Birth of the Carabao cleaning service

Birth of the Carabao Cleaning Service (Later known as “The Filipino Building Maintenance Co.)
By Tony Robles

It started the moment my uncle, the poet, wrote the lines—

A handful of carabao
Dung has more spirit
Than 10,000 white men

I thought my uncle was crazy. He wore a ponytail that flapped and swung in the wind when he meditated or did Tai Chi. He hung out with old Filipino men for hours in Chinese restaurants. One old man had a mouth like a billiard pocket, except for one tooth the shape of an axe blade. Another old man had one finger on each hand—the middle finger. Claimed to be a writer. My uncle would sit and listen and tell stories afterwards. My father got a kick out of my uncle’s lines about the carabao dung. He copied it on a small strip of paper and stuck it in his wallet. He’d stand in the mirror and recite it mimicking John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Sidney Poitier. He’d laugh. He rarely laughed. He was a janitor who woke up at 5am and left us with the sound of jingling keys as he slammed the door. He went to a garage sale and picked up a stack of National Geographic Magazines. Sure enough there was an issue that featured carabaos. He looked at the pictures transfixed, each photo teleporting his soul—his spirit—to an ancestral homeland or at least an ancestral state of mind. I picked up the magazine and went to the toilet. I sat looking at the photographs. Outside the window a cat meowed and meowed.
“Will you shut up!” I said.
I flipped the pages, focusing on the mountains in the pictures; mountains laced with green and rain and lushness with all kinds of stuff underneath that the camera didn’t catch. The words “mountain tribes”, “rice terraces”, and “various dialects” slid past my eyes like rocks slipping off a mountain. I turned the page and saw it—2 big horns, 2 eyes that carved itself into anything it looked at and 2 nostrils leaking rainforest snot. It was a carabao. In one picture it was in a rice field, mud all over its body. In another picture it was on a street pulling a cart with a boy atop its back. In yet another picture it was in front of a church, bowing on all fours, asking God for the things that carabaos ask for. I looked at its face, its ugly face. It resembled a guy I went to school with named Andre Watts. Andre had a face that looked like a shoe print. He used to beat me up; he beat everybody up. I kept looking and I began to see other resemblances. Soon the carabao looked just like my father with his large nose and distrustful eyes. I nearly dropped the magazine when I heard a loud knock on the door.
“What are you doing, sleeping in there?”
“Get outta there. I gotta take a shit!”
“Don’t ok me…get outta there and don’t use all the toilet paper”
I wiped, flushed and put the National Geographic nicely in the rattan book holder next to the toilet for my father to read.

The next day I went to school. I couldn’t concentrate on the math scribbled on the board. I kept thinking about the carabao’s face. I started thinking about carabao shit—first a handful then a roomful. Soon the classroom was filled with carabao shit, knee deep. I imagined the teacher screaming, saying, “what is it?” I saw myself, chest puffed out like a frog answering “it’s spirit Ms. Fargo, we’re knee deep in school spirit”. I got home to find my father in the living room. He was sitting on the floor Indian style with a pair of 1940’s Everlast boxing gloves wrapped around his neck with rips and tears. He kept repeating “a handful of carabao shit has more”…
“Dad” I said, “I thought it was a handful of carabao dung has…”
“Don’t give me your lip”, dad shot back, closing his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
“I ain’t sitting. I’m meditating”.
“Can I try?” I asked, squatting on the floor.
“Why don’t you meditate on going to the store and getting me an eskimo pie…oh yeah…and bring me a paper”
Dad gave me a dollar and change. I faithfully delivered his order like the good slave that I was. When I got back, dad was sitting at the dinner table. On it were sheets of paper with designs painted on them.
“Sit down” dad ordered.
He tore open the eskimo pie and bit into it.
“What do you think of this?”
“Think of what?”
“The papers goddamn it! The drawings!”
I looked at the papers. It was hard to make out what they were. They looked like designs that psychologists gave patients to fuck their minds. They looked like watercolor blotches randomly set to parchment—basically abstract explosions of insanity confined to an 8.5×11 space.
“They’re ok, I guess”
Dad flipped through the papers.
“I’m trying to make a logo”
“A logo…for what?”
“For my…I mean…for our new business”.
“What new business?”
Dad gesticulated as if he were a famous artist or photographer who’d gained fame by producing chickenshit art that no one could afford.
“It’s gonna be called the carabao cleaning service…where cleanliness is happiness. You gotta go for what you know sometimes…go for broke. I need to make some real money. Need to take a chance. Now, which one of these drawings do you think should go on our business card?”
I looked at the pictures next to dad’s watercolor paint set. I looked and looked. I thought to myself, I could do better.
“I’m making you vice-president of the company” dad said. “My second in command”.
I laughed silently. I had just been fired from my first job 4 months ago. I was a delivery boy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was fired when I failed to deliver the paper during a holiday. I thought it was a holiday for me too. Vice president of a janitorial company? My immediate answer was no, I wanted no part in manning the phone, swinging the mop or swishing the toilet with the mighty toilet brush. I wanted to play ball. I had no choice. Dad held one of the papers to my face. I looked at the watercolor frenzy on the page.
“What does it look like” dad asked.
I took the paper in my hands. I ran my finger over the watercolor blotch. I spoke.
“It looks like a mound of carabao shit”
The curtain at the window rose in panic like a skirt in a storm. My father’s jaw clenched. He yanked the paper from my hand.
“It’s a carabao!” he said, holding it up like a special edition newspaper. “See the horns?”
He slammed it on the table and began pointing out all the details of his watercolor blotch until I fully comprehended.
“It’s gonna be our logo for our business card!”
I looked at the papers scattered about. I thought about my uncle with the ponytail and Tai Chi moves. I sat down and watched my father meditate on what lie ahead.

