Long-time admirers and brand-new fans of Joaquin Legaspi gathered at the African American Center of the San Francisco Main Library on a sunny Saturday afternoon, February 19, 2022, to celebrate launching a reprint of the 1976 original collection, Manong Legaspi, compiled by Jovina Navarro.
Our primary purpose was to ensure that younger generations of artists/activists would know of Manong Joaquin, who died at age 79 in 1975, as they move from individual education to collective action. A secondary purpose was to allow those he mentored in the turbulent 1960s to offer their reflections. The first part of the collection includes Manong Joaquin’s verses. The second part is poems by those he mentored in art and activism.
Jovina Navarro, who provided an introduction in the 1976 publication of Manong Legaspi, was one of the first Filipino American PhD psychologists and a pioneer faculty who taught the first Pilipino Studies Community Fieldwork course at San Francisco State in fall 1969. In the introduction, she stated, “We may never be able to fathom fully the greatness of the man named Joaquin Legaspi, a person whose creative talent could only be matched by his humanitarianism. He was a friend and classmate of the distinguished Pilipino artist Fernando Amorsolo and good friend of the late sculptor Benny Bufano whose classes he attended in 1923…In the early 1930, under the pseudonym, ‘El Pasig,’ he began writing poetry…His organizing efforts were first tested in 1919 when as a plantation laborer in Hawaii he organized a group of Pilipino workers to voice their grievances to the plantation owner about the working conditions of the plantation.”
In the preface to the 2022 reprint, Estella Habal, author of San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement, provided further insight. “Respect, Admiration. Love. These words describe how the young people felt who knew Joaquin Legaspi. Born on August 17, 1896 in Iloilo, Philippines, he was one of the early founders of the United Filipino Association which he described as the ‘sustaining force in the International Hotel survival’”. As a leader and organizer at the International Hotel, Manong Legaspi stated that it was “a political struggle to retain the ethnic ecology of Filipinos in Manilatown on Kearny Street, San Francisco, California.”
Poet Lou Syquia read excerpts from his “The Legacy of Legaspi”:
Wise old timer
Your eyes are witness
To worlds unexplored
See through layers
Of a slick-coated polish
See past crumbling masks
& undernourished egos
Ten thousand storms
Jeanette Lazam, current resident at the rebuilt International Hotel, and Harvey Dong of UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies and Eastwind Books of Berkeley, both worked with Manong Legaspi. They gave poignant reflections. Jeanette lamented that younger organizers in the 1970s pushed him and other manongs (meaning older brother in Ilocano) aside. Harvey noted in retrospect that the educated, but not necessarily street savvy youngsters, perhaps should have listened to the old timers, given the 1977 fall of the I-Hotel.
Edwin Lozada, president of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), published the reprint with a new front cover – a collage of Joaquin Legaspi’s profile, the International Hotel and the Statue of Liberty. The back cover has Legaspi’s painting of a flying bird and was the original front cover. He titled it, “The Flight”. Manong Legaspi noted that there were different ways to view this bird. One way was in flight. Rotated 90 degrees clockwise. it was titled “Ascent.” Rotated counter clockwise, he called it “Descent.”
Edwin and Jovina described futile efforts to locate other paintings which would have been fitting to include in this collection. The audience decided that the next step was to put out a call to the larger community to locate these treasures.
As Joaquin Legaspi stated in his poem “Seed,”
The fertile earth is plowed,
Uprooting defiant weeds for seeds to grow
Thus—possess again a secret
We never knew