Al Robles

Post by Lily Ge

Filipino American activist Al Robles is commonly recognized for leading grassroots protests against the demolition of the International Hotel in San Francisco, a building that primarily housed elderly and lower-income manongs. In addition to organizing on the ground community protests, Robles uniquely turned to the medium of poetry as another form of activism. These two forms of activism that Robles engaged in were connected in the sense that he advocated for interracialism through both; he viewed interracial solidarity as imperative in building and sustaining an aware and inclusive community. Robles dedicated his life to preserving Filipino voices through his poetry and protests, with the goal of inspiring a united community to continue combatting against white supremacy.

The decision to destroy the International Hotel compelled Robles to take action. Born in the Fillmore district of San Francisco in 1930, Robles grew up in a diverse and bustling atmosphere he most remembers for its close-knit community. Growing up in a family-like neighborhood, Robles looked to the single individual as the foundation of what brings people together. The year 1968 brought with it the first of several plans to demolish the I-Hotel to better serve the agenda of corporate expansion. Although the battle of the I-Hotel was certainly a fight for housing rights, it “also became the place where a self-conscious identity as Filipinos in America was forged through a struggle for survival and dignity.”[1] The I-Hotel served as a living space as well as a community stronghold and place of coming together. Because of this, Robles saw the destruction of the I-Hotel as a tragedy that not only affected its tenants, but also a tragedy with effects that reverberated across the entire community.

Robles was one of the last people to leave the building, protesting the unwarranted evictions and police abuses until the very end. Although the hotel was demolished in 1979, Robles made it clear that this would not hamper his actions. Robles founded the group Manilatown Heritage Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of manongs in Manilatown. His organization sponsored the International Hotel Manilatown Center, a multi-purposeful space dedicated and committed to paying tribute to all those unjustly evicted from the original I-Hotel, and the larger Filipino community. In addition, Robles strongly believed that palpable social change was not enough. He turned to the creative outlet of poetry as a continuation of his physical activism.

Through his poetry, Robles documented the voices of Filipinos and Filipino Americans, as well as those of people from other marginalized communities. Robles’ poetry is based on personal stories that have been told to him. By extracting from these tales and impressions and creating art, Robles felt that he was spreading these historically silenced voices and thereby establishing a closer community. Children would be able to smell the rice cooking in Manilatown, a teenager could learn about their grandfather’s experience as a migrant worker, Filipinos could understand struggles faced by the Chinese. Robles constructed these poems for people to read about struggles familiar to them and to recognize and learn from the struggles of others. In his poem “Soon the White Snow Will Melt” Robles writes, “Soon the white snow will melt and underneath the black, brown, yellow, red earth will come to life.”[2] Robles’ support for interracial solidarity as the crucial backbone behind dismantling systematic racism is clear through this poem and in his other works.

Spending the bulk of his life in the Fillmore area of San Francisco, Al Robles was wholeheartedly ingrained in the community. Robles continued to listen to the histories and tales of manongs and weave them into those of other oppressed peoples up until his death in 2009. Robles rejected passivity and always strove towards greater social change, with the goal of maintaining and strengthening communities.

robles

Works Cited

[1] Estella Habal, “Filipino Americans in the Decade of the International Hotel,” in Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, ed. Chris Carlsson (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2011), 127.

[2] Darlene Rodrigues, “Al Robles,” in Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, ed. King-Kok Cheung (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 166.

[3] Robles, Al. Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Asian  American Studies Center, 1996.

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