He was the Manong who was brother to those who endured and battled against social and racial injustice.
On Saturday, the Bay Area will come to pay tribute to his life and legacy in an afternoon of poetry, music, and dance at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
Al Robles died in May at age 79.
I never really got to know him, even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years. I’ve seen him at some community events, and heard him read his poetry. Through his poetry and activism, Al Robles became a Filipino American icon.
As veteran community activist Emil De Guzman recalls, “Al Robles now takes his place immortalized like Carlos Bulosan, N.V. M. Gonzales, Manuel Buakin as the literary champions of our people.”
In fact, Al Robles strived to become a champion of many communities. In his poetry, he explored other worlds, other struggles in a society where the struggles of many communities of color have often been forgotten and ignored.
Al Robles wanted those stories told, and sought to bring other poets from these communities to speak out.
“We have become brothers and sisters,” he wrote in a 1989 article in Amerasia Journal. “We gathered with Chicanos, Blacks, Japanese, Native American Indians, addressing certain political issues that affect the lives not only of our people but all Third World folks.
“While living and working in our little, tiny communities, in the midst of towering highrises, we fought the oppressor, the landlord, the developer, the banks, City Hall. But most of all, we celebrated through our culture; music, dance, song and poetry—not only the best we knew, but the best we had.”
Poetry was a central part of Al’s life, and in his twenties, according to Emil De Guzman, he was a regular in San Francisco’s famous North Beach neighborhood, with the Beat poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Al was also a painter and a carpenter who made Japanese tea houses.
But his art and poetry also were inextricably linked to his activism. After all, he grew up in California at a time when it was tough to be a Filipino, to be Asian, a person of color. He was about 11 years old when the US government began rounding up Japanese Americans and taking them to internment camps, in one of the saddest chapters in American history. It is said that Al’s younger brother, Remy, was picked up by the military thinking he was Japanese. Al had to fight to pull his brother from the truck headed for the internment camps.
Al Robles eventually identified with the struggles of the Japanese American and other Asian American communities. In the late 1970s, one of the most important battles took place in downtown San Francisco where a group of elderly Filipino and Chinese old-timers fought for the right to preserve their home, the International Hotel, also known as the I-Hotel.
The residents eventually were evicted, but the confrontation helped focus attention to the problem of homelessness and poverty in San Francisco. It also helped galvanize the Filipino American community, giving rise to a new generation of activists and advocates, many of whom joined the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.
More than 25 years later, a new International Hotel was built with affordable housing for the elderly and a community center with an exhibit commemorating the historic battle.
“No history of the International Hotel struggle can be written without including our revered leader Al Robles,” Emil De Guzman said. “Volumes could be written about his community service and his dedication to the struggle for our Manongs and Manangs. … He cared for the hundreds and hundreds on Kearny Street in his forty and more years. … We celebrate this victory today and we have Al to thank as one of the leaders of this long arduous struggle.”
In his Amerasia piece, Al Robles spoke of coming close “through a sense of respect and openness,” of telling and listening to the stories of different communities, who find themselves becoming “one tribal family.”
“If the children of the rainbow can speak to us of the woods in winter, of the rains and snows, of the sadness of autumn, of the chilly winds in Harlem, of the smell of plum sauce dripping from the old in Chinatown, of the old Pilipino men whose bodies smell like a hundred water buffaloes soaked in the Kearny Street mud, then we should a lend an ear and listen to them.”
The Al Robles Tribute will be held on July 25, 1 to 5 p.m. at Glide Memorial Church, Ellis and Taylor Streets, San Francisco.