Filipino American History Month

Filipino American History Month
By Tony Robles

Who is to say the weeds
Are not the roots?

Who is to say the roots
Are not the weeds?

–Poet Al Robles

I was in a large yard of a Protestant minister in central Florida. Elvis had just been buried at Graceland and I was a kid trying to earn a few bucks. I attended a small Christian school where I was issued a red, white and blue uniform; recited the pledge of allegiance to both the American and Christian flags and was the school’s only non-white student. I had a lawn mower that started every so often and I solicited business in the various neighborhoods. I’d go door to door and ask the kind elderly—-and sometimes not so elderly—-ladies if they wanted their lawns cut. They often said yes and I’d start pushing my mower. The mower had unsteady wheels and I’d have to push very hard to move it. It was very tiring in the 90 plus degree heat. Sometimes it seemed I wasn’t moving at all—-just sweating, not getting anywhere.

I kept pushing that mower every day, door to door—the fragrance of oranges settling into my dirt-covered skin. When I got to the minister’s house, I knocked on his heavy wooden door. He looked like a middle aged underwear model (The kind you see in ads standing next to a row of progressively younger men…in a display of intergenerational underwear model mentorship/solidarity). His house was filled with heavy wooden furniture and smelled of lemon (furniture polish I’m sure, for I recall seeing not a single lemon tree on the property). The minister informed me that he didn’t need grass cutting but weed pulling. He led me to his backyard. Weeds covered the entire area. A hot gust of wind moved the weeds and they swayed like some kind of torrid choir. I began pulling the weeds, tugging and yanking. They were tough, like rope. When you pull weeds, you have to pull the roots otherwise the weeds will grow back.

I pulled and pulled, often removing just the stems, leaving the roots in place. I was sweating heavily and the sun left its mark on my brown arms. The more I pulled, the more the weeds seemed to spread. I began pulling my hair out. Then the kindly minister appeared with his permed hair (salt and pepper tinged) and a glass of lemonade. I took the glass, the dirt from my hand moist with the sweat of the glass. I held it to my lips and tilted the glass to the sun, pretending it was sweet. I finally cleared the yard of the weeds and I went into the house to wash my hands. I used much soap, scrubbing with vigor but much of the dirt remained, as if it were a permanent stain. I looked into the mirror and fixed my hair, striking a variety of what I thought were stunning poses (That would be the envy of any underwear model). I turned around to find the minister and his wife looking at me. I was embarrassed but for some reason the minister’s wife’s face was red. I thanked them for the lemonade. The minister handed me five dollars and I rushed out the door to the sound of their silent laughter. I walked down the road past houses shaded by orange trees and flanked by carports. I headed towards a corner store for something cold to drink. I kept walking when I heard the rumble from behind. I turned. A pickup truck was heading towards me. As it approached I saw an object flying towards my head. I stopped and ducked. On the ground was a beer can spewing foam. It rolled towards me as the Florida sun looked from above.

At that moment I realized I was Filipino and it would be many years before I understood what that meant. I learned about Filipinos that came to the US in the early days, like my grandparents, who arrived as workers, performing backbreaking labor in agriculture, working in the fields or in the cannaries—often exploited and pitted against fellow workers—to maintain a system of cheap labor with no regard to worker’s rights. I often think of a picture—a famous picture—taken of Filipinos working in the asparagus fields, performing stoop labor. It was thought that Filipinos were better suited for this type of work since—in the eyes of the growers—they were short and, thus, closer to the ground. The stoop laborers bodies were bent, stooped and twisted—knarled with dreams planted into the ground—seeds planted in anticipation of harvest. Then I think about pulling those lousy weeds over a summer in Florida. The Filipinos who came to this country in the early days did hard work all their lives.

I learned that Filipinos had been coming to the US since October 18, 1587–landing in Moro Bay—off the California coast— as part of the Manila Galleon Trade from Manila to Acapulco—which started in 1565 and lasted until 1815. By the time the Mayflower landed on the continent, there were conceivably a thousand or more Filipinos living on the West Coast. I didn’t learn of these things on my own but through my elders. I listened to the words of Filipino poets and activists like Al Robles, Oscar Penaranda, Bill Sorro, Lou Syquia, Norman Jayo, Jeff Tagami and Shirley Ancheta. They followed our elders—the manongs—trailing their footsteps to places like Watsonville, Salinas, Delano, Isleton, Imperial Valley, Stockton—seeking out the stories written in the hearts of our people. And they found it in small rooms where the only thing they had to do was sit and eat a warm bowl of rice and fish with our elders. What else is there? Asks the poet Al Robles.

