The Fall of the I-Hotel (Curtis Choy, 1983)

by Guest Contributor Geo, originally published at Prometheus Brown

A little over a decade ago, this documentary changed my life.

It was the first time I had seen or heard about Manong Al Robles, longtime community organizer, activist, writer — a pillar in the Fil-Am and API community in San Francisco. He not only narrates this documentary, but is featured in it. He is shown interacting with the elderly Filipino tenants who face eviction from the only home they know: the International Hotel in what was then Manilatown, SF. He is the glue that holds director Curtis Choy’s amazing footage together, in one scene doing a voice-over with his own poetry, in the next scene he’s marching in protest alongside organizers, confronting city officials, blockading police from entering the building on eviction day. Even as the story unfolds toward the inevitable tragedy of the building’s demolition, Manong Al’s presence gave one an impression of hope. Not that idealistic hope that, perhaps, the fight against the city’s “development” plans might somehow prevail.

No, this hope was and still is something greater. Some fights that aren’t won are still victories — as evidenced by the outpouring of community support and internationalist solidarity for the I-Hotel. Though the building was lost, Manong Al and them laid the groundwork for all of us who continue their tireless work to stand up for our communities. The Fall of the I-Hotel, more than a story about a building, more than a story about its tenants or even the fight to save, is a rally cry still heard loud and clear nearly 30 years later.

News that Manong Al had passed away reached me last night as we sat in anticipation for the Pacquiao/Hatton fight to begin. Suddenly, I had realized that, in all my trips to San Francisco, even performing once at Kearny Street Workshop where he was a resident poet, I never got a chance to meet Manong Al, which made the subsequent celebration bittersweet. But as I looked around a room full of cheering Filipinos, I thought of his poetry in his book Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabao in the Dark, where he described nights of kickin it, drinkin, celebrating with the Manongs. I thought about the Manongs who were evicted from the I-Hotel, whose sad faces, captured on film, I can never shake. And I thought about how, no matter what bullshit comes our way, or perhaps because of all the bullshit that comes our way, we live for nights like these.

Rest in Power, Manong Al Robles!

Online Tributes to Al Robles:

Hyphen Magazine: R.I.P. Al Robles
Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc.: Al Robles, RIP

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