Return of the Powell Street Guerrillas
In the 1990s, a section of the famous Powell Street Cable Car stop in downtown San Francisco was like Quiapo or Cubao.
In that busy tourist spot, you’d see mostly Filipino men, chatting, arguing, cracking jokes and laughing at those jokes.
Sometimes, they’d simply be hanging out.
They came to the U.S. after Washington finally fulfilled a promise to grant them citizenship for fighting under American command during World War II. An estimated 13,000 former soldiers and guerrillas took advantage of the new low. More than 2,000 of them moved to San Francisco.
For many, it was big, dangerous gamble.
Some of them sold land, the family carabao or other property to afford the trip. Many of them didn’t have family or any friends in the Bay Area, and they ended up in run-down, even rough neighborhoods, living in cramped rooms with poor heating and ventilation.
Many were already in their 70s when they arrived. Most arrived alone without their families.
But coming to America was an opportunity they knew they could not pass up.
It meant receiving government assistance (around $640 a month back then) that they could send back to loved ones in the Philippines. There’s the opportunity to bring some of their family members to the U.S. as immigrants.
There was one big catch: For either scenario, they had to stay in the U.S. — and survive.
That was their mission: to move to America and then just stay alive.
They once fought dangerous missions in which the odds were against them. But as guerrillas during the war, they fought as strong young men.
The guerrillas who came to San Francisco in the 1990s were old and frail men.
I had just started working as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle when the beteranos essentially took over the Powell Street Cable Car stop.
I wrote news stories about them, and later a novel, “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” which was adapted for the stage by Rody Vera for the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
This month, the English translation of play, now called “The Guerrillas of Powell Street,” was produced by the Filipino American theater company, Bindlestiff Studio, in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.
For me, it was a bittersweet event.
The Powell Street guerrillas in the novel had finally come home, their funny, tragic tales told in a small, dynamic theater on Sixth Street, not far from where the stories actually took place, where the beteranos embarked on their collective mission of courage and sacrifice.
But the play, directed by Pablo Bautista and produced by veteran theater artists Lorna Velasco and Joyce Juan Manalo, also came to the South of Market neighborhood at a time when the memory of the beteranos is fading.
To catch a rehearsal or a show, I had to pass by my old train stop near the Powell Street Cable Car stop where I used to see the old Pinoys.
How the place has changed, no longer the San Francisco version of Quiapo or Cubao, no longer a hangout for former guerrillas who came to America for their families.
Only a few of the former gerilyeros are left.
Many of them decided to return home, while some passed away, according to Attorney Lou Tancinco, whose office overlooks the Powell Cable Car stop.
She has been one of the beteranos’ most prominent and effective champions, who played a key role in the campaign to convince Washington offer the beteranos the same benefits given to other U.S. veterans.
It’s an increasingly difficult fight.
“Natatabunan na nang natatabunan,” she told me. The issue is getting buried in the other political battles in Washington.
With activist Luisa Antonio, Attorney Tancinco helped set up the Veterans Equity Center which has spearheaded the campaign to defend and expand the rights of the veterans.
Nowadays, some of the beteranos still pay her a visit at her office near Powell Street. “Naka oxygen tank na — they come hooked up to oxygen tanks,” she said. “Sometimes it’s their children who visit me. They come to thanks me and as questions. At least they remember.”
The process of remembering has continued at Bindlestiff Studio.
It is not a huge space, certainly not as big as the CCP’s Tanghalang Pilipino or the Camp Aguinaldo theater where the original Pilipino version of the play was produced.
But for the beteranos and their supporters, it was home.
The show closes this weekend after a successful run.
Bindlestiff hopes to bring the production to other cities, and is helping raise funds for the Veterans Equity Center which has been leading the campaign for equity rights.
I invite you to join the effort.
For more information, please check out this site.
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