Letter to Mayor Farrell

Dear Mayor Farrell,

Forget the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid and the box of rice a roni with the expiration date that has overstayed it welcome.  The icons, that bevy of hallmark moments of picturesque panoramas that fit nicely in pockets—and the deeper the pockets, the better—are mere holograms, mirages.  When I think of the city, one image comes to mind—the image of a metal walker in a garbage truck.  What use is the Golden Gate Bridge when the bridges that connect people have been severed, like a tendon, or a cable, meant to hold and support but cannot or rather—will not.  The sweeps, the confiscation of tents, the seizing of the minimal and meager belongings of those who struggle just to walk down the street is cruel—and ugly.  But that’s what San Francisco is, ugly.  It didn’t begin with your tenure as mayor but it persists.  And the historic icons, the lovely quaint Victorian homes, the cable car—are ugly.  The evictions are ugly and the fear that is mistaken for strength and decisiveness—is ugly.  When James Baldwin visited the city in 1965, he said that it was a good place to hide, that its beauty belied its ugliness.  But, at the end of the day, as Baldwin pointed out, it was just another American City.  He wasn’t fooled, he saw the ugliness immediately.  Many houseless folks were once housed but lost their homes to eviction.  Many are seniors and disabled.  Many were born and raised in the city, like you and I.  The fare inspectors are ugly.  The currency that the city thrives on is ugly–slashing away at tents, tossing out the possessions of folks who possess little, if anything–is ugly. Sidewalks where scooters have more rights than people, is ugly.  It’s clear that SF not only wants to confiscate the property of the homeless, but their dignity as well.  The city won’t be happy until it kills the spirit, especially of those who stand up, or speak out.  In those encampments are stories. In them are pain and misfortune.  But there is also sharing, where falls are broken by a hand or someone willing to put his or her body on the line.  In those encampments, in spite of what we are being fed by politicians and media, is a dignity that is, unfortunately missing in a city that has become ugly.

–2018 Tony Robles

 

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Still Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail

