"Great Americans worked with unselfish devotion toward one goal, that is, to use the power of the myriad of peoples in the service of America's freedom. They made it their guiding principle. In this we are the same; we must also fight for an America where a man should be given unconditional opportunities to cultivate his potentialities and to restore him to his rightful dignity." ~ Carlos Bulosan
The United States of America is called a melting pot because there are so many diverse cultures living together all in one country. There are pockets of cultures from all over the world which have come together to form the American identity. The question then becomes, what is the American identity and what constitutes an American. Both the novels American Son by Brian Ascalon Roley and America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan explore how people from minority cultures live in the United States and learn to combine their heritages with those of the U.S.
The first words of American Son describe a young man named Tomas who embarrasses his family. "He is the son who causes her embarrassment by showing up at family parties with his muscles covered in gangster tattoos and his head shaved down to stubble and his eyes bloodshot from pot" (Roley 15). However, Tomas also helps contribute financially to the household. Therefore his behavior has to be tolerated. The narrator informs the reader that Tomas is half-white and half-Filipino but he chooses to dress like the stereotypical Mexican hoodlums that live in his neighborhood. Mother "cannot understand why if he wants to be something he is not he does not at least try to look white" (15). This is important to the rest of the text and to the thematic idea being portrayed. Tomas has chosen an identity not inherent to his racial or ethnic background. The people he communicates with and spends time with all behave in ways similar to the way he behaves. In this way, they have created a culture for themselves. His mother doesn't comprehend why he would choose to behave in a way that is stereotypical of an ethnicity she perceives as lower than their own. If he has to choose to behave in a way that people associate with one race over another, she would prefer he behave and dress like a stereotypical white person. Since Tomas has a white parent, she believes that he should strive to associate with people from that race which she believes is superior to the other two options.
The first white character portrayed in the novel American Son is Tomas's and the narrator's father. After returning from Germany following a lengthy time of separation from his family, the father shows himself to be angry, bigoted, and prone to violence. He is a bully, which is how some minorities view Caucasians in the United States. "On his third night home he got drunk and started smashing my model rockets and I tried to tell him to stop and he struck me. Mom tried to make him stop and it looked as if he was about to hit her" (24). This father, like all bullies, backs down when confronted by a stronger individual. In this case, Tomas shows himself to be stronger physically and mentally than his father. When Tomas injures the father while trying to keep his family protected, it is a psychological as well as a physical blow to the father. His child is now strong enough, in every capacity, to defeat him. In his anger, the father relies on ethnic insults to try to belittle his family enough to allow him to once again dominate the situation. "Dad stood over her making fun of Filipinos and her family and looked as if he was about to hit her…told [Tomas] that he only married her because he wanted someone meek and obedient, but had been fooled because she came with a nagging extended family" (24). In order to regain his position as dominant male, the father does whatever he can. In this particular moment, he tries to undermine Tomas and the maternal side of the family by demeaning them, and implying that his Caucasian race is superior to their Filipino one. Consequently, as lowly Filipinos, all three should become subservient to him. It becomes odd then when you compare this man to the mother's desire that her son behave like a white person. The only way this contrast makes sense is if the mother has the understanding that not all white people are like her husband. She does not believe that the father embodies stereotypes of all whites, but she does believe in a stereotypical white person because that is who she wants her son to emulate. The mother then has proven herself to both believe in stereotypes and to understand that there are exceptions to these stereotypes.
In contrast, Carlos Bulosan's semi-autobiographical book America is in the Heart tells the story of migrant farm workers in the state of California. Like many people who immigrated to the United States, Bulosan and the Filipinos around him came in search of a better life. They hoped to achieve the American Dream; the promise that anyone who was willing to work hard could achieve financial success in America. Bulosan begins by telling how he existed while living in the Philippines, laboring intensely for moderate means and how the hope was that when they came to the United States, their hard work would pay off. Carlos Bulosan and many people like him came into California for work and were faced with prejudices and racism from many people. "Why was America so kind and yet so cruel? It was like going to war with other soldiers; some survived death but could not survive life." This was the motto of those who immigrated to the United States. They came for a dream and encountered many horrors, but yet still kept coming.
By immigrating to the United States, Bulosan and his fellow immigrants became part of the melting pot that is America. They take part in creating that culture that is unique in that it is comprised of all cultures of the world. Of his harder experiences Bulosan wrote, "We could only pick up fragments of our lives and handle them fearfully, as though the years had made us afraid to know ourselves…I knew that our decadence was imposed by a society alien to our character and inclination, alien to our heritage and history" (102). In these lines, Bulosan explains how he feels that this melting of cultures is actually a bad thing, at least in his view. The years in America, he argues, remove a culture's identity until it is unable to know itself. America is filled with opportunities and one of these is the ability to obtain luxuries that are unnecessary. For Bulosan, this behavior is against what he accepts is his country's nature. It is "alien to our heritage" he states, meaning that any consumerism is the fault of the United States and that this alteration is only symptomatic of the real change that occurs in those who immigrant to this country.
Bulosan, like Caesar Chavez later, attempted to unionize the migrant laborers to ensure they were treated like human beings and not cattle or other animals. When he attempted to gain basic human rights for people in circumstances like himself, Bulosan was quickly fired from his job and forced to face more and more discouragement. Even more than fifty years later, there are still huge discrepancies in the way people are treated in this country because of race or ethnicity. Bulosan wrote, "We in America understand the many imperfections of democracy and the malignant disease corroding its very heart. We must be united in the effort to make an America in which our people can find happiness. It is a great wrong that anyone in America, whether he be brown or white, should be illiterate or hungry or miserable" (52). In this way, Bulosan is looking past racial lines. No body, he argues, should be without basic human rights and no one should be disenfranchised because of their appearance. Every American should be given the right to learn, to eat, and to pursue happiness. The latter, of course, is a line right out of the Declaration of Independence.
In Bulosan's book, he goes on to discuss the idea of the American Dream which has already here been discussed. It is part of the American culture that everyone who is born here and everyone who chooses to become citizens of this nation has an ambition to grow either financially, socially, or in some other fashion. According the Bulosan:
America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new…