Gambling with Debt:Lessons from the Illiterate
What debt do we owe the subprime debtor? What purchase, the kind of knowledge and literacy produced by the contractual illiterate, the debtor who seemingly does not know how to read a contract? Analyzing the twenty-first century theatrical adaptation of Carlos Bulosan’s 1940s short story “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” Sarita Echavez See makes a case for the renewed relevance of Bulosan’s insights about the illiterate Filipino American fieldworker of the Great Depression for the contractually illiterate subprime debtor of the current era. Bulosan’s juxtaposition of the abstract with the literal in his portrayal of the exploited labor and desires of Filipino American seasonal fieldworkers exposes new forms of knowledge about debt, obligation, and reciprocity that ironically emanate from the illiterate and the uneducated.
You are mortgaging your whole future.—Carlos Bulosan, "The Romance of Magno Rubio"
By asking us to consider the debt that we owe the subprime debtor rather than the other way around, Fred Moten has sounded an important call for interrogating dominant constructions of the subprime debtor, which draw on stereotypes of lower-middle-class and working-class people and especially of black women.1 The refrain is all too familiar: the subprime debtor is a hapless, naive victim of smarter, educated folk. He is a contractual illiterate whose inability to read the instruments he signed led to the global economic meltdown of 2008. She is greedy and tries to cheat the system like her predecessor, the welfare queen dreamed up by the political Right during Reagan and Thatcher's era. She wants to get rich quick and buy her dream home without working long and hard at a decent job like decent folk do. The social-climbing subprime debtor gambled with debt on a micro-economic scale, and her behavior enabled macro-economic forms of gambling with debt, ending in collapse on a national and global scale. We see how these stereotypes start to go in circles, chase their own tails, and contradict themselves. Subprime debtors are, on the one hand, victims of their own pathos and ignorance and, on the other, willful, knowing, and amoral cheats. Yet these images and perceptions still enthrall.
Even, and perhaps especially, liberal and progressive commentators routinely if unintentionally make links between the financial devastation wreaked on the subprime debtor and his or her purported lack. For example, the authors of the otherwise excellent June 2010 study commissioned by the Center for Responsible Lending, "Foreclosures by Race and Ethnicity: The Demographics of a Crisis," emphasize the "vulnerability" of communities of color, yet that vulnerability rhetorically is connected to lack and lag: "As the foreclosure crisis threatens the financial stability and mobility of families across the country, it will be particularly devastating to African-American and Latino families, who [End Page 495] already lag their white counterparts in terms of income, wealth and educational attainment."2 Moreover, such families tend to have "higher unemployment rates."3 This is not to dismiss or deride the report. On the contrary, the report contains important insights and statistics about the demographics of the foreclosure crisis, for example, the fact that 82 percent of completed foreclosed loans between the years 2005 and 2008 involved owner-occupied, primary residencies and not investment properties. The report also calls attention to especially hard-hit places like Prince George's County, Maryland, one of the country's largest African American-majority counties.4 My point is that, despite the best of intentions, there is an insidious tendency to turn the blame back onto the victims of the foreclosure crisis, a rhetoric and ideology of "personal responsibility" that usually is moored to tenets of white supremacy that manifest themselves as meritocratic, self-disciplined individualism. Let me turn to a more explicit example. Among the online comments responding to a 2007 article titled "Minorities Hit Hardest by Housing Crisis" and published by the online progressive gazette Common Dreams, one reader expresses his or her irritation with the author's focus on "minorities" and asks, exasperatedly: "Okay, I agree that 'these people' are being targeted, and that's wrong, but for heaven's sake, what happened to personal responsibility? . . . If something seems 'too good to be true,' it generally is. What is needed is more education. I was raised to avoid debt, and to pay it off as rapidly as I can. That has served me well. . . . Todays [sic] debtors will be tomorrow's indentured servants. Minorities should be taught this."5 However, as we are continuing to learn from the ongoing investigation of the foreclosure crisis, the need for "more education" seems to have been even direr. According to lawyers defending home owners in foreclosure cases, bank employees who processed the mortgages seem to have been barely literate themselves, the so-called "robo-signers" who "couldn't define the word 'affidavit.'"6
This essay responds to this call for "more education." But it tries to do so by reversing the direction of learning and edification. Let us for once consider the lessons that the illiterate offer to the literate rather than the other way around. In the readings that follow of Carlos Bulosan's fiction from the era of the (other) Great Depression and its contemporary adaptation for the stage, I argue that what today's subprime debtor achieved is a literalization of the logic of debt that structures capital. The contractually illiterate spelled out for all of us what was and is so clearly a systemic hoax. It is a hoax that implicates all of us, the educated and the uneducated, but that also binds us in ways that potentially spell other forms of belonging to and with one another—alternative, [End Page 496] other forms of debt. This essay in turn calls for renewed attention to the prescience of Bulosan's short story "The Romance of Magno Rubio," published in the 1940s, and for attentiveness to the staged adaptations that have been circulating in Filipino America for years preceding and now succeeding the 2008 fiscal crisis. By focusing on the naïveté and illiteracy of Bulosan's title character Magno Rubio, I argue that the U.S. Filipino diaspora returns to and transforms modes of storytelling that return to and transform anticapitalist traditions of reciprocity, mutuality, and obligation. In this way, we might be able to glimpse what an alternative ethical economy of anti-accumulation might look like. In other words, if we take seriously rather than sneer at the ways in which Magno gambles with, throws away, and "mortgag[es] [his] whole future," we might be able to glimpse other reasons and worldviews underpinning the decision to sign those bad contracts.
