Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Remember the Poet-Warrior, Al Robles

, Al Robles was the wise old man, the gentle warrior, the philosopher-poet who spoke proudly of his Filipino heritage, who also celebrated the cultures and struggles of other communities, the Asians, the Latinos, the African Americans.

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.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Filipino Reflection on Apollo 11

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. There has understandably been much media attention to what that historic event, when humankind finally reached the moon, has meant for the world.

I myself was five years old in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their first steps on the moon. I remember watching, with much excitement, the blurry black and white TV footage of the landing.

Many years ago, a writer also skillfully and boldly pondered the significance of the Apollo mission—to the Filipino experience.

Gregorio Brillantes’s “The Apollo Centennial” is undoubtedly one of the best Filipino short stories in English ever written. Academic Timothy Montes called the story “the first successful science fiction story written by a Filipino.” I may be accused of bias, of course, since Greg is an old friend and my former editor.

“The Apollo Centennial” is not the typical science fiction tale. As Montes pointed out in a 2000 lecture, Brillantes does not tell a story about high-tech gadgets or the anticipated Space Age future.

Instead, the story is a critique of Philippine society during the regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos—and a meditation on the economic and technological chasm between the First World and the Third.

The story is set in the year 2069. The world is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Apollo mission, and the celebration extends to a troubled rural community in the Philippines. There, Arcadio Nagbuya, a poor farmer, is taking his children to see an exhibit of the Apollo centennial. It’s not an easy journey, for they have to wait for a makeshift raft to cross a river, and then take a bus that must pass through military checkpoints where soldiers are on the lookout for rebel guerrillas. The security forces even have fighter bomber “helidiscs” patrolling the skies in the hunt for rebels.

At the exhibit, Cadio and his sons marvel at the photos of the historic event and the taped voice of Neil Amstrong repeating his famous quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” As Montes writes, “The juxtaposition of the poor farmer and the technological feats of the past creates a Twilight Zone effect because the man is twice removed from reality.”

The Twilight Zone-like society Brillantes paints probes a major fear of many Filipinos in the 1970s and 1980s: That the dictator would be with us for a very long time. For instance, in Brillantes’s Philippines of 2069, people speak Tagilocan. Society is so repressive that the other regional languages are on their way to being made extinct.

On the trip back from the exhibit, Cadio and his sons briefly run into his cousin, Andres, who is part of the rebellion.

Brillantes writes: “His cousin clicks off the flashlight and speaks to him, not in Tagilocan, but in the old language…and the tender fluid accents of their fathers’ tongue, unheard for so long yet never quite lost nor forgotten, bring a swift rush of pride and love that pushes back the enclosing dread.”

It’s a simple, yet moving, scene, one that I have enjoyed rereading through the years.

The grimmest aspects of Greg’s bleak vision of our future did not materialize, of course. The dictatorship is gone, after all. Still, one can’t deny the prescience of Greg’s story.

Forty years after the moon landing, many of the ills Philippine society was struggling with in 1969 are still here—the poverty, the brutality, the mind-boggling underdevelopment. Despite the technology revolution, underscored by the cell phone culture that has radically changed our society, deep chasms remain, and many would argue that they are growing wider, more oppressive.

Sixty years from now, when the world commemorates the centennial of humanity’s first lunar visit, what kind of society will we find? Will there still be the glaring disparities in affluence and power?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Susan Fernandez, Our Nightingale

SHE was the nightingale of the protest movement, a folk singer with the inspiring voice, powerful, yet soothingly gentle, a committed artist-activist who dedicated her life to helping the many who are weak and powerless in our country.

My friend, Susan Fernandez, died this week at 52. Many of my generation and others will miss her, her beautiful voice, her gentle soul.

During rallies or at political events at the University of the Philippines or other venues in the 1980s, I was always happy to know that she would be one of the cultural performers. And recently, she was the one I also thought to ask to perform to help my book events less boring. She was a gifted and courageous activist who embraced the struggles of her generation, whether it’s for the rights of women, or against tyranny and dictatorship.

