Memories of 1979–No Monster in the Mission!

No Monster in the Mission!  Build the Marvel, not the Monster!  Competing voices and visions packed the auditorium of Mission High School to speak for and against the proposed development for the Plaza on 16th and Mission–1979 Mission Street. Long time tenants, union members, students, elders, parents, business owners and community activists (Plaza 16 Coalition) converged on the Planning Department’s special meeting at Mission High to hear a presentation from Maximus, the developer who is proposing to build an enormous housing development of more than 300 units of housing—47 of which would be designated as below market rate—or affordable.  The evening featured the developer—whose representative was a young man of color–pitching a proposal to a black and brown community that has lost thousands of residents to gentrification.  The developer, it was said, was not friendly to working class people, having fired union workers at Park Merced and possessing a housing record that was clearly conducive to gentrification and removal.  The community spoke out during public comment.  Folks in favor cited the opportunities for jobs and much needed housing.  Those in opposition cited the lack of truly affordable housing in this development, the traffic impacts that would surely arise and that it would facilitate further gentrification in a neighborhood plagued by it.  The meeting pitted black folks against black folks, brown folks against brown folks and the switching of allegiances between allies on the issue. I thought about the address—1979 Mission. As I sat in the auditorium of Mission High School, my thoughts went back 40 years to the year that marked the end of a decade.

1979, the year I became a freshman at Mission High School.  Our family lived on Abbey Street, an alley—a stone’s throw from the rear of Mission Dolores.  I was a scared, unsure kid.  I never thought of the word “Mission”—what it meant, what it implied, what the mission was, who was on the mission, who commissioned the mission and who financed it (and why).  I had no idea that the remains of the city’s original people were buried beneath Mission Dolores—the bones of thousands. I was a stone’s throw away from it—a large boulder, which, underneath, were the bones, the remains, the silenced voices.  All I knew was that my father worked as a janitor.  I was at Mission High School.  My father had wanted me to go to Lowell (Which he pronounced Low-uh).  He was a working class guy with the physique of Robert Blake (Baretta) and the face of Erik Estrada (Ponch).  He started a small janitorial business and he brought me in to the workforce—where I got acquainted with an arsenal of janitorial equipment including mops, buckets, brooms and the sacred toilet brush.  1979—I walked the halls of Mission High School.  My legs went one way, my ass, the other.  I was, maybe, a buck 35, a lightweight among other lightweights—but also among heavyweights, middleweights and welterweights.  I was 15 and I looked young.  I occupied the space between total weakling and the guy who told the bully at the beach, “Hey, quit kicking sand in our faces”.  There were guys in my classes, in the halls who had mustaches and beards.  Some looked to be as old as my father. 

In my homeroom were at least 15 students whose last name was Rodriguez, 3 others shared my name albeit a bit different—Anthony, Antonio and Tony—all with the last name, Robles (Which, to my immense pleasure and joy, was never mispronounced:  Roll the “R”, bitch).  I was Filipino but I looked Latino and there were black and brown people all over.  There was our social studies teacher who presided over us, telling us about the Russian winters during World War II.  He told us that things were scarce and that, to keep warm, people would take a bite of lard, a bite of pumpernickel, and a bite of onion.  It’s funny what one remembers and I’m sure those who survived that Russian winter didn’t forget it.  I didn’t forget the taste of my teacher’s words as he described it.  And I can’t forget an English class when, during a lesson, a guy who was cutting class opened the door, stuck his head inside and said, “Cindy with the buffalo butt!”.  But Cindy was beautiful and knew it and none of that dumb shit mattered.  The class continued. 

In the backdrop there was music.  Music of leather jackets clinging to bodies, cut to the waist and the sound of zippers that shut them tight or opened them to the world, blooming in the halls or across the street at Dolores Park where the music was thick in the air, so thick that it rubbed off on us leaving the scent of cigarettes, chewing gum, weed.  Working class Latinos, Filipinos, Samoans, Blacks, Chinese.  Funny, some of the Chinese were more Latino than the Latinos.  The Filipinos supposedly had beef with the Latinos but I got along with the Latino cats I knew.  Perhaps it was because they thought I was Latino and—I never would have mistaken them for Chinese—but some of those Chinese cats would whip your ass so there was no scarcity of things happening.  I was a loner who didn’t socialize a lot.  But there was music.  One Nation Under a Groove by Funkadelic filled the halls.  I felt like I was swimming in an Aquarium of sound.  I remember the words: 

Here’s our chance

To dance our way

Out of our constriction

And I felt constricted in my awkwardness and I’m sure others did too.  I recall a confrontation on 17th Street near Everett Jr. High (Not yet anointed a “Middle” school).  3 Latino youth walked towards Dolores with an older white man approaching from the opposite direction.  One of the youths dropped a soda can on the ground and the old white man grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shoved him towards the can and said, “Pick it up!”  And the kid picked up the can and threw it at the man as if throwing a spear, hitting the man in the gut.  The kids walked away and the man was left to curse silently with an empty soda can as his witness.  And there were those in school that could follow rules and regulations; joining ROTC (AKA Rotten old tin cans), strutting their way on to the drill team: Ten Hut!  About Face!  Present Arms!  Forward March! (And so on).  Some found that this cadence suited them while others found cadences that were in accordance to other principles that suited them better while others never found their cadence or are perhaps still seeking it. 

And outside the walls of the school , down the street, around the corner were grocery stores, bars, drive in diners that had stood for generations; a mechanic’s garage, a corner store where you could get a sandwich with salami, ham, cheese, pastrami—everything.  And children walked by, who would become teens and adults passed through who would become seniors.  And I can still hear that song by LTD, blaring from a radio that a student at Mission High School carried in his hand as if it were a briefcase filled with rhythm, sounds, dreams—providing the cadence of what was in his blood:

                                                Holdin’ on

                                                Is very hard to do when love is gone

                                                And that’s no lie

Followed by another, “She Used to Be My girl”

                                                Deep Down inside

                                                I still love her

                                                I place no one above her

And when I entered that building that is Mission High School–the auditorium-a voice over the PA system announced that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk had been shot.  And beyond those walls, unbeknownst to me at the time, were poets, artists, filmmakers, activists who put their lives on the line for their political beliefs, their community, their art—and in those pots in those homes filled with Abuelos, Abuelitas, ninos, ninas, mothers and fathers, a resistance simmered and nourished the people who sprouted from the soil of La Mision who became, and are still, its soul.  The murals of resistance and history and consciousness not only covered the skin, but the mind. 

That was 1979 through my eyes.  My family moved from Abbey Street in my sophomore year and I transferred to George Washington High School where I encountered murals that blended into my mind a scheme of many colors as well. 

I sit in the auditorium of Mission High School on Feb. 7th, 2019 where the voices on the loud speakers come through.   Voices of old and young, black, brown and all colors—those who refuse to let the community die.  They cry out:  No Monster in the Mission!

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Book Review: Poverty Scholarship by POOR Press Featuring the work of Poet Al Robles & Poverty Scholars of POOR Magazine/Prensa Pobre

May 2nd marks the ten year anniversary of the passing of poet Al Robles.  Al Robles was conferred much respect as a Poverty Scholar of POOR Magazine and remains an ancestor board member of the POOR Magazine family.  Robles’ life was centered on the notion, the struggle to “take back our lives”—our histories, languages, art, land—all of the things whose legacies live in our skin, our blood—all of which have been stolen or commodified/co-opted.  One of POOR Magazine’s mottos is “Nothing about us without us”.  Robles dedicated his life to telling the stories of Filipino-American elders who were forcibly evicted from San Francisco’s Manilatown neighborhood.  This removal was fueled by real estate speculation, the same force that evicts elders and families today—such as Iris Canada, a 100 year old black elder in the Fillmore—locked out of her home while at a senior meal program. 

Therein lies the situation—voices, experiences, histories/herstories, lived experience—locked out, becoming—through Foundation grants, endowments, scholarships etc.—a project or case study for an academic or some other with degrees and privilege to write about, take pictures of, document etc.  Al Robles himself was steeped in academia for a time.  The poet/historian attended USF, a Jesuit university and was introduced to the philosophies of Thomas Merton, among others.  However, the neighborhood that produced him, the city’s Fillmore, was close and the sounds of jazz, the struggles of the black and brown and yellow people of the neighborhood—the mixture of sounds from tongues stained with soy sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, picked pig’s feet—would not allow him to forget or fall to what POOR Magazine calls the cult of separation or independence.  He couldn’t forget the voices, the sounds of the workers, the voices from the fields where the seeds of Manilatowns across the US were planted long ago.  Those voices, those elders—their ‘mata’ catching him, never letting go, sharing their stories, their lives with him—a poet—over a plate of rice and fish.  What more was there?  So influenced was Robles by the Poverty Scholarship of these elders, of the brown and black people whose daily lives and struggles moved in his blood that he dedicated his life to poetry and to helping take back the life and lives of his community.  He wrote of his evolution to Poverty Scholar:

I travelled far back into the past

Searching for Ifugao Mountain

All the things I’ve learned

I threw out of my mind

All the books I’ve read

Were not worth one roll

Of toilet paper

And on the value of the knowledge of people in the barrios, and in the ghettos where he spent so much of his life observing the poetry, the sadness the tragedy and the triumph of life—observing those people whose experiences were not given credence or where vastly devalued:

Who is to say

The weeds are not

The roots?

