Magno Rubio Review

Four-Foot Filipino Boy and His Big Heart—
Or How to Reread Lovesickness as a Political Metaphor

Aurelio S. Agcaoili
Ilokano Program, IPLL, University of Hawai’i

Ilokano literature, and in extensu, Philippine literature, has appropriated Carlos Bulosan as its own even in reality, his works are veritably part of the exilic literatures of the United States as well. This realization that a good work—such as this inspired interpretation by Lonnie Carter of Bulosan’s “The Romance of Magno Rubio”—knows no country even if it is set in a certain country and in an equally certain clime. The specificities set the terrain for us in our revisiting of the myriad things about exile and diaspora that include the history of the people of the Philippines eking out a life wherever they can, away from the home country. That act of revisiting may eventually lead to something close to redemption if we allow the texts of the past—Magno Rubio’s included—to present themselves to us so that we get to see the presences that we need to understand, presences that oblige us to resist forgetting.

Here, in the Bulosan story as in the Carter piece, is the story of a letter, an epistle, with all its suggestions. Letters are to be read, and what we read are words pointing to a world or worlds created and produced by them—word itself becoming world, and world, to be understood, mediated by word.

This is the paradox of the Bulosan-Carter story that awaits unraveling, demanding reading and rereading as closely as we can.

In one part of the play, Magno complains: “Yes, and he wrote long letters that I couldn’t understand. And he used big words. How would I know he wasn’t writing for himself?” And then we find out that the letter writer Claro was charging Magno one cent per word when the latter was earning just a little more than two dollars per day. And Magno had to write her ‘beloved’ Clarabelle everyday through the letter writer.

This story of someone writing a letter for you in the plantation days when the people of the Philippines were more valued as farmhands—valued more for their hands than their heart and person—is set in a complicated brew of opportunism, oppression, and capitalist greed, with the farmhands more valuable when they cannot cry a whimper, cannot write, and cannot read. The complexity of this difficult situation is rendered worse when a new level of opportunism sets in, with your own kind taking advantage of you. This is the tragedy of the Magno Rubio story, one he would learn to take it in stride when he says, towards the end when Clarabelle’s ruse comes to light: “They are happy, Nick. Clarabelle is smiling her beautiful smile. And laughing. I’ll guess we’ll start picking the tomatoes next week, Nick.”

From the archives of Hawai’i’s and California’s memory of the plantation days painted with clarity and pain in this play come two books that teach the people of the Philippines the rudiments of writing love letters to their girlfriends in the Philippines—‘back home’ is the oft-repeated phrase—are Averne’s 1930 “Manual for Progressive Laborers” and Valdez’ “Combined Love Letters” (ca. 1946). Here we see templates of the same desires we see in the Magno Rubio that many plantation workers carry in their soul: the Magno Rubio paining for the beloved, the Magno Rubio paining for some iota of justice and fairness even in that most delicate of feelings we call love, the Magno Rubio paining for a love that is not a phantasm but a reality.

But are we to interpret the Magno Rubio story as a mere story of a four-foot Filipino boy with a big, big heart for Clarabelle, the ‘fair-skinned’ lady from Arkansas?


There is another way to interrogate this story and negotiate the vast possibilities of its meaning by accounting the clues that remind us that Bulosan, as interpreted as well by Carter, did not write this Magno Rubio account of an ‘unrequited’ love as a way to tell us of how naïve the Filipino lovers were. No, love here is a political dynamo. It is meant to be read in another level of meaning because it forces us to account the kind of love that the world can offer.

And this love is unusual.

It is love in the time of oppression. It is love in the time of capitalist expansionism. It is love in the time of imperialism taking hold of the hearts of good men and women in other places, from other places. It is love in the time of colonialism defining and redefining the contours of noble dreams of the deprived peoples of the world.

Magno Rubio thus is a metaphor—or a clue to a metaphor: the worker of the oppressed world looking for his Clarabelle in all places. And because Clarabelle—the clear lady—is somewhere else but knows how to prey and play upon the lonely heart of a man, the tragedy becomes complete.

It is the same tragedy we have still: this search for oppression and opportunism and greed masked off as love. And because it is masked off as love, there is sweetness here, there is delight, there is pleasure.

Here we begin the journey to seeing that Magno Rubio’s story is the same story we see still see each day, in Hawai’i and elsewhere. And unless and until there is justice and fairness in the world of labor—and among countries and nations—there will always be Magno Rubios, as the preying becomes perpetual, its masking so as well.


[Note: This is a short review of the upcoming play, "The Romance of Magno Rubio," by Lonnie Carter, adopted from Carlos Bulosan's short story, "The Romance of Magno Rubio." The play was first staged by Ma-Yi Theatre in New York and won eight Obie Awards. It will be shown in Honolulu in March 2008 by the Kamu Kahua Theatre. This review is part of the viewer's guide to be printed by Kamu Kahua.]

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