Wisdom from my co-worker Charlie

“Latin people don’t old fast”
–Charlie S. on why his 76 year old mother looks so good


Ambi–the color of flawless (or thawless) skin

I was watching downhill skiing last night and the network cut to a commercial. It was for makeup aimed specifically at women of color. That was the first time i’d seen a commercial for such a product. And to think i had to wait for that colorful spectacle known as the winter olympics to see it.

A message from Jeremy Bautista on Uncle Al

“eating greasy chinese food together…Uncle Al always grabbing my arm whenever he spoke to me….he came out to my last event when I was living in Oakland (May 2008) but he was so tired that he fell asleep…I’ll never forget the man who rapped with 10,000 carabao’s. I pray that he’s chilling with all the Manong’s on Ifugao mountain….Much love and respect….From the Hip Hop Generation to Uncle Al, our hero!!!!”

Jeremy Bautista–http://www.artsopolis.com/profile/detail/502

Poem: “The Letter”

The Letter
By Tony Robles

Armando and I were students
Studying radio and television
But we both wanted to
Radio announcers

We spun records on our school
Radio station making
Rookie mistakes such as
Playing records at the
Wrong speeds

Our department head
Looked at us and said,
Let me guess…you both want
To be DJ’s in San Francisco

How’d you
Know, we responded

The department head was,
Of course, right

He’d seen a million guys like
Us with a million dreams
Spinning on a turntable, mostly
At the wrong speeds

Armando and I had
Similar last names, his
Was Robledo and mine
Was Robles

We went to a radio
Station one day to apply
For an internship in the
Promotions department

The job involved giving away
Stuffed animals and free
Tickets to wrestling matches

We filled out the application
Which reminded me of the one
I’d filled out for a dishwashing
Job in a trendy part of town

I hope we get
It, said Armando

Me too,
I said

We handed the application
To the girl at the desk who
Chewed and popped her
Gum at normal speed

2 weeks later I
got a letter in
the mail

It said,
Mr. Robledo…thank you
For your interest

They had sent me
Armando’s rejection

Armando had received
Mine on the
Same day

We tossed the
Letters in the

A year or so later I
Got a job at a radio
Station as an announcer in a
Not-so trendy city where the
Cows outnumbered the humans

Armando changed his
Mind and his major,
Deciding to become a

The station that sent
Us the wrong letters
Changed its format
And name

But Armando
Still had

© 2010 Tony Robles

Happy Birthday Uncle Al!

February 16th is Uncle Al’s Birthday. Uncle Al was a person who made things happen. But he did it in such a way, in such subtle ways, that before you knew it, what needed to be done was done, what needed to be said was said and what was needed most was provided for.

Uncle Al wasn’t linear in his thinking or in his ways. He could take you around in circles, weaving tales around you until you became a poem, a ritual, a fish swimming, or the twisting, knotted roots coming up from the ground. He would leave you with nothing but a loincloth for the world to see on the corner of Jackson and Kearny Streets. I can still hear the car horns honking as they pass by, people behind the wheel wondering, “Who’s that crazy guy talking about rituals and all that crazy stuff?”

“I am your long lost son” Uncle Al would say when talking about his relationship to the manongs, the elderly Pilipino men, each of whom was a piece that made up the puzzle that was Uncle Al’s life.

I grew up watching him–long hair, dark rimmed glasses, sandals. I remember the first time i’d seen him read poetry. It was 1975 or so. I was unaware of poetry, the I-Hotel; unaware of everything except what my dad told me: “All you know how to do is eat, sleep and shit”. We had a pet bird in a cage that would repeat those words until i was convinced. So, with my eating, sleeping and shitting ways, i watched Uncle Al read poems at Civic Center during a citywide arts festival organized by my cousin’s grandfather Elio Benvenuto.

I remember Uncle Al reading a poem about white snow but what i remembered even more was his girlfriend at the time, who also read. She had this one line about someone wearing “Cakey Underwear”. I remember thinking, “Poetry is pretty Goddamn bizarre”. He described his girlfriend as an “ass kicking lady”. 20 years later she was the driving force behind the publication of his collection of poems, “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”.

In 1975 i was involved in a car accident while working as a paperboy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was struck by a Volkswagen bus while crossing California street while collecting from subscribers. The side mirror hit me on the head, leaving a golf ball sized lump. I was laid up for the summer with a fractured leg. I was hobbling on my crutches when i ran into Uncle Al on Clement Street. “Hey Tony, i got something for you”, he said.

He reached into a bag and pulled out a sarape. It looked like the one Clint Eastwood wore in “High Plains Drifter”. “Keep it away from the moths”, he said, “They dig it”. I slipped the sarape on and headed down the street in my crutches with Uncle Al.

We ate chow mein at a restaurant close by. As i was being weaned off crutches, i was sent to live with my mother in Orlando, Florida. It was a private school–red, white and blue uniforms; pledge of alliegance to the American and Christian flags. Someone had put a book in my suitcase when i had left. In it was the poem Uncle Al had written called, “Soon the White Snow will Melt”. I’d sit in my room and read it over and over. I didn’t understand it. All i understood was that i was in Florida where the temperatures got to 100 with an equal amount of humidity–and no snow. I was the only non-white kid in the school. What did the poem have to do with me? What was my crazy Uncle talking about when he wrote:

Soon the White
snow will melt

And the black, brown
yellow, red earth

Will come to

Time went by and i learned things along the way. I learned a lot by watching Uncle Al. He was very geniuine, very real and very kind. He gave of himself and never asked for anything in return.

On his birthday, i think about the everyday struggle of people’s to survive, locally and globally. He would want us to remember the manongs and the stories of the past. He would see the birth of the manongs in the brown faces of the children. He would want us to taste the poems of the manongs in our daily rituals of serving our communites, being born, being alive like a river moving through Manilatown.