Da Hil Sa’Yo: The Passing of Al Robles

May 4, 2009 at 11:59 pm 15 comments

Al Robles in action

Al Robles brings it, Manilatown Heritage Foundation

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.

Poet Al, ca. 1975

Poet Al, ca. 1975

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.

RJ talked to Al about being a writer.

Barbara has several poems she wrote for Al.

Mark documented Al’s memorial at MHF.

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)

Dahil Sa’yo
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


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Hawai’ian Eye: Asian American Studies conference The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Parts One & Two

15 Comments Add your own

  • […] Valerie Soe, who teaches at San Francisco State University, wrote a nice tribute to Robles. […]

  • 2. Gann Matsuda  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Great tribute Val! I added it to the piece about Al on the Manzanar Committee blog…also borrowed the photo…hope you don’t mind. 🙂

    • 3. valeriesoe  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:56 am

      Hi Gann,

      Glad you liked it–got a pingback to the Manzanar committee blog already. I borrowed the photo from someone else so no worries!


  • 4. Wilson Wong  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:42 am

    great entry on Al Robles.

    • 5. valeriesoe  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:57 am

      Thanks, Wilson! You should post the link to the comment you made on facebook–it’s awesome!


  • 6. rj  |  May 5, 2009 at 2:40 am

    nice, valerie. i just found out today in class. it casts a shadow on pacquiao’s victory. love and loss. such is life.

    • 7. valeriesoe  |  May 5, 2009 at 2:59 am

      I was in LA this Saturday watching Curtis Choy’s new doc about Al, which screened just before Manny’s fight. The audience was joking that they’d have to drive pretty fast to get home to catch the fight but everyone stayed to watch the movie anyways. Al’s passing is a great loss to us so it’s nice to see so many people remembering him.

  • 8. ys  |  May 5, 2009 at 5:44 am

    Thank you Valerie for this moving tribute and for the song lyrics. I feel much more intimately connected to the history of the I-hotel given your personal recollection. Your account gives credence to an interest of mine –how songs can play a important or pivotal role in historic events.

    • 9. valeriesoe  |  May 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm

      Hi YS,
      Songs & music are inextricably tied to most historical events, especially nowadays in the age of media. But you can find endless examples that predate electronic media, of course.

      BTW, most of my blog posts are named after song titles—just go back & look in the archives to see.


  • 10. akrobles  |  May 6, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. It is so awesome to hear all of the crazy things that Uncle Al has done. I made a central place for memories and photos.


    Alana Robles

    • 11. valeriesoe  |  May 6, 2009 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks, Alana. I’ve linked to your site fyi. Al was much loved.

  • 12. MV  |  May 10, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for the shout. I wish I met you in Hawai’i!

    • 13. valeriesoe  |  May 14, 2009 at 4:06 am

      Hi MV,

      Maybe we can do a panel on blogging at next year’s conference!


  • […] World Premiere: The Oak Park Story, Mar. 14 & 15 January 24, 2010 Filed under: the oak park story — valeriesoe @ 10:29 pm Tags: al robles, san francisco international asian american film festival, the oak park story Save the date! The Oak Park Story will have its world premiere as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on Sun. March 14 at 2p and Mon. March 15 at 7p. It will be screening alongside Curtis Choy’s documentary Manilatown Is In The Heart, which is about the late great Pinoy poet Al Robles. […]

  • […] while they’re hot. The Oak Park Story precedes Curtis Choy’s new documentary about the late great Pinoy poet Al Robles, Manilatown Is In The Heart. See you there!   Leave a […]


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