously wrote, “I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
Bulosan is most well-known for writing America Is In The Heart, which was recently rereleased by the University of Washington Press. The book is a classic in Asian American literature and American Ethnic Studies. Active Filipino-American communities in Seattle and elsewhere in the United States are still empowered by Bulosan’s work, nearly 70 years after it was first published.
The UW Libraries exhibit commemorates what would be Bulosan’s 100th birthday, by showcasing the diversity of his life’s works, influences, and social/activist circles. His written works detail his experiences as a Filipino American in a time of discrimination and outright violence. Additionally, the UW Libraries exhibit provides photos, books, and newspapers that show both the broader context of the times and further details about Bulosan’s personal life. The exhibit materials are like multimedia footnotes, elaborating beyond the scope of his books and stories.
The exhibit interweaves Bulosan’s personal history within the larger context of the Filipino-American movement for civil rights, their labor organization, and the ever complicated relationship of US imperialism in the Philippines. In addition to photographs, highlights of the exhibit include a display of Bulosan’s FBI file as a suspected communist, and the 1952 yearbook for the Seattle-based cannery workers union Local 37.
Deeply familiar places, like King Street in Seattle’s International District, serve as the backdrop for Bulosan’s writing and his efforts as an activist. Reading his books, stories and essays are a peek not just at his past. They also provide a look at Seattle’s deep Filipino-American history. The city served as a stopover for migrant workers as they commuted between Alaska, California, Washington and elsewhere for seasonal work.
The exhibit even includes two photographs of Bulosan’s grave, which was originally marked with only a blank stone. Now, through funds raised by those wishing to honor his memory, his grave is marked with a headstone describing his life and contributions. You can visit the grave itself, only a few miles away, in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. He died in 1956 in Seattle from tuberculosis.
The University of Washington Libraries’ Bulosan holdings are unique. Only through the diligent efforts of some of his friends were his works collected and ultimately donated for preservation and access through the university’s libraries. This diverse collection of his papers provides in-depth information about Bulosan’s life. The series of photographs of historic Seattle and those involved in Filipino labor organizing on the West Coast provide great visuals of the movement.
If you haven’t read Bulosan’s works yet, you will doubtless be inspired to after seeing where he has come from, the work he has done, and the other writers, activists, and community leaders his legacy has encouraged.
Be sure to view the exhibit in the Special Collections Lobby in the basement of Allen Library South on the University of Washington campus. It is free and open to the public and runs until March 13, 2015.
If you can’t make it or want a preview, check out this video on the exhibit.