October is Filipino American History month. Our history in this country has been erased and silenced but our stories cannot, will not die. Some Filipinos want to forget our history in this country but it can’t be silenced, erased or washed away. I remember the kid that I was, pulling weeds, dirt covering my hands, arms and mind. I can’t get rid of that dirt, clean beautiful dirt of memory covering the pages yet not written.

© 2010 Tony Robles



By Tony Robles

Nelson was this big
Irish kid that lived
Up the street from
My grandma

He used to hang out
With this black kid
Named “D” who lived
Near him

Nelson’s hair was brown
And unkempt which
Made it all the more

He wore Ben Davis pants
And sometimes he’d walk
Down the street shirtless in
The sun, skin peeling from
His back

He walked with this
Swagger that said
The street was his
(And D’s until D moved)

Nelson hit high school
And got big and strong
And if you gave him a
Spotted robe you’d mistake
Him for Tarzan

Once I ran into him
On the bus and he told
Me of a drink he had
At a bar

It was a Zombie he
Said, made with
10 different liquors

He smiled and the skin
Peeled from his freckled
Nose and from his teeth

He pulled the
Cord and got
Off the bus

I watched him

He was something to see

We got out of
High school and most
Of us went to college
(Community College)

I got out of college,
Went here and there
And never saw Nelson

But the other day
This guy got on
The bus

He moved slowly
To the rear
And sat

He started talking
In a raspy voice
To no one in particular

I’m Irish, Swedish
On my Mother’s
Side he said

I looked at his eyes
And his puffy face and
The gray that played
On his temples

It was Nelson, a
45 year old man
looking about 60

He nodded to a few
Passengers getting
On, saying God bless or
Just hello

He pulled the
Cord, walked past
Me and got off
The bus

I watched him
Walk down the street
Like he owned it

It was something to see

© 2010 Tony Robles


By Tony Robles

“Our worst men lock up our best men”
–Charles Bukowski

It was my Goddamn Frisco sweatshirt. I didn’t even buy it. I found it on a banister, tried it on. It fit like my own skin. Maybe it was my own skin. I was riding my bike down Market Street on the way to meet a friend for coffee—a half block from my destination—the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), where my friend works. I think of Market Street and how many times I’ve walked its face, balanced myself on its spine. I see faces of all kinds—faces that have stories that come from places so deep that I am often saddened that most of those stories go untold.

I was on my bike in my city on my way to meet a friend. Between the both of us, we have a combined 87 years of residence in the city. I glided past houseless folks, landless folks, elders, Filipinos, yuppies, bikers, artists, office workers, recyclers etc. As I got closer to the PUC, I saw a group of 6 or 7 goofy looking folks in blue uniforms. They were gathered near the entrance of Trinity Plaza. I am a Children’s book author. In my book, “Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel”, Trinity Plaza was the inspiration for the “Makibaka Hotel”—the site where elders and youth come together to fight their eviction by a greedy landlord.

The 6 or 7 goofy looking folks were members of the San Francisco Police Department—all men and one female officer. There’s something about uniforms I’ve never liked. Perhaps it’s the starched quality or perhaps the dullness of it. I wore a blue uniform once while working at a fast food establishment, and I currently wear one in my present job as a security officer—guarding the property of a landowner—while, I myself, own no land (The uniform isn’t mine either). The uniforms aren’t fit for Bozo the Clown (which was one of the reasons why I was wearing the Frisco sweatshirt…I wanted something more flattering). The polyester pants are uncomfortable and my underwear always ends up in my ass. The cops look as if they have the same problem, although they obviously do their best to conceal it (I think). A uniform is a convenient thing to hide behind, much like a flag. The shirt I wear as a security officer is sky blue as opposed to the SFPD’s dark blue (blue, blue…my love is blue), making me look more like a meter maid or MUNI fare collector.

