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About Al

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.

Today, we have lost a great champion for the poor, the old and young, for community involvement, for speaking truth, for poetry. Al Robles, R.I.P. Thanks for the stories, the inspiration, the dim sum. I’m sure we’ll run into each other at the Issei Buffet! Save me a seat.

mary rose said:

curtis choy was showing manilatown is in the heart today at vc’s api film fest and announced it. it was such a shock after watching him alive and well on the screen. i’m glad curtis was able to capture him so vividly … i already felt as if i knew al.

Elrik Jundis said:

he’s a man who saw so much, who lived in the thick of it, was some how part of the world and yet not of the world. To my eye’s he was always the same age over 30 plus odd years. He was one of my favorite characters to run across again and again. As a child of that era the community was my family and Mananong Al was one of my favorite ‘Uncles’.

My first memory of Manong Al was meeting him at some community event in SOMA at Cannon Kip. I this was in the mid 70′s I remember thinking he must be a relative because he looked just like my dad. This was when they both wore long beards and wore head gear that mad them look like nomads from the Mongolian steeps. Come to think of it Mang Al’s style really didn’t change. Back then there were still a lot of manongs, I remember thinking why is this one so cool.

Mang Al, thanks for touching our lives, making smiles that more available, and for showing me from day one that living true to one’s heart could be grand.

Eric Mar said:

What a tremendous loss to the Richmond District, Manilatown, to our City and social justice movements. I’ll miss Al’s warmth and humor, but especially his big heart.
Long live the spirit of Al Robles and the I-Hotel!

Pat Salaver said:

I knew Al in the late sixties and throughout the seventies. Al was a kindred soul, a dear friend, we shared many meals together, I heard a lot of his poetry and shared many strange experiences. I was a jazz musician Al was a poet but we hung out together and talk about a lot of crap. I’m sorry I didnt get to say goodbye to Al. I just assumed he was going to live forever. I went down to Manilatown many times in the week just to find him. I remember so many times when Orvy Jundis and I would search the city looking for him.
I remember one time at a filipino celebration when Al was asked to honor them with some poetry and he came out wearing just a native G-string and a few feathers. The filipino ladies were agast and looked horrified. The rest of us had our mouths open. No one remembered what his poem was about. There are many memories but mostly I will remember what a kind and considerate man he was and also how the hell did he get his hair to stand up like that. You should speak with Orvy Jundis because he has a lot of stories about Al Robles.
Thanks Al. I will miss you.

Stephanie Lowe and Dave Murai said:

Al had such a big heart that even those of us who saw him only occasionally felt his love and friendship. Hearing of his death, we can find comfort in knowing that his spirit will continue to inspire many of us to laugh, enjoy life, and to be the best that we can be. Thank you, Al.

There comes a time in life when the things around you loose their stability. It’s one of many side effects of time. All through our lives, people come and go. The term “friends forever” becomes a passing platitude we use in the folly of our youth. As I push 50 year of age, I see the concrete foundation upon which I’ve built a life loose some of it’s footing. This footing is lost with the passing of friends and family. However, are given a reprieve in the form of memories to hang on to those we love long after they’re gone.

Al’s brother, Russel Robles has been a father to me, my own biological father wanting nothing to do with me. I had not seen my biological father in over 20 years and recently found him. When asked if I would make contact with him and see about rebuilding our relationship, my answer was no. Why? Because I had Russel, Fredda, Uncle Al and all the other Robles family as my own. I have a father and he is Russel.

In the Robles family, anything and everything goes. If you cannot go with the flow or role with the punches, don’t knock on the Robles family compound door. I am writing this because its the only thing I can do to deal with this short of falling apart.

I started this writing project about Uncle Al and found myself on a journey that took me to places I never thought about and people whose lives I knew little of like Manong Freddy.

I moved to San Francisco when I was about 15 years old. I had no identity, other than being another stupid white kid without a voice. My salvation came in the form of punk rock. It was a moment that allowed me a place to vent my artistic frustration. Hundreds of us carved our niche in the word at a run down Filipino nightclub called the Mabuhay Gardens. However, the road we traveled and the roads we would travel in the future were paved by men like Uncle Al. I refer to him as Uncle Al, because that is how I knew him. In marrying Jennifer, I married into the Robles family and that was icing on an already wonderful cake.

