Something to Aim For: RIP Al Robles, Filipino American Manong
If you’re a Torontonian, you probably have no idea who Al Robles is. Neither should you, living a whole landmass, a few time zones and a country away from where he was based – California’s Bay Area – you’d have no way or obvious reason for knowing who he is, nor that he passed away the other day.
Poet, activist, community leader, lobbyist, historian and urban saint — he pretty much did it all for his Filipino Community in San Francisco (and beyond) and was even instrumental in establishing ‘Manilatown’ there. I had the opportunity to meet Al Robles years ago and got his book “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”. It remains a major point of inspiration for me.
But how is this relevant?
As people involved in our own Filipino Community here in Toronto, its easy to forget how ‘young’ we are in the grand scheme, compared to Filipino Communities in California, Seattle or Virginia Beach. Most of our parents were the first Filipinos to arrive here and we’re the first group of 2nd generation immigrants born here — and we’re growing up. Most of this has happened in the last 30-odd years — not that long ago. Most of the history of Filipinos in Toronto still has yet to be written. (and how are we recording it? are we? hmmm…)
As community-focused individuals, we often wonder WHY we do what we do and where its all leading to. Why do we put in so much time and what are the results we’re aiming for? And are people listening? What’s it all for and is it worth the valuable time?
At times, its not easy to stay the course. Life has challenges – work, friends and family rightfully claim most of our time. As someone who’s ‘been here’, I’ve said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to countless well-meaning folks in the revolving door that is this community work and the truth is, I’ve never been able to give anyone a good reason to stick around — and so they’ve moved on… to other pursuits, other interests and proirities. To focus on their careers and their lives – and rightfully so. Even more truthfully, I’m not even sure of the reasons why I’ve stuck around for as long as I have.
Perhaps the answer to the question ‘what’s in it for me?’ lies in looking beyond the boundaries of the GTA and even Canada (Vancouver is an ‘older’ Filipino community than Toronto, didn’t you know).
When you hear Al Robles perform his poetry (like in the video above), one of the first things you’ll notice is that he’s got no Filipino accent. He’s elderly, but he doesn’t sound like your Dad — he sounds like you probably will when you grow to be that age. That’s because like you, he grew up on this side of the ocean in a big North American city that didn’t always seem like ‘home’. The things that mattered to him are probably similar to the things that matter to you now. Looking at someone like that should be a look into our own future as community folk.
I’m sure most of you had no idea who Al Robles was before reading this post. Maybe in learning about Manilatown, you might see what our Toronto Filipino Community could look like in a few years when it is fostered and cared for by committed people like Al Robles.
Just as importantly, in learning about someone like Al Robles, you might see what your own legacy could look like as a Filipino Canadian poet, historian, activist — not to mention leader and mentor – if you ‘stick around’ and try and finesse our own ‘community’.
So… what kind of legacy will you leave behind?