Tag Archives: Al Robles

5/19/11 Janice Mirikitani




Janice Mirikitani is recognized as a visionary, community activist, leader, poet, and editor. She’s the founding president of the Glide Foundation, and has developed programs that empower San Francisco’s poor and marginalized communities to make meaningful changes in their lives.

She was named San Francisco Poet Laureate in 2000 and has authored four books of poetry, including Love Works (San Francisco Poet Laureate Series), which is a premium for tonight’s show, and edited nine anthologies. She also served as a commissioner at the San Francisco Arts Commission.

In tonight’s interview, Mirikitani talks intimately about the development of her social consciousness, the role writing and story telling play in personal empowerment, and her experience as a survivor of incest.

Premiums
Premiums to people who donate to our show between 7 and 8 p.m. tonight include Love Works by Janice Mirikitani, tickets to catch Karsh Kale at Yoshi’s, and tickets to see 13 Assassins, an action film set at the end of Japan’s feudal era.

Community Calendar
First Voice Media, the apprenticeship program that many of us at Apex Express have gone through, is accepting applications to their intensive training program. The deadline for applications is June 10.

On Saturday, May 21, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California will be cleaning up the Japanese cemetery in Colma from 11-1 p.m. The 3-acre cemetery is the final resting place for more than 5,000 people. Established with a grant from the Meiji Emperor of Japan in 1901, the Japanese Benevolent Society of California provides “for the relief of sick, disabled or destitute persons of the Japanese race” in California and “a suitable burial ground for deceased Japanese.”  A light lunch will be served, so please RSVP to (415) 567-5505.

Also on Saturday, the Asian Art Museum participates in the Asian Heritage Street Fair. Events begin at 10 a.m. and the admission will be free all day. Highlights include a screening of features short films and music videos by local filmmakers, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and public art created on the front steps of the Asian by last week’s featured Leader in our Community, Nancy Hom.

Later that evening from 5 to 8 p.m., catch Eth-Noh-Tec’s Salon! You’re On! in Japantown at the Nihonmachi Terrace at 1615 Sutter Street. There will be an Asian American artisan market place, performances, and a reading by Chinese and Tibetan American writers.

Internationally renowed musicians June Kuramoto and Kimo Cornwell of the iconic jazz group Hiroshima and taiko master Kenny Endo will headline the entertainment at the 62nd annual Satsuki Bazaar and Arts Festival on the weekend of May 21-22 in Berkeley.

On Wednesday, May 25, Oakland Asian Cultural Center invites you to their spring fundraiser. From 6 to 10 p.m., enjoy performances by Asian Pacific Islander artists, dinner catered by a local business, and hear from journalist and historian Bill Wong and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. Tickets are $65.

Poetry in the Kitchen and Heritage Month

By Gina Hotta

Stories were cooked up and poetry was shared in OACC’s kitchen. Youths and young adults put their pens to paper on the large steel prep table. Garlic and soy, the sharp smell of vinegar and fish sauce, lemon grass and the smoothing blanket of coconut milk, the tastes and smells of Iu Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Samoan lives co-mingled together. It was May 2000 and people were prepping for the Heritage Month Showcase at OACC. And swirling around it all, you’d see poet-trickster Al Robles leading “Poetry In the Kitchen” giving gentle guidance by Talking Story where cooking and sharing meals loosened tongues and the unlocked the creative mind. Co-teacher Penina Taesali would cajole semi-precious pieces of word-art from youths like Richard who would conjure up images of Cambodia on tree-staved streets of East Oakland. The Hipster, Fil-Am Wordster, Poetry-in-the-Kitchen teacher Al Robles has passed on. But his spirit is still alive in May where poets, cooks, drummers and dancers again put their food, words and stories on-stage for Asian Pacific Heritage Month at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Talk Story–the idea of sharing story and food–is the Hawaiian Way, was Al Robles’ way, is something that tries to find its home at OACC. Out of the always morphing “South Asian-Asian-Filipino-Pacific Islanders”, out of competing identities, communities and classes, some time is given over for youths, artists, their families and friends to sit together, eat together and shine on-stage in the auditorium. And this happens in some way each May, during Asian Pacific Heritage Month at the Center.