I always knew that Manong Al Robles was a brilliant writer and great poet, but it wasn’t until I started working on this writing project that I got a glimpse into his world, the world of the Manong.

Manong is llocano word that is given to the first born male in the nuclear family. However, the definition doesn’t do justice to the way of life it embodies. It is also used to describe the older brother or older male in the family. What you won’t find in the Oxford dictionary is the spirit of wisdom that the word has when you see it in it’s natural setting. It’s word that cannot be defined except by the heart.

Manong Al took me on a journey to places I never knew about. Places that were carved in the hearts and minds of those within the families of the Manong. It is a journey for me that is filled not with mere words but with sights and sounds, passions and purpose, a journey paved with the essence of life itself.

At family gatherings, Manong Al would always plant himself down at the Piano next to the kitchen at the Robles family compound in San Rafael. He would play tunes that would cause the younger kid’s ears to close since they were songs from a distance place. Being a guy who beat out three bad chords on a guitar in a punk band for almost 30 years, I was sometimes one of the kids with my ears closed. However, I had an incredible thought this afternoon:

Manong Al was playing music from his heart, music that I needed to hear. Music that would provide part of my life’s sound track. Aside from family gathering, where I really got to know Al was through his words. Sitting in my studio last week, I went through a book of Al’s writings before band practice. After having googled Al’s life, which is a strange way to get information on family members, I learned just how much of the road I travel he had paved. I therefore owe the journey I am on to Manong Al. I’ll always be indebted to him for all he gave my group of musicians and writers. I’ll try to have the majority of my Uncle Al writings up over the next few weeks On the above page.

Lanah said:

Writing and storytelling. Weaving these tales, we release these memories like a steam of consciousness… and this is exactly the way it should be done. It is true though, that Uncle would laugh at us for spending time blogging and interneting…. sending messages, faces in front of screens instead of buried in books or stuffed with rice.

James Tracy said:

With Al’s passing, San Francisco has lost a link to the “lost San Francisco”. Let’s all try to record our memories of him, the struggles he was part of, and of course his poetry.

Long live Al Robles!

Rosalyn Tonai said:

Al Robles was just as much a part of Japantown. Growing up in the Western Addition, he played ball with JAs, went to school and ran around with Nisei.
On many occasions, he’d stop in at the National Japanese American Historical Society’s Post Street gallery to visit his buddy Pete Yamamoto and sit for hours engaging all of us in long conversations about life. He loved its many joys, like food, poetry & a good jokes… always leaving you smiling and laughing, and craving for some adobo. We hosted gallery programs on several occasions featuring Al and the Robles brothers, as they reminisced about growing up in Jtown. Carrying a notebook, he joined us on the Tule Lake Pilgrimage and attended Manzanar Pilgrimages, writing and sharing his poems with the youth. We felt our local poet and artist activist deserved a special square among the 62 heroes and pioneers of the Western Addition at the Gene Suttle Plaza, so RDA dedicated it at Fillmore & O’Farrell. Thank you Al for your gifts. While we’ll miss your physical presence in this world, we still feel your spirit around us and all your ancestors, Manongs, and the pretty wahines who will be greeting you on the other side are now rejoicing!

Joshua Wheeler/mesej said:

I met Al 7 years ago at the groundbreaking for the I-Hotel where we read poems atop a set of metal steps attached to a trailer in front of a gigantic hole where the I-Hotel had stood. After the event, Al told me to meet him at Portsmouth park the following day. This mythic writer, this living poem, this beauty that made me proud of who I was, this man that made made me proud of who we might become, had asked me to hang out with him. The next day I called in sick to work, took the BART from 12th st. in Oakland and met Al in Chinatown. He told me who I was that day. Later that week, we had a show together in Berkeley. It was a show about three generations of Kundiman or something. I was the young poet, Russell Gonzaga was the more experienced poet, and Al was the elder performer. That show and that week occupy the most sacred space in my memory. Thank you Manong Al.


The Man,The Activist,The Poet,The Writer ,Father,Brother,Son and Comedienne

My Uncle I will always remember you in my heart and soul your on your own Journey now. We always shared a shared a laugh or a story,or a story that always ended up making me laugh.