In 1996 Amerasia Journal published an essay by my Uncle, the poet Al Robles, in its special poetry edition. I don’t remember how I happened upon the journal but the title of the essay “Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail” struck me immediately.  It was a year or so before the publication of my uncle’s poetry collection, “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”—which was, and still is, a book that has both inspired and challenged students, educators, activists and people from many walks of life to go beyond boundaries, beyond themselves in their work and in their communities.  Uncle Al’s walk of life took him into the terrain of our community; our history, our fears, our passions, joy, contradictions, sorrows, pain and finally, love.  As a kid, I thought of my uncle as an odd-ball, the one with sandals, backpack, beard and dark rimmed glasses, always talking about the Filipino old-timers of the I-Hotel.  Manongs, manongs, manongs!  I didn’t know what a manong was.  But Uncle Al brought them into my imagination—planting an early seed into my young to-be writer’s mind—with images of a manong cooking alligator adobo, a manong who, in his younger days took on 5 men at once, and winning—all 5 foot 1 of him; and I can’t forget the tale of the manong healer who could perform surgery without implements while eating at the same time.  His walk of life was that of a wandering poet, covering the past and the future.  What I didn’t know at the time and, mind you, it was 1975 and I was 10 or 11, was that Uncle Al was chronicling the lives of the manongs, the early Filipino immigrants to this country.  I had no idea about our history.  But I had the tales of my uncle who would pose questions such as, “Who is to say the weeds are not the roots, who is to say the roots are not the weeds?  And it would be years before I’d find out that his backpack was filled with journals and a tape recorder—capturing the lives, voices and heart of the manongs.  And the poems flowed in those journals and his backpack swelled with voices of the wandering manongs, who he saw as poets. He often wrote of the struggles of the manongs, “Bending far back into the past”.  Where does the path of the manong lead?  Where does the path of the poet lead?  Uncle Al was brilliant, intuitive—sometimes referred to as a shaman—to which he responded, “I ain’t no goddamned medicine man!”  He earned a Master’s Degree in philosophy, maintained a correspondence with Thomas Merton, knew many of the beat poets and practitioners of Zen Buddhism who migrated to his hometown of San Francisco and felt a kinship to Kenji Miyazawa and Henry David Throeau.  Yet, he was from the ghetto, never forgetting the “Jazz of My Youth”—the voices of Billie Holilday and Sarah Vaughn that so moved him, the sounds moving in the cool Post Street wind from Cousin Jimbo’s Bop City where the black fingers ran over the keys, “Black over white”.  His heart was in the barrios, the barangays, the J-Towns and Manilatowns and Chinatowns where life and culture take root.  By the time he hit the I-Hotel, he had declared that all the books he’d read, all the knowledge he’d gleaned in academia wasn’t worth “One roll of toilet paper”.  It was in the faces of the manongs that he saw his own face, and the faces of his mother and father—the faces of the community.  It was in the I-Hotel eviction struggle that he travelled to a place called “Ifugao Mountain”.  On Ifugao Mountain was the smell of rice and fish cooked by brown hands of sugar cane fields and salmon skin.  On Ifugao Mountain were the sounds of lonely strings played in barbershops and pool halls.  On Ifugao Mountain was the manong, caught between two worlds—the one across the ocean and the one in the US, in small rooms visited by wandering poets turning over rocks and navigating the thick gnarled roots and sound of rivers in search of his or herself.  Uncle Al said that “We must be more than mere poets.”  His poetry and his fight for social justice was one in the same.  The fight for the I-Hotel was a fight for liberation and reparations.  In the words of a manong in Curtis Choy’s film, “The Fall of the I-Hotel”:  “We make these people rich and we demand our share”.  The 30 year struggle for the I-Hotel was a fight for liberation, it was a struggle to not forget.  As Uncle Al said many times, “The seeds of Manilatown were planted long ago”.  Uncle Al inspired and continues to inspire poets and educators, hip hop artists and activists.  Part of his legacy is, of course, the I-Hotel.  It was demolished after a long fight and rebuilt 30 years later—years and years of meetings and advocating and never forgetting the elders who were displaced in the name of real estate speculation and unbridled greed that still exists in the city.  The I-hotel was rebuilt—104 units of affordable senior housing with the Manilatown I-Hotel Center on the ground floor that provides programming—music and language lessons, art and a yearly commemoration of the eviction every August 4th.  The center truly embraces what Uncle Al described as “Coming home to Manilatown and the I-Hotel…Coming home to the smell of rice and fish”.  His legacy and influence can be seen in a landless people’s movement in East Oakland called Homefulness—a sweat equity model for housing by Poor Magazine based on community reparations.  Homefulness is a reality, providing housing to formerly houseless folks, providing childcare, a community garden and a school called Deecolonize Academy.  In honor of Uncle Al, they established the Al Robles Living Library, providing books and resources to the community in the spirit of giving.  Many of the books in the Uncle Al Library are poetry collections.  As he wrote:

 

                         Our poetry is the

                               Best part of our struggle

                               Our struggle is the

                               Best part of our poetry

 

 

Tony Robles 2018

Your Brown Face

This land has a brown face
there is blue sky
and green grasses growing underneath
this land has a brown face
you see it in the mountains
that still smile
season after season
this land has a brown face
this land is a brown face
brown tears fill empty cups
with rain and river
music
you can’t stop the wind from
remembering the brown face
that is you
this land is sorrows without you
the brown of your face is in the land
the brown of your voice stirs the grass
Walls are useless
It cannot hide the brown of your face
this land is a brown face
this land is a black river
this land is a memory of brown
a memory of brown feet
that have walked every inch,
every corner of this land that cannot
be kept from you
this land is a brown face
No wall can keep you from the land
No wall can keep out the love
That is you

