One of San Francisco’s most beloved community leaders Bill Sorro passed away on August 27th. Bill was a fierce activist in many labor, social justice, housing rights, and neighborhood struggles for many decades but is best known as a leader in the struggle to save and rebuild SF’s International Hotel (‘I-Hotel.') He was one of the warmest and most positive people I have ever met, who worked tirelessly nurturing younger activists like me and generations of others in our movements.
Over 35 years ago, Bill helped establish the I-Hotel Tenants Association which fought for years against the evictions of the mostly senior Filipino and Chinese tenants who were forcibly evicted from their homes on the night of August 4th 1977. Afterwards Bill worked with Emil De Guzman, Al Robles and others to establish the Manilatown Heritage Foundation which successfully secured the former I-Hotel site for low-income housing and the new Manilatown Center which opened in 2005.
Bill was born and raised in San Francisco's Fillmore District among African Americans and Asian Americans, and raised his family in Bernal Heights. He had a unique ability to bring diverse groups of people together around a common political agenda with humor and a collective sense of ‘Ohana’ or family. Sorro was a 25 year trade unionist, socialist and founding member of Ironworkers for Union Democracy in Oakland. He helped build the Asian American Movement as a member of the Kalayaan Collective and the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP.)
Because of his decades of movement work, Bill received a Local Hero Award in 2005 from SF’s public television station KQED. In 2001, the SF Board of Supervisors officially honored Sorro for his years of tireless service as a tenant and community advocate and rank-and file trade union activist.
On August 4th, I joined hundreds of Filipino, Asian American, tenant, labor and social justice movement activists at the Manilatown Center to commemorate the I-Hotel struggle and to honor Bill (who was too sick to attend) and his family – his partner Giuliana ("Huli") Milanese, who married Bill in the I-Hotel over 30 years ago, and Bill’s children Desu, Daphne, Django, Denae, Giulio, Joachin and Jordan. Giulio, a teacher at SF’s June Jordan School for Equity, with tears in his eyes, thanked those in attendance but said that his father wanted everyone to know that we shouldn’t be celebrating just one person, but all of our movements.
Bill’s family and friends are organizing a memorial sometime on the weekend of September 29th. Details will be announced shortly. Until then, please honor Bill by visiting the Manilatown Center exhibit entitled ‘A Serving of Love: The Passion of Bill Sorro,’ a gallery exhibition featuring the interviews, photographs and other historical material from his life opened earlier this month and will run through October 6 on display at the Maniltaown Heritage Foundation
, 868 Kearny Street, SF.
Bill and his family are also featured in KQED's American Family Portraits: The Sorros
Eric Mar is a member of the SF Board of Education and longtime Richmond District activist.