R.I.P. Manong Al Robles: “For years I have been preparing for this thing called the community.”
Someday I wish upon a star,
wake up were the clouds are far behind me.
Where trouble melts like lemon drops,
high above the chimney top,
that’s where you’ll find me.
Just as what happened with my fellow bloggers and BAYAN-USA organizers Geo and Kultural Guerilla I found out about the passing of Manong Al Robles through a text message, right before the Pacquiao-Hatton fight. In the room of about thirty or so folks we went from cheers, laughter, and rowdiness to silent contemplation. However, it was only to last for a few minutes or so as the news spread around the room, but the feeling of that lose (which was sudden and unexpected as everyone thought he would fully recover) hung over us the entire night, only to be briefly interrupted with cheers of joy over a solid punch landed by Pacquiao and a subsequent win by TKO by Pacquiao over Hatton.
The next day an impromtu memorial was set up at the Manilatown Heritage Foundation at the ground floor of the I-Hotel in Chinatown (where Manilatown also used to be until the ravages of gentrification took it away). As I walked toward the hotel, drizzle was softly falling upon the streets and business was going on as usual for Chinatown: there were pedestrians crowding each other at the street corners, old men playing board games at Portsmouth Square, grandmothers taking care of their grandchildren, cars honking at each other, and a whole plenitude of city noises wafting in the afternoon air. As I approached there was already a line of folks (mostly youth) waiting to be let inside.
The memorial itself was beautiful, but only because of the people who were there and not because of any of the aesthetics. It was a testament to who Manong Al was as a person, you had college youth all the way up to elders at that memorial, there were high school teachers, college professors, fellow community activists, and San Francisco supervisor Eric Mar.
Manong Al was a native San Franciscan and fought for the rights of the poor and the elderly all throughout his life. During the 1970s he fought against the eviction of elderly Chinese and Pilipino American residents at the I-Hotel during which time the fight for the I-Hotel became a symbol of corporate greed and community solidarity across race and class. While the elders were evicted from their homes and the I-Hotel was demolished, creating a crushing defeat and feelings of despair for the Chinese and Pilipino community in San Francisco, Manong Al (like many others as well) did not give up. He and the community continued to fight and kept the spot where the I-Hotel originally stood from being developed. Finally, around four or so years ago the I-Hotel rose from the ashes and became a center of housing for low-income senior citizens and a space for community organizers and the Manilatown Heritage Foundation.
Throughout the years Manong Al continued to be an advocate for the elderly and especially for the manongs and manangs of the Pilipino American community; those folks who immigrated from the Philippines to work, hunched over with broken backs, in the fields of California. As he would deliver meals to the manongs and manangs and provide other services for them, he would collect their stories of joy and hardship, and he was ever the consummate oral historian, and in turn would put their experiences down in the form of poetry. He also became something of a father figure for many community artists and activists at the Kearny Street Workshop and imparted his wisdom onto the many folks who walked through those doors as well.
During the memorial, interspersed with the tears of loved ones and the shouts of toddlers playing with each other, folks reminisced about Manong Al and also caught up with each others’ lives. Many folks spoke during the event but unfortunately I had to leave early in order to help set up the Bayanihan Center for the upcoming Diwang Pinay event that happened later that night. But the folks I did hear spoke of Manong Al as someone who was always humble, as someone who deeply cared for the seniors in the community (indeed, as he saw himself in their faces), and as someone who, despite his age, was so so strong, and that when he put you in his warm embrace you could feel his strength eminating from him.
Another theme that flowed throughout the event was that of the inspiration of Manong Al and how he had inspired many folks within the community to actually put their love for their community into action. This was evident with folks who spoke of their friendship with Manong Al (and everyone he meet was treated as his friend) that went back as long as 35 years to as little as five years.
When there was a lull of a few minutes where no one seemed to have the strength and heart to speak, a woman, harnessing the strength and courage of Manong Al, came up to the stage and reminded everyone to take that pain and helplessness that they were feeling at that moment and to remember it, and to remember Manong Al, and to remember what he did within the community. And to remember that even though we felt hopeless and sad, we needed to channel the spirit of Manong Al and to fight beyond our raw emotions and to make a difference.
Kultural Guerilla wrote:
Kuya Phil, another community artist, was really close to him, and being an ukulele musician, Uncle Al always asked him to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” every chance he got to. Kuya Phil got tired of Uncle Al’s constant song request after a while, but it meant the world to him to play it one last time for Uncle Al at the memorial. I could not hold my tears back any longer and cried my eyes out as Kuya Phil played and sang that song. That song truly embodies what Uncle Al was all about.
I’ll never look at that song the same way again.
Another person, a young man who I believe was Joaquin Sorro, Gulio Sorro, Bill Sorro‘s son, got up and spoke of his memories of Manong Al and the friendship he had with his father. Fighting back tears he read Manong Al’s poem “An Ode to Bill Sorro“:
Bill Sorro cried today,
he cried for the manongs,
he cried for his people in the Filmore,
he cried for the Chicanos in the Mission,
and in Manilatown for the manongs and manangs.
Santos of the International Hotel.
Santos of St. Paul.
Santos of Filmore.
Santos of Kearny Street.
Santos my kabayan.
Santos of my brown hands,
digging in my heart and in my mind and in my soul.
Today we are all crying. We are all crying for our saints of past who are no longer with us but have left their indelible marks on us. And we are crying for our urban saint, Santos Manong Al Robles.
I hear babies cry and I watch them grow,
they’ll learn much more then we’ll know.
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world.