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Sunday, August 8, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Carlos Bulosan, In The Heart -- `He Was An Integral Part Of Seattle ... And Of The Filipino Community'

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When Carlos Bulosan died in Seattle nearly 43 years ago, he was a forgotten man whose years of fame and literary success were long behind him. Then for nearly two decades he fell deeper into obscurity, as his books went out of print.

But it was also in Seattle that Bulosan was reborn, and where today his legacy is being rediscovered.

This week, a mural will be installed at the International District's Eastern Hotel, 506 Maynard Ave., as part of the Carlos Bulosan Memorial Exhibit, a project opening within the next month that honors Bulosan and a disappearing generation of Filipino laborers.

For years, the Eastern was home to workers waiting to head for Alaska canneries or the fields of Eastern Washington. Bulosan, too, is believed to have stayed at the Eastern.

"We wanted to create a space that pays tribute to the influences that Filipinos have had in the neighborhood," said Aileen Balahadia, a project volunteer. "And we wanted to pay homage to the critical role they had in bettering the lives of all the workers."

Balahadia added: "We also wanted to claim Carlos Bulosan as one of our own. He was an integral part of Seattle, of the International District and of the Filipino community."

While Bulosan was saved from obscurity, many people, even in the Filipino-American community, remain unfamiliar with his work, Balahadia said.

The mural, titled "Can You Read the Secrets of History in My Face?" - a line from a poem by Bulosan - was painted by California artist Eliseo Silva, who was chosen after a nationwide competition.

It depicts a panorama of scenes inspired by Bulosan's works, particularly "America Is in the Heart," the fictionalized autobiography that chronicles the brutal exploitation and prejudice Filipinos faced during the 1930s and '40s.

The exhibit, to be housed in the Eastern Hotel's lobby, will also feature historical photographs and artifacts, some saved from the hotel, which was renovated last year and transformed into low-income housing. There are also plans to include video interviews of a few remaining old-timers, Balahadia said.

The resurgence of interest in Bulosan actually began in 1973, when the University of Washington republished "America Is in the Heart," considered Bulosan's most important work.

A generation of young Asian Americans eager for information about culture and history embraced the book. Its success prompted the University of Washington Press to publish other works by forgotten Asian-American writers, and it has stayed in print ever since, becoming required reading for many courses in Asian-American studies.

In 1984, local Asian-American activists spearheaded a successful fund-raising effort to replace the simple marker on Bulosan's grave with a larger polished black granite headstone.

Other works by Bulosan were later resurrected from the extensive archive of unpublished works donated to the University of Washington, mostly by Josephine Patrick, who lived with Bulosan during his final years. Three years ago, Temple University Press published "The Cry and the Dedication," his novel written in the 1950s and published in limited editions as "The Power of the People" during the 1970s.

There was also renewed acceptance of Bulosan in his homeland. In the 1950s, as the Philippines struggled with a communist peasant rebellion, Bulosan became persona non grata because of his leftist sympathies. But since the end of the Marcos years, Bulosan has found an audience. Earlier this year The National Press Club of the Philippines set up a foundation for the Carlos S. Bulosan Prizes, which organizers hope will be the equivalent of this nation's Pulitzer Prizes.

Six years ago, when former Philippine President Fidel Ramos spoke to Filipino groups during a visit to the U.S., he paid tribute to Bulosan and asked his audiences to remember Bulosan's ideals and struggles.

"If life is so much better here for minority groups today, they owe a great part of that change to this man - Carlos Bulosan," Ramos was quoted as saying at an event in Chicago.

Bulosan's works have also inspired other artists. Last year, the Ma-yi Theater Ensemble in New York performed "perigriNasyon ("Wandering Nation"), a play by Chris Millado that's based on "America Is in the Heart."

Younger generations of Filipinos continue to draw lessons from Bulosan's life and work.

For Balahadia, work on the exhibit has led to a better appreciation of the perseverance of the earlier generation of workers.

Balahadia said she first heard about Bulosan from friends while she was a student at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

"I think I wanted to be more in touch with my history, and going to a predominantly Caucasian institution made me turn more inward," Balahadia said. "I found comfort in hearing his story."

Silva, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1989 when he was 17 - roughly the same age Bulosan was when he first came to Seattle - said "America Is in the Heart" is the first novel he has ever read.

"Before I did the mural, I couldn't point to a person who I considered was the voice of Filipinos in America, in the way that Cesar Chavez is to Latinos."

Although the traffic hasn't quite reached Bruce Lee proportions, a stream of visitors make pilgrimages to Bulosan's grave. Last month a group of historians paid a visit.

Recently, a note was left beside Bulosan's headstone. The writer, who couldn't be tracked down, shares Bulosan's maiden name. Although Bulosan is not known to have had any children, the writer calls him "Grandpa," a common Filipino practice when addressing family elders. It read:

"July 17, 1999, 13:29

Dearest Grandpa Carlos,

Your sister Escolastica passed away last December in Binalonan. We had a great chat about you. Thanks a million for being who you are. I will continue your vision - your vision that I did not know we commonly shared until now.

With all my love,

Your grandson,

R. Sampayan"

Ferdinand M. de Leon's message phone is 206-4642741; his e-mail address is fdel-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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