I remember when you told me Kimberley you know they thought I was the guy from Karate kid Im like Pat Morita yeah you told me they asked you for an autograph and I asked well uncle what did you do and you told me you signed
Mr. Miyagi….cause you did not know the guys real name

You always cracked me up

Later I will post details about Uncle AL’s Celebration of life
Love you uncle

Teri Lee said:

AL was the great, beating heart of Manilatown. He introduced me to the Kearney Street Workshop at the I-Hotel, where he used to hang out, seemingly all the time, and encouraged us newbies to find our voices through the written and spoken word. He was optimism in a Hawaiian shirt and a tangle of hair and beard. He was compassion and always young, never old.

May love follow you wherever you are now.

I wanted to put up a blog for sharing. I also want a place to share Robles family updates.
For now, please visit

I will get a more formal space together, but for now, I wanted to create a central place for info on Uncle.

-Alana Robles

Claire Light said:

Thank you everyone for your tributes! And thank you, Lannah, for putting up the blog!

Please feel free to continue posting tributes and memories here AND go over to Lannah’s blog and post there as well.

Aj Napolis said:

At a very young age, listening to the Manong, his style, his clarity, what wit, what a man. Proud, wise and ever so charming. Say hi to Rudy, Uncle Ben, Uncle Gary, Timmy, Grandma Mary, Blas and all the Filipinos who influenced my life. Pinoy Power baby!!!

Kim Robles said:
Typo….on the 1st one Sun May 17th

@ SOMArts Cultural Center
934 Brannan Street / San Francisco, CA 94103 / +1 (415) 863-1414

The Journey Continues

A life celebration For Al Robles Manong,Poet,Muscian,Activist,Father,Son,Brother,Uncle Friend

A Potluck Celebration featuring
Poetry Readings..Live Jazz.Musical Performances,Dance,Martial arts and you

You are welcome to bring a poem,sing a song,bring your instrument,Share a dish,Volunteer ,speak a few words or just listen and enjoy just like manong Al would have wanted

If you would like to help with anything volunteer to setup/clean up…Or give a donation of food or a performance or perhaps just give a kind word or thought
Manong Al’s Spirit is now dancing among the Caribou

Please contact us:

Kimberley Robles

Iraya Robles

Tony Robles

Rev. Norman Fong said:

We’ll all miss brother Al…
and I will miss his joyful – even inspiring
“What’s Up Brother!” many mornings in front
of the rebuilt I-Hotel…
He brought joy & poetry to the movement…
but more deeply – “soul”…
Our lost on earth is Heaven’s gain -
cuz he’s definitely going to jazz it up
in Heaven – (together with Bill)!
Manong, Brother or might I say “Saint” Al -
now belongs to the ages!

Vera Haile said:

Al Robles’ death was a big shock,since I had known him since the mid-1970s, when we hired him at Self-Help for the Elderly after Joaquin Legaspi’s death. We kept in touch even after I left Self-Help in 1983. I was very glad the Manilatown Heritage Foundation had the event honoring Al a few months ago. He was committed to people, community, and poetry. He had also known my husband, when they both went to Sokoji and the Zen Center years ago. I see he will be missed by many people with good memories.
Vera Haile

Nina said:

Manong Al was a beautiful, amazing human being. I was so shocked and saddened to hear of his passing. I cried so much. He will always be in my heart and the hearts of of everyone who ever met him. As my mom commented, “he was like an angel…”

This may be taboo to say, I also got a bit angry to hear that he was moved so quickly out of ICU. Was he made to suffer because we have a substandard medical system in the US, that favors the rich and well-connected? That is not right. If all of us from the Asian-American, poetry, peace, San Francisco, and other communities could channel some of our love for Al into support for single-payer universal health coverage, I know our influence could be felt. Here is one effort, although there are many: www.singlepayeraction.org. Please get involved so our uncles, aunties, friends, and loved ones can get the care they/we are deserved as human beings.


elbara said:

THATs so SAD that he died and so sorry for the relatives that belong to him and im here if u want anything

Al Robles stands out as a kind and wonderful poet, a man of the people, an opening handed giving, loving person. I am pleased to have known him and sorry he is no longer here

Eric Elio Robles said:

RIP UNCLE AL……………Rest in Peace………..Eric ElioRobles