At first glance it makes no sense at all to sign those subprime mortgage loans. So in some ways it is understandable that the turn to commonsensical explanations of the subprime debtor's psyche invoke her desire to take a short cut to home ownership and the realization of the American Dream. Indeed, the (white settler) American Dream can be said to be symbolized and embodied by the dream home. So the subprime debtor's attempts to enter or at least get nearer to the "general neighborhood of home ownership, wherein the normative conception, embodiment and enactment of wealth, personhood and citizenship reside," are interpreted as manifestations of aspirational assimilationist desire, an embarrassing investment in the whiteness of belonging.7
Yet perhaps what was and is desired is not so much the American Dream and its concomitant dream home but rather shelter, pure and simple. Rather than an assimilationist "investment" in the American Dream, how might the actions of Magno Rubio and the subprime debtor be explained by reverting to other values and economies that are impelled by a belief in "our common capacity to live beyond our means" rather than the logic of capitalist accumulation that underwrites assimilationist desire?8 For people who historically have had no chance in generations at getting anywhere near the "general neighborhood of home ownership," perhaps the decision to sign those contracts was a worthy risk. Perhaps it was a form of squatting. Perhaps it was a worthy gambit so as to provide shelter for, typically, multiple generations under one roof according to the laws of reciprocity and other forms of debt, like loob (debt) and kapwa (the self in the other) in the indigenous Filipino worldview.9 In other words, it is only through the terms of a different system of valuation that it becomes clear that foreclosure is another form of enclosure. [End Page 497]
Gambling with Words
But first let us learn about the stakes of gambling with words. "The Romance of Magno Rubio" and its adaptation for the stage have proved immensely popular among a variety of theater audiences in Filipino North America. How do we reckon with this story of fieldworkers throwing their money away on gambling, pornography, dance halls, prostitution, and drink, thus invoking all the stock stereotypes of Filipino men and working-class and underclass masculinity in general? How do we account for the contradictions of its homosocial economy of outrageous exploitation and extravagant generosity? What do we make of its doubled portrayal of aspirational assimilationism and anti-accumulative reciprocity?
"The Romance of Magno Rubio" and its theatrical adaptation are set in the fields of Depression-era California and during the U.S. colonial period (1899-1942). It is a story of the lives, desires, and exploited labor of Filipino American men who occupied the legal limbo of noncitizen, nonalien, or "national," one of the official terms for the status of Filipinos at the time. We see the Filipino reduced to nothing but labor, the laboring body. Yet Magno Rubio is desperately in love with a white woman, Clarabelle, whom he has never met. He is illiterate, yet his romance blossoms through written correspondence, letters penned by a coworker who at first charges him "five dollars per letter" and then up to "twenty dollars per letter" while they each earn only "two dollars fifty cents a day" as seasonal laborers. A literary form of prostitution, if you will. Magno shells out dollar after dollar and takes out loan after loan from his foreman to pay his coworkers to write letters for him and, eventually, to buy and send increasingly extravagant presents to Clarabelle. A big rube indeed, Magno counts how many heads of lettuce or tomatoes will buy him the words "I love you." Language is literally composed of the fruits and vegetables whose harvest—the repeated act of picking—facilitates the alienation of Magno and his comrades from their own labor. This is an alienation preceded by earlier dispossessions from the Philippine land and augmented by the vicious segmentation of the workers (by the workers themselves) into a racialized, classed pecking order of who is illiterate and who is not, who is an "Igorot" and who is not, who is a "peasant" and who is not. In other words, Magno insists on a literal reading of the act of picking peas as that which will allow him to buy the letter "p"; and that illiterate reading allows us, Bulosan's supposedly literate readers, to begin to grasp the processes and repercussion of what we have been trained not to read: the creation and exploitation of living labor. [End Page 498]
It generally is assumed that the immigrant achieves assimilation and the American Dream by accumulating material goods and cultural capital. So the title character of Bulosan's story has been read—and dismissed—as a dupe, a stupid naïf and an illiterate peasant who gets taken in by his foolish desire for the white woman, who allegorically stands in for America. But I would like to analyze the story against the grain of that reading. I am interested in the naive and the illiterate. I am interested in people who make the worst, most glaring, and embarrassing calculations and decisions because, as it turns out, Magno Rubio is an unexpected source of literacy for American studies and Filipino American studies today. It is precisely his naïveté and literalism that allow Bulosan to traverse multiple modes of capitalist abstraction and that ironically offer knowledge about the brutality of what it means to pursue the romance of money and love in the United States. Magno allows us to see what is glaringly obvious. For when it comes to both the wages of romance and the romance of wages, we do not see what is right before our eyes.
