Friday, May 8, 2009

In Memoriam Al Robles ... Manong Chito Speaks Again


For the last few days, thoughts of Al Robles keep rising into my consciousness, like bangus — milkfish — surfacing out of dark water. So here's another manong poem, dedicated once more to Manong Al's memory. The speaker of this poem is again Manong Chito, who spoke the poem "Madarika" from the last blog post. I offer this second poem in celebration of Al's pioneering oral-history work to preserve the life stories and talk-stories of our manongs and manangs.

Manong Chito Tells Manong Ben
About his Dream over Breakfast
at the Manilatown Cafe



Ah, good morning, 'Pare. Care to join me?
Have you eaten yet? Hoy, Johnny!
Bring my friend Ben some coffee, OK?
Putang ina! The service in here gets worse
every day, ha? Ayan, here he comes.

You know, Ben, when you walked in the door,
this dream I had last night just jump — like that —
into my head. I was back home, a kid
again, maybe fifteen or sixteen, two years
before I come here. I was with this girl —
I didn't see her for forty-five years
until last night. I ever tell you about her?
'Pare, we was supposed to get married
but then I come stateside and that — goddamn —
was the end of it. I don't know . . . the letters
stopped and I just got too busy with blondies.
You know how it was, Ben. Those blondies.

Anyway, Maria Clara — yeah, that
was her name, no kidding — Maria Clara and I
were down by the river. Saturday morning, I think,
she wasn't the kind to play hooky, you know?
What's that? Chaperone? I remember wondering
about that, too, in my dream. Her papa
used to send her little brother Pabling
all over with us — what a pain in the ass
that little kid was. But, no, not this time.
Just Maria Clara and me. Now listen,
Ben, what I'm gonna tell you now
happen only in my dream, OK?
It's not a real memory, nothing like that.

Maria Clara was teasing me, asking
if I could swim, and I say, sure I could.
And she say, well prove it, there's the water.
And so I take off my shirt and then my pants . . .
I hesitate a second, look around,
and pull off my underwear too. She puts
her hand on my shoulder, and I turn to look at her.
Our eyes meet — susmariosep, Ben,
she got beautiful eyes, real dark,
like when you look into a well at night
and see stars down there. You know that painting
by Juan Luna, the really famous one
in Malacañang Palace, La Bulaqueña?
Maria Clara was beautiful like that.
Anyway, she looks in my eyes, she never looks down,
and then she reaches over and holds my titi.
I was getting hard by then, anyway.
It was like it really happened, 'Pare.
I can still feel her hand, her fingers
were cold, I feel each one as she closes her hand.
Then I turn back to the water and I dive in.

That wakes me up. I'm sitting there, sweating
and cold. Jesus, I left the window open,
you know, so I get up, close the window,
walk down the hall to the bathroom, and piss
it all away. It all just goes away.
I forget all about that dream until
I see you walk in here. Jesus Christ,
that's the problem with you and me, Ben.
That's the problem with all of us Pinoys.
We piss it all away. We come here thinking
America — yeah, gold grows on the trees
like mangoes — and it breaks our hearts, 'Pare.
Yeah, that's it — we piss it all away.
Here, have another cup, Ben.
Hoy, Johnny! Bring us more coffee, OK?
Putang ina, the service here is terrible.


— Vince Gotera, from Returning a Borrowed
Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and
Filipino American Poetry
(1995).
________

Vince Gotera performing the poem.

<bgsound src="http://www.uni.edu/~gotera/podcasts/Manong-Chito-Tells-Manong-Ben.mp3" loop="1">


Juan Luna, La Bulaqueña
(1895, oil on canvas)
Malacañang Palace


A manong with his trusty guitar
(from Al Robles's own photo
collection)


Manongs at a restaurant
(from Al Robles's own photo
collection)


Al Robles (at right) with a manong
In terms of craft, this poem is written in pentameter, as was "Madarika," the poem in the last blog post, spoken as well by Manong Chito. In the previous poem, Manong Chito is speaking in the 1970s to young Filipino Americans about the lives of the manongs and manangs, young people probably of Al's own generation. In this poem, he is speaking to one of his own peers, someone of his own generation. In both poems, I envision (or channel) Manong Chito as a kind of seer, a person who observes deeply and far.

I based Manong Chito's voice on manongs I have known: primarily my Uncle Primo Arellano, but also my father's friends as well as my father himself — he was a younger manong who in fact had lived at the I-Hotel for a brief time. (The International Hotel, as described in the first epigraph of "Madarika," was a residential hotel where many manongs lived in San Francisco until the late 1970s.) Because I feel that the actual spoken voice, with the requisite Filipino accent, is important to the poem, I have included above a spoken-word performance of it. Please listen to that recording, along with reading the poem.

The reference to the Maria Clara mythos is important. In the Juan Luna painting La Bulaqueña, the woman portrayed is wearing a Maria Clara outfit, called the "national costume" for Philippine women. The original Maria Clara was a character in Jose Rizal's revolutionary novel Noli Me Tangere; Filipinos were inspired by Maria Clara and she became a national symbol for the traditional virtues and nobility of the Filipina woman. That Manong Chito's dream woman and former fiancee is named Maria Clara indicates she is not only an actual person in his life but also a symbolic figure, in the largest national, international, and literary senses.

I guess that's all I've got to say about this poem . . . I want Manong Chito to reclaim center stage. And you too, Manong Al, rest in peace.


NOTE: The picture above of Al Robles with a manong is an eloquent emblem of Al's work as an advocate for seniors and the poor, seen most strongly in his founding of the Manilatown Senior Center in the 1980s. This photo is the cover image for the website "Manongs of Manilatown: The Inspiration of Al Robles" where you can find out more about the work and legacy of Manong Al Robles.


4 comments:

Vince Gotera said...

Hey, everyone ... I'm transferring a dialogue about this post from another blog.

I invited "anthropologist" (author of the blog "Kanlaon") to listen to the audio on this post. And she wrote a comment to me on her blog:

"Mosying over to your audio recording right now. I hope it’s you on the recording, and not some other poet . . ."

And then ten minutes later she returned to "Kanlaon" and wrote:

"Having now listened to the poem . . .

Vince, I almost cried at the ending. So moving. Thank you for providing the feed."

Okir said...

Wonderful poem, Vince! And I like your reading, too -- hey, you are starting to sound like a manong! I'm sure Manong Al would have loved it.

Say hi to Marianne for me!

Vince Gotera said...

Many many thanks, Jean. And to say hi to Marianne, here's a link to her blog: Kanlaon. You confused me for a moment because my wife's name is Mary Ann. But then I realized you don't know my wife. It was eerie for a moment though. Stay well, Jean.

Viagra Online said...

Hi, I'd like to get to know more about that "Returning a borrowed tongue.." book. Do you think there's a chance to get online, or it's too much to ask?

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