Great poem from Devorah Major

Manilatown’s poetry event this past weekend, “Rhymes and Rhythms” was food for the soul. I felt the spirit of my Uncle Al and Bill Sorro in the room as poets spoke about breaking down walls that keep us trapped, alienated from community. Devorah Major blew me away with the poem below…it speaks volumes about the city. It’s beautiful when the poet captures what you feel…and puts it into a song that feels like it was written for just you in mind. As a native of San Francisco, the poem illustrates how I feel when thinking of the city that has been home to my family for 4 generations.

City Scat
we come to this city

of concrete, brick

steel and toil

country people

knowing the earth

sea faring people

reading the tides

gambling people

holding jokers and spades

we come to this city

hard laughin’

weep sob wailin’

prayin’ celebratin’ people

bending and sweating

we come to

this hiss crack

slap snap

siren whirl


electric zip

and burn



bustling corners

banging our heads

against destiny

and crumbling

brick walls of confusion

we come to this city

that can cage us

enrage us

deny us

revile us

turn us

from friends and family

into prey and predator

we come to this city

this hip howl

she bop

da he bop

da we bop

bang clang

swinging city

and we name it ours

–devorah major

devorah major is the first North American African poet laureate of San Francisco. She is a novelist, poet, essayist and professor at the California College of Arts.


Pushcart Prize

I just learned that my short story, “In My Country”, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Mythium Lit Mag ( I received notification of this by Mythium’s editor Crystal Wilkinson. The official winners are to be announced in May of this year.

I am very surprised by this and am grateful for the nomination.

I must say however, that no story i could ever write could say as much or satisfy the spirit like a plate of food at my aunt Theresa’s house. The adobo, gumbo, pancit and ginger soup she makes says more about the heart of our family and our community than any story could capture. Her poems fill the belly and the mind much more than the stories i put down on paper.

That’s the truth

Brown Pride–A Letter to UFC Heavweight Champion Cain Velasquez

Brown Pride: A Letter to Cain Velasquez

Dear Brother Cain,

Congratulations on becoming the new UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Heavyweight Champion of the World. I didn’t get to watch you, to see you perform your artistry, to see you live the spirit warrior dance flowing from your heart and mind. I didn’t see the moment when it all came together, the moment that came and went like a flash—blows raining down from the heart of a drum, the pulse of our ancestral rituals—inspired by love and struggle and the spirits of our indigenous ancestors. No, I didn’t see it and I surely didn’t see the years, the countless hours of work you put into training and preparation, embracing your craft, sweating and sacrificing and letting go of fear, standing up and being who you are. I can only dream of the discipline, skill and determination it takes to compete in such a grueling sport. What a great day it is. It means something. “Cain Velasquez…heavyweight champion”. Those words keep echoing in my mind.

While you were in the octagon facing Brock Lesnar (who kept pronouncing your name VELAS-QWEZZ), I was at the home of POOR Magazine reportero Muteado Silencio. Muteado is an indigenous scholar, artist and poet with Prensa Pobre, POOR Magazine—an indigenous newsmaking circle that makes revolutionary media, that is poor people and indigenous people led. Muteado is a powerful voice resisting racism, border fascism and linguistic domination—always there when help is needed, always ready to speak up for migrant Raza and communities of color. It was Muteado’s birthday and friends and family gathered in his small home in Oakland. Cain, you would have loved the gathering. The music was alive with Cumbia, hip hop, salsa, rap—the rhythms of resistance alive, tearing down the walls of confinement with the movement of our bodies and minds. Muteado’s mother was so warm and gracious and giving, her journey of motherhood and struggle swimming across her brown skin. Bowls of chicken, pork and vegetables warmed us. I think one of our reporters, Bruce Allison, ate 6 bowls. Muteado’s mother is a tough lady, mother of 13 beautiful children—even tougher than you, Cain—no joke.

The house was hers and the ancestors are alive, their voices alive in her movement, in her hands, her eyes, her voice—in everything she prepares. I saw an interview you gave where you spoke about your parents and how their struggle inspired you to become a fighter. You spoke of your father crossing the desert 5 times and being sent back before making it across to this country for a better life. You went to school and wrestled for Arizona State, earning honors in that sport while achieving a degree in education. Tell me Cain, is Muteado’s mother like your mother?

Anyway, I wish I could have seen the fight but we didn’t have pay per view at Muteado’s house so we watched the Giants game instead. The Giants won! The room was alive—the Giants on TV, salsa in the speakers, pollo in our bellies and poetry on our lips. What more could we have wanted?

As the evening went on, I got a text message from my brother that read, “Cain beat Lesnar”. I began telling people about your victory. “What?” they asked, the music blaring from the speakers. “Cain Velasquez…he beat Lesnar…he won” I repeated. They didn’t hear it but those words were music and it blended with the salsa coming from the speakers. The whole neighborhood heard it.