Foreign in a Domestic Sense
There are of course several aspects to the problem of recognition and non-recognition when it comes to the intersection between the commodification of racialized, gendered living labor and the noncitizen nonalien. But I would like to highlight the dimensions of the problem of nonrecognition or invisibility that I find most relevant for Filipino Americans especially in relation to the broader narratives and paradigms current in Asian American studies and American studies. The problem of Asian American invisibility generally has been defined in terms of exclusion from the body politic. The narration of Asian American history has been subtended by the logic of exclusion, a civil rights framework underpinned and motivated by the desire to be included. Thus the solution in Asian American studies to the problem of exclusion has been that of inclusion. Ironically, this involves following rather than undercutting the logic of the imperial, racial state, which depends on the linear and developmental narration of American history as inevitably progressing toward that perfect future nation even as that future horizon is ever receding and even as the frontiers of America's manifest destiny continue to expand. The "perniciousness" of the "myth of America," as David Palumbo-Liu argues, "lies in the fact that it is more than the externally identified 'myth' so easily debunked by social reality." He continues: "It is rather the more deep-seated myth of America's ultimate justness despite every social fact."10 The logic of such a myth [End Page 499] moreover is entwined with the desire to become the subject of "transparency," in Denise da Silva's phrasing, and to emerge as a full individual bestowed with all the powers of thought, history, and civilization that the subjects of "affectability" innately lack.11 To put it crudely: the problematic of assimilation in Asian American studies critique has been too quickly and abstractly tied to the desire for home and for belonging to the nation when the object of that desire also could be that of shelter.
Moreover, as several scholars have pointed out, the problem for Filipino Americans has been that of "forced inclusion" and not exclusion.12 The Philippines and other new "territories" were deemed "foreign to the United States in a domestic sense," the phrase that the U.S. Supreme Court coined at the turn of the last century to describe the predicament that the new colonies posed for the American constitutional republic. Thus the Filipino "national" is a perfect example of that experience of being inside and outside, indeed of being externalized in order to be internalized. That is to say, Filipinos are the external other to the internal contradictions of the imperial, racial state. Yet few scholars in Asian American studies and American studies have commented on the similarity between this special positioning of Filipinos and the dynamics of capitalism, even though Bulosan's writings have called for such an analysis for well over half a century. Historically, legally, rhetorically, and materially, the problem that Filipinos pose for America has revolved around the innate and endless violence of the conversion of land and people into objects, the capitalist colonial logic of power. Why endless?
"Your greatest want is, you want much," says the title character of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens to the bandits who intend to rob him.13 Following David Harvey's work, we understand that overaccumulation is the problem that capitalism inexorably generates for itself. Harvey thus is revising Karl Marx's concept of primitive accumulation, which is configured as an originary and specific moment in the history of capital. But Harvey comes up with the phrase "accumulation by dispossession" vis-à-vis Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg to suggest the ongoing nature of accumulation. It is the "endless accumulation" driving capitalism that requires the "endless accumulation of political power," the ability to continuously open up (noncapitalist) territories to capitalist development.14 Luxemburg baldly and powerfully phrases it thus: "Expansion becomes a condition for existence."15 Harvey also draws on Luxemburg's work for the key insight that capitalism has to have something "outside of itself " to stabilize it. According to Luxemburg, it has an "inner dialectic . . . forcing it to seek solutions external to itself."16 Indeed, capitalism "needs other races."17 In the United States the Filipino exactly fulfills that role, [End Page 500] the role of the outside constantly being incorporated—foreign in a domestic sense. There is, moreover, an additional violence innate to this process that has to do with the continual occlusion of that process of permanently unincorporating people and lands. As Oscar Campomanes has noted, the forgetting of the Filipino is integral to the imperial constitution of the United States as a free and democratic republic.18
Staging the Wages of Romance
The recent resurgence of interest in Bulosan's short story in Filipino America thus constitutes an undoing of the unincorporation of the Filipino. Ma-Yi Theatre Company is a not-for-profit, pan-Asian American Theatre Company based in New York City, and about ten years ago it commissioned the playwright Lonnie Carter to adapt "The Romance of Magno Rubio" for the stage. Along with Carter, the director Loy Arcenas, the lyricist Ralph Peña, and the original New York City cast won eight OBIE awards in 2003. (The OBIE is the Off-Broadway theater award awarded annually by the Village Voice newspaper to theater artists and groups in New York City.) The play has been staged in New York City (Ma-Yi Theatre, 2002), Laguna Beach, California (Laguna Playhouse, 2003), Manila and other cities in the Philippines (May-Yi and Tanghalang Pilipino, 2003-2004), Chicago (Victory Gardens, 2004), Toronto (Carlos Bulosan Theater, 2005), Honolulu (Kumu Kahua Theatre, 2008), Stockton, California (Bob Hope Theatre, 2008), and most recently in Los Angeles (Ford Theatre, 2011).
