45 pages 1 hour read

Carlos Bulosan

America is in the Heart

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1946

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Summary and Study Guide


America is in the Heart is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1946 by the Filipino American author Carlos Bulosan. A coming of age narrative told in four parts, the story begins in the Philippines, ends in America, and spans decades. Scholars compare it to other social activism classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but America is in the Heart is unique in that it portrays the plight of Filipino immigrants in America during the first half of the 20th century. According to the journalist Carey McWilliams, America is in the Heart is "[t]he premier text of the Filipino American experience." (McWilliams, Carey. America is in the Heart. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2014.)

Plot Summary

Carlos Bulosan—who goes by Allos for most of the book—is an illiterate peasant child in Binalonan, Philippines in the 1910s. His awareness of his family is limited to impressions. His father is a sad, hard-working man forced to watch the amount of land he is allowed to farm dwindle. His mother is a long-suffering, perennially pregnant woman with a generous heart but no real aspirations beyond survival. Allos has four brothers whom he has never even met during the first part of the book: Amado, Macario, Leon, and Luciano.

Allos’s travels—sometimes he will visit three or more towns in the space of a page—expose him to the middle class, a privileged group of elites who despise the peasants. He is consumed with a desire to educate himself but knows that this is unlikely if he remains in the Philippines. Eventually, after his father loses all of the family’s land, Allos goes to America to join Amado and Macario.

Unfortunately, America is not what Allos imagined it to be. Many Americans despise and look down on Filipinos, especially in California. Filipinos cannot become naturalized American citizens, which hampers their upward mobility and aspirations. For years, Allos travels up and down the Pacific Coast as he searches for work, hope, and his scattered family members. The destinations of his travels rarely matter. Rather, his frantic, aimless wandering shows an utter lack of roots and purpose in his new country.

With the help of inspirational acquaintances, Allos eventually educates himself through reading and writing. However, his intellectual horizons are constrained by the frequent acts of violence that he witnesses and occasionally participates in. Each time Allos makes a breakthrough in his education, or his view of himself and his people improves, he sees or experiences something that sets him back. During his time in America, Allos flirts with a life of crime, occasionally stealing in order to support himself.

After his father’s death, Allos gains purpose by involving himself with the labor movement in California. He writes for various socialist newspapers and distributes pro-union pamphlets. He also works to preserve the Filipino Workers’ Association by uniting Filipino and Mexican workers. Doing so becomes dangerous for Allos and his allies, three of whom are kidnapped and beaten by anti-union hoodlums.

Meanwhile, Allos publishes his poetry which attracts the attention of a woman named Eileen Odell, who becomes his close friend. Around this time, doctors diagnose Allos with tuberculosis and predict he may only live five more years. Following a series of lung operations, Allos convalesces for two years in a hospital.

Upon his discharge from the hospital, Allos is instrumental in launching the Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to winning American citizenship for Filipino immigrants. When the U.S. enters World War II following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Allos helps draft a resolution to allow Filipino Americans to serve in the armed forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the resolution, and Macario enlists.

As the book concludes, Allos is on the firmest ground of his life, even though he still suffers from tuberculosis. He succeeds in his quest to become a published writer. Not only that, his writing has an activist, political bent. Allos finally finds a way to fight against a corrupt system that does not require him to bleed or to shed blood.