Monday, May 4, 2009

Al Robles ... RIP

It was with a heavy, heavy heart that I typed the title of this post. Al Robles is gone. Al Robles — the quintessential talk-story poet of Filipino America, the pioneer champion and everyday helper of the old manongs, those immigrant Filipinos who started coming to the US in the early twentieth century. For all of us Filipino American poets, Al Robles was our manong. Our shaman, our preacher, our Moses climbing Ifugao Mountain to seek the commandments and then finding them in the old manongs' daily fishhead soup, in their bagoong and rice. Amen to that, brother.

I dedicate the poem below to Manong Al Robles, who was there, at the center of the maelstrom, when the whole I-Hotel thing was going down.


— Since the 1920s, the International Hotel, on the
edge of San Francisco's Chinatown, had housed
the manongs — the pioneer Filipino immigrants
to America. In 1977, young Filipino Americans
fought the eviction of these "old-timers" and the
demolition of the "I-Hotel" by linking arms
against the wrecking ball — for many of them,
the event was an emblem of their awakening into
Filipino American history, culture, and activism.

— Madarika, in Tagalog, means "homeless wanderer."

You ask me my name? They got lotsa names
for me — Frankie, Manong Chito, Old-Timer —
you walk into a Chinese restaurant with me,
you see they call me "Amigo." Lotsa names.
But I'm just a Pinoy, you know? Pinoy,
that's a password. You see a stranger across
the street, his hair shiny with Brilliantine,
just like a rooster's dark-blue feathers after
the owner spits down the neck and head at a cockfight.
So you yell out, "Hey, Pinoy?" If the answer
come back, "Hoy, Kababayan," then you know that stranger's
a friend: he'll stand at your back in a knife fight.

Anyway, my name is Francisco X. Velarde.
X for Xavier. So you see I got a powerful
patron saint. I was born in Ilocos Norte
in 1906. I still remember the sunrise
back home. I was the youngest of seven boys
and it was my job to take our kalabaw
to the field in the morning. I remember lying
on his broad back, gray like an elephant. The sun
climbing between his horns as he walked, first
the pink spreading across the sky like flowers.

Only another place I see something
like that was Alaska where I ended up
at a cannery in '24. It never got dark,
you know, but when the sun would sink below
the horizon, the sky would light up in purple
and pink just before sunrise. All day we slave
on the line. My job is cutting off fish heads.
One time, my kumpadre Paulino cuts his finger
right off but we never find it. You young Pinoys,
you never know how hard we worked at that cannery,
and it was dangerous, too. But every night
we were our own boss, and we played baseball —
fast-pitch, slow-pitch — in the midnight sun.

I worked lotsa jobs. Barber, farm
worker, dishwasher, houseboy, janitor: you name it,
I done it. Every place I been — in Alaska,
in Seattle, in Stockton cutting asparagus —
they got these dance halls. A dime for a dance.
These days, a dime don't seem like much to you,
but you know it was a lot in the 30s.
Very dear. Mahal. But we didn't mind.
Blondies. Susmariosep! We were crazy
for those blondies. Ay, naku! "No money,
no honey," they used to say. After the war,
one time, I was going out with a blondie. She had
a white fur coat down to her feet: maganda.
Turned out she was some kinda Russian spy,
no kidding. The FBI haul me away
and this puti — blond hair, blue eyes — he comes
into the room and says, "Kumusta kayo?"
Just like he's from Manila, and his accent's better
than mine! That time, I was working the Presidio,
folding whites in the Army hospital.
They let me go 'cause I got no top
secret to give away, you see? Believe it
or not — FBI agent talking Tagalog!

Well, I been here at the International since
long time before that blondie. I have this room
over twenty years. This same bed,
squeak squeak every night till I think
the mice are talking back. That same desk
where I used to sit and write letters back home
but I got no one there now. Same old view —
Kearny Street still the same, twenty,
thirty years. This room's all the home
I got. They kick us out, I have just one
regret: all the lotsa names I got,
no one ever called me Lolo. Those years
playing with blondies, I never had no kids.
And so now I can't have no grandson.
All I got is you — you college boys
ask these questions like you're doing homework.
Look around you. This is all there is.
Remember everything about this room: the smell
of old linoleum, the faded curtains,
the bugs. And when your grandkids ask about
the O.T.'s, the original manongs,
you tell them how we talked today. Tell them
Francisco Velarde was here. Lolo Panchito was here.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Dissident Song:
A Contemporary Asian American Anthology

(1991). Reprinted in The Open Boat: Poems
from Asian America

In deference to the memory of Al Robles, no discussion of poetics today. That's exactly how Al would have wanted it. He didn't worry about rhyme and meter, etc. Al just wrote things out, breaking his lines when it felt right. When it fit the cadences of his soul, that consummate storyteller that lived in his heart.

