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Life and Times in Leschi

Frink Park: Carlos Bulosan, Part 1

Overlooking hills and valleys, where trees dance and birds sing under the splendor of the sun in summertime. Where leaves turn gold and the world becomes a carpet of dreaming cloud under the enchanted moonlight in autumn. When the night warms the otherwise trembling world in winter. Where flowers bloom and dance in the sweet-smelled soft tides of spring.

That’s how the renowned Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan characterized Frink Park in a poem written for the political activist Josephine Patrick, his beloved, who lived nearby, at the top of Huron Street. He spent many days in the early 1950s walking in Frink Park, sometimes stopping to sit on a bench to write.

Born in the Philippines, Bulosan immigrated to the US in 1930, landing in Seattle at barely 18. He worked on farms around Yakima for a while and eventually made his way to California, to return here three decades later, ending his days in Leschi.

Photo credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

As a worker in the fields and shops of California he experienced the full weight of the racist oppression felt by thousands of Filipino immigrants. That led him to union activism, and he became an experienced organizer. He wrote prolifically. His first published work, in a poetry magazine in June 1934, consisted of ten poems written when he was still a laborer at a fish cannery in San Pedro, California.

His work was all the rage in that era. By the mid-1940s he had authored six published books, along with shorter works contained in a dozen anthologies. Several of his short stories were published in The New Yorker from 1942 to 1944. Others were printed in Harper’s, Saturday Review, and The New Republic. His most enduring book was his memoir “America Is In The Heart,” published in 1946 and re-published several times since. It relates the exploitation and poverty experienced by the first generation of Filipino immigrants to the U.S. While the book was autobiographical, it was later referred to as “a novel,” since parts of it are fictionalized. A former head of the University of Washington libraries described Bulosan as “a fine literary artist” “a dreamer” who didn’t always write the literal truth.

He wrote to give a literate voice to the voiceless 100,000 Filipinos in the US, Alaska,  and Hawaii. “I want to interpret the soul of the Filipinos in this country,” he told a Seattle Times reporter. Much of his writing exudes a life of sadness, from his impoverished childhood to the mistreatment of Filipino workers by employers in this country and widespread discrimination against Filipinos, as well as his own health struggles.

The Saturday Evening Post commissioned Norman Rockwell, its cover artist, to paint representations of each of the Four Freedoms that were the subjects of President Roosevelt’s January 1941 State of the Union speech. The paintings were published in the Post in early 1943, each along with an accompanying essay. Remarkably, Bulosan was selected by the magazine to write of “Freedom from Want.” For this assignment, the editors wanted someone who had experienced physical want. Bulosan’s essay was incongruously accompanied by Rockwell’s painting of a white family partaking of a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner. The immigrant low-wage worker and labor organizer was in distinguished company among the other three authors: Will Durant, Booth Tarkington, and Stephen Vincent Benet. In the article, Bulosan wrote, in part:

Our march to freedom is not complete unless want is annihilated. The America we hope to see is not merely a physical but also a spiritual and an intellectual world. We are the mirror of what America is. If America wants to be living and free, then we must be living and free. If we fail, then America fails.

What do we want? We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promises and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger.

If you want to know what we are—we are marching!

By the late 1940s, with a conservative trend and the advent of McCarthyism, he was blacklisted in the publishing world and his work fell out of favor. He later estimated that he had about a million words in print, and another million not published. A substantial amount of that unpublished work is to be found in the Special Collections of the University of Washington library. Perhaps a million more words have been published by others about Bulosan and his work.

Continued next month.

~Roger Lippman

The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 48 years in the neighborhood.


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