The original New York City cast and crew staged it in Stockton in 2008 in the Central Valley, informally dubbed the foreclosure capital of the nation.19 The Stockton production was a fund-raiser for the Little Manila Foundation, which is devoted to the historic preservation of Filipino American sites in Stockton, where Bulosan lived on and off. Much of the buzz leading up to the Stockton production focused on how historically momentous it was for Bulosan's story to come "home" to Stockton, which from the 1920s to the 1950s was the largest Filipino American community in the United States because it was near menial agricultural jobs. According to the historian Dawn Mabolon, whose tour of the Little Manila area I joined in October 2008, Stockton was for Filipinos the place to be—to find jobs, to reunite with friends, to gamble, to eat some Chinese or Filipino food, to join a fraternal society, to go to church, or to find out about the unions.20
Trapped among the Central Valley's dusty fields, Bulosan's Magno Rubio is desperately in love with his pen pal Clarabelle, whom he discovers through an [End Page 501] advertisement in a Lonely Hearts magazine. She lives in distant Arkansas, and he learns from her letters that she is "twice [his] size sideward and upward."21 He corresponds with the giant blonde but he has never met her. He hires a coworker, Claro, to write letters for him. And so of course the similarity between the names "Claro" and "Clarabelle" signal to the reader the story's allegorical nature as well as the potential connection between the two: if Clarabelle might be considered a forerunner of today's telephone or cyber sex workers, might we think of Claro as Clarabelle's john? At the same time, Magno's name has at least two possible meanings or translations: He is a great rube as well as a big ("magno") blond ("rubio"). Who is the john and who is the prostitute? Given the charges of plagiarism and other forms of literary criminality that plagued Bulosan during his lifetime and that mar his reputation today, how might Bulosan be providing us with what Kimberly Alidio calls an "avenue towards overturning the moralism" of the terms "prostitute" and "plagiarist," an avenue that opens up through a nexus of "overlapping underground economies [and] 'black markets'"?22
Claro at first writes in exchange for bottles of wine from Magno. But he quickly leaves the barter system and begins to charge Magno money, at first five dollars per letter and then eventually up to twenty dollars per letter, based on a fee of ten cents per word, while they each earn only $2.50 a day as fieldworkers. (They make twenty-five cents per hour picking tomatoes, for example.) As readers of Bulosan's short story and as audience members watching Carter's adaptation, we are bewildered yet entranced by Rubio's willingness to pay to be exploited. The title character is seemingly knowingly exploited. He has a knowing kind of naïveté as he shells out dollar after dollar for the words and the gifts to persuade and romance the six-foot-tall Clarabelle, the "Arkansas Arkanssassin."23 This is presented—in Carter's play and in Bulosan's story—in realist ways. Yet the workings of allegory are always present. We understand that Clarabelle stands in for the "United Snakes of America."24 We see how the lives of these men are allegories for the relations between colonizer and colonized, for exploited labor, and for racist antimiscegenation laws. So what are some ways to interpret Bulosan's allegory of naive literal-minded illiteracy?
The dramaturge-critic Joi Barrios-Leblanc brilliantly contextualizes the adaptation of Bulosan's story by reading it within Filipino traditions of political satire such as the "sainete" (short comic play) and the "drama simboliko."25 Such readings do depend on figuring Rubio as a dupe, however. Barrios-Leblanc implies that Rubio is a model minority figure and that the story and play pedagogically and politically tell a story of assimilation and of "interrupted" cosmopolitanism.26 In her own translation of the play into Filipino—for the [End Page 502] Ma-Yi tour of the Philippines—Barrios-Leblanc dealt with what she perceived as assimilationist elements of the play by including references to the neocolonial conditions of today, including the National Democratic movement in the Philippines.
The Wages of Colonial Romance
But I would like to argue otherwise and to propose an interpretation of Magno Rubio's naïveté, illiteracy, and literalness that is an alternative to the assimilationist reading. The play is assimilationist only if one conducts a literal-minded reading of Magno's literalness. Read otherwise or nonliterally, we see how the story is structured brilliantly around a combination of the abstract and the literal. Ridiculing Magno's conception of love, one of his compatriots declares in Bulosan's story: "Words, words, words! They don't mean a thing."27 But when it comes to the colonial subject's idealization of money, whiteness, and imperial romance, it is clear that Bulosan is showing us that words do, after all, "mean a thing." Bulosan portrays the conversion—the abstraction—of produce into labor into wages into money, gifts, and words for the white woman. However, while Marxian analysis calls our attention to the abstraction of the conversion of social meaning and processes into things, Bulosan performs one more turn of the screw. Magno literally is counting how much asparagus or how many tomatoes will buy him the words "I love you." Bulosan can be said to be responding to Marx's call for attention to the abstraction of the representative form of money and wages by creating an illiterate character like Magno who insists on treating the form of representation—language—totally literally. Rubio picks peas in order to buy the letter "p," thus recalling and transforming Marx's marvelous formulation: "All commodities are perishable money; money is the imperishable commodity."28
Bulosan's story has embedded in it a complex repetition, circulation, and rhythm of racialized work and words. Carter's staged adaptation draws on Bulosan's repetition of a passage that produces a deliberately vicious caricature of Magno even as it contains hints of lyric verse: "Magno Rubio. Filipino boy. Four-foot six inches tall. Dark as a coconut. Head small on a body like a turtle. Magno Rubio. Picking peas on a California hillside for twenty-five cents an hour. Filipino body. In love with a girl he had never seen. A girl twice his size sideward and upward, Claro said."29 Versions of this passage appear five times in a short story that is only sixteen pages long, and it is passages like this that inspires Carter to write most of the play in lyric verse. Indeed, the staging of the play is highly percussive and tightly choreographed, utterly dependent for [End Page 503] its success on the fluidity and synchronicity of the ensemble cast who cannot afford to miss a line or a beat.
If we follow this rhythm of racist insult, sexual desire, and exploited labor, we begin to grasp Bulosan's investment in the forms that he uses to depict various acts of putative exchange, an economy that the Filipino enters in order to be converted into money. In other words, we start to understand the relation between the form and content of the wages of colonial romance.
In Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, Antonio Negri usefully describes the relation of form to content when it comes to money:
Marx notes, if money is an equivalent, if it has the nature of an equivalent, it is above all the equivalence of a social inequality. . . . Money hides a content which is eminently a content of inequality, a content of exploitation. The relation of exploitation is the content of the monetary equivalent: better, this content could not be exhibited.30
What I am suggesting is that there are common characteristics between, on the one hand, how money "hides the content" of exploitation and, on the other, how Filipino American labor disappears, how what Campomanes calls the "invisibilization" of colonized Filipino subjects is achieved.31 Thus Carter's achievement is that of translating for the stage Bulosan's remarkable condensation of labor, desire, and language, interlocked as they are by the operations of abstraction.
At the same time what is at stake in "The Romance of Magno Rubio" is the clash between two perspectives on gambling. There are a number of scenes in which the men drink and gamble, in search of pleasure and relief from boredom and loneliness. These scenes of gambling of course signal racial as well as socioeconomic type, particularly Filipino men's innate moral turpitude and their inexorable path to financial debt and ruin. Of course this is a not unfamiliar stereotype for other men of color and white working-class men. Generally, gambling signals the opposite of heteronormative behavior, that of the virtuous family man who devotes himself to accumulation rather than to squandering and who devotes himself to saving and assimilation rather than expenditure, extravagance, and various forms of waste and transgression.
"The Romance of Magno Rubio" turns the tables on gambling. In this portrayal of exploitation and the men's refusal to accumulate, capitalism is revealed as a form—the form—of gambling with debt. Ferdinand Braudel defines Western capitalism as "a collection of rules, possibilities, calculations, the art both of getting rich and of living," and he notes that these include "gambling and risk." He continues: "The key words of commercial language, [End Page 504] fortuna, ventura, ragione, prudenza, sicurta, define risks to be guarded against."32 As Anthony Trollope portrays so powerfully in the novel The Way We Live Now and of course as we know from the 2008 collapse of the market, capitalism is an elaborate form of gambling with debt. But Bulosan also depicts instances of extravagant generosity among the men, underground economies and unfathomable acts of giving it all away under some of the worst working conditions, which I understand as the manifestation of other modes of debt and obligation.
In contrast with capitalist forms of gambling with debt, the five workers in "The Romance of Magno Rubio" follow protocols of kinship that draw on other kinds of "debt," captured by the Filipino words loob and kapwa. If, as Marx has it, money is a "social bond, a social thing connecting unsocial individuals," Bulosan's characters embody and perform a sociality that operates according to a wholly other system of obligation.33 The everyday phrase utang na loob literally means "inner debt," and it refers to a range of interiorized feelings of social obligation. Kapwa, often defined or translated as a "shared inner self," can be understood as a worldview based on profoundly collective forms of mutual recognition. According to sikolohiyang Pilipino scholars like Virgilio Enriquez who forward the study of "indigenous Filipino psychology," in the colonial context kapwa can be interpreted as a kind of friendliness, hospitality, and even naïveté to be exploited and integrated in a master-slave relationship especially in combination with feelings of utang na loob.34 Instead, sikolohiyang Pilipino scholars remind us of a definition of kapwa as an invitation and introduction to an economy of values based on reciprocity. But what Bulosan incisively points out is that there is no simple side-stepping, opposing, or exiting the forces of capitalism. Rather, the rhythm of both Bulosan's story and Carter's play teaches us that one must gamble away everything to begin to access and enter the other—rather than the oppositional—economy of debt. In other words, Bulosan's characters throw it all away in an exemplary way.
And there is something especially resonant about the performative dimensions of Carter's dramatic translation of Bulosan's gambling with words. Let us turn to the rhythm and economy of language in Carter's staged adaption. Below are examples of the different characters' speech and my attempts at rhythm analysis, which I hope illustrate Carter's metrical and lyric complexity and range.
Here is what Magno Rubio sounds like when he describes the rhythm of his and his compatriots' work in the fields: [End Page 505]
For every pod of pea I pick one mill is what I earnFor every little mill I get one word is what I buyFor twenty ears of corn I shuck one cent is what I put awayFor fifty heads of lettuce plucked two cents will buy—"With love I burn!"For every bunch of cherries snapped "I miss you"'s what I sighOne hundred stalks of 'sparagus for "Love you love you love you, love" I work the livelong day35
Carter establishes a direct ratio between piecemeal labor and the number of words that Magno can purchase for his correspondence with Clarabelle. Thus the playwright brings to life Bulosan's insistence on literalizing the metaphorical nature of wages and the money form. The Chorus then responds to Magno:
Words words words, now here's the matter monkey boy in heatWords words words, more veg - e - tables, Rubio, more fruitFruit fruit fruit, the bigger harvest sooner you two meet . . .Work words work, she loves your chatter monkey boy in heatWords work words, she needs you at her, wants you to repeat36
Here the Chorus uses a regular four-stress pattern that at times breaks into rhyming couplets, so generally the effect is comic and parodic.
The cook, Prudencio, is an older, gentler character who moves a little more slowly on Carter's stage. While most of the play's language is quite bawdy and riotous, Prudencio uses blank verse (nonrhymed verse) when he tries to console Magno and when he talks about missing his own wife:
Why are you weeping, little one?How long have you been at this?This life which makes us all old without ceaseWhat is it when we have no work?What is it even when we do?Weep for that that keeps us here [End Page 506] Playing games of cards, so ripped and bent, my back so stripped and bent with four or five manongs like meAnd always one off to the side with his solitaireOr strumming battered guitars with broken stringsThe wattles of my rooster neck shaking with anger like a dog with an old shoe in his stinking mouthWhy are you weeping, little one?Why is your face broken?How long have you been at thisThis life that makes us old without releaseWhat is it when we have no workWhat is it even when we doWeep for coming here across the watersWhen we had hope that this landWould open its armsAnd yes it has—open—now shut around us "parang sawa" [like a large snake]The United Snakes of AmericaLittle one, go ahead and weep39
Prudencio's speeches are elegaic, and they powerfully convey his and his coworkers' loneliness.
