Chris Carbonell: The first Filipino Guardian Angel

Chris is code-named ‘Bruce’ — as in Bruce Lee – in the organization because of his martial arts skill.

By Cristina DC Pastor

Chris Carbonell, who manages a Filipino restaurant in Queens, is the first Filipino Guardian Angel.

Meaning, he is the first Filipino to join the anti-crime organization founded by Curtis Sliwa in 1979 whose avowed mission is to repel crime in New York City subways.

Depends on who you ask, the Guardian Angels have been dismissed as either a crackpot vigilante group or embraced as a positive presence on NYC streets. They are seen by some as ‘non-essentials’ in crime prevention or a force for good by others. With the rash of violence against Asian Americans in the last couple of years, Guardian Angel patrols are now a welcome addition to law enforcement presence in vulnerable areas, such as Chinatown and Queens.

Chris joined the Guardians (not to be confused with the Guardians fraternity) when he was 15 years old and a student at Newtown High School in Queens.

“Two of my friends asked me to join. I joined and that’s when the Guardians first opened up. I went to two patrols and I didn’t like it and I left,” he recalled in an interview with The FilAm.

“I am the first Filipino member,” he continued. “I was with one Chinese guy, and the others are Blacks and Hispanics.”

Chris left to go to college, but would return. He would leave again and return again, chronicling his ambiguous attitude toward the group until in the 1980s he decided to stay for good. He currently holds the title First Commander and manages a team of 25 people, including some women, in charge of patrolling Queens. In the Guardian hierarchy, he reports to a Captain, a Puerto Rican guy code-named Negro.

Chris is one of Sliwa’s most trusted lieutenants. When Sliwa ran for mayor of New York City in November, Chris was part of his security detail. He said the Guardians have anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 members in 13 countries,  including Europe.

As a member, he earned the code name “Bruce” — as in Bruce Lee – because of his martial arts skill and his masterful handling of the wooden stick Chako. Chris learned Arnis and Kali  from Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje and Tuhon Chris Sayoc, and for more than 30 years mastered the techniques of handling knives and disarming people with weapons.

With Curtis Sliwa (center) and other Guardians in front of the Philippine Consulate on Fifth Avenue.
Chris with his son Christopher (center), also a Guardian, and other members.

With the escalating violence against Asians – including Filipinos who have been mugged in subways, on their way to church, or just walking the streets – Chris said crime in NYC has been “bad.”

“The state of criminality in New York is bad because of the defunding issue,” he said categorically. “They cut down on cops. Three of my friends got laid off.”

Wearing the Guardian colors.

A USA Today reports that “(NYC’s) budget cuts nearly $484 million from the NYPD’s annual $6 billion budget and shifts funding to other agencies as well as youth and social services programming…New York City officials agreed on a budget that shifts roughly $1 billion from the police department, but advocates and lawmakers say the change doesn’t go far enough.”

He said today’s crime situation is not near as bad as it was in the 1970s to ‘80s when subway trains were crawling with gang members, and there were more gangs than NYPD cops.

“Back then, subway cars were covered with graffiti inside and out and gang members would just hang out in subways, especially in winter time because it was cold. There would be rumbles or fights or muggings. Just to scare people.” This was during the time of Mayor Ed Koch, he said. This was also around the time that Sliwa formed the Guardian Angels because “he couldn’t take it anymore.”

“(Then-Mayor Rudy) Giuliani cleaned up the city real good,” he said.

Today, he said, “Day in and day out when we put on our colors we can feel the tension and the danger out in the streets.” When he goes out on patrols, Chris wears a red sports jacket matched with a red beret. Underneath is a white shirt that says “Guardian Angels Safety Patrol.”

He said the Guardians have gotten in the way of some crimes in the act of being committed as when a Chinese couple was being harassed inside a Brooklyn train by a knife-wielding man.

“He was brandishing a knife to an old couple. People were just looking. I slowly crept up behind him and I disarmed him and pressed him against the door of the subway. When the train opened, I kicked him out and he ran,” recalled Chris. He has stopped many other crimes from being committed, he said.

Even at the height of the anti-Asian violence, he would take the subway at any time of the day and fellow Guardians would call him “the crazy Filipino,” he said laughing and with a touch of levity. “Takot ako sa mumo (ghost), hindi sa tao.”

He said Filipinos should always be “alert and vigilant” wherever they are, especially in subway trains.

“I would tell them do not always look down in your phones, your Facebook and Instagram. Think of it as the jungle. You are the gazelle and there are tigers stalking.”

He is amused at how some Filipinos would rant and rave against violence. “When I tell them why don’t you join us, they will say, ‘Busy ako.’” He would like to see more Filipinos join the Guardians, he said.

He likewise shakes his head when he hears some in the community invoke God in their concerns about personal safety. “I hear so many old people say, Bahala na ang Diyos.  They can’t just leave it all to God,” said Chris. “We have to be alert and vigilant.”

© The FilAm 2021



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