In May 2000, it was the metal and brass percussion rhythms and the dance of princesses and warriors of the Southern Philippines performed by students of Danny Kalanduyan’s kulintang class. A 70 foot dragon wearing tennis shoes looped and swirled across the auditorium floor carried by students of Corey Chan. Students of Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) gave a reading of their written works that came out of Poetry in the Kitchen. In 2009, AYPAL once again performs for May’s Heritage Month. Also on-stage is the Korean dance-drumming of Kyoungil Ong, the Sahiyar Dance Company, DowneFx and performances by Jay Loyola. There’s a women writers showcase night, Mosque in Morgantown is on-screen, arts and crafts-making and more.

Back in 2000, with coconut in one hand and cleaver in the other, Al Robles would whack the nut just so, opening it with a crack. Around him in the kitchen, students wrote stories of mothers and fathers at work all day (and night), where language and food is a tie to an old home left behind. Taro was baked in OACC’s ovens while mango, papaya and pineapple were carved and plated for the audience of families and friends. In May 2000, students and artists shared and served food for OACC’s Heritage Month Showcase. And each May, in different ways, they’ll do so again.

(Apex Express is a media sponsor of OACC’s Heritage Month.)

Music In A Movement: a prelude

By Gina Hotta

The cassette is on and the lights burn late into the evening hours on campus. Music is a constant backdrop to all the activity. Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, War. San Francisco’s Latin sounds of Santana and Malo are favorites as is Azteca’s “Love Not Then”. The song is written by Flip Nunez, a Filipino American pianist out of Stockton, California who plays in Azteca along with another Filipino keyboardist George Muribus. The East Bay’s own Tower of Power blasts out “You’re Still a Young Man” that gets the guys out on the dance floor every time. These are sounds that resonate well among Asian and Filipino students in the 1970’s. Many of who grew up only several blocks away from – and many times in – Latino and African American neighborhoods. In rooms designated for Asian and Filipino American student organizations at the University of California at Berkeley, activists meet, plan, and silk-screen posters for an up-coming dance – a benefit for the International Hotel.

On the wall is a poster of a Hotel tenant. Drawn with great care, the lines around the eyes of the Manong – a term of respect for Filipino elders – show dignity and warmth rather than the years of hard work in the fields and factories of America. In the background is the International Hotel, also known as the I-Hotel. Its ground floor also houses a hive of political and cultural activity with organizations like Kearny Street Workshop. Musicians from Kearny Street experiment with jazz and the musical expression of Asian America, artists generate posters that hang on the walls of the Asian American organizers. Many students are part of serve-the-people programs that operate out of the basement of the I-Hotel. Asian American Community Center and The Chinese Progressive Association serve as a bridge between campus and community. Student presence at the I-Hotel is strong.

Flyers churn out of the students’ old ditto machine, its blue ink smudging and blurring letters. Papers get stuck in it every few sheets. But it’s the meeting to determine the flyers’ content that takes the longest time. “Why support the International Hotel tenants?” was the one question that needs to be answered in a clear, concise way. And what, if any, slogans should appear on the silk-screened posters for the benefit dance? “Stop racism at home and abroad”, “Save the I-Hotel”, “Support the working class and its’ struggles”, are put out to the gathering. The talk twists and turns along. “We want simple slogans to bring in as many kinds of people as possible.” “Like immigrant youths who’re dropping out by the dozens from high school and drawn to the streets.” “Did you hear about another shooting in Chinatown the other night? Now the police are targeting the youths again.” “The war in Vietnam is a racist war. The reasons for shooting people over there is not too different from why our people get shot here.” The riff between these views and the forces they represent will grow and ebb with the tide of political differences. But there’s no dispute over the music; there’s no doubt about what power it has over people.

It’s still a long night ahead. The students slowly apply the paint and push it through the silk screen. First comes the black paint, then the red, then the yellow and so forth as each layer of builds upon the next until the form is clear and the outlines are filled in. Time is needed to dry the paint between each application of color. Each poster goes through the same pain-staking process. And each poster is hung-up to dry, finding a small space in an already cluttered room.

