A traditional Filipino appellation of respect, anyone older than you is called auntie or uncle. But beyond protocol, Uncle Bob Santos was truly everyone's favorite Uncle Bob, Filipino or not. Greeted by a jaunty "Hey Kiddo!," whenever you saw him, you knew you could always count on him for lunch money, to bring 200 people to a demonstration or to keep a community from becoming gentrified.
He was called "the Asian American community's elder statesman and enduring rabble-rouser,"i "an advisor, mentor, confidante, and drinking buddy for a generation of our community's Jedi Knights,"ii and "a hero in an urban hamlet called the International District"iii. And this was while he was still alive and raising hell. Now hailed as one of Seattle's greatest civil rights and social justice champions whose accomplishments you can read about in HistoryLink, his autobiography Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs!: Memoirs of a Savvy Asian-American Activist (International Examiner Press, 2002), Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship (Chin Music Press, 2015), and the multitude of tributes by the many organizations he was a part of, the following remembrance is not so much on the importance of his achievements as the magnitude of his character.
I first met Uncle Bob in the mid 1970s in San Diego when I was a fledgling social worker and he was one of the plucky pioneers of Asian American Social Workers, one of the first national organizations of community-minded social service professionals. Suave and savvy, he was among the brat pack of the organization, making things fun as well as trail-blazing. Bob was then director of the multiethnic International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im), which soon morphed into the InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm CDA) - under which much of his community development efforts were accomplished. He was also known as one of the "Gang of Four" (which included Bernie Whitebear of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, Roberto Maestas from El Centro de la Raza and Larry Gossett, who is now a King County Council person) -- the name alone giving you an idea of their power and breadth.
In 2012, when I was conducting research for my book, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (Verso 2016), I had the opportunity to sit down with Uncle Bob and record just some of his many life stories. I was especially interested in the aha moments that motivated activists to become agents for change. When I asked Uncle Bob his, he told me two stories.
The first took place in 1942 when Bob was in the first grade and in love with Pauline Matsudaira, the prettiest girl in all of Maryknoll. One day he went to school and the classrooms were empty. His Japanese American classmates -- who made up 90 percent of the school -- had all been sent to the Puyallup Fairgrounds where they lived in horse stalls and later sent to Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho for the duration of World War II. "Even as kids, we knew we were at war with Hitler and Mussolini too so we wondered why weren't the Dodenhoeft or Schmidt families sent away?" Transferred to a school that was primarily white, Bob and the other Filipino kids were harassed for being "Japs" and soon told to wear buttons that stated, "I am Filipino."
The second story took place in 1951 when, as a junior in high school, Bob went to work in a fish cannery in Alaska. There, Bob and other young Filipino males faced the same run-down bunkhouses and inferior food that their fathers and uncles had endured. "While the white workers ate T-bone steaks and baked potatoes, we had fish heads and rice. Us second-generation guys said, ‘This is a bunch of bullshit.' We tried to make it an issue but it didn't go anywhere. But it was enough for us to know we had to speak up about this. The realization that you're being treated differently from the white working class, it really sticks."
When Bob became assistant manager of St. Peter Claver Center, he was approached to lend its kitchen for a Black Panther breakfast program. "I was new. I looked around and I said, it's okay with me." Later asked where the rent money was, Bob replied, "They're doing the Lord's work." Word got around. Soon the United Farmworkers were having their meetings there. And the United Indians of All Tribes. "So I'm sitting in on all these meetings and thought, ‘Shit, I might as well join them.' This was 68, 69, 70. So I sort of backed into the civil rights movement." Realizing that discrimination did not have to be a fact of life, Uncle Bob committed himself to lifetime working for social change.
In the early 1970s, Bob and Ben Woo, then president of the Inter*Im board, took a trip to the International Hotel in San Francisco (where Bob's father, "Sockin' Sammy" Santos, a professional prizefighter, used to stay in the 1920s), then under threat of demolition. There they saw local activists fighting to save the last building in what used to be a ten block strong Manilatown and said, "Up in the ID we're going to have the same situation so we better fight now to save the first building from demolition." Within the decade, not only did they stave off gentrification -- including a McDonald's franchise -- Uncle Bob helped developed low-come housing, health, childcare, and other social services, a communal garden and even community-controlled parking lots in the International District of Seattle.