Who is to say

The roots are not

The weeds?

The work of Al Robles and other poverty scholars of POOR Magazine (Al Robles was a board member of POOR until his passing in 2009) are featured in POOR Press’ newest book, a beautiful collection of essays and poems and manifestos called “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears across mama Earth”.  This book is an extremely important text for schools, political groups, healers, community workers—all who are working to take back lives and create a better world—to embrace.  It is a declaration, a new plan:

It’s called sharing the wealth

The accreditation and linguistic domination

Flipping the hierarchy

Of who is an expert

Who is a scholar

This book delves into practical ways in which Poor-People led education can inform the ways in which media is created, how service is provided, the liberation of landless and Poor People from poverty pimps and the multilayered world of social work that is a vortex that feeds off people whose lands have been stolen, languages erased and whose presence is maligned, ostracized and criminalized.  The art and poverty scholarship that sings out from the pages of this people’s text brings about the emergence of hope and healing.  One of Al Robles’ favorite songs was the jazz standard, “Tenderly”.  This book speaks with the fire of our indigenous blood and history, and tenderly shows us that there is another way.  Tenderly in a society that gives grudgingly.  This book is a declaration of emergency and a guide book to regaining our bodies, spirits, hearts and minds.  It is desperately needed at this time when, more than ever, we need to, as Poverty Scholar Al Robles said, “Take back our lives”.

Currant Events

Words are powerful.  Words can break, bend, nurture; words can twist, be twisted and untwist.  I have been fascinated by the pliability of words.  Who has the last word?  Who gets to speak?  Who gets to write, indite—or indict?  Words are the writer’s currency—the most obvious currency—yet, as poets, we form lines, verse, in an art form that, oftentimes, speaks in ways that words cannot.  I recall my days in school, growing up in San Francisco in a multicultural community.  Multicultural is a word that gets tossed around but for many of us it was not multiculturalism so much as it was community—a feeling, a connection, a comradeship, a collective experience not always articulated in words.  The words of our experience were in our pots and pans, in the unwritten recipes written into the hands of our mothers and grandmothers;  the words spoken clearly in the sparse words of our fathers, our grandfathers, uncles and brothers; men of few words, whose pauses lasted a heartbeat or lifetime. We were a community of black and brown and yellow and many shades in between. Our family gatherings were like a meeting of the United Nations.  We brought our pots, pans, bellies—stories. 

I recently read a book, a novel whose plot had many subplots—shifting locales and time periods.  The writing was skillful and proficient yet I found myself having to consult with regularity a dictionary in navigating the chapters.  I don’t have an aversion to consulting a dictionary, but words, I believe, can also act as a wedge, accentuating the separation, or barrier—if you will—between academia and those who, for whatever reason, have not been steeped or strapped down in those spaces, those academic departments, compartments and the like.  In reading the words and phrases (Some in Latin) in the book—and in subsequent dictionary consultations—I began to ask if those words, in themselves, lent themselves to intellectual credibility and, if so, who determines this? 

I began to think of the words of my father; a man of few words; not that he didn’t have anything to say—to the contrary, he had plenty—yet the direct word was what worked best for him.  He didn’t use a lot of big words, he didn’t have to.  By trade he was a janitor, by blood a Filipino, by heart, a practitioner of the indigenous Filipino Martial art known as Kali.  The art utilizes sticks and knives as weapons; each of which serving as an extension of the hand.  I take that a step further and assert that the art was, and is, an extension of his mind, a mind not formed in academia but formed in the spirit, blood and movement that made up the whole of him. He was a warrior poet. His words:

“Tribal Warriors”                                               

