Philippine American History Month Feature: Getting to know the celebrated FilAm pioneer Carlos Bulosan through grandnephew’s eyes

Carlos Bulosan. Photo: University of Washington Library

Carlos Bulosan. Photo: University of Washington Library

By Cristina DC Pastor, Founding Editor, The FilAm

TFLA Editor’s Notes: Writer Cristina DC Pastor’s enterprising interview with R Sonny Sampayan grandnephew of Carlos Bulosan, brings to light the impact of the anti-miscegenation laws on the last remaining years of Bulosan’s life. Bulosan, one of the most celebrated FilAm writers of the 20th century carried on a forbidden romance with a Seattle Quaker Josephine Patrick not only because Josephine was allegedly married but also because state laws at that time prohibited marriage between whites and non-whites.

Pastor’s interview discloses the sad journey of Bulosan’s brother Lorenzo to search for his famous sibling only to find him in a miserable apartment hotel in L.A., “shut out from the whole world.” As immigrant communities struggle for visibility and respect in this country, there is reason to celebrate Bulosan’s article “Freedom from Want,” as commissioned by President Roosevelt in 1943 was published in the Saturday Evening Post accompanied by the painting of the renowned artist Norman Rockwell. In the follwing interview, Sampayan shares vicarious memories of celebrated Asian American writer Carlos Bulosan, the granduncle he never met.

TF: Exactly how are you related to Carlos Bulosan?
RSS: My paternal grandfather Marcos Sampayan and Carlos’ mother Meteria are siblings. So it’s Carlos Sampayan Bulosan.

TF: And you never met.
RSS: No. Carlos died 1956, I was born 1957. According to my dad and my uncle Lorenzo – in Binalonan, Pangasinan, Lorenzo and Carlos are just one year apart. When they were kids they basically grew up together. They’re very close, and Lorenzo told me a lot of stories about Carlos. He told me Carlos was so ‘maitim’ (dark skinned), and when they were kids, he liked boxing a lot, and my uncle said he had an outstanding left hook.

TF: Tell me about Josephine Patrick. This episode sounds like Jose Rizal and Josephine Bracken to me.
RSS: She was the long-time girlfriend of Bulosan when he moved to Seattle. She was a Quaker, and the group did a lot of work among immigrants and foreigners. That’s how they met in 1952; he died in 1956. Josephine was already madly in love with Carlos from all the poetry that’s been published. Carlos goes from L.A. to Seattle and basically Carlos and Josephine hitched up. They had made a pact: I will write to you and you write me back every single day.

TF: Why didn’t they get married?
RSS: She was married. Plus, at that time you couldn’t just marry an American, and Carlos never had the money. He was a one-day millionaire. When he got all his writing money he’d spend it all in one day.

TF: What did they write to each other about?
RSS: Whatever was in his mind, whatever he read in the newspapers, anything. They wrote to each other every single day of their lives. Then for two or three days, there was no letter. Turns out a friend and Carlos went drinking and he fell ill, so they took him to a hospital. When they learned he was Carlos Bulosan, they tried to revive him, but it was too late.

TF: The only time he missed writing her a letter, when he died.
RSS: She donated his letters to the University of Washington Libraries. She had a son Tim who looked up to Carlos. Josephine died in Spokane many years later.

TF: Did you say Carlos has two brothers and one sister, Escolastica?
RSS: There was I believe seven of them, but only three came to the U.S. I met Escolastica when I went home to Binalonan. She had a story to tell. She said she never benefited from his writings, not a single centavo. She’s trying to understand who benefited?

TF: How extensive is the Bulosan memorabilia?
RSS: The UWL had them all on tape, I would love to listen to them. They gave a copy to Josephine and I don’t know where those tapes are nowadays.

TF: Much of your information came from your father, your uncle Lorenzo, Escolastica and Josephine?
RSS: Yes.

TF: Are FilAms aware of who Bulosan is?
RSS: In 2004, John Liu, who was then a councilman, had City Hall declare Nov. 2 Carlos Bulosan Day in New York in 2004. I was told by some people that in California, Carlos Bulosan is part of the course in Asian American Studies. I’m hoping it is not just concentrated in California but also elsewhere in the United States. Carlos is part of our history so it should be taught in American universities.

R Sonny Sampayan: 'Every time I read his books it’s emotional reading for me.' The FilAm Photo

R Sonny Sampayan: ‘Every time I read his books it’s emotional reading for me.’ The FilAm Photo

TF: Have you read all his books?
RSS: It look me all of 50 years to read all of them because every time I read his books it’s an emotional reading for me. ‘America is in the Heart’ is now in CD. If not for that I wouldn’t have finished the book. It’s too much for me.

TF: Was there a sense of regret that your paths did not cross?
RSS: When I came to the U.S. my father told me, ‘Hey, maybe one of these days you can help me find his grave.’ I posted something on the Internet about trying to find my uncle’s gravesite, and one person responded. She said your uncle is buried in Seattle, in Queen Anne Hill. I called my dad just to let him know I found the gravesite and wanted to ask when he wanted to see it. That same morning that I called him, I was told my dad suffered a massive stroke. (Pauses, wipes a tear)

TF: I’m sorry, Sonny.
RSS: There’s an original manuscript of Bulosan that I bid on Ebay. It’s called ‘Freedom from Want’. He was commissioned by Roosevelt to write it. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. It says: Text by Carlos Bulosan, Painting by Norman Rockwell. The manuscript was signed by Norman Rockwell. I bid a hundred dollars, I figured nobody’s gonna get this. I finally won but I was under a lot of stress because I didn’t know how much money I had. The final bid was close to a thousand dollars.

TF: Who put it up for bidding?
RSS: I can’t remember.

TF: Did Lorenzo finally track down Carlos?
RSS: Word is that Carlos was either in L.A. or Santa Barbara or Paso Robles or in between. From San Francisco, Lorenzo went to L.A. He went to the LAPD, carrying with him the Saturday Evening Post copy of Freedom from Want. He went to the desk sergeant and asked, ‘Can you help me find my uncle. His name is Carlos Bulosan.’ The policeman said, ‘Oh Carlos Bulosan is your uncle?’ He was told: Go up one block this way, ring the desk and go up six floors and that’s where Carlos is. And before Lorenzo left, the desk sergeant said, ‘By the way your uncle is a communist.’

TF: What was the meeting like?
RSS: The way Lorenzo described him, whatever Carlos was doing he concentrates and shuts the whole world. His window was blackened with paper or something. There was no light coming in in his apartment hotel. There are trash papers all over. Carlos would write on napkins, wrapping paper, anywhere. As a matter of fact, when he wrote, he had a jug of cheap wine beside him. He was like, ‘I’ve been busy, had no money. It’s hard to send money home.’ Carlos’ plan was to bring Josephine to Binalonan.

R Sonny Sampayan, a retired U.S. Air Force KC-135 boom operator, works at the BNP Paribas Bank. He lives in New York with his wife Edith.



One Comment

  1. Gigi wrote:

    Carlos Bulosan’s nephew, Wilfredo (whom he writes constantly, the same “Fred’ that he addressed the letter to in “Letter to Fred, my nephew”, is still alive, albeit weak. He (Fred) is my gradmother’s sister’s husband. He always talk about Uncle Carlos. His brother, Arthur (whom Carlos also sent mails to – see the Two Bulosan Letters Carlos wrote in 1948) passed away 3-4 years ago. Uncle Fred and Uncle Arthur used to stay with us in manila when they were looking for job. Fred’s father is Carlos’ brother.

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