Since the night of Muteado’s birthday, I’ve read about the fight and have watched interviews you have given—including one interview where the host asked you about your brown pride tattoo—saying that some people think the tattoo indicates affiliation with a gang. We at POOR Magazine think the tattoo is beautiful. Also beautiful is the way you’ve spoken of and given respect to your father’s struggle as a migrant Raza man—his strength is your strength.

Brother Cain, just want to let you know that when you beat Lesnar, it was us beating the landlord, slumlord, boss. It was the kid that I was, afraid of confrontation, being able to confront fear and put it on its ass. It was our elders long ago and in the present who fought and are fighting for decent housing. It was for the dreamers who dreamed of doing what you did, to be able to stand up and look fear in the eye.

I read once that when Joe Louis was heavyweight champion, after each of his victories, the people in Harlem used to go wild in the streets in celebration. When I think of your victory, I feel those spirits moving from Harlem across the country to Arizona and to Muteado’s house in Oakand. And from there it goes through the desert where your father walked, planting the seeds that would become Brown Pride.

(c) 2010

Get Rich

Get Rich

It was the last day of my security guard job. I had a stain in the collar of my blue shirt that refused to come out and the scent that a skunk shared with me during my nightly bike ride home 5 months ago still lingered on my fur (fake) lined security officer’s jacket. The post property I’d been paid to protect was the “Land O’ Lakes Apartment Complex. I’d been at the Lakes for a year and a half. I remembered the bike rides home at 1am. It was good exercise but it wore me down over time (The bus service in the area was cut leaving me no other choice but the bike). I recalled the near misses I’d had with animals on the way home. I nearly ran over a raccoon as I headed from Skyline towards Sloat. He froze and I swerved, almost hitting a pole. Another time, I almost hit an opossum. He, like the raccoon, froze. It was almost as if the opossum was daring me to run him over. Again, I swerved.

I’d been trying to get out of security since I got hired nearly 2 years ago. I sent out many resumes and got only a few responses. In the bad economy, people are selling themselves out in record numbers. I applied at non-profit organizations mostly and got a couple of responses but no job. In fact, I interviewed at one place with a white haired saintly man and a woman who looked like she’d dropped out of a convent. It was my second interview with this pair in 2 years, this time for an on-call employment counselor position for an organization serving folks with developmental disabilities. The interview was a repeat of the first. I thought I was a shoe-in. I had them laughing and pouring me cups of coffee. I left thinking it was in the bag. Before I walked out the door I went to the restroom, inadvertently walking over the janitor’s freshly mopped floor. He gave me a scowl and I thought to myself: you can kiss that job goodbye. I never got a call from the saintly white haired man or the convent drop out.

I met a lot of good guys at “Land O Lakes”. The common thread among them is that they are mostly men in their mid 50’s and have been security guards 15 years or more—lifers. I said: I ain’t gonna end up like them, I’m not gonna guard the hen house for the man for an extended period of time. Hell, the man’s lucky I’m even doing this. Then I thought about the fact that I’d been working as a security guard off and on for almost 20 years. Maybe I am a lifer too.

The job had its good points. It was a multi-layered quilt of multicultural private security goodness. There was Norman, the Samoan guard who was one of the best human beings I’d ever met. He was a big muscular guy with a big muscular smile who used to tell me stories about fishing at night back home in Samoa. His favorite thing to eat was king crab, which, when he said it, sounded like king crap. He directed the choir at his church and was taking classes to become a minister. He would bring leftovers from Sunday Service—ham, taro, chicken, noodles—never reciting scripture but sharing his food and his laughter and his smile—which told me more about him than anything else. Once he brought a tin of fancy cookies. I said, those are some white people cookies. He laughed and with a mouthful of cookies said, brown people can eat these cookies too. He went on to tell me about his uncle who was a minister: He is a bastard. (It sounded like he said bastard, but what he actually said was pastor). There was another guard who we called Shark, who used to guard nothing but the swimming pool, smiling at the girls. The was Billy, who everyone called ‘backwards’ because he got things backwards…such as pronouncing the word harmonica as marhonica…and so on. We’d all sit in the security guard shack talking about the job, about who was trying to sneak into the pool, which tenants played their music too loud or who was stealing recyclables from the garbage dumpsters etc. Those conversations were boring. It made me crave white people cookies and king crap (crab).

I decided to quit the security job. I’ve thrown off my security rope—which I never got a chance to hang myself with—and have traded it in for a new rope—with another security guard company paying 2 dollars an hour more.

My orientation with the new company was yesterday. I watched some training films on workplace safety and various forms of harassment. The films are so bad that they themselves qualify as harassment. The orientation manager informed me that my supervisor would be either Ted or Rich. I was a little tired and thought he’d said I was going to get rich. I sat in the training room in anticipation of getting rich. “I want to get rich” I repeated to myself over and over, taking sips of lukewarm coffee. The door finally opened, I was going to get rich I thought. The orientation manager smiled as a man followed him through the door. This is Ted, he said…smiling.

© Revolutionary Worker Scholar 2010

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