In contrast, the character Clarabelle uses verse that is metrically irregular, so the effect is comic. During the one and only encounter between her and Magno, Clarabelle addresses Nick, who acts as their interpreter. Carter wonderfully mixes the "tiempo" of her pulse with the temperature of her passion when she meets Magno and is baffled by his inability to speak English:
Doesn't he speak, ah what? Inglese?He's been writing me all these letters. You should see them, Nickie boy.The things he says—mooey delicioso!Are you sure you don't, how you say—Tenga la bonedad un poco tiempoTake my tiempo, feel my tiempo, racing mucho uno mas uno uno mas38
Notably, Clarabelle is played by one of the (male) actors in gestural and aural drag. He uses highly exaggerated falsetto while he faces the audience and speakes into an old-fashioned microphone that recalls 1950s radio. In a scene that powerfully melds the promise of miscegenated sex with the technology for transcontinental remittance, Clarabelle begs Magno to "please, please, Western Union me": [End Page 507]
Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow please Western Union meMy daddy most of all is pleased and anxious for us twoTo be so joined in Holy Mat- rimony, that's the glueThat sticks me to you you to me until death do us partIn meantime Daddy has such bills they mangled up his heartTomorrow tomorrow tomorrow please Western Union meBack to your sweet proposal, dear, I have it with me nowMy heart is with you now and then I'm there ASAPI think of you much every day you say you to me bowSo, darling, handsome Magno love express your dough to meTomorrow tomorrow tomorrow you Western Union me39
Clarabelle's plaintive plea to "please, please, Western Union me" contains a crucial pun: her seduction of Magno involves the promise of miscegenated union with the Western woman in exchange for cash remittance through the transcontinental telegraph system.
But the play's erotic economy becomes even more interesting if we queer the triangulated relationship between Magno, Clarabelle, and Claro. As I noted above, Magno's name translates to "Big Blond," which connects him to Clarabelle, whose name of course is the feminine version of Claro. So who is the blond(e)? Who is the source of clarity and light? Who is the giver and who is the receiver of sexual excitement and pleasure? Who is pimping whom?
Generally speaking, Clara is configured as the prostitute and Magno as the client, because he is paying her for her service of affording him sexual pleasure. But if we pay attention to the play's erotic economy, an alternative interpretation emerges. Because the medium is that of text, the genre is that of the epistle, and participation in this relationship requires literacy, Magno is paying Claro and then Nick to write the letters. In an early scene in Carter's play, Magno asks Nick to translate and set down in a letter his words to Clarabelle. But words fail Magno. All he manages to utter is "ikaw" ("You") three times before falling silent. At that point, another one of his coworkers produces a guitar out of thin [End Page 508] air, and the entire ensemble breaks into a serenade with each line beginning with ikaw. So Nick, together with the Chorus, becomes the author-prostitute that provides words of courtship and seduction that send Magno—and not, ironically, Clarabelle—into thrills of ecstasy. Twirling a chair and then dancing by himself with his arms embracing empty air, Magno is caught up in a reverie about the Big Blonde, and he nearly swoons by the end of the serenade.
Finally, Nick, nicknamed "college boy" by his coworkers, recites sonnets that indicate his higher level of education and his mastery of a "classic" and classy form. For example, puzzled by Magno's boundless naïveté, Nick delivers the following speech, which takes the form of a classic, Shakespearean sonnet:
What quality of soul sustains a manTo have such faith in someone he's not seenWhat possibly can he be thinking? CanHe hold such hope when all about him meanTo tell and do tell him he's lost his mind?When he, beyond all reason and beliefWho should have given up, as others findNo solace in anything, no reliefExcept who touches them and whom they touch;Is this untouchable, this wretched ramWhose only good would seem to be so muchOf picking, stacking, carting—Jesus damn!
Or does he, Magno Rube, know more than weAnd should we turn ourselves so loose—and free40
Because of this speech, scholars like Barrios-Leblanc have critiqued the play for its valorization of model minority assimilation. Yet according to the ending of both the story and the play, Magno never assimilates. He shows no interest—and, I would argue, neither the story nor the play shows interest—in the individuated process of accumulation that underwrites assimilation. At the end of both story and play, Clarabelle betrays Magno and goes off with another man. While Nick is devastated, Magno merely shrugs and says that they should go back to their cabin and eat before the rest of the crew finishes the food. He seems to have no interest in possession, and Bulosan seems to have no interest in satisfactory or neat narratological resolution.
It is tempting to think of the story and play as a tragic depiction of Magno's naïveté and literalism and his inability to recognize how he is getting had. Magno will not learn from Nick. Rather, it would seem that Nick the "college boy" can learn from Magno about the freedom of oblivion. But I want [End Page 509] to resist the easy interpretation of Bulosan's story as simply a refrain about the bliss of ignorance. While Nick does learn a lesson from Magno, it is another kind of lesson altogether. To my mind, the play implies that it is from Magno that Nick learns to simply give away money with no profit or accumulation in sight. To not save money. To fritter. To squander. To dissipate. To do so means to refuse mobility and all that comes with it, for example, the heteronormative, nuclear family. To refuse the path of aspirational accumulation. In a crucial scene, Nick in fact gives his roll of money to Claro, who has shown no sign that he will do anything other than throw it all away. Claro is, after all, off to find El Dorado, the fabulous country of gold. In this way, we are reminded of the false promises of education, which is supposed to be about literacy but instead is an institution devoted to aspirational accumulation.