© 2009 Tony Robles


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 ( 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.

The world is Flat

The world is flat
By Tony Robles

The more I live
The more I feel
Like the world is

The music
Is flat

As well are the
TV shows

All…as my grandmother
Used to say

Flatter than piss on a plate

But the other day
I was on my bike
And a voice called out

“Your pront tire is plat”

It was a

I got off
The bike and

Sure enough
It was flat

You need
Air, the manong

The manong smiled
And told me
To be careful

I thanked him
And headed to
A gas station

The world is
Once again

© 2010


By Tony Robles

He wears thick sweaters
With subdued colors
And his eyelids are
Pink and moist like a

He has all his teeth
and hair and eats
Tuna sandwiches for
Lunch at a café owned
By a Japanese woman

He still has his albums
From the old days and
Has just bought a new
Record player

He likes standards
And can play the
Harmonica on request

When he gets on the
Bus, he nods in the
Presence of women
And says

If they ignore him
He smiles and says
Going Hollywood on me, huh?

His father used to
Have a horse in the
Old days when the area
Was natural and rustic

Before the

Now he takes the
Bus and rides a bike
But he fell off the bike
Injuring his elbow

He says he’s an
Octogenarian and I
Ask him what that means
And he tells me that it means
He’s 80 years old

We sit on the bus
Together and he shows
Me his scabbed elbow

He says he put rubbing
Alcohol on it when
The wound was fresh

Then I told him that it
Reminded me of the old cowboy
Movies when men would pour
Whiskey over their gunshot
Wounds before dying

A waste of
Good whiskey,
He said

© 2010 Tony Robles


AbuelitaBy Tony Robles

I didn’t notice her when I walked in. I’d walked past her restaurant hundreds of times, barely taking notice. I’d walked past the trees lining the street for years and hadn’t noticed them either. But I notice them now. The breeze tickles their branches—the tips of the branches point to the restaurant at the end of the block. I look at the faded sign. The blue had gone from ocean blue to sky blue–but still blue–and the people walking by in either direction added their own brush strokes, painted with the tongue of experience—the migrant Raza, the African descended, the youth, the Filipino elders—all holding the blueness and grayness and redness and blackness of sky together in struggle. How many times had I not noticed the stained window and worn paint? I had come far north from far south and far south from far north–yet I had no direction because I couldn’t see– couldn’t focus on the images mere inches from my face. When I looked into the window of her place, I saw my own face and it faded into hers and she smiled and the door opened.

I sat at the table whose legs were unsteady. Three legs were on the floor and one was slightly elevated. The table rocked, the legs hitting old tile like heels and canes. I looked at the walls. Painted on it was the ocean, a few palm trees and birds whose color held miracles. I ran my hand over the wall. I felt a crack in it. I felt the drops of water in my empty palm. The sound of the ocean washed over me. I looked and saw the fog rise from the kitchen. A menu sat in front of my face.