On a personal level, she was a generous friend, who felt happiest when her music touched other people’s lives. Three years ago, she readily said yes to an invitation from Joy Jopson Kintanar to perform at the launch of “UG An Undergound Tale,” my book about the late activist Edgar Jopson, known as Edjop.

I was not able to attend the launch, though my sister Nymia emceed the event. And Susan later recalled what happened in an e-mail.

She first sang “Kundiman ni Abdon,” the classic kundiman that inspired “Kay Taas ng Pader,” a popular song among political detainees during the Marcos years.

“I took a bow right after this first song when Nymia signaled to me to do another one,” Susan later told me. On the spot, she said, she thought of “Madaling Araw,” one of her favorite kundiman songs by Francisco Santiago.

It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

“You know what,” she continued in her e-mail, “during the cocktails, Edjop’s sister approached me. This song pala was their favorite nung bata sila (when they were younger)! She felt so nostalgic and all the more missing her brother. Kaya lalo akong natuwa sa coincidence ng napili kong awitin (So I was glad that I chose to sing it).”

“Haay, it's really wonderful to touch lives this way,” Susan said.

To be sure, Susan touched many lives. She impressed many of the leading activist-intellectuals of her time, including the late Lean Alejandro.

“Did you ever have one of those opportunities where you meet someone who is not only good in the arts, but incredibly smart?” academic and former student leader Jojo Abinales said. “That's Susan.”

“Everyone was, of course, enthralled by her voice. Lean used to be mesmerized by her jazz songs and confessed to me that he would never sing in front of Susan. Of course, noong nalasing na hala kanta na ng kanta ng (when they got drunk they sang and sang) Paul Williams, to Susan's amusement.”

Abinales quickly added, “But I was amazed at her intelligence.”

For while Susan was best known as a performer, she also made her own contributions to the academic world. While working for her master’s degree at UP, she decided to take on what was then an unusual, and tough, thesis subject: Child prostitution in Manila.

“I was surprised about this when she told me because no one expected her to do such a thing—being one of the few ‘pretty bourgeoisies’ (Lean's term) of the activist generation of my time,” Jojo recalled.

“So Susan would spend long nights hanging out with the kids in Ermita and getting their stories. She would visit us at Diliman at the end of the week and I would listen to her stories about her encounters. … Then she sat down and wrote this incredible MA thesis which I think is one of the earliest works on child prostitution during the Marcos period.”

“She would have become a fine academic. UP or Ateneo would have benefited immensely from her ideas,” Jojo added.

Susan eventually did turn to teaching, but music always was at the center of her life.

And there was music when she passed on.

She was surrounded by friends and family right before she died Thursday afternoon. Musician and her friend, Lester Demetillo, was playing her favorite song, “Both Sides Now,” when she passed away.

FilAm Honored as 'Hero' for Veterans Work

“Kaylangan lang poh ng kohntee pahng tiyago.”(We just need a bit more patience.)

That line, uttered by the character Attorney Anna (played superbly by veteran actress Missy Maramara), always got the audience breaking into hearty laughter and applause in Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.”

The play, adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado, was based on my novel. And I must reveal now, however, that the real Attorney Anna, the Filipino American lawyer who was devoted to helping Filipino World War II veterans in San Francisco, but who was prone to mangling Tagalog, can actually speak the language fluently.

The broken Tagalog and funny accent—I made that all up. (I decided while writing the novel to honor the United States-born Pinoys who have also taken up the cause of the beteranos and of the Filipino community in general by turning Attorney Anna into a FilAm.)

In real life, Attorney Anna is Attorney Lou, as in Lourdes Santos Tancinco, who has spent nearly two decades now helping and advocating for the beteranos, many of whom hang out outside her office near the Cable Car Stop on Powell Street in downtown San Francisco.

For her service and commitment to these men and their families, Attorney Lou was recently named an “Outstanding Local Bay Area Hero” by KQED Public Television. It’s a prestigious award given to individuals who made a difference in communities in Northern California.

And Attorney Lou certainly has made a big difference.