Magno throws away his wages on his correspondence with Clarabelle, an epistolary form of prostitution. Indeed, the repeated appearance of the prostitute in Bulosan's writings indexes the trace of appositional economies of reciprocity and mutuality in the name of the art and act of survival. These appositional economies have persisted in living on ironically—or perhaps necessarily— in the form of transactions and activities deemed immoral or criminal, such as prostitution, gambling, and drinking. For the lesson here for Nick and for the readership-audience is about the false promises of education, assimilation, and accumulation. Carter's play has been called "drunk with language," and, from what we know of Bulosan's own life, he did drink a lot. That is how he got his writing done. In the staging of transgressive forms of excess like intoxication, gambling, and prostitution, Bulosan and Carter have produced a brilliant indictment of the workings of capitalism, the relation between the form and content of exploitation. If we can but listen more closely and hear better, we would perhaps heed their call for, following Negri, the "destruction of exploitation and the emancipation of living labor. Of non-labor."41
To reiterate: It is the naïveté and literalism of the central character that allow Bulosan to traverse multiple modes of capitalist abstraction and that ironically offer knowledge about the brutality of what it means to pursue the romance of money and love in America. Bulosan both literally and abstractly spells out the violence and contradictions of being foreign in a domestic sense. The achievement of "The Romance of Magno Rubio" lies in its productive failure to produce heroes or hagiography and, instead, to focus on the worst stereotypes of Filipino American men. Gamblers. Sex-obsessed wastrels. Illiterates. Drunkards. Yet who really are the wastrels and the thieves? [End Page 510]
Bulosan tells a history for the present. In bringing The Romance of Magno Rubio to Stockton, the community organization Little Manila Foundation reminds us in all too timely ways of the devastating consequences of the theft of labor and also of alternatives to that regime of accumulation. If we read Bulosan alongside Moten's insights into the debt that we owe the subprime debtor, we can appreciate that the values of Magno Rubio are not yet dead. The subprime debtor usually is configured as the object of either condemnation or condescension. These debtors are not literal illiterates. They are contractual illiterates. How could they have signed those deeds? Either they were trying to take a shortcut to accumulation and failing or they were too stupid and naive to understand the contract.
But what if there is another way to read the scenario of signing the subprime mortgage? What the subprime debtor achieved is a literalization of the logic of debt that structures capital. The contractually illiterate spelled out for all of us what is so clearly a systemic hoax, even as they signed those contracts to provide shelter for multiple generations under one roof according to the laws of loob and kapwa, according to the presumption of abundance rather than lack, and according to the principles and logics of generosity rather than accumulation. It is the illiterates who insist on finding better ways to cohabit and live with one another, unown-ing rather than disowning one another in a world devoted to a radically different kind of dispossession.
Only with the kind of clarity provided by the so-called illiterate can I myself begin to fathom my aunt's unforgivable decision to buy a house she could not afford on her son's—my cousin's—credit at the peak of the mortgage frenzy. Only then can I begin to pay tribute to her and the shelter and child care that she provided and continues to provide to the grandchildren in the family. Only then can I begin to understand what I owe her, rather than what she owes the bank or the family, when she had to foreclose on the house over a year and a half ago. This is the lesson that my aunt and the other subprime debtors spelled out for all of us, and with that lesson I can begin to forgive the debt that I owe to my aunt.
Clarity. Claro. Clarabelle. [End Page 511]
Sarita Echavez See is the author of The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). She is at work on a book-length project called "Essays against Accumulation." She teaches Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis.
. For their feedback on earlier versions of this essay I am thankful to Denise Ferreira da Silva and Paula Chakravartty for their editorial acuity, patience, and generosity; Kimberly Alidio, Rick Berg, Joseph Keith, Monica Kim, David Lloyd, Venky Nagar, Hiram Pérez, and an anonymous reader; and most especially Fred Moten.
1. Fred Moten, "The Subprime and the Beautiful," unpublished manuscript, 8. Moten also notes: "In the United States, whoever says 'subprime debtor' says black as well" (6). See also Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, "Debt and Study," e-flux 14 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/debt-and-study/.
2. Debbie Gruenstein Bocian, Wei Li, and Keith S. Ernst, "Foreclosures by Race and Ethnicity: The Demographics of a Crisis," Center for Responsible Lending, June 18, 2010, 3, http://www.responsi-blelending.org/.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Ibid., 8, 12.
5. Comment posted by reader-user "Jan Steinman," November 26, 2007, in response to Dana Ford's "Minorities Hit Hardest by Housing Crisis," Reuters, November 26, 2007, republished by Common Dreams, http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/11/26/5441.
6. See, for example, Michelle Conlin, "Banks' Foreclosure 'Robo-Signers' Were Hair Stylists, Teens, Walmart Workers: Lawsuit," Associated Press, October 13, 2010, updated December 13, 2010, republished by Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/13/meet-banks-robosigners-fo_n_761698.html.
