America is in the Heart

Just finished “America is in the Heart,” a memoir by the Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan, first published in 1946 and reissued this year by the University of Washington Press in a new series called Classics of Asian American Literature. It’s a harrowing read, the story of a peasant boy in the Philippines, dirt poor and on the verge of starvation, who musters all his strength and courage and resourcefulness to find his way to the fields, canneries, and fisheries of the West Coast of the US. There his dreams of freedom crash into the hard realities of discrimination, racism, exploitation, cruelty, and violence. He sees it all—the casual brutality of the cops, the hatred of the vigilantes, the thievery of the bosses, the angry mob chanting, “Why don’t they ship those monkeys back where they came from,” but also the generosity of an emergency room nurse and doctor, the kindness of several chance encounters, and the support of fellow artists. He and his brothers become labor organizers and join the Young Communist League. His experiences—brutal and raw—are an essential part of the complex narrative that is our country. Bulosan persists, certain that the America of his dreams—a place where people take care of one another and cooperate to build a world based on love and respect and justice—is still possible. This story is part of his attempt to make it so.

Woody Guthrie:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting

The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps

They’re flying you back to the Mexico border

To pay all your money to wade back again.

My father’s own father, he waded that river

They took all the money he made in his life

My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees

And they rode the truck till they broke down and died.

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted

Our work contract’s out and we have to move on

But it’s six hundred miles to that Mexican border

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts

We died in your valleys and died on your plains

We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes

Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

A sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos canyon

Like a fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says they are just deportees.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?

To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil

And be called by no name except deportees?

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

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