It’s the 1970s and sons and daughters of servants and service workers have stood up; have taken the first steps outside the doors of segregation and are breaking down others. It’s a time when the war in Vietnam brings Asian faces to the TV screen. Women weep in front of US soldiers holding guns pointed at them. The dead lay about the village and rice fields and their bodies are bloodied. But the screens also show Asian men and women holding their own against the strongest army in the world. Throughout Asia, the people are standing up.

Al Robles is a poet and knows about the power of the arts and the role it plays in the highly charged politics surrounding the I-Hotel. In his written works are the rhythms of village life in the Philippines, of village sons who came to toil in the fields and factories of America, some of whom now live in the Hotel. Robles now helps these residents and elders in the Filipino American community. Just up the street from the I-Hotel is North Beach, home to the Beat Generation, a scene that Robles knew well. Now there’s a new generation, one that has grown out of homes where English is a second language, where hope is a steady low-wage job, where even a small patch of apartment space in a poor neighborhood is better than where you came from. And all the sights and sounds that flow from this young generation must be elevated beyond these basics. That’s the trick of it all. And so Robles is a founder of Kearny Street Workshop, home to many of the artists and visionaries of a new generation of Asians in American. But Kearny Street Workshop is in the I-Hotel. And soon its fate will be decided along with the hotel tenants.

Dressed for the chill of a San Francisco evening, people are kept warm by their allies pressed around them. Evictions are eminent. Black, White, Latino, and Native American – the whole spectrum of the San Francisco Bay Area’s rich community mix comes out each time there’s a call to link arms and stand in front of the International Hotel. But it is the Asian American contingents that are the most prominent. It is the force of their collective history in America that’s alive night after night, keeping the fires burning for the crowd of supporters. “Makibaka Huwag Matakot”, “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win”, “United Together, We’ll Never Be Defeated”, “No Evictions, We Won’t Move”. Their chants and calls for courage surge through the thousands lining Kearny Street on the edge of Chinatown in what was once a thriving Manilatown.

It maybe the last chance these mostly young Asian Americans have to give thanks to their elders. These men and women worked too hard in the fields and factories of America to be cast out into the streets. Not this time, and surely not without a fight. The International Hotel hasn’t seen half this much commotion since these elderly tenants – mostly Filipino men– were young. In those days, cafes and residential hotels provided comfort and affordable life-styles to Filipino workers who gathered in Manilatown. The fruit that needed to be picked and the produce that needed packing sweated away your strength in the agricultural valleys and fields running up and down the length of California, Oregon and Washington. The dime-a-dance women at clubs provided a little companionship. But marriage to white women was forbidden. That was the law in many states. Try and change it, and you could likely face a lynch mob. Back then US immigration laws prevented further immigration from the Philippines, as well as from India and Asia.

Many of the immigrant men had grown old alone, their last days in single residential occupancy hotels like the I-Hotel. But friends and, for a lucky few, some family members surround you. It was easy to go out, get some Filipino food or eat at the numerous restaurants across the street in Chinatown. You could spend time catching up with friends and talking about the latest concern – what might happen to you now that the hotel was to be sold. Rents were higher than ever as San Francisco implemented redevelopment plans to turn the city into a major American financial and tourist center. Supporters of the I-Hotel residents had put forth plans to retain the hotel for affordable housing and as a center of Filipino cultural activity. But after several years, negotiations with the hotel owner and the city finally broke down. In that same period, tenant supporters were developing plans to face the possibility of a forced eviction. Now it was time to put these plans into place.

On the UC Berkeley campus, there needs to be over 1000 people in Pauley Ballroom for the benefit to break even. And it’s the music – bottom line – that can make that happen. Money from the dance will help pay for repairs at the Hotel, help produce the anti-eviction rallies and pay for legal fees. The only question about the music comes down to budget and which band to hire. The group needs to be live, needs to be tight and needs to be one of the many Asian American groups that cover the soul and R’n’B sounds that can bring out a crowd to dance.

