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American Literature 72.4 (2000) 843-866

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Igorots and Indians:
Racial Hierarchies and Conceptions of the Savage in Carlos Bulosan’s Fiction of the Philippines

Joel Slotkin

In 1930 Carlos Bulosan immigrated to the United States, where he experienced racial discrimination and struggled to reconcile the economic and political injustice he encountered “with the wide-eyed version of American life” he had formed in the Philippines. 1 One might thus expect Bulosan’s “voyage in”—his “conscious effort to enter into the discourse of Europe and the West,” to “make it acknowledge marginalized or suppressed or forgotten histories”—to be a voyage into U.S. society. 2 Indeed, one of his major works, the fictionalized autobiography America Is in the Heart, A Personal History (1946), is a classic immigrant narrative of conflicted assimilation. For the most part, however, Bulosan voyages not “in” but back : most of his fiction engages U.S. culture and its colonial relationship to the Philippines in “folktale” narratives set in his native country.

Although Bulosan never became a citizen, he spent his adult life in the United States, where virtually all of his stories, poems, and essays were published. 3 Writing in English to a U.S. audience, Bulosan labored to articulate a Filipino identity. In the essay “How My Stories Were Written,” he attempts to establish an authentic native voice by creating an origin myth in which he, as a young boy in the Philippines, acquires the material for his stories from a mysterious old man of the mountains. 4 This mixing of fact and myth to produce authenticity recurs throughout his work and, according to P. C. Morantte, Bulosan often exaggerated his family’s poverty and lack of education as part of this effort to construct a Filipino peasant identity. 5 Despite the nostalgia of his nativist focus, Bulosan engages Western discourse and colonial policy by putting into play two diametrically opposed Western [End Page 843] paradigms for organizing class relations. His fiction of the Philippines explores the opposition between poor peasants and wealthy landowners from a perspective shaped largely by his Marxist opposition to both the colonial government and privileged Filipinos; at the same time, however, he frequently classifies characters in terms of cultural distinctions derived from the language of U.S. imperialism, labeling peasants uncivilized or savage, in contrast to the civilized rich. This juxtaposition of Marxist and imperialist ideologies points out limitations in the ability of each to describe Filipino society. By demonstrating what these perspectives exclude, Bulosan hints at the outlines of a Filipino identity as he explores the problem of ideologies that divide people into antagonistic groups. Bulosan’s competing rhetorical modes, however, sometimes create ambiguity in his valuation of both the peasant and privileged classes, despite his allegiance to the peasants. Many early readers of The Laughter of My Father (1944), his first story collection, for example, perceived it as “commercialized exotic humor,” whereas Bulosan insisted that his work contained bitter satire. 6

For Edward Said, all “poets of decolonization”—a category that includes Bulosan—struggle “to announce the contours of an imagined or ideal community, crystallized by its sense not only of itself but also of its enemy.” 7 This method of self-definition does pervade Bulosan’s writing, but rather than issuing from the poetic voice of the author, it appears refracted in the perspectives of his characters, including those antagonistic to his peasant community. This strategy of refraction questions the dichotomy that positions the native self against the colonizing enemy. In the world of Bulosan’s fiction, the enemy is always relative; all the characters define themselves in antagonistic distinction from others, often with heavy irony derived from the dramatic situation or from the characters themselves.

Bulosan further complicates the colonial dichotomy by introducing a group of people who, by the prevailing standards, are considered far more savage than the peasants: the Igorots, tribal people from the mountains of Luzon. Although the Igorots play a minor role in Bulosan’s work, they lurk at the edges of...