She served as the chair and founding member of the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center which led the advocacy campaign for the beteranos in the city. She offered pro bono legal services and held free legal clinics for the beteranos and other immigrants. She also has her own TV show, “Pusong Pinoy sa Amerika,” which focuses on immigrant issues in the Filipino community in the United States.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to know that Attorney Lou was honored this year as a result of the passing of the federal bill granting benefits to the beteranos. As a result of the law, the beteranos who have long been denied the benefits granted to regular US military veterans can receive up to $15,000 in a lump sum compensation package.

Many US and Philippine lawmakers, and some community leaders, hailed the passing of the law as a major victory for Filipino World War II veterans.

But Attorney Lou doesn’t see it that way.

Yes, the beteranos and their families could surely use the money, especially in these difficult times, she said. But it simply isn’t enough. The beteranos deserve a lifetime pension and other benefits, like those received by those who served with the US military. Fifteen thousand dollars is a substantial amount, it’s true. But that’s not going to last. These old men deserve more, she said.

Otherwise, all the waiting and fighting they did over the past 60 years would have been in vain, she told me.

We had a chat in her office near the Cable Car Stop on Powell Street, near the spot where many of the old beteranos still hang out. In her office hang photographs of some of the veterans she aided, and who eventually became her friends.

Magdaleno Duenas, a hero in the Allied campaign in the Philippines, came to America hoping for a better life, but ended up being one of the veterans who fell victim to a fraud scheme that Attorney Lou helped expose.

Then there’s Ciriaco Punla, in his fake fur coat and cowboy hat, who became one of Attorney Lou’s cheerleaders in the fight for the Equity Bill and who was a beloved figure at the Powell Street hangout of the old guys. (He was my inspiration for the Ciriaco in the novel.)

Both men have passed away. But Attorney Lou continues to honor them by having their images displayed prominently in her office.

When she received her award from KQED, Attorney Lou said she had planned to simply say “Thanks,” and keep her remarks short. But many people at the event were congratulating her for the “victory.” So she decided to set the record straight and elaborate on how she really felt: That it was not a victory and the fight is not over. That these men deserve more for everything that they have done.

Attorney Lou plans to keep repeating that message in the years to come.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Pinay First Lady of East Timor

She was called Jackie S. in the Inquirer report, which made me chuckle for the name clearly refers to Jackie O., as in Jacqueline Onassis, who, as Jackie Kennedy was one of the most glamorous First Ladies in United States history.

Of course, in the eyes of most politicians and other members of the Philippine elite, there was nothing glamorous about what Jacqueline Siapno did. What on earth was Siapno, the first lady of neighboring East Timor, thinking taking a public bus and then a tricycle from Manila to Pangasinan?

The Inquirer was right to contrast Siapno with the rich and powerful in the Philippines for whom political power means extensive protocol and traveling with an army of servants and assistants. But the attention Jackie Siapno attracted for her low-key homecoming should also extend to her own standing as one of the most accomplished Filipina intellectuals in the world, and an expert on a part of the world that Filipinos and the Philippines should really be paying more attention to.

I got to know her in the early 1990s when we were students at University of California Berkeley, where she eventually got a PhD in Political Science and we both got involved in a conference on the Philippines. She had moved to the US as a teenager and eventually pursued a career in academe, earning degrees from prestigious Wellesley College and the University of London before going to Berkeley. She speaks, writes, or reads eight languages: Pangasinan, Tagalog, English, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Acehnese.

And she has written a book on Aceh, “Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance.”

These credentials may make Jackie sound like a highly-intelligent but boring egghead. But Jackie Siapno is anything but boring. The attention she attracted with the unusual bus rise to Pangasinan proves that. And one thing I’ll always remember from our days in Berkeley was her passion whenever she tackled a subject she felt strongly about, whether it’s the plight of the Timorese people, Indonesian culture, Philippine politics, or women’s issues.

During the Berkeley conference, she told the Malay folk tale of Putri Babi, the Pig Princess, who married a rajah who fell madly in love with her despite her being different. But the rajah wanted to change Putri Babi so he burned her skin and called a healer to turn her into his ideal wife. “In burning her skin,” Jackie relates, “she is transformed into a princess, identified with the aristocratic ruling class and hence no longer able to represent the Bangsa which she was supposedly to continue. In becoming identified with the aristocratic class, the representation of their own Bangsa is foreclosed.”

