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

Al Robles honored in the Fillmore

Press Release For Immediate Release
March 3, 2010 Contact: Tony Robles

Poet Al Robles Comes Home to FillmoreDocumentary on I-Hotel Activist and Filipino American poet Al Robles to be featured at The 28th Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film FestivalSan Francisco- Community members and Supervisor Eric Mar will honor poet/activist and Fillmore District native Al Robles on March 14th 2009, at 1230pm in San Francisco’s Fillmore Plaza on Fillmore and O’Farrell Streets with music, poetry and remembrance. Al Robles is recognized as a son of the Fillmore and is memorialized with a plaque in the Fillmore Plaza. The life of Al Robles is featured in Filmmaker Curtis Choy’s film, “Manilatown is in the Heart—Time Travel with Al Robles”, a poetic documentary featured at the Asian American Film Festival Sundance Kabuki Cinema March 14th at 2pm and 15th at 7pm. The documentary is the second film project between Director Choy and Robles, the first being “The Fall of the I-Hotel” which featured Robles as the film narrator. The film follows Robles growing up with the jazz of his youth in the Fillmore with zen monks, jazz musicians and youngbloods, to his life as an activist and poet. Robles chronicled the lives of Filipino immigrants, weaving their histories into his poetic and community work, which included the fight against the eviction of elders from the International Hotel—a struggle that gave Manilatown worldwide attention. “Al Robles was the poet laureate – the heart & spirit – of the Manilatown & Filipino communities. San Francisco will never forget his tireless work supporting seniors and housing justice, fighting displacement & gentrification and nurturing youth in our communities”, said S.F. District Supervisor Eric Mar. Robles passed away in May of 2009 but left a legacy of activism and community involvement that has inspired elders and youth alike. In the words of hip hop poet Jeremy Bautista, “Much love and respect…From the Hip Hop Generation to Uncle Al, our hero!”

For more information on the Asian American Film Festival: http://festival.asianamericanmedia.org/. For information on Curtis Choy’s films: http://www.chonkmoonhunter.com. For information on Al Robles: http://www.manongalrobles.org

A soul food restaurant without soul (black people)

A couple months back i went to a soul food restaurant in SF with a good friend. We were seated and scanned the menu. We sat waiting for our ribs and fried chicken. We looked at the pictures on the wall, pictures that reflected the city that we lived in. I looked at the people in the restaurant. I looked at the servers. There was something strange. Then it hit me–there were no black people in the restaurant (except for one, sitting with an Asian girl eating). But this soul food restaurant had no black servers or cooks. It was the strangest thing, almost like going into a Chinese restaurant and not seeing any Chinese people. I brought this to the attention of our server, a pleasant Asian girl. She didn’t really notice, being busy serving macaroni and cheese etc. To me it’s a damn shame, the dwindling numbers of African Americans in San Francisco, the mass exodus. It is said that the black population is approximately the same number as the seating at Candlestick Park. A soul food restaurant without black people. The food was good but it was missing something. Maybe it was soul.