Da Hil Sa’Yo: The Passing of Al Robles
I’d only met Al Robles once or twice, but his voice was one that I’d known and carried with me for years. He was prominently featured in The Fall of the I-Hotel, Curtis Choy’s seminal documentary about the long fight to preserve low-income housing in San Francisco’s Manilatown against the onslaught of business interests and developers. The film showed Al alongside his fellow manongs as an organizer and activist in the struggle, and one of the movie’s highlights is his reading of his sublime and evocative poem International Hotel Night Watch, just before all hell breaks loose in the midnight eviction of the I-Hotel tenants. At one point Al’s mellow, emotional voice sings a line from Da Hil Sa’Yo (Because of You), which Choy uses as an ironic refrain throughout the film. I’ve shown The Fall of the I-Hotel every semester for more than a dozen years in my Asian American Film History class and even now I can hear Al’s voice singing that song in my head. Because I’ve seen the film so many times I’ve learned the song by heart, though I speak no Tagalog, and it moves me every time I hear it.
As we all know, after the 1977 eviction the original I-Hotel was demolished in 1981, but through their tireless vigilance community activists, including Al Robles, managed to block the construction of a commercial building and a parking lot on the site. Due to these ceaseless efforts, in 2005 a new International Hotel finally opened, with the Manilatown Heritage Foundation (MHF) on the ground floor and 105 units of low-income housing above. Though nearly three decades had passed since the eviction, two former tenants of the original I-Hotel moved into the new building, along with other low-income senior citizens.
Last year I took one of my classes to the MHF and there was Al, big as life, chatting with the art gallery staff. I immediately recognized his bushy ponytail and beard, but it was his distinctive voice that confirmed to me his identity. My students and I were a bit starstruck and no one wanted to approach him and say hello, but after a while some of them got up the nerve to introduce themselves and ask him what event he was there for. “Nothing special, I’m just hanging out,” Al genially replied, smiling broadly and shaking everyone’s hands. He went on to explain that he stopped by pretty often just to visit and check in with what was going on at the MHF. After so many years of struggle, maybe he was still savoring the fact that in this case the good guys had won, and that we could chalk up one on the side of justice. Al was an integral part of that victory, through his poetry, his advocacy, and his activism. I’m glad I’ll always have his voice with me.
Update: Here are some nice tributes to Al at various blogs.
Barbara has several poems she wrote for Al.
Theo’s podcast for Al
Alana Robles has a central site for remembrances of Al.
UPDATE 2: Just because it’s divine, here’s Nat “King” Cole’s version of Da Hil Sa’Yo, live in Manila c. 1961. Listening to King Cole’s silken voice tickle this song is heavenly.
UPDATE 3: Briefly stopped in at the massive Al Robles memorial on Sunday at the SOMARTS Gallery and I’m happy to report that Phil Chavez performend “Da Hil Sa’Yo” on his ukelele. Phil noted that this song and “Over The Rainbow,” which Phil also sang, were two of Al’s favorites. It was nice to see folks out in force at the memorial despite the 90 degree heat in San Francisco.
Da Hil Sa’Yo (English translation)
Because of you, there’s a joy in living
Because of you, ‘till death (you) must realize
In my heart I know there is only you
And ask my heart, you’ll know that this is true
Long have I endured in my life
The pain and sorrows from love arise
Then you came and redeemed me, my dear,
My only hope in my darkest fears
Because of you, I found happiness
That to you I offer this love that is so blessed
Though indeed I may be a slave for loving you so true
It matters not to me, ‘cause everything’s because of you
Da Hil Sa’Yo (original tagalog)
Sa buhay ko’y labis
Ang hirap at pasakit, ng pusong umiibig
Mandin wala ng langit
At ng lumigaya, hinango mo sa dusa
Tanging ikaw sinta, ang aking pag-asa.
Dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay
Dahil sa iyo, hanggang mamatay
Dapat mong tantuin, wala ng ibang giliw
Puso ko’y tanungin, ikaw at ikaw rin
Dahil sa iyo, ako’y lumigaya
Pagmamahal, ay alayan ka
Kung tunay man ako, ay alipinin mo
Ang lahat ng ito, dahil sa iyo