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  • Writer's pictureKate Viernes

Know History, Know Self

I first learned of the book, America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, one winter break in college while I was back home on Oʻahu working at the University of Hawaiʻi Manoa bookstore as a seasonal employee. The 1939 semi-autobiographical novel by Bulosan is considered a seminal piece of writing on the Filipino American immigrant experience; in other words, it’s a classic.

I remember stocking the shelves of the bookstore that December for an ethnic studies course, noticing this book about "my" people, thinking that it "should" be something I had an interest in reading, and then moving on with the rest of my day.

To be perfectly honest, I don't think I was interested in reading it at the time because I just wasn't ready to connect the dots. To figure out exactly how Bulosan's history intersected with mine was something I needed time and personal development to figure out.

A few months ago, my mom sent me a bundle of my great grandfather’s personal files. These include old photos, local newsletter clippings, and most preciously, handwritten essays Grandpa José wrote of his own story coming to Hawaiʻi and his thoughts on the relationship between the Philippines, Spain, and America. It’s been a game-changer in my decolonization journey to understand more intimately my ancestors’ struggles and accomplishments. I realize how lucky I am to be able to hold some of this family history, straight from the source, in my own hands.

Around the same time I was starting to make deeper connections between my family’s history and that which has been more generally documented about Filipinx, America is in the Heart re-entered my mind space. I picked up a copy last week and have been reading it the past few nights. I simply can’t put it down. I’m struck by the facts of my Great-Grandpa José being born just a couple years before author Carlos Bulosan in the neighboring region of Ilocos Sur (just north of Bulosan’s province, Pangansinan), and that they immigrated to the U.S. within a few years of each other. When their portraits are side by side, it's pretty clear that they came from the exact same era!

I am grateful for Bulosan’s work and the important context it provides to help me imagine where my grandfather and other ancestors have been—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Knowing these things helps me better know myself. It’s like filling in certain gaps within my own identity that I have been trying to figure out for the longest time. And while I may still be learning the self-compassion needed to accept the duration and difficulty of my journey, I am glad for what I am now able to remember.


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