By James Robles

We sweat from pain

In the rainforest of Kalakaua Gym

Pain is our strength to survive

The Rhythm, the fluidity

The timing, the balance

The distance

The tribal warrior dances

Being his son, I am not a warrior of the stick or knife but the pen.  However, it is worth noting that part of this flow, this movement of the stick or knife is to check your opponent or attacker—that is, to know from where the attack is coming; the angle and/or direction and to deflect and initiate a counter attack. This takes skill that is gleaned through repetition.  Checking the opponent, that is, making sure, through your own movements, that your opponent cannot launch an attack on you, gives one the agency to launch one’s own attack while averting a counterattack.  The important concept here is checking.  To check is to, in layman’s terms, confirm that the coast is clear.  Not only are you checking your opponent, you are checking one’s self as well—a concept that is quickly diminishing as humans become more successful and more self-assured. These checks and balances illustrate and provide a strong anchor in the movement, the flow which is life—regardless the endeavor—warrior, poet, teacher, parent, street sweeper etc. 

And, of course, I cannot forget the words of wisdom my father imparted to me at an early age:


You don’t know your ass from a roll of toilet paper. 

Those words were prophetic.  There was much I didn’t know, therefore, there was no pretense in knowing what I didn’t know because I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to pretend that I knew.  I was being checked.  No dictionary could be as direct.  I needed no thesaurus to seek out hidden meanings.  I was to learn that there were many whose experiences, language, and histories were discounted.  They grew up in schools whose teachers couldn’t relate to them—the cadence of their voices, the histories bludgeoned into their skin and the skin of their ancestors.  Their common, direct words—sometimes grammatically incorrect with mispronunciations—were not given attention outside of the highlight of their imperfections and were slashed apart in red ink—ink that left a trail that followed many on their various journeys.  But the direct words, the utterances that articulated pain were the ones that stuck, leaving its imprint in my blood and mind. 

In speaking on this subject of language and expression—dictionaries and thesauruses notwithstanding—one word comes to mind: Currant.  I was attending a small private school in central Florida—8th grade—after attending public schools exclusively.  Like other schools we were given those computer generated, fill in the bubble tests spanning multiple subjects.  I recall a question on a test in which I had to choose the correct word in a sentence:

A. Current

B. Currant

C. Cormorant

D. Coronet

Not knowing better, I chose A—Current.  Later I consulted a dictionary to find that the correct answer was C—Currant.  I made a note and stored it in my mental jar to ferment and store for future use.  But I began to think.  “Current”, to my mind, made sense.  Current was current, the newest thing.  In a society where anything and everything is for sale, it made sense that “current” jelly was the newest, freshest, most -superior.  In reality, I had never heard of the word currant, didn’t know what a currant was, much less having tasted one.  In the words of my father, I didn’t know a current from a roll of toilet paper.  I asked, why should the fact that I didn’t know what a currant was/is be held against me?  I never grew up eating currants and the only jelly I ever tasted was grape.  I grew up in a Filipino-American household in a community within the continental US.  I grew up eating bittermelon.  What if, and I want to stress the word “if”, instead of the word “currant”, the word bittermelon was on the computer generated test?  Would people know what a bittermelon is?  Would they assume that it is something that is used to make jelly to spread on one’s morning toast?  Perhaps my encounter with this word is a head-on collision with an errant currant that I have not been able to forget.  I have yet to eat a currant or currant jelly smeared piece of toast after all these years.  Perhaps it’s time to eat a damn currant and put it to bed once and for all.  However, I still eat bittermelon and its taste, over time, has become sweet, as has the wisdom of my father: You don’t know your ass from a currant. 

© 2019 Tony Robles

Hammer


In the early 60’s

James Baldwin visited

San Francisco, talking

To the youngsters living

In Hunters Point

The country was raging,

Dogs and water hoses

And police were being

Unleashed on those who’d

Been chained down for too

Long

A camera followed

Baldwin and a film

Was made about his

Visit called, If I had

A hammer

Baldwin observed

That San Francisco

Had its quaint hills

And landscape, making

It a good place to hide

He said that nobody

Wanted to tarnish the

Image of San Francisco

But that people were dying

There for the same reasons

They were dying in

Birmingham

If you had a hammer

What would you

Do?

A hammer can

Build, it can tear

Down

It can hit

The nail on the head

Like the right word

At the right time

It can dismantle

What has been nailed

Down and thought to

Be permanent

It can build a

City

Like Frisco

A hammer can

Move in sync

With the heart

A hammer can

Be used to kill

A spirit

Bang

Bang

Bang

Bang

Without the

Need of bullets

But with words

A hammer

Can build

A city

Like Frisco

It can

Tear it

Down

If I had a

Hammer, a

Man asks

A working man

Who built a part

Of Frisco

A man who carved

His grandson’s

Name into the

Hammer

“Tony Ricci”

A hammer

That holds

The memory

Of the city

A memory of

What can be

Torn down and

What can be

Built

And the grandson

Went on to build

Part of the city, like

His grandfather

And bears witness

To the scars carved

Into its streets, dismantling

What came before without

Saying thank you or goodbye

If you had

A hammer,

Tell me

What would

You do?

