It’s cactus season. Like in 2021, I feel somewhat prickly and withdrawn this summer, with more energy directed towards absorbing information than wielding it. But unlike last year, I’ll try to be open. Most of the journaling I’m currently doing is to retain and process new (to me) information from my studies, including an online class I’m taking on Asian American history. As I write, I find myself circling the idea of location. I don’t mean geography or the settings of historic events, backdrops to names and dates. I mean consciously locating myself in history and heritage, in the present, for the first time.
Rewind to the beginning of July. I woke up one morning thinking about bangus. Not “bang-gus”; more like “buhng-OOS”. This is a Filipino milkfish, cooked a variety of ways (my favorite is smoked), served whole and seasoned with vinegar. This craving surprised me, because I did not grow up eating this dish. I was too much of a grumpy, picky child for it. There’s a whole tangle of reasons for this. As someone born in the Philippines but raised in the U.S. since the age of two, I have no memory of my country of birth. Growing up, there were many aspects of my family’s history and culture that I was overwhelmed by, didn’t fully understand. I turned away not only from the food, but also Tagalog, the language. This, of course, only widened the gap that I was minding all too well while trying to fit in in America as an American kid. My prickliness encouraged—or stemmed from—both the good-natured teasing and not-so-good-natured criticism and dismissal from adults. Which came first, the rejection or feeling rejected? But I’m not trying to place blame here. The nods, knowing looks and fire emojis exchanged between myself and my classmates (who all share an Asian diaspora experience) during Zoom discussions tell me that this a common symptom of being caught between cultures. Immigrant kids get it. We have to place ourselves.
Only as an adult am I starting to piece together a connection to those islands, to seek out the specific taste of that fish: not because anyone is pressuring me to eat it, but because I want to. And it’s strange, but simply acknowledging that desire has had a weird, magnetized pull on the things crossing my path. At roughly the same time as the bangus craving and the history class starting, I reached a point in my research for a freelance illustration project that brought me to the poetry and life of Al Robles.
Al Robles was a Filipino American poet and activist, the type for whom there was no difference between those roles. He lived in the Fillmore District of San Francisco nearly all his life, and both his art and community work centered on the manongs, the elderly Filipinos who lived in Manilatown and Chinatown’s single-occupancy hotel rooms in the 1960s and 70s. Robles would visit these residents, sometimes also delivering food or helping them get to doctors’ appointments, and listen to their stories. For this was the generation of Filipinos who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s. Many had landed on the West Coast and ended up working as part of the multi-ethnic labor force that, under exploitative and abusive conditions, transformed the Central Valley of California into the agricultural center it is today. The manongs had also been boxers, musicians, veterans, troublemakers, artists, cooks, pool players, regulars at the cinemas and dance halls. When they dressed too sharply, assimilated too well with some white Americans and became fluent enough to demand fair treatment, they were seen as a threat and faced physical retribution and legislative violence. The way these survivors endured, formed communities, were broken apart again, and reformed themselves anew is documented and mythologized in Al Robles’s poetry. At the same time, Robles was part of a decade-long battle to defend the rights of these elders against forces of gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area—a fight which was eventually lost. In 1979, all residents of the I-Hotel were evicted and the building was demolished. It would be over 25 years before a new structure, one which includes affordable housing for the elderly and a community center, would take its place. By that time, most of the manongs had either dispersed or passed away.
When I picture these men as they might have been in their youth, doing backbreaking work in the fields for 1-2 dollars a day, maybe setting aside a certain amount to save or to send back home to family, then blowing the rest on custom-tailored pinstripe suits and movie tickets and live jazz at the club (ten cents per dance), slicking back their hair like the Hollywood stars, maybe thinking “if anyone has a problem with it, fight me”, I think: that’s so American. I have that thought, even as I remember that the Philippines was granted independence on July 4th, 1946…from the United States. How do I process this tangle of Filipino immigrant poetry and history, oppression and joy? Right now, I reach for the words of others because mine are still halting. Robles’s are assured:
“We see only as far as our expression in life. If we cannot see the face across the street on the other side, we will breed our own isolation…it seems to me [the purpose of Asian American poets] is not only to listen to the stories of the old but to sit still and have a bowl of rice and fish with them. You are in the company of your people. You are in the company of sacred lives, who have lived a thousand times, filling every surging river. So we must always be in their company, to learn what it means to suffer. And the lesson they teach us is clear: ‘we must always be in the company of the poor; the oppressed, the lonely—to bring us closer to the reality of ourselves’…”
It is difficult for me to write about this journey, probably because I am still on it. I suppose with all this I only mean to suggest that there are many starting points and paths to self-location, and while none of them are easy as dropping a pin on a map, some of them may be as doable as picking up a book or take-out from Barrio Fiesta. It’s only a suggestion. My education and training tell me that this is where the conclusion goes, but I don’t have any ribbon of wisdom to wrap this up with, not yet. What I do have is curiosity and hunger and paper and pen. It’s a start.
Text and photos by: A.C. Esguerra
Where to find A.C. : instagram @blueludebar
Read other stories by A.C. : Here
- Manilatown Is In The Heart - a 2008 documentary directed by Curtis Choy, about Al Robles and the manongs of San Francisco’s Manilatown and Chinatown. Finalist for the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
- Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark - Al Robles’s collection of poetry.
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