She continued, “The rajah saw an imperfection in her body, a sign that marks her difference and he wants to burn it to make her body more normal and to make it conform. The treatment of Putri Babi is symbolic control, symbolic of male control of a female body which he does not understand, so he kills her.”

I remembered her telling this story when I heard about the stir Jackie caused in taking a bus from the airport to Pangasinan. She’s had an unusual journey—from young Pinay from Pangasinan to US immigrant to academic to activist to Indonesia expert to first lady of East Timor. But while we haven’t talked in years, I have a strong feeling that her own transformations did not involve any skin burning. I suspect Jackie took on, absorbed, and incorporated the knowledge and cultures of the places where she has traveled and lived, and eventually built on all these without having to shed her past as a Filipino woman from Pangasinan.

Before telling the story of Pig Princess, she explained that “Bangsa” in Malay could mean race, sex, class, or group, but is now commonly means as nation. Jackie pointed out how the story was originally told in a language similar to Maranao. “Any of you who speak Maranao or Tausug, Indonesian or Malay will probably understand it,” she told the audience.

I can’t help but think of how much someone with her background and passion can contribute at a time when the Philippines is still wrestling with unrest in the southern part of the archipelago involving Muslims who have suffered for generations under Christian rule from Manila.

We last communicated via email a few years ago and by then we were both parents. Jackie spoke fondly for her son Hadomi. Hadomi, Jackie explained to me, means “love” in the East Timorese language of Tetum.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Old Man With the Helmet

Friends at Tanghalang Pilipino in Manila remember the old man with the helmet. Wenceslao Rodriguez Sr. wore his military headgear during the gala of a play about men like him, soldiers who fought bravely for his homeland, but whose sacrifices have largely been forgotten.

Mang Wenceslao kept his helmet on for more than two hours during the premiere of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.” I had missed the gala last November. But the Tanghalang Pilipino folks described it as a moving and meaningful event, and a big reason for its success was the old man with the helmet.

He was from a poor community in the University of the Philippines area, and graciously accepted Tanghalan’s invitation to attend the first performance of the play based on my novel about World War II veterans (and beautifully adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado).

The Tanghalan folks, led by creative director Nanding Josef, later became close to Mang Wenceslao. When the equity package was recently passed by the United States government, they thought he would at last get some financial assistance for his sacrifices. Unfortunately, he ran into a problem—there was another person with the same name and that had to be sorted out.

My friend Nanding said it’s not clear if Mang Wenceslao ever received the benefit which recognizes the courage and service of thousands of Filipino veterans. One day, he and other Tanghalan staffers got a text message from Mang Wenceslao’s family. He had passed away late last month. They were inviting his new theater friends to the 40th day commemoration of his death.

Before he died, his family told the Tanghalan folks, Mang Wenceslao often talked about “the tribute given to him at the CCP”—“iyong parangal na binigay sa kanya sa CCP.”

* * *

“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” which starred veteran performers such as Bembol Roco, Tommy Abuel, Joe Gruta, Dido Dela Paz, and Lou Veloso, focuses on the plight for veterans who moved to San Francisco after they were granted citizenship by the US government. But the production itself exposed me and others from Tanghalan to the broader world of the beteranos.

For while thousands of Filipino veterans took the opportunity to move to America hoping to provide a better life for their families, many more remained in the Philippines.

Some of them belonged to the Defenders of Corregidor and Bataan, whose members survived the bloody battles at those historic places. Some of the group’s leaders and members came to watch the play last year. Some of their leaders enjoyed the show so much that they invited me and other members of the Tanghalan staff to their regular luncheon. When we met they also mentioned the plight of other veterans like Mang Wenceslao, who was struggling against poverty and whose contributions have been ignored.

The Corregidor and Bataan veterans later helped bring “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” to the Armed Forces of the Philippines Theater last month, as a way to honor the beteranos, both those who now endure loneliness and isolation in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles—and also the seniors still living in the Philippines, battling illness, poverty, and in many cases neglect.

Unfortunately, I also missed that performance. But I was happy to hear that, like the run at the CCP, the show was also well received. “Crowd loved it,” my friend Maricor Baytion, director of the Ateneo Press, which published the novel, said in a text message shortly after the performance ended.

“This is a funny yet tragic, sentimental, yet soul-stirring story all rolled into a two-hour musical play that portrays the vicissitudes of the aging, sickly, dying— and dead—Filipino veterans of World War II during their final years in their Powell Street hangout in San Francisco,” former President Fidel Ramos wrote in an op-ed piece for the Manila Bulletin.

If only Mang Wenceslao had been there too for another tribute to men like him. It would have been another proud moment for the old soldier, the warrior who fought bravely for his country.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Filipino Veteran’s Lonely Struggle

THE benefits package approved by the United States Congress for the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans is an important victory. For many of the old men who’ve endured years of isolation in America in order to support their loved ones in the Philippines, the money would surely be a big boost in difficult times.

But there are those who see the approved bill as a sad, tragic compromise.

One of them is photographer Rick Rocamora who has spent nearly 20 years documenting the lives and struggles of the beteranos.

“As a photographer who has captured moments in the lives of the veterans during their early days in America, the funeral services of their passing and life in between, I also look forward to the day that our heroes will be given the full recognition as equal to US veterans,” he told me in an e-mail.

“While the monetary compensation will find its way to help the surviving beteranos and their relatives, being recognized as equals is more important,” he added. “For those who died waiting, I have been waiting for them. But we must not forget that it took many years for the US Congress to recognized and correct the injustice. We must credit the collective efforts of the Filipino community in America and their supporters to finally gain justice for our heroes.”

To the elderly Pinoys often seen hanging out on Powell Street near the Cable Car stop in downtown San Francisco, Rick “Totoy” Rocamora has been a friend and ally who helped preserve the memory of their gallant, but sad mission in America.

They’ve known him as the soft-spoken heavyset man with a mop top hairdo, who seemed always to have a fancy-looking camera around his neck. Totoy told in moving, vivid pictures the journey of the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans who arrived in the United States in the 1990s.

His work has been published in many magazines and newspaper articles, and put on exhibit throughout the world. Now, Rocamora's impressive body of work has been collected in a newly-published book of photographs, “America's Second-Class Veterans.”

Rocamora's photographs helped spread the word on what has become a sad chapter in the history of US-Philippine relations. The Filipino veterans began arriving in the United States in the early 1990s after they were finally granted citizenship for fighting alongside American troops in the war against the Japanese forces in World War II. But many of the elderly men found themselves in a bind. While they fought bravely under US command during the war, they did not receive the same rights and benefits enjoyed by other American military veterans.

The beteranos came to America hoping to send money back to their families in the Philippines or to enable their loved ones to immigrate to the United States. But most of them were old and ailing. Some became vulnerable to abuse, falling victim to swindlers. Many of them lived in cramped and damp rooms in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

Rocamora began documenting their struggles almost as soon as the first veterans began to arrive. His work helped mobilize the Filipino American community in advocating for the elderly Pinoys. A few times, when one of his beterano friends became ill, Totoy brought him sinigang and kept him company.

Totoy's photographs also helped inspire me to write my novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street (Guerrillas on Powell Street) which was adapted for the stage by the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino. His pictures also inspired prominent figures to support the fight for equity rights. One of them is Congressman Bob Filner, who has been the leading proponent for equity rights in Washington DC, and who wrote an introduction to the book.

“The photographs in Rocamora's book and the words of the veterans next to the photos will not only bring tears to your eyes but also a firm resolve in your heart," Filner writes. “Congress has officially granted the recognition as Veterans of World War II to these brave men, both living and dead.”

Totoy, Filner added, “has created a book with a powerful message, a book that should be in the homes and offices of every American.”

Totoy’s powerful images should be given even more prominence, as a reminder of the lonely struggle of the beteranos. As Totoy himself said, “Personally, I would like that my archive about the veterans will be housed appropriately in an institution where young Filipinos and Americans can look back on how much our heroes suffered waiting for full recognition.”

Copyright 2009 by Benjamin Pimentel

The Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino’s production of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” will be staged at the AFP Theater on March 29 and 30. For more information, contact 832-3661 or 832-1125 loc. 1620 or 1621.