I never met Al Robles

but I remember finding his book of poems “Rappin’ with 10,000 Carabaos in the Dark” at the Esther Raushenbush Library, Sarah Lawrence College.

It was a late December night during conference week.  Outside, snow fell, I loosened the scarf around my neck as I entered one of the study rooms lit by fluorescence.  In Bronxville, NY, I couldn’t be further away from San Francisco, the city where I was born.  The city my family immigrated to in the 1970s. The city of the Ethnic Studies demands made by SF State students.  The city where the youth and elderly fought for housing rights for manongs at the International Hotel (or the I-Hotel).

Although my family was around during the fight for Manilatown, I knew nothing about this history.  Al Robles’ poems immediately brought me to Kearny Street, where the manongs reminisced over smoke, to the late-night blues of the Fillmore.  He evokes the names of manongs, his compadres, the I-Hotel, in poems.  Sometimes, walking through SoMa, I think I see them, the veteranos, men who live in the weekly hotels nearby, who play chess while tourists pass by.  Pigeons cluck at their feet.

Prompted by Robles’ work, I hosted a viewing at Sarah Lawrence of the film “The Fall of the I-Hotel,” which chronicles the struggle for housing rights and the historical maintenence of Manilatown, San Francisco.  I read a few of Robles’ poems.  Afterwards, I was moved to tears by the resistance of Filipino people, people-of-color and young people  for the I-Hotel, but I was mostly saddened by the fact that I had never known this history prior to college.

Although I unfortunately never had the chance to meet Al Robles, I’ve been ultimately influenced and continue to be moved by his work.  RIP, Uncle.

***

A few links for more info:

The Inspiration of Al Robles

Barbara Jane Reyes wrote a few poems for him:

Manilatown

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