Mabilong performs at Laga Festival.

“The Al Robles Express” follows five artists as they travel together to the Philippine tribal lands in tribute to the late activist poet Al Robles, taking the journey of their mentor’s literary dreams that he was never able to take…

Mabilong performs at Laga Festival.

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“The Al Robles Express” follows five artists as they travel together to the Philippine tribal lands in tribute to the late activist poet Al Robles, taking the journey of their mentor’s literary dreams that he was never able to take himself.

Robles was an original defender of San Francisco’s International Hotel and a staunch opponent of the urban renewal plans that would decimate many of the city’s working-class ethnic villages. His groundbreaking poetry would also be a major voice in what would become the genre of Asian American literature.

Much of Robles’ most powerful literary imagery referenced tribal Philippines and he felt a deep connection to the country of his ancestors. However, Robles was born in San Francisco and had never been to the Philippines himself. He tragically passed away in the same year that he was planning to take his very first trip to the country.

With this in mind, the Oscar Penaranda, Luis Syquia, Tony Robles, Tony Remington and Lauren Benetua travel to the Kalinga village of Mabilong then across the Cordillera mountain range to visit the pre-colonial Philippines that lived in Robles’ imagination. While exploring the icons that were important to Robles they reflect on his life and friendship and discuss the concepts of identity and home for Americans of Philippine descent. In particular, the friends seek out “Ifugao Mountain”, a location that comes up repeatedly in Robles’ literary work, to learn why this particular site was so important to him . . . and how it is in fact directly related to the Filipino-American experience.

“‘The Al Robles Express’ Is On The Right Track” by Lisa Sugitan Melnick, Positively Filipino, October 2019

Or, as writer Oscar Peñaranda would say, “The question is, are you on the right train?” For readers to understand the many layers of art expression in Chet Canlas’ film, “The Al Robles Express,” the beauty lies in the backstory.

Revered author and educator Oscar Peñaranda had thought about bringing Filipino Americans to the Philippines, those he considered “making a lot of waves here in their Filipino-ness” but had never been to the homeland or had left when they were young.

Enter poet and community activist Al Robles, who had never been to the Philippines yet his poems were full of indigenous images, sensual references to foods, carabaos, and other things he had never directly experienced.

Oscar wondered how Al’s reaction would be if he brought him there. Would his writing be altered? Would his perceptions of the things he had only imagined or seen pictures, shift once he saw them firsthand in the ancestral homeland? Unfortunately, Al Robles passed away before this dream could be fulfilled. At the time, Peñaranda made it his personal mission to bring the rest of his writers’ circle there in 2009, the same year Al died, naming the trip The Al Robles Express.

As director/filmmaker Chet Canlas told me, this documentary was actually ten years in the making. “We did this for Al. He’s actually the face of Manilatown. Sadly, he passed before we could complete it. What this film is about is one’s eternal search to find themselves and to find home. Because, until you find home, you won’t find yourself. Above that, it’s about artists’ and poets’ expression; defining what art is and how non-artists can relate and apply it to their lives.”

To read the full article please visit: www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-al-robles-express-is-on-the-right-track.

Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor at the College of San Mateo, and serves on the Board of Directors of Philippine American Artists and Writers, Inc. (PAWA). She is also the author of #30 Collantes Street. www.lisasuguitanmelnick.com

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