“I’ll take this one” I said to the short, slightly stout woman. She looked like the women I’d seen in some of the Pentecostal churches I’d walked past in the Mission, peeking inside while men in suits scanned Bibles, banged on tambourines or strummed guitars. She wore a dark dress, wool sweater and dark nylons. I pointed to an item on the menu: sopa de res—red soup. My grandmother used to make it but she called it boiled beef. The woman said something to me in Spanish which I don’t speak. I said “Si” and shook my head. She looked at me for a moment and smiled.

People tell me I look more Latino than Filipino. My uncle told me that when he was a kid in the late 50s he was locked up in a youth prison. The Chicanos would speak Spanish to him and he would look at them. He only spoke English and the Raza cats would ask him why he was cliquing with the blacks. My uncle would say, “Them is my people ese`…I’m a Filipino but I’m a black Filipino from Fillmore. Don’t get confused ese`…I ain’t one of you”. My Uncle was full-blooded Filipino but he looked Latino on some days, black on others. When we get together in the Mission, people speak Spanish to both of us. “Si” we both say, shaking our heads and laughing.

The woman disappeared into the kitchen. Her face was hidden by pots and pans and dishes. How many times had she looked into those pots and pans and plates and seen her children and grandchildren’s reflection? She quietly did what she had done for many—nourishing and providing—a portion of love, a portion of rain, a bit of sadness, tragedy—rising up like the ocean painted on her wall.

Outside, the world goes by. The trees on the sidewalk are there—they see us. Inside I wait and she emerges. In her hands is a tray. It is heavy and full and she wavers from side to side, her legs unsteady. She looks like she’ll fall–topple over in the indifferent breeze of some metallic automobile. I see the bowl of sopa de res on the floor. I conjure images of blood and bone and the innards of everything she is. It is my lack of faith that makes me think this, a heart lacking the deep marrow of experience. I want to help her, to take the tray or help steady it. It is the Filipino in my blood that cries out to my hands to give of themselves. But I can’t move. I can only sit and watch her carry that tray with all the love and poems and songs in the world, inside a bowl of sopa de res. She brings down every border with every footstep. She places the food in front of me. She walks away and comes back with tortillas. The soup bone and corn and plantain have risen to the top. The legs of the table are firmly on the floor. The Abuelita walks back to the kitchen. She hums to herself. The Filipino in me waits for her to finish. My ears are filled with the sound…abuelita…abuelita…abuelita. Then I eat.

© 2010 Tony Robles

Beneath Me (For Toshio Mori)

Beneath me (For Toshio Mori)
By Tony Robles

I called an astrologer who
Told me I’d be working as
A security guard in the
Year 2008

I was charged 3.99 a minute
For this information which
Took a total of 30 minutes
Because the astrologer kept
Having to go to the bathroom

And Goddamn if it
Didn’t happen

The economy tanked and
Now I’m wearing a blue jacket,
Badge, keys and walkie talkie
That cling like crabs

The job is beneath me, sacred
Ground that I walk and patrol
Over but do not own
but owns me

I sit in the guard shack
At a desk putting
Pen to paper trying to
Give birth to stories and

I’m constantly interrupted by
The phone with tenants calling
About excessive noise or young
Guys jumping the fence and
Peeing in the pool

I kick their asses out of the
Pool and get back to
Pen and paper


And then I think of Toshio Mori
Who wrote “Yokohama, California”
In the late 30’s and early 40’s
A beautiful book that told
The story of a people
In a place that no one wanted
To hear about at the onset
Of World War II

Toshio Mori,
Sent to a concentration

His book was published
In 1949 after the war
And still, no one wanted to hear
About Yokohama, California

Toshio Mori kept
Writing every day but
Couldn’t get anything

Toshio Mori tended
To the flowers in his
Garden in San Leandro

30 years later he was rediscovered
by a group of aspiring writers who
found Yokohama, California selling
for a quarter in a used bookstore

They looked
Him up in the
Phone book

I sit in the guard shack
With his book and he introduces
Me to 1936 and to the woman
Who makes swell donuts

Toshio Mori’s flowers
Came into
Bloom beneath him

Its fragrance lifting
The mind beyond
Mere sentences

I inhale each

And then the
Phone rings

© 2010 Tony Robles