When I was a young Filipino American poet — young in poet years, not person years — I made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to San Francisco to meet with the master. I really treasure that memory: having dim sum with Al on a lazy Sunday morning in some Chinese restaurant on Clement Street. Then he wandered outside at just the right time, watching the people walking by, thereby leaving me with the check. That was Al, right there. Teaching the young apprentice a lesson about props, about who was to pay for what. But Al's sage wisdom, the song of the ten thousand carabaos in his soul, that was all for free. That was to be shared not just with a young poet but with everyone and anyone around him. That song was emblematic of Al's generosity of heart, mind, and soul. The generosity of his work: the poems on the page, the talk-stories in our memories, and Al's community-based caretaking of the manongs. That work will live forever in all our hearts.

Manong Al Robles . . . may you rest in peace. Amen.

Many thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes, who took the picture of Al Robles above. To read a longer account of my "pilgrimage" to meet with Al, check out my article "Moments in the Wilderness: Becoming a Filipino American Writer" in the journal MELUS (2004).

Added 5 May 2009:     Al Robles Tribute     (a video by xpo147)


Julie Russell-Steuart said...

I always like writing that can take me somewhere else, inhabit another space, breathe different air, feel a different set of bones.
You made something real with your poem.

Julie Russell-Steuart

Vince Gotera said...

Julie, hello! Many thanks. When I wrote this poem a decade and a half ago, it felt like channeling a voice. Like a real person was talking through me. And of course, Manong Chito (as I came to call him) was representative of a whole society of men in a bachelor culture. Thanks again, Julie. I hope you are well.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh. "The sunrise back home..." and the sun setting in Alaska. Lovely images of light.

Thank you.

Vince Gotera said...

Shalom, Roy. It's so nice to be back in touch. Thank you for your comment. Come back and read more! In the next day or two (or three) I'll post a sequel poem to this one.

Hugh Thomas Patterson said...

Uncle Al, Manong Al inspired a generation of people, old and young alike, to write. Now that he has passed, the seeds that he planted are now starting to bloom. They bloom as a thousand hands take pen to paper and write. This is from a series of twenty pieces written about Al Robles.

Uncle Al Part Two

The wind swims through the bamboo stalks like an eel in water
The embers crack and dance in the village fire's glow
The Elders pass their wisdom across the generations
The Children harvest their heritage like the river flows

Their song echos across the summer's tall dancing grass
Stars hang like jewels, each telling a tale of poverty or fortune
At the head of a well worn wooden table sits the wiseman
His eyes casting shadows like the rounds of the fullest moon

There is a road that leads in and out of the village old and worn
Gravel ruts crack the crooked line carved with human toil
A thousand miles of hope cake the road like ancient mud
Dreams of a concrete and steel promise without spoil

Child-like dreams hang from the bamboo canapy far above
Out of reach yet close enough to taste their sweet scent
On the jungle's edge a lone mountain cat watches the embers
Connected to the elders through time carefully spent

The Manong guard the midenight fire's crackling roar
Across the darkened jungle the sound cracks like a whip
The conversation colored in hushed and muted tones
As the morning comes their thoughts into silence they slip

The embers die quietly as the blood red dawn shatters the sky
Morning comes with the songs of wives sweetened in sorrow
The blacknes of night now muted between the longing hours
The darkness of dreams folded into the creases of tomorrow

The Manong elders watch the dawm turn to the light of day
Their thoughts now drifting to their volumnous days goen past
The untold silence spoken in tongues of ancient thoughts
Each of the elders walks off into the forest their father's cast

They sit and sing of the wisemen of the aged Manong
Their tale is told from weathered father to untattered son
The fabled tradition of cultures faded from the great books
Their story forever told yet never completed, forever, never done

Manilla town built from the sweat of broken proud men
Casts shadows from a long gone International Hotel
Whose brick facade once housed the history of his people
Now the ghosts of long gone Manong wander in its cells

The wind blows down the concrete and steel valleys
In a modern village the Manong pass the torch of tradition
As sons walk the walk of the ancient tales from fathers
While mothers pass their stories on well worn Kitchens

Vince Gotera said...

Hugh: Thanks so much for posting your poem here. It's beautiful. I know you were trying to finish the 20 pieces before your Uncle Al passed. Good luck with them. Thanks again.

Mary Beth said...

The beauty of a blog is that it's it been thrown out there, hanging in the ether, sort of a "When the student is ready the teacher will come" kinda thing.

I'm working on the story of Uncle Raymond, the Manong of our family.

Vince your poetry is hitting home, echoing in my heart and mind like Uncle's deep, throaty laughter.

Your work gives me all the right ways.


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