“Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel” (Children’s Book Press, 2006) is written by Anthony ‘Tony’ Robles (co-editor of Mission-based POOR Magazine) and illustrated by Carl Angel. Written in both English and Tagalog, the story takes place in San Francisco. It’s currently on the Modern Times Bookstore staff picks list of “books that promote youth empowerment and social consciousness”.
Mission Loc@l: How does your book bring awareness of social justice issues to children?
Tony Robles: I’m not aware of any other kids’ book that deals with the issue of eviction.
ML: What inspired you to create it?
TR: I was involved in the fight for Trinity Plaza, an apartment complex in downtown SF whose owner had designs on converting the property to condos.
A group of tenants– many of whom were Filipino elders– organized to fight the demolition, citing the fact that the condos would primarily be for the rich and would gentrify the neighborhood and drive out working class people. We had meetings with community activists and policy makers, and a deal was reached that would guarantee low-income housing as part of the new development. The idea for the book was based on that struggle.
ML: Some parents feel we must shield children from seeing harsher realities.
TR: Kids are smart. Sometimes you think that what you say goes in one ear and out the other, but in reality kids hear you… they’re listening, they understand.
The Lakas character sees a situation and he knows right from wrong, he knows inside in his heart and has power to take action. The adults didn’t sit him down and explain it. Lakas just knows.
I think that much of this gets lost as we get older. We’re told to be good consumers and not be concerned with your neighbor. A lot of it stems from the cult of independence and the way capitalism seeds angst in young people so that they want to break away from their families and have their own TVs and couches and stereos.
ML: In the illustrations, there are photos of people and places [including historic I-Hotel] in the background. Can you tell us about this?
When I started illustrating “Lakas and the Manilatown Fish”, I was taking pictures of Manilatown and Kearny Street. Originally I was trying to get the locations right, but I noticed that a lot of the places in Tony’s story weren’t actually there anymore.
I was also trying to come up with a way to include various figures in the story, without distracting from the Lakas character. Using images of [activists] involved in the community is a way of paying tribute to those who came before us.
ML: What medium did you use for illustrating “Lakas and the Makibaba Hotel”?
CA: Acrylic paintings, pencil, and collage.
ML: What influences your work as an illustrator?
CA: Visually, everything influences my work, from film to fine art, music videos, comic books. For me, it all comes back to just being able to tell a good story. I love stories.
ML: Minorities are underrepresented in kids’ books. Most canons of children’s literature exclude stories with protagonists of color.
CA: I think it’s slowly changing, but the emphasis is on the word “slowly.” A lot of big publishers have snapped up smaller ones, which can be both a curse and a blessing. One would hope with the marketing power of a big publisher, some of these smaller houses would now be able to have more exposure for their titles. But in many cases, the big publishers are only interested in acquiring the smaller publishers’ catalogs and not much more.
Which is why it’s so important to support publishers like Children’s Book Press. No one does stories like them. Also it depends on the uniqueness of the author’s voice. No one has a voice like Tony, he’s one-in-a-million.
TR: Our history, our struggle is not told and the only ones that can tell it are the folks in our community. There is so much rich history that Fil-Ams and native borns do not know. Filipinos were instrumental in the labor movement, demanding fair wages and forming unions. Latinos and Filipinos have a bond in history, from the Spanish Galleon trade in the 1500’s which involved Manila and Mexico to the strikes in agriculture in the 50’s and 60’s when Filipinos and Chicanos worked together to form the UFW (United Farm Workers).
Knowing our history gives us a sense of our place in the world. That’s why it is so important for parents to tell and pass down stories and traditions. It anchors us and lets us know our legacy of struggle– not only in the Philippines but in the US and in the world. It also lets kids know that the history and legacy is theirs, that they own it too, and can write and talk and breath life into it by being poets, writers, painters and (heaven forbid) activists.
ML: At POOR Magazine, how do you encourage kids to take action?
TR: We had a youth summer camp [last year]. There were so many kids there who are dealing with poverty, but who can really analyze and articulate how they feel and how the struggle affects them and their families. At POOR we’re fighting to realize a dream of housing that we call “homefulness”– a sweat equity model of housing for families that is not tied down to one’s income, but to skills and art– whatever one can contribute.
20 or more kids made a scale model of what homefulness would look like. They created houses for families, a play area for kids, a community garden and an art/cafe space. We took the kids to Fiona Ma’s office to present the model. To convey the message that housing is a right, and that homefulness is a model that would get people housed.
ML: What has Lakas (your son and/or book character) taught you?
TR: My son Lakas has taught me to never stop learning or creating. Everything changes and we have to change too.
ML: The ending of “Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel” is open. Why?
TR: To allow parents and kids to figure out what they would do. It allows for a discussion on why housing should be a human right and not based on your money.
ML: What can children do?
TR: Children can do a lot. Children have the empathy and the imagination to get involved through their art, through their voices. Kids do not hold back, they tell the truth. I think one of the most powerful and revolutionary things a kid can do is give his or her seat to an elder on a bus.
Check out this post by Barbara Jane Reyes at Poetry Foundation about Tony Robles and his latest work “Filipino Building Maintenance Company” (POOR Press Publications, 2009).