How? For example, excerpting and paraphrasing Uncle Bob: "After one of our demonstrations, the county said they couldn't do anything about housing but [we found out] they could allocate funds to investigate health concerns. So we went to the city and said we can get money from the county if you match it. And then we brought our dog and pony show to the state. We had three people: I was the guy that did the mau mau, Bruce Miyahara, a medical student with a mustache and tinted glasses, he would do the charts and then Sister Heidi, a Catholic nun, she would talk with tears in her voice about the manongs are dying, malnutrition and all this. And it worked!"
But Uncle Bob could cuss as well as he could cajole.
When they were fundraising for a childhood education center, Bob met with the managers of the three local banks. The first gave a donation and furniture from one of its branches. The second replied that corporate would have to make the decision. The ask was for $1,000. "So one of the vice presidents calls me up and he has all these questions about what is your 10 year projection for this and that. And I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, why don't you stick that thousand bucks up your ass and in the meantime we'll withdraw Interim's three accounts from your fucking bank."
When the third bank got back to Bob, it wasn't the manager but a member of the corporate office. "‘Uncle Bob, I heard you had some trouble over there with the other bank,' and he pulls out an envelope with a check for twice the amount. This was the first time I had met him. His name was Norm Rice. He became mayor of Seattle." A couple of days later Bob got a call from the manager of the second bank who said that for some reason he was given the decision to make the donation. Bob thought, "Oh it worked! They need us more than we need them."
After each campaign Uncle Bob told me about—like the time they shut down several flights out of Seattle-Tacoma Airport to protest the non-hiring of minority construction workers—he would conclude with, "And that was fun!"
And Uncle Bob knew how to have fun. He was a regular at Bush Garden Restaurant, the last of the old hang-outs in the ID, where he charmed young and old with his karaoke.
After my book was published and I gave Uncle Bob a copy, he emailed me what is my best review ever:
Just so you know, a great part of my life floats through your book. I spent the early seventies working with Jim Miyano and Royal Morales to design and develop several national programs i,e Demonstration Project for Asian Americans (DPAA) and the Asian Pacific Center on Aging, among others.
Besides all the Seattle folks you mentioned, I knew or worked with: Carlos Bulosan when I was a kid working in Alaska; Ron Wakabayashi, Estella Habal, Emil De Guzman, Dale Minami, Phil Nash, Mo Nishida, Tracy Lai, Pat Okura, Al Robles, Bill Sorro, Phillip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Helen Zia, Warren Furutani and a few more I knew in passing.
Serve the People should be in every school library and part of the curriculum in Asian Studies Programs. Karen, you hit the nail right on the head.
See you soon,
No one ever conceived of a world without him. That's why there is such an out pouring of accolades and love from the many organizations and individuals who knew him, seeking solace in our shared grief. As much as I loved him from afar, my heart goes out to his wife Washington State Representative Sharon Tomiko, his six children and many grandchildren, his extended family, hundreds of good friends and comrades and all the good people of Seattle, especially the International District, on their deep loss. See you soon Uncle Bob.
i Tyrone Beason, "Bob Santos, Feisty Defender of the Chinatown International District, Has Never Left Home," Seattle Times, June 23, 2002.
ii Gary Iwamoto, "Bob Santos: Advisor, Confidant and Drinking Buddy for a Generation," in Doug Chin, Seattle's International District: The Making of a Pan-Asian American Community, (International Examiner Press, 2009).
iii Ron Chew, "Introduction," in Bob Santos, Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs! (International Examiner Press, 2002).
Karen Ishizuka, not a Seattle-ite, is an adopted member of the ID, thanks to Uncle Bob and his partners in social change: Ron Chew, Frankie Irigon, Soya Jung, Willon Lew, Sharon Maeda, Al Sugiyama and others.