© Tony Robles 2019

Catcher in the Eye

Didn’t run the
Streets too
Much

My father and uncles
Had done all that in
The early days in Fillmore
And all I knew was that
They didn’t want that for me
And that if I got out of pocket
I’d get an ass whipping from
All of them

But when I did run the streets
It was broken field running,
Dodging and cutting
Away at angles in a spontaneous
No script scenario that I’d
Repeat over and over

Avoiding the eyeball
To eyeball but seeing
Clearly

I never got shot
Never shot anybody
Never drank a 40
But sipped (and slipped)
A lot

And when I
Did shoot, it was
A glance

A shot from the
Outside, the margin
The perimeter while
The others were in
Close range

But a glance, a
Catching of the eye,
A moment, a cloud
Uncovering something
In a split second was
Sufficient for me to be
Inside, in my own way

And I dealt with shit
On Muni and in the
Schools, getting pushed
And sometimes pushing
Back

But learning how
To maneuver

A game of cat and mouse
Chess
Checkers
Tic tack toe

(and bigger games)

And in this
City that created
Me, I still cut and
Stutter step and navigate
Its streets

A bystander
Standing by himself
(mostly)

A glance
A blink
A cut away

Wading into
The streets of
This city that
Created me

© 2019 Tony Robles

Unity in Black and Brown

In the projects of North Beach
There was cement and curved
Spaces and concave enclaves
Where shadows gathered and voices
Echoed laughter, bouncing in and
Out of blind spots as the sun hit
At every imaginable angle

And swarms of dragonflies would
Descend from the sky and I didn’t
Know a dragonfly from a ladybug
And I saw them as flying spiders

And I was scared to
Walk out the door and
Into the swarm

But the sun hit
Me in the eyes

And there was Michael
Who was five or six years
Older who would say, hey,
Go steal this or that for me

He lived next door
And a few doors down
In the other direction
Was Eric, a white kid
With stained t-shirts who
Would pull fire alarms
And take off running

And the dragonflies turned
Into fireflies

And a Catholic priest
Would come in a station wagon
From time to time dropping
Off bags of donuts

And the nuns would smile at
Our black and brown and yellow
And white powdered sugar
Covered faces

(This was 1971)

And I lived in that
North Beach project with
My grandmother and uncle
And I got a way with
Too much

And I walked to
School, real slow
Up a big hill

I was daydreaming
Uphill not knowing
The possibility of a
Downhill future

And as I was taking
My sweet time going
Up that hill towards
Sarah B Cooper School

I’d hear a loud
Honk

I’d look and it was
My grandfather in his
Copper colored Buick

He wore dark shades
And a heavy working man’s
Jacket

In the passenger seat
Was his best friend Chris

A black man and a
Filipino man, both
Bus drivers

Both drinking
Cups of black
And brown coffee

Both knowing what
Uphill and downhill
Meant

Grandpa woukd roll
The window down and
Call out:. Hey boy,
Hurry your ass up
And get to school
Before I whip your
Ass

And I hurried my
Ass up that hill

While my grandpa
And Chris watched
From that Buick

Looking into
The future

(C) Tony Robles 2019

Corner man

Hey kid,
You’re getting your
Ass kicked out there

Keep your goddamned
Hands up, you keep
Dropping your left and
You’re getting nailed by
That overhand right!

You’re walking
Into those punches,
Quit fighting with
Your goddamned face!

You want to end up
Looking like a
Catcher’s mitt?

Don’t you realize
You’re beating
Yourself up?

Look, kid,
You’re getting
Nailed left and
Right with every
Shot in the book

You took 5 shots
Flush on the chin:

Shot #1: you ain’t shit
Shot #2: you never was shit
Shot #3: You never will be shit
Shot #4: you are shit
Shot #5: you’ll always be shit

Look, kid
We’re all full of shit,
You’re not the only one

But we’re early
In the fight

Put your mouthpiece
In but don’t be
Silent

Get out there
And fight like
Hell

Do it

And remember,
Kid

I love
Ya

© 2019 Tony Robles