7. Moten, "Subprime and the Beautiful," 13.
8. Ibid., 7-8.
9. Generally speaking, according to sikolohiyang Pilipino, or indigenous psychology scholars, loob refers to a range of interiorized feelings of social obligation. As I explain later in the essay, the concept of kapwa, the "self in the other," can be understood as a kind of friendliness or hospitality that, in the colonial context, is interpreted and exploited as naïveté rather than as an invitation and introduction to an indigenous economy of values based on reciprocity (ethical, political, cultural, philosophical, and material). See Virgilio Enriquez, Decolonizing the Filipino Psyche: Philippine Psychology in the Seventies (Quezon City, Philippines: Philippine Psychology Research House, 1982) and From Colonial to Liberation Psychology: The Philippine Experience (Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1992); and Karin de Guia, Kapwa: The Self in the Other: Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers (Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil, 2005).
10. David Palumbo Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 402.
11. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
12. See, for example, Rachel Lee, "Fraternal Devotions: Carlos Bulosan and the Sexual Politics of America," in The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 17-43; and Oscar Campomanes, "The New Empire's Forgetful and Forgotten Citizens: Unrepresentability and Unassimilability in Filipino-American Postcolonialities," Critical Mass 2.2 (1995): 145-200.
13. William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, 4.3.417.
14. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), esp. 139-40.
15. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Routledge, 2003), 12.
16. Quoted in Harvey, New Imperialism, 141.
17. Ibid., 343.
18. See Campomanes, "New Empire's Forgetful and Forgotten Citizens."
19. For a recent analysis of Stockton's collapse, see Sasha Abramsky, "Stockton Goes Bust," Nation, February 14, 2011, 14-19.
20. See also Dawn Mabolon's contributions to the Little Manila Foundation's invaluable web site: http://www.littlemanila.org/; and also Mabolon, "Losing Little Manila: Race and Redevelopment in Filipina/o Stockton, California," in Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse, ed. Antonio T. Tiongson Jr., Edgardo V. Gutierrez, and Ricardo V. Gutierrez (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 73-89.
21. Carlos Bulosan, "The Romance of Magno Rubio," in Fiction by Filipinos in America, ed. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (Quezon City: New Day, 1993), 78. [End Page 512]
22. Kimberly Alidio, e-mail to the author, January 13, 2012. I also am grateful to Joseph Keith for pointing out that Bulosan also is manifesting a form of anxiety about his own position of getting paid to write. With the characters of the illiterate Magno Rubio, the "college boy" Nick, and the seamy Claro who eventually charges Magno up to twenty dollars per letter, Bulosan is expressing his own anxiety about his role in translating Filipino American workers' experiences and getting paid for it. In America Is in the Heart, Bulosan writes letters for other people and translates Filipino migrant experience, and of course "migrant" here has the doubled meaning of transnational, cross-border migration and of seasonal migrant labor. I imagine that, if Keith is right about Bulosan's anxiety about a form of writerly prostitution, this anxiety translated productively into the creation of a "personal history," the crucial subtitle to America Is in the Heart. Yet Bulosan was plagued during his lifetime by charges of plagiarism and theft, for example, of ostensibly stealing the ideas for "Romance" from the Italian American writer John Fante's short story "Helen, Thy Beauty Is to Me." At a glance, though, one can tell that Fante's story is composed of caricature, a stilted and static portrait of the "Filipino boy" Julio Sal. In stark contrast with Bulosan's Magno whose illiteracy, I argue, generates knowledge, Julio's naïveté about Helen's work as a taxi-hall dancer reproduces racialized stupidity. Shot through with sentimentalism about the fatuousness of the "Filipino boy" and the dream about Helen that forms in his "Malay brain," Fante's story confirms racial type in its insistence on reducing the Filipino to the possession of a "Malay brain," which translates into the lack of a brain.
23. Lonnie Carter with Loy Arcenas, The Romance of Magno Rubio, in Savage Stage: Plays by Ma-Yi Theater Company, ed. Joi Barrios-Leblanc (New York: Ma-Yi Theater Company, 2006), 309.
24. Ibid., 323.
25. Joi Barrios-Leblanc, "The Politics of Romance: A Study of Ma-Yi Theatre Company's The Romance of Magno Rubio," in Barrios-Leblanc, Savage Stage, 385-481. See also the republication of the essay in Philippine Studies: Have We Gone beyond St Louis? ed. Priscelina Patajo-Legasto (Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2008), 514-36.
26. Barrios-Leblanc, "Politics of Romance," 399.
27. Bulosan, "Romance of Magno Rubio," 79.
28. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1973), 149.
29. Bulosan, "Romance of Magno Rubio," 78, 82, 86, 89, 94.
30. Antonio Negri, Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1991), 26.
31. Antonio Tiongson Jr., "On Filipinos, Filipino Americans, and U.S. Imperialism: Interview with Oscar V. Campomanes," in Tiongson, Gutierrez, and Gutierrez, Positively No Filipinos Allowed, 40.
32. Ferdinand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (New York: Harpers and Row, 1979), 513-14.
33. Marx, Grundrisse, 17.
34. See, for example, Enriquez, Decolonizing the Filipino Psyche; and Enriquez, From Colonial to Liberation Psychology.
35. Carter, Romance of Magno Rubio, 318-19.
36. Ibid., 319.
37. Ibid., 323.
38. Ibid., 328.
39. Ibid., 320.
40. Ibid., 321.
41. Negri, Marx beyond Marx, 83. [End Page 513]