On this day I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the word “Frisco” emblazoned on it in red letters (Why not Frisco…I was born here). The cops looked at me cruising on my bike and ordered me to stop, saying: “You know you’re not supposed to be riding on the sidewalk”. I told the cop that I was less than half a block away from the PUC to meet a friend. The female officer asked to see my ID. I produced it. “Have you ever been arrested?” she asked. “No” “Are you on parole?” “No” Oh really, she said, as if surprised. She checked my ID with some faceless person over her radio. The male officer stood close by, to make sure I knew he was there. The ID check was swift, performed before I had the chance to bow, do the sign of the cross or slip into a compliant yoga position with my neck fully exposed (lucky me). Her official sounding radio communication was reminiscent of a Harrison Ford Movie (Without Harrison Ford).

It’s true–I’d never been arrested. I’d never gotten anything heavier than a parking ticket. I am a children’s book author and co-editor of POOR Magazine—a fact that doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but certainly doesn’t make me any worse either. But I know folks who have been arrested and incarcerated—some of the best folks I know. For some reason I get along with them—often times better than I get along with people who have not served time. We sit, talk, laugh and eat donuts while watching the world go by. I stood waiting for the cop to return my ID. A few yards away were 6 or 7 youth of color, mostly African descended, sweeping the streets and leveling dirt at the base of trees lining the sidewalk. The female officer returned my ID as if she was disappointed I hadn’t lied about not being on probation. I looked at her and her nightstick which was almost as big as she was. She looked like a typical American born Chinese girl from the Richmond District (I shouldn’t say that, I know…it’s profiling), that hotbed of resistance (Thank God for Eric Mar). I had a sense that it was her first taste of power—but I could be wrong. The male officer tried to be friendly, thanking me for my time in the same way a prospective employer does when he knows you don’t have shot in hell of getting the job. I took my ID and as I pushed my bike to the PUC one of the young street sweepers said, “Man, they ain’t got nothing better to do”. I nodded thinking that it was an injustice that these young people have to sweep streets for officers to walk on.

I watched the news report that said Johannes Mehserle wept on the stand during the trial for the murder of Oscar Grant. He thought he was reaching for his taser. I thought of way Oscar Grant was brutalized before the shot was fired–forced down face first, knees on his neck. He was just a young black man whose life wasn’t worth anything—that’s the message—broadcast on TV and all over the internet for the world to see. For young men of color, people of color—particularly black people—the blue uniform doesn’t mean truth and justice—it means death—namely theirs, especially if they speak out or resist being violated. I think of my grandfather who came here as an immigrant from the Philippines in the 20’s. The Filipinos were brutalized by the police in the cities. My grandfather was among them, handcuffed to a lamppost on Kearny Street near the Hall of Justice and, ironically, not far from the International Hotel–where our elders resisted eviction while mounted police forced their way through a human barricade 8 deep.

I was upset at being stopped by the cops like that. Their attitude is that they own you. My grandfather’s story, my story, my children’s story or anything I’ve written, in that moment, didn’t seem to matter—as well as the stories or lives of the street sweepers that are written in the streets. The arbitrary manner in which I was stopped, because of my sweatshirt and race, is indicative of the race and class profiling that is perpetrated upon communities of color in our lovely and wonderful city.

My experience is nothing compared to what happened to POOR Legal Scholar Marlon Crump—in his SRO hotel room when officers stormed in with guns drawn on the wrong person. To Edress Stelly, Oscar Grant and many others who have died or sustained serious injury at the hands of the police. I walk my city and look at the big buildings—designed to make you feel small and powerless—in much the same way law enforcement is designed. Who put those big buildings there to make us feel small? Who are these people that are here to “serve and protect”? What are they here to protect and who put them here? Who is profiling them? Who? And why do I have to respect them when they do not have an ounce of respect for me or my skin?

© 2010 Tony Robles

A Moment

A Moment

I feel my heart
slipping away like
a fish through a
pair of oily hands

i see the dolphin
leaping over
the moon

My father’s voice
is static from
a seashell

i see dragons
swallowed by
the manhole

(c) 2010 Tony Robles

Found this poem in the dumpster at work

I am a poet who yearns to dance on rooftops, to whisper delicate lines about joy and the
Blessings of human understanding

I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and bolt the door, but the typewriters doesn’t
Fade out the sound of blasting and muffled outrage
My own days bring me slaps on the face. Everyday I am deluged with reminders.
That this is not my land and this is my land

I do not believe in the war between races
But in this country
There is war