In the past, Hiroshima would be affordable. But it’s the first band to make a successful leap from the community of their origins onto the national music charts. And now their fee is too steep for the student run dances. But they’d be great. June Kuramoto’s koto has a central role in saxophonist Dan Kuramoto’s original compositions. Johnny Mori’s taiko drumbeat gives Hiroshima their drive. The group’s Japanese instrumentation hasn’t been buried away by the sting of the internment years when all things Japanese were suspect. Now these instruments are a pivot point for the band. They stand front and center. Hiroshima is a sound out of LA and the music of the third generation of Japanese in America, children of America’s concentration camps.

San Francisco Taiko Dojo is taking the stage. The group is a key part of any festival in Japantown. The powerful roll of their drums signifies grand beginnings and dramatic endings. Japanese folk drums only found a foothold in the 1970’s among Japanese Americans who were starved for the loud boisterous feel that taiko brings. The drums proudly proclaim themselves without fear, without self-consciousness – so unlike the feelings that many Japanese Americans had during the anti-Japanese hysteria after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The internment of Japanese Americans during the war by the US government was the first large-scale eviction from San Francisco’s Japantown. The second mass eviction was being accomplished by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Corporations working with the City of San Francisco planned to make Japantown, or Nihonmachi, a centerpiece for the city’s tourist industry. It dovetailed nicely with the concept of using the city’s historic Asian American neighborhoods as a tourist attraction and as a tie to Asian business interests abroad. Squeezing out the mainly working-class Asian American residents of these local communities was the only slight catch.

The old Victorian building on Sutter Street is home to Nobiru-kai, a Japanese immigrant self-help organization; two families; and an organization of young Asian American artists called JAM. It’s also home to Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction or CANE. Now called Japanese Community Progressive Alliance, or JCPA, its members plan for a big outreach push during the up-coming Nihonmachi Street Festival. There’s also a good chance that decent money will be made by selling food. Preparations are made for a booth to raise funds to help the anti-eviction struggle. The many festivals in Japantown bring thousands of people into the community.

During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Japantown, Seiichi Tanaka stands on the portable shrine high above the cheering crowd. The O-mikoshi is carried on shoulders of the shrine’s supporters during Japanese festivities. Here in San Francisco, Tanaka shouts encouragement to the shrine bearers who answer back. The chant continues along the whole parade route. It’s a sound and a feel much like the way celebrations happen in Japan. Seiichi Tanaka grew up hearing taiko in Japan. It was a sound he missed during his first years in the US. One day he would take on the mantel of Grand Master, a creator of an American style of playing taiko. Tanaka would become Sensei, or teacher, of San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Under his guidance many Japanese Americans would learn to play traditional drums, an art that was almost lost in the US.

But, participating in the Cherry Blossom Festival was always an up-for-discussion topic by members of JCPA. It was controversial to participate in a Festival funded by the very corporate forces that pushed so many original inhabitants out of Japantown. The discussion about whether to participate continued. There were so many other things to do. Evictions at the apartment up on Sutter Street could happen any day now. And, at the International Hotel, the situation was dire. Their I-Hotel allies might call for support at a moment’s notice.

At Berkeley, a member of the student Entertainment Committee makes a call and one of the local bands gets booked. The mostly Asian band members are from the San Francisco Chinatown area. Some of the musicians are UC students themselves like Carey Huang who majors in music. Most of the bands consist of drums, trumpet, saxophone, keyboard, guitar, bass and vocalists. It’s a lot of people to pay. But sometimes it’s simply for the love of playing that Carey and his band-mate Jeff Chan play a gig. After all, for Jeff, music was a way that saved him from the streets. In San Francisco Chinatown in the ‘70s there is a lot of temptation to make fast money – more money in a day than too many parents make in a week of ten to twelve hour-a-day jobs. As parents are out working, the children gather in playgrounds. Older youths hang in out in cafes and pools halls like the young people called the Lee Ways.

For youths like the Lee Ways there was always the strong pull of making easy money or following the hard grinding work road their immigrant parents were toiling on. But, there was a third way and it found inspirations across the Bay. In Oakland California, The Black Panthers had begun serve-the-people programs within the context of revolutionary change. Now, youths from Chinatown were going to college, becoming organizers and forming social justice organizations as well as social service programs.

A vital force at the I-Hotel is the anti-Marcos constituency. Their members are key I-Hotel organizers as well as advance democracy in the Philippines. One activist jokingly refers to the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco as “everyone’s favorite meeting place”. On a regular basis, protesters march against Marcos’ military dictatorship and martial law on the Consulate’s front doorsteps. And in the Philippines, martial law is especially harsh in the south.

