Al Robles (1930-2009) was an influential Filipino American poet and community activist in San Francisco. Born in 1930, he grew up in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. He was the second eldest in a family of ten brothers and sisters, Jeannie, Hansel, Remy, Jimmy, Anthony, Drucilla, Shirley, Ray, and Russell. He has had many names, Uncle Al, Manong Al, and for those who have seen his likeness in Hollywood, some affectionately refer his resenmblance to actor Pat Morita of the Karate Kid film series.
As a jazz pianist, he would gravitate to the piano at any banquet hall, restaurant, or family gathering. Playing tones of scat-like melody, he would press the keys with flowing rhythm and weave the notes like he hid his poetry. As a community activist, he was instrumental in the political fight against the city to stop the demolition of the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. As a character, he worked with people from Chinatown, Fillmore, and South of Market community organizations and worked at the Self Help for the Elderly.
In his writing, Al Robles combined heritage with experience. As a beat-poet, Al’s poetry honored Filipino elders (Manongs) and also encouraged the younger generation to connect to their Filipino roots. Verses about traditional Filipino foods, community personalities in San Francisco resulted in countless poems, many of which were written on scraps of paper and napkins, filling the walls of his mind, and his life. His two published works are Looking for Ifugao Mountain: Paghahanap Sa Bundok Ng Ifugao 1977 by Children’s Book Press,’and’Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, published (1992) by UCLA Asian American Writers Center.
In 2008, Filmmaker Curtis Choy released a documentary about Al Robles, Manilatown in the Heart, Time Travel with Al Robles focusing on his many personalities and community roles. It has been shown at countless film festivals, including the 2009 DisOrient Film Festival, in Eugene, OR, Asian Pacific Heritage Month 2009 in Los Altos Hills, and the 2009 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where it was a Finalist for the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary.