October Light, Undiminished

Jeff Tagami

The poet Al Robles once posed this question: What happens when a poet dies?

Robles was often called the poet laureate of San Francisco's Manilatown. His work centered around the struggle against the eviction of elderly Filipino tenants from San Francisco's International Hotel, an event that changed the political landscape of the city in very significant ways. Robles expressed his question with the lines:

When a politician dies
he dies, that's it
When a philosopher dies
he dies, that's it
When a mathematician dies
he dies, that's it

But when a poet dies, his words live on forever

Such can be said about the poet Jeff Tagami, whose graceful, humble and powerful poems live on as we honor the one-year anniversary of his passing. Jeff's book of poems, October Light, is a powerful document chronicling the lives, dreams, struggles, heartbreak and redemption of Filipino workers who were part of the first generation of immigrants from the Philippines to come to the US seeking a better life. They came filled with ideas about America that were propagated by the American school system in the Philippines, that America was the land of opportunity and that all men were created equal. However, they learned the other side of the American Dream. Confronted with deep racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, they faced violence and much indignation. They were ostracized by a society they thought would welcome them. For didn’t America say, “Give us your poor, your hungry, your …?”

Jeff Tagami's parents were among the early Filipino immigrants. They came to Hawaii before settling in Watsonville. His parents worked the land and knew the seasons. They understood the blowing of the horn and came to know the conveyor belt, the unrelenting sun, the stoop labor, the ways of an agribusiness that exploited the Filipinos who gave more than their hours. Some lost fingers and limbs. From the poem “The Horn Blow”:

If not for luck, then to pray
Against the spastic knee
That brings the spinning blade
Down like an axe
Sending fingers or a whole hand
Flying to heaven
To daydream is to lose a part of you

Jeff Tagami was born in Watsonville. From an early age he worked and witnessed the struggle of his parents to provide for their many children. He grew up among people whose lives revolved around the land and seasons. He was deeply touched by the struggles—the jealousies, power dynamics, exploitation, and the search for identity that were etched in the lives of the workers in the Pajaro Valley, where Watsonville is located. During the Watsonville Riots of 1930, whites armed and filled with vitriolic hatred attacked Filipino labor camps. They saw Filipinos as “those people that are taking our jobs.” One worker, 22-year-old Fermin Tobera was murdered, his death immortalized in Filipino American history. Tobera’s body was sent back to the Philippines, where his funeral was a national day of shame.

October Light is vibrant, timeless and worthy of being called a classic in Filipino-American literature.

Jeff Tagami was deeply touched by this event that happened decades before he was born. It’s as if the sound of Jeff 's heart echoed the name Tobera, Tobera, Tobera in a poem that bears that name:

My name is Fermin
I am twenty-two,
I work all day
I tip a bottle of bourbon
And swallow four times.
I'm as strong as hell.

It recalls the paradox and contradictions of living as a Filipino in America:

yes, a man gets lonely
But he has to do something
To stop from going crazy.
And it's not craziness
When men get together
To buy a '29 model T
And drive from Watsonville
To Lompoc, San Pedro
To Oxnard and back again
Past the neatly clipped lawns
Of white neighborhoods
Where they are not welcome
And to do this over and over
Like a man slapping
His own face again and again

And the bullet that claimed his life:

 Here comes the buzzing
 of the bullet
 which bears my name.
It's a bee looking
for the hive of my neck
and I must lay still
for its sweet entrance.
Time moves on.
My brothers grow older
without me and I
become the cold breath
on their necks, the blind
Fog in the field.
I am not spiteful,
just a reminder
when things are going well.

Kearny Street Workshop published Jeff's book of poems, October Light, in 1987. A powerful book, it has seen two reprints. The work is vibrant, timeless and worthy of being called a classic in Filipino American literature. Jeff's wife, poet Shirley Ancheta, recalls that Jeff wrote the poems when he moved to San Francisco.