Those were tough times, especially if you were Muslim remembers Danongan Kalanduyan who comes from the Southern Philippines. His family members are skilled musicians in the performance of the kulintang ensemble. Made up of pitched gongs, the kulintang ensemble is associated with pre-colonial Filipino culture and is still performed on the islands that make up the southern Philippines. For hundreds of years, attempts at colonization by Spain, Japan and the US had failed in the primarily Muslim and indigenous strongholds of the south. On islands like Mindanao the military under Marcos attempted to gain control over the rich resources. Resistance from the Muslim peoples
in the 1970s grew stronger. Armed conflict and human rights abuses erupted. Kalanduyan is of the Magindanao people who come from the island of Mindanao. It was during this time of strife that an opportunity opened up for Kalanduyan that he couldn’t ignore.

The invitation came from the University of Washington in Seattle to teach kulintang. Kalanduyan joined up with another kulintang master Dr. Usopay Cardar who was a teacher in the university’s music department. Here they found a welcome reception among sons and daughters of Filipino immigrants in the US. For young Filipino Americans, kulintang music gave them a tie to an ancient tradition, one that represents resistance to colonialism and the fight for self-determination.

It is August 4, 1977. On Kearny Street, young Asians dressed in army jackets and jeans, and folks of every color gather on the streets surrounding the I-Hotel. The “Red Alert” was sounding. From the organizing committees of the I-Hotel and from the residents themselves, word spreads that the eviction could be tonight. Once again, it is time to go to the hotel, link arms and await word from the leadership of the various constituent groups that form the core of the Hotel’s supporters.

The evening grows dark. Riders on horseback line up to face the chanting crowd. Rows and rows of men and women stand with arms linked together backed all the way up to the wall. It’s evening now. The TAC squad has set-up floodlights and the stage is set for what’s to come. Police in helmets flash into sharp relief when the lights hit them just right. The riders and their horses pace back and forth. The electrified crowd surges forward and back, roiling like waves before an approaching storm. Thousands stand, they will fight without weapons to protect the International Hotel. They face the riot police and prepare themselves for a long night.

Inside the International Hotel, Al Robles hears the crowd outside as he walks the halls going from room to room to check on the tenants. He knocks on the door of Manong Esoria and on the door of Manong Espiritu. Robles informs the men that things are going to be alright and that they might be going on a walk later if they have to leave their homes tonight. Knowing what awaits them, Robles feels like he’s floating, like the floor has been pulled from under him.

“Long Live the I-Hotel”, “Long-Live the I-Hotel”, “Just Like A Tree Standing By the Water, We Shall Not Be Moved”. On August 4, 1977 chants mix with the roar of shouts, sirens and bullhorns. Upstairs and inside the International Hotel, Al Robles knows that as a tenant supporter he must project an air of calm, of protection. He knows that the police may soon be fighting through the crowd outside. Once inside the hotel, they’ll find rows and rows of people linked arm-in-arm throughout the hallways, on stairways, in front of doors – human barricades to stop the police every step of the way. And once at the tenants’ doors, the hammers will come out swinging and smashing through wood.

Outside the hotel, the men and women know now that tonight is the night. Word travels fast through the crowd that the TAC squad is coming. “They’re getting out of the police vans.” “The police are getting into formation.” “They’re marching down, Broadway.” “Kearny Street is cordoned off, they’re letting no one through!” Word goes out that if anyone wants to leave the human barricade, now’s the time to do it. People could lose jobs, get beat down, face jail time. For some, arrest means deportation. But the vast majority of people decide to stay.

The horses and their riders move into the crowd. They push their way through. The riders swing down their batons. The frontline of the human barricade receives the full brunt of the battle, but the crowd heaves back against the attack. Again, police plow into them driving the full weight of the crowd onto the last row of people, pressing them up against the wall of the hotel. Police lights hover overhead. Horse and riders and police press forward looking like ghosts swimming on a sea of people drowning in the night.