(c) 2018 Tony Robles

415 Day

“We are people of Unity when it comes to the 415.” These are words of Frisco born and raised Rafael Picazo, a brother and son of the city’s Mission District on the front lines against the police killings plaguing our communities.  The sun rose with a big 415 on its face.  It was our breath, our tears, our fire, our memory; it was a hug from a homegirl or homeboy from the 415, or foe-one-five; perhaps someone that was once your foe who you now embrace in unity.  It was a day that we came together—black, brown, yellow, red, white and, in the words of Filipino Frisco born and bred Rudy Corpuz of United Playaz—candy stripe.  415 Day—a day of remembrance and honor–a day we honor our soul and spirit, which is the soul and spirit of the city.  We honor our throats, anointing the city, from Bernal to Mission to Lakeview to Bayview to the Sunset, North Beach, Chinatown, J-Town, the Richmond and every place in between with the cry that shakes the city’s foundations: Errrrrray!  A call that calls us back to our neighborhoods, our homes that were gutted by eviction; a call, a grito from deep within that expresses what we hold in for too long, looking for expression. A sound that says we ain’t forgot those who have been taken from us through police violence, economic violence and the betrayal of our communities by the city.  415 day, a day we come together to honor the black and brown heart of Frisco.  But we didn’t know where it would be held.  The day, 4-15-18 approached and all we knew is that it was happening, but where?  So the word went out: send a message to so and so to find out, or send so and so a text message.  I had to go.  I’ve been in the same area code my whole life. 415 ain’t just a number.  It’s in my DNA and in the DNA of the homeboys and homegirls that got the taste of Frisco on their tongues that spit truth and laughter and song.  415 is tattooed in my mind.  I got the word that it was going to be held at Crocker Amazon.  So I took the bus and the clouds were gray.  I walked up Amazon Street and thought that eventually some digital missionary  will say that the street was named in honor of  his company but f**k that, we got some straight up warriors in the Excelsior that ain’tgonna let that happen.  I arrived and I felt the black and brown of us.  I felt the lives in our skin come alive, every tattoo living with movement, a story—beautiful and tragic and alive, refusing to die, refusing to forget the city that forgot us, the city that we helped create.  So many faces, children, OG’s, dudes comin’ up in the world, looking for their place, their space and they find it in the beats that come from the heart and through the chest, sounds that move on turntables, turning like wheels, like seasons spent in this place in the heart we call the 415.  There were many I did not know, but the feeling was there, in the words of Frisco’s Max LeYoung, who worked tirelessly to support the Frisco Five Hunger Strikers:

 

415 day feels like a family reunion to me. There are many whom I only see once a year on that special day. For all the people who don’t know each other, there is a common and shared yet unspoken understanding that we come from the same place that we take so much pride in. We share a common culture which shapes who we are. 415 day to me, means community, family and culture.

 

415 Day, at Crocker Amazonwhere the green grass welcomed us, didn’t ask us for a reservation or ID; where the earth under our feet knew us, spoke to us: I remember you when you were a baby, when you took your first steps in the 415…and I remember your daddy and your daddy’s daddy and your mama and your mama’s mama—and the smell of the cooking that came out of the window: adobo, gumbo, menudo, sinigang, black eyed peas.Born and raised San Franciscan Rafael Picazo stood in the grass, big smile, feeling the importance of this day.  “The Native people of San Francisco have been losing spaces/parks to the newbies/tecies for years now, so 415 Day is day the Native people of San Francisco come together with love in their hearts to reclaiming our space/parks and enjoy each other’s company no matter what community you come from. We are people of Unity when it comes to the 415.”415 Day, in its third year, going strong.  A day to appreciate our presence, to play our music, to honor the mere tilt of our heads and gestures we wear proudly as the sons and daughters of Frisco.  We bring our neighborhoods with us.  We bring out dreams and dreams that never had a chance to breathe.  There’s room for us on this day, room at the park, room where we can still plant our dreams and breathe in the fragrance.  It was good not to see any mayoral candidates, case managers, landlords, fratboys, anyone on a scooter or those droves that open their mouths to speak, in an attempt to silence us, babbling about all the things they are entitled to yet, in the deluge of words, have nottruly earned a speaking part; those who would talk over our elders and claim Frisco as their own.  They have no idea what area code they are in.  415 Day, our day, as black and brown Frisco, of the Frisco heart.   As the homeboys and homegirls call out when they hear the word Frisco:  Errrraay!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

Whose City? Our City!