“Sometimes you have to get away from a place in order to write about it,” says Ancheta, whose own work is steeped in the experience of Filipino workers of the Central Coast. Jeff wrote those poems while working in an office in San Francisco, a job that was procured through his friend, poet Al Robles. Jeff, who was in his mid-twenties, had established friendships with a community of Filipino American writers based in San Francisco whose art coalesced with the struggle against the eviction of Filipino elders from the International Hotel on Kearny Street. From those friendships grew a camaraderie in which Jeff's poems bloomed.

Jeff Tagami reading from "October Light" at  at the Manilatown Center (Photo courtesy of Shirley Ancheta)

“He spent a long time on his poems,” says Shirley, who remembers the passion of her late husband's writing. “He had a lot of anger about the way working people were treated and about his own life. He went through a lot.” Jeff and Shirley were a part of a group that became known as BAPAW—Bay Area Pilipino American Writers. Included in this group were poets Oscar Peñaranda, Jaime Jacinto, Al Robles, Virginia Cerenio, Jocelyn Ignacio, Orvy Jundis, Lou and Serafin Syquia and Norman Jayo. It became the nucleus of Bay Area Filipino literary sensibility, a fusion of literary work and community activism.

What's remarkable is the fact that Jeff was able to write such a powerful book of poems with a maturity that belied his young age. In reading the poems, one gets the idyllic sense that he wrote them while sitting at the edge of the Pajaro River, pen in hand, notebook fluttering in the wind, pen moving gracefully under the billowing clouds lazily hovering above. But the poems were written in the city, removed from his place of birth. At the heart of his poems are personal experiences. “The Horn Blow” is about Jeff’s experience working in the lumberyard in 1978-79, where workers were mostly Portuguese from the Azores, poor whites, a few Chicanos, Filipino Americans like Jeff and his brother Fred, and one Native American.

Shirley had been in a bad car accident in Watsonville in 1977. She was on an oral history project from SF State and was at a labor camp when the accident occurred. Two friends, Sharon Lew, her roommate, and Michelle Hamada another SFSU student were killed. Shirley was the only survivor. As a result of Shirley's long hospital stay, multiple surgeries and recuperation, Jeff moved back to Watsonville and ended up at the lumberyard.

The humble grace of the poems in October Light is a testament to what was etched in his memory. A respect for nature, not only taking from it but leaving something behind to cherish, is a thread that runs through the poems, connecting poet to land and poet to reader. From “Stonehouse”:

We begin ceremoniously
As if the trees were our grandmothers,
And solemnly undress them to bathe
In the warmth of their age,
Dark years old
Death looms in the fog above
Our heads as we descend the ladder;
Each step measured, foreboding.
Our legs quiver from the bags
Strapped and brimming on our bellies.
Like unborn babies, the shift
Threatening our balance.
All day we work
Until dusk drives us from the orchard

October Light should be required reading in all schools. And with the passing of AB123 in the California State Assembly—authored by Filipino-American Assemblyman Rob Bonta—requiring schools to include Filipino-American history in the curriculum, Jeff Tagami's work could be brought to a bigger audience. In my opinion, it is as important a work as Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart and Al Robles' Rappin' with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, among others. One need only read the poems in October Light to understand why Robles had such a fondness for Jeff. Jeff Tagami’s heart is the heart of a moving river, the heart of our struggle as Filipinos in America, of our perseverance and resiliency. It is baffling that this book never won an award, although it received much positive critical acclaim. But really, no awards are necessary. The poems are beyond accolades; they are gifts offered with an honesty that only love can give.

On June 22, 2013 a group of friends honored poets Jeff Tagami and Al Robles in a ceremony at the rooftop of the International Hotel. It was a fitting place to gather, reminisce and honor their friendship and love for community. The wind kicked up during the ceremony. Shirley Ancheta and Theresa Robles (sister of Al) released a small amount of ashes as an offering to be carried by the I-Hotel and Manilatown wind. It was a lovely moment to remember two poets who are loved and honored. Jeff Tagami, presente! Al Robles, presente! Long live the I-Hotel!

Tony Robles

Tony Robles

Tony Robles--Poet and co-editor of Poor Magazine, a poor-people led, indigenous people led media organization that reports and supports poor communities and communities of color. Board member of Manilatown Heritage Foundation and nephew of poet Al Robles.