Inside in the hotel, you can hear the chanting. You can hear the screams of men and women being pushed by the horses and hit by clubs. Inside the hotel, supporters and younger tenants stand together, arm-in-arm and know that the hour of resistance is reaching its height. You can hear the fire trucks pull up. Their ladders come up and out, arching over the heads of the crowd, aiming for the hotel’s rooftop. Inside the hotel, you can hear the blows of the hammers when they start coming through the roof, when they start knocking down the doors.

It is daybreak when it’s all over. Faces are drawn and tired. Inside ambulances sit the wounded with bloodied heads and faces. Supporters have escorted the tenants away to a safer place and temporary shelter. Constituent groups gather together and huddle in the street summing up the situation; some make plans to re-occupy the I-Hotel. But, in the end, the tenants are gone from the I-Hotel and the storefronts are blocked off and boarded up.

In Japantown, word comes down that police are gathering up on Sutter Street. When the “Red Alert” comes, it’s in the morning with little notice. Coming so soon after the International Hotel eviction, there’s little time to get the word out to assemble in front of the Sutter Street apartment. Members of Japanese Community Progressive Alliance and those who’ve gotten the Alert in time scramble to get ready. They run up the hill to gather in front of the building. As the handful of people block the front doorway, they face the TAC squad across the street. Lined up in formation with helmets and clubs, the police greatly outnumber the activists who stand in front of the apartment. More supporters come racing up the street to join the human barricade. But the police prevent them from doing so. The supporters start chanting and the police start crossing the street. The men and women, locked arm-in-arm are, grabbed, pulled and pushed until their links are broken. The police now have access to the front door and eviction of the tenants begins.

The activists continue their chants as police arrest a supporter. Mrs. Hanatani, a single, middle-aged tenant races away up the street. A scarf covers her head and a suitcase is in her hand. A tenant supporter goes with her trying to calm her fears. Frank, a Japanese American man younger than Mrs. Hanatani, is shaken but comes out and checks on his belongings that are being put on the street.

By now the crowd of supporters has grown. Many of them were present on eviction night at the International Hotel. Others are involved in similar struggles throughout the city and nation. One man stands in the front of the crowd. Bernard Punikaia is in San Francisco in the hopes of preventing another eviction. When the Red Alert sounds, he is staying with members of JCPA while on a speaking tour about Kalaupapa. It is one of several struggles breaking out in Hawaii supporting indigenous and local people in opposition to military and corporate interests.

The Chinese Progressive Association, now relocated not far from the Hotel, also hosts a Native Hawaiian. He talks about the island of Kaho’olawe and how it is being used for military bombing practice. He explains that there is urgency among indigenous people to preserve their lands and culture. Two Native Hawaiians went to live on Kaho’olawe to protest the bombing. The men have since disappeared. The island is barren and riddled with un-exploded bombs. These men put their lives on the line to protect a place sacred to Native Hawaiians.

Bernard Punikaia is a musician and writes Hawaiian songs. In the living room of his JCPA hosts he sits by himself and sings a song. Punikaia also has Hansen’s disease. More commonly known as leprosy, the fate of those with Hansen’s disease was once isolation and abandonment on the island of Molokai. But under the direction of Father Damien, Kalaupapa on Molokai became a place of comfort and humane treatment. Now, this care center and residence for patients is in trouble. Patients there are being threatened with evictions as the State of Hawaii makes plans to phase out Kalaupapat by 1999. But for Punkaia and other patients, Kalaupapa is home. And they will not leave.

In Japantown, the sunlight comes through large Victorian-style windows. Punikaia sits alone singing and playing on his harpsichord. One day he’ll write these simple lyrics: “Land of joy, land of pain, we are one.”

To remember the Manongs and to re-call the days of the I-Hotel, Chris Bautista plays a minor melody on his guitar. He’s putting music to the words of Philip Vera-Cruz, the Filipino farmworker and union organizer. “While still across the ocean, I heard of the USA. So thrilled by wild imagination, I left through Manila Bay….” Vera-Cruz’s poem will be remembered through song.

Late at night in Berkeley, students are up and planning another dance benefit. The music of Flip Nunez and Aztec reverberates throughout the night…”Just what is this strange new feeling? That possess me this way?….”

And the lights burn on.