‘The Al Robles Express’ Is on the Right Track

Back : Lauren Benetua, Tony Remington.  Front : Luis (Lou) Syquia, Tony Robles, Manong Sapi Bawer, Oscar Penaranda (Photo used with permission of Tony Remington)

Back: Lauren Benetua, Tony Remington. Front: Luis (Lou) Syquia, Tony Robles, Manong Sapi Bawer, Oscar Penaranda (Photo used with permission of Tony Remington)

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.”

The Al Robles Express promotional poster by Chet Canlas

The Al Robles Express promotional poster by Chet Canlas

Another Al Robles Express promotional poster by Chet Canlas

Another Al Robles Express promotional poster by Chet Canlas

Five artists were handpicked to join the The Al Robles Express project.

Tony Robles, Al’s nephew, was born and raised in San Francisco. He is a poet and author of Cool Don’t Live Here Anymore, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish, and Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel. Robles was shortlisted for poet laureate of San Francisco and in 2017 he was the recipient of the Individual Artist Grant by the San Francisco Art Commission. Besides his rhythmic and heartful poetry, Robles is known for being a longtime advocate, organizer, and activist for housing rights. He also served as president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation.

Peñaranda, The Al Robles Express originator, was born in Barugo, Leyte, Philippines and moved to Vancouver, Canada when he was 12 years old.  In his senior year of high school, his family relocated to San Francisco and, since then, he has pretty much called San Francisco home (when he is not back in the Philippines, that is.)  Peñaranda earned his B.A. in Literature and M.A. in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University where he was also one of the key figures in establishing the School of Ethnic Studies.  He helped found the San Francisco chapter of Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) as its first president. He is the author of Seasons by the Bay and Full Deck (jokers playing).

Lauren Benetua was especially chosen for this project because in the context of the film’s story, she represented who Al was, according to filmmaker, Chet Canlas. “Lauren is a Fil-Am who had never been to the Philippines, yet was very imbued in Philippine indigenous culture.” She is an arts advocate and culture worker with a B.A. in History of Art and Visual Culture from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. in Museum Studies from the Lorenzo de Medici International Institute of Florence, Italy.  She is a weaver’s apprentice with the Laga Weaving Circle guided by Kalinga master weaver, Jenny Bawer Young.

Tony Remington, was born in Manila, Philippines and came to San Francisco in 1952, where he grew up in the Haight/Ashbury district. He knew Al in the context of their mutual work in social services, working together in the post-Manilatown era. “Working with Al Robles and Presco Tabios in post-Manilatown was the greatest, happiest and fulfilling of times” (from “Tony Remington’s Launching Point to Fil-Am Consciousness,” by Carlos Zialcita, PositivelyFilipino.com, August, 2017).

Luis (Lou) Syquia, perhaps one of the most gifted of the writers, was mentored by Al Robles and they were very close friends. Al wrote the poem “Meeting the Poet Luis Syquia on the Fourth Month Thirteenth Day One Thousand Nine-Hundred Eighty-Nine” in Lou’s honor. Lou was a founding member of the Kearny Street Workshop and one of the artist/activists involved in the resistance during the International Hotel evictions in the late ‘60s.

Chet Canlas and Caroline Cabading co-produced “The Al Robles Express” on a political- community level, “almost like the Manilatown people saying, ‘We’re gonna tell the story; we’re gonna develop the skills to do filmmaking and writing and logistics, and producing. We’re gonna tell a story and not just sit back while someone else, even though they’re well-meaning, decides to tell our story.’”  That is a strong statement in this film.

Back row : Luis (Lou) Syquia, Oscar Penaranda, Producer Caroline Cabading:  Front row : Director/Filmmaker Chet Canlas, Lauren Benetua, Ardlene Bawer Dawagen, Tony Remington, Tony Robles (Photo used with permission of Tony Remington)

Back row: Luis (Lou) Syquia, Oscar Penaranda, Producer Caroline Cabading: Front row: Director/Filmmaker Chet Canlas, Lauren Benetua, Ardlene Bawer Dawagen, Tony Remington, Tony Robles (Photo used with permission of Tony Remington)

Parallel to the Manilatown-International Hotel fight, in the mid-‘70s some 150 Kalinga and Bontoc leaders were engaged in a fight against the building of four hydroelectric dams which would deluge many Kalinga villages, including sacred burial grounds and rice terraces. “The Chico River Dam Project is now considered a landmark case study in ancestral human rights,” Cabading says.

She always thought that Al Robles would like to have met Manong Sapi. After all, both are culture bearers, one in Manilatown and the other in Kalinga. Manong Cyrilo Sapi Bawer was an original defender of the Kalinga Ancestral Land.   Both men understood the fight for home.

“Because really, that’s all it comes down to on a very simple level: it’s fight for the right for people who live on that land to keep their land.  It is the right for people, wherever they determine as their home.”

Finally, does one need to go back to the Motherland to find home? “The Al Robles Express” holds the answer to this question.


“The Al Robles Express” will be screened during The 5th Filipino American International Book Festival˜, on Saturday, October 12, 7:00 p.m., at The Philippine Center, Museo Ng Lahi, 5th Floor, 447 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA.  Doors open at 6:30. Admission is FREE. Donations are welcome.


Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

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 the author of #30 Collantes Street. www.lisasuguitanmelnick.com


More articles by Lisa Suguitan Melnick