Still hanging on to the Carabao’s tail
By Tony Robes
May 2nd is the one-year anniversary of the passing of my uncle, the poet Al Robles. Uncle Al was someone who believed in the coming together and celebration of community. Every encounter in his life was a homecoming. If you encountered him on the street or at a function, he had a way of honoring your presence–one didn’t have to put on a front for him–you could just be free to be who you were when you were around him. He is spoken of as a community poet, a shaman, a seer, a trickster, sage, etc. (To the “Shaman” moniker he once remarked, “I ain’t no goddamned medicine man!). He is all of those things and none of them. He is beyond definition because he lived his life defying those that would seek to define him and his community within narrow limits. The poet Giulio Sorro so beautifully articulated this when he said, “How can you define Al? How does one define a flower or a stream?”
Uncle Al spoke about going beyond one’s self, beyond one’s own community. In a country that encourages separation and borders, this is a very revolutionary concept. Uncle Al documented the every day plight and struggle of the elderly, poor, and of the youth in search of themselves in a society that suffers from historical amnesia—cleverly erasing and silencing the stories and experiences of people in struggle. In Howard Zinn’s excellent book, “Original Zinn”, he quotes author Peter Balakian as saying, “Memory is a moral act”. “To remember, to recall history is an act of affirmation”.
Uncle Al was a Pilipino poet, but he was moved by many forces and was steeped in different disciplines—jazz pianist, historian, poet, community organizer. He had a deep connection to the poets whose lives were close to nature; he felt a closeness to Thoreau and Kenji Miyazawa, whose lives and poems were one—clear like a stream, moving and traveling—knowing that one could hear life’s meaning in silence and capture its essence in the spontaneous sound and echoes emanating from the heart.
Uncle Al’s name has come to be synonymous with the manongs; the early immigrants to come to America from the Philippines. He traveled 10 thousand miles with the manongs on their journey as workers and fighters—marginalized in a society that saw no value in them outside of a cheap source of labor—to be exploited, without a voice, without their story being told. But Uncle Al was their son, their nephew, the one that listened while hanging on to the carabao’s tail. Uncle Al came to know the manongs and what was in their hearts by listening; but not listening to just words but just as intently to what was not said. He could hear volumes in a moment’s silence. He was not like an anthropologist or PHD—he didn’t need to explain or have neat explanations within specified margins. He went with it—surrendering himself in a net that stretched far across the ocean and in the thick mountains of the motherland—yet, he had never traveled to that land himself.
In the I-Hotel he traveled up the stairs and the doors opened to those small rooms; the smell of rice and adobo and fish was there; the face of the manong was there—he knew the face—it was the face of his father and mother and ninong and ninang. He sat across from the manongs and in their faces he saw the motherland, in their hearts and minds he journeyed and tasted what he described the “thick adobo tales of their lives”. Those elderly men were alive and in Uncle Al’s poetry they became young again. Uncle Al in an Alaskan cannery, in a restaurant bussing tables, in the pool hall wearing a MacIntosh suit. Uncle Al in Stockton, Watsonville, Isleton, Delano, Seattle, Waipahu—writing poems in his journal wearing his Hawaiian shirt—sometimes he’s at 2 places at the same time—hard to pin down but always there.
I am co-editor of Poor Magazine (www.poormagazine.org). POOR is a Poor people led, indigenous organizing project that practices eldership. Uncle Al’s life was dedicated to honoring elders, and this is something that he demonstrated throughout his life. As an elder, he never stopped honoring the elders of the community, listening to and sharing their sacred stories—honoring their struggles, singing their songs, drinking the sound of their laughter until we can all come together and laugh and dance and cry and fight the fight for social justice. The I-Hotel represents the manongs but it also represents the ongoing struggle for the rights of our people. The I-Hotel was rebuilt after 30 years—as Uncle Al says, “It was one day that took 30 years”. Many of the manongs have passed on. Where are they? They are in the voices of the poets, the rappers, the writers, activists and in the small rooms where the spirit of the I-Hotel lives—crying out for justice, their songs of fire living on, never to be forgotten. Uncle Al’s work and life are seen in the I-Hotel and in the poets he influenced. He is seen in the community that is changing but is the same, and is changing like the birth and life of a poem.
Uncle Al’s life was his example. His caring nature, his tenderness, his kindness and his compassion for others inspires me to go on, to fight against the border fascism of Arizona and other forms of ignorance that divide communities and peoples from recognizing who our true enemy is. Uncle Al’s work and life is very much alive. We continue to follow in his footsteps and in the footsteps of the manongs. We still hang on to the carabao’s tail.