City of fog
City of movement
City in labor pains that linger
In contradictive contractions
City of exiled throats holding notes
Of blaring fog horns
And bloated corks buoyed in currency
City of leaning flowers and pendulums
And clock faces and the aroma of epitaphs
Moving in all directions
City of no left turn no right turn no re turn
City where green means stop and red
Means go and yellow is a flame on the
Tip of your mind
City of baguettes and batons
City born and raised from the dead
City of vindictive Victorians and lorgnette eyes
City of flat screens and flat minds
And poets whose eyes create spheres within
The creases ready to blossom
City of gold tainted moths feasting on the
Tongue’s flesh
City where the humble are stuffed into thimbles
City where every feast is a plot luck
City of wine and sorrows

City of swine and marrow
City where the blade plays by ear
And ants migrate up the arm and into the mind
City of webs and spokes
And shopping carts whose wheels derail and drag
In the backdrop of rolling hills
City where Jesus is nailed to a sub minimum wage cross
And Indios carry the corpses of dreams
City of tendons and tensions stretched taut between
Bridges while ambulance chasers cross and crab nets
Sit patiently beneath the current
City of climate changes and mood swings and puzzles
With missing pieces
City of raised fists
And the falling tones of church bells
Disrobed
And stones thrown
Into the silence of water
City of shelters and seagulls flying
Off the edge
City of fog

Whose city?

Our city

© 2018 Tony Robles

 

City of St. Francis

The jowls of elders quiver in their livid

Vividness

Someone spat on the feet of

St. Francis

Quite a feat

One foot in front of the other

Walking into a telephone pole

Where wires are crossed in its

Ambition of a crucifixion

(Or to reenact one)

Let’s not forget

This is the sale of the century

Where every scheme is anointed in

Holy bath water minus the halo

And the dreams of those off course

Are docked and rusted and the blood

Is tainted on a loose stool bolted

With everywhere and no place to go

And drinks are on the house

Only there’s no house

High blood pleasure and

Smelling salts to preserve

The highs and lows

Somebody tell St. Francis to get

His shit together

The bullet hole riddles

Are where time made its mark

I’ll light a candle for you

While I’m off the grid

Without a pot to rent in

And the sidewalks get a nice

Mop and glow spit shine job

My yoga mat is a parking ticket,

Or a citation for public intoxication

No angels to piss on

The flames

Just the edges

Of hymnals

Cutting into the prints

Of fingers cut off at

The joints and by the

Way they just legalized

The aroma of pot

And my bones are ready

To go underground

At any time

And someone spat on the

Feet of St. Francis

 

Don’t forget to leave

A tip

 

 

© 2018 Tony Robles

415 Day

There’s no other area code

For me to be

I ain’t got nothin’ against

The 650,707,831

But they ain’t got nothin’

On the 415

They say that age is just

A number but 415 ain’t

Just a number

Just go to the highest peak

In the city and yell out:  415!

And an echo will come back: ERRRRRRRAY!!!

(Followed by: Where you at?)

Now me, I’m 53 going on 415, and

My father is still alive, ex-gangster from

Fillmore and I got uncles that are in the

415 section of heaven which is

A Crocker Amazon in the sky

Where online purchases do not

Exist and congas provide rhythms and

Beats pulse through

The veins of leaves still

Thirsty for Frisco songs

It’s good to see you

Skin covered in 415 memories

Tongue that still tastes 415

Different varieties of everything

And the 415 fog sits in the

Lungs and we exhale our 415

Lives, just being ourselves

And the 415 grass grows under

Our feet

And some can’t feel that grass

But see it in their minds,

Especially when you been locked

Up 415 times, so many times

And so many 415 faces of all

Races and persuasions

You can’t have 415 without black and brown

And some in the 415 moved to other codes

Seeking out more neutral colors or

Because they couldn’t afford the rent

But you can’t hide the 415

With air freshener

Hair coloring

Deodorant

A new car

A new computer

Or a new old lady

‘cause you can’t wash the 415

Out of your skin

Coming together, the 415

On 415 day, which is

Every day

The 415 changes but

It’s still the 415

And some of us are scattered

Like Debra, one of the finest

Sisters I ever seen livin’

Down in Texas

One of the finest of the 415

And don’t forget Charlie Mack

Out in Sac and Jimmy in Honolulu

And Cousin Leslie in New Jersey

And there’s nothing I wouldn’t give

To hear my grandfather’s voice again

Dialing from a rotary 415 telephone

Whose number was: SKYLINE 1-3046

And speak into the receiver: How’s my boy?

And it’s the 415

Foe One five

Ex-foes coming together

In 415 love

The rain falling on our 415 skin

At Crocker Amazon Park

 

It can’t be

Washed out

 

 

© 2018 Tony Robles