Three Chamorros have died in Iraq so far, and while to anyone belonging in an ethnicity or race who's numbers reach the high hundreds of thousands or even millions this may not seem like much. But if you are to contrast this number with the fact that there are only about 200,000 Chamorros in this world, then to lose three in a senseless, useless war is a loss that I can't fully comprehend.
Christopher Rivera Wesley died December 8 of last year. Michael Aguon Vega died March 20 of this year, and last week I learned that Jonathan Pangelinan Santos died on the 15th of October.
Their lives, their deaths and the ways they are remembered publicly give us incredible insight into so many things which plague our culture, and threaten the very survival of the Chamorros as a distinct people.
I feel compelled to write about this, even though what I will write might not make sense, or might not comfort anyone, or might just confuse people. Yet when confronted with this loss of life, and then confronted with reactions from people which make no sense to me, then I feel expressing myself in such a blatant and risky way is the only way that I can find my own solutions and strategies for understanding and then dealing with this. Its not perfect and its full of contradictions, logic traps, stops, flows and gaps. I don't have time to make this flow, and I don't feel the need to create any appearance of continuity or argumentative style other than what exists. Instead this will be written as it comes from my mind, therefore the only continuity it will require is my own fragmented form.
When you read about these three soldiers, notice the way in which none of these troops were actually "from Guam." They were always raised elsewhere and at one point came to Guam. This is a new reality that we must deal with. There are more Chamorros in other places than the Marianas Islands, and that means that questions about authenticity, questions about sustainability will always haunt us, regardless of any and all strategies that we devise or enact. We must address these questions ourselves, but not let others use those questions to control us, as they have done so in the past. While others will say that the diaspora will destroy us, we must never agree to such a position, even though we may ourselves believe it. The idea that Chamorros in other lands, must give up their Chamorroness in order to assimilate is probably false, and all part of the means through which a dominant culture (inapa'ka) controls its marginal elements.
In the way these soldiers are described, in particular Wesley in the main PDN article about his death, and Santos in an KUAM article, it is almost as if they are not Chamorro. This is a very specific and precise point, which one can miss if one isn't paying attention. Notice the way their place in Chamorro culture is described, they wanted to learn more, they were eager to learn more, but clearly because of their growing up in the states, or more importantly because of their joining the military, they are not Chamorro, and therefore come to Guam in order to "discover" their "roots." Or to find their Chamorroness, I Chinamorron-niha.
It is almost as if the Chamorroness has been stripped from them, because they live in the states, or more likely because they are in the military. The military is a reality of Chamorro culture/life and society on Guam, but we cannot let it control our identity in this way. I feel the military is the means by which Chamorros can not only improve their economics, but more importantly more concretely realize the American dreams they have been colonially cultured with. But the price and danger of these dreams, and the way they invade our lives and identities, is that we do not critique them as being racist, or denigrating, or in another way obviously excluding Chamorros based on the color of our skin, our colonial connection to the United States, or how our clinging to indigenous ideas about labor, time, family, community keep us from embracing the "real" American "dream." We are passively colonial subjects, who are dominated primarily by benefits rather than ill effects. Therefore analyzing these things is very difficult on a day to day process, because from the media, from schooling, from the histories we learn and hear, we are given identities, given dreams, and they don't seem to threaten or destroy, but instead only seem to offer. Because of the pervasiveness of this indoctrination, many Chamorros do not consciously interpret or translate these dreams, but merely accept them as is. As the way things are and should be.
Being in the states I often confront the most insane constructions of identity, most of them variations of this theme, "I am not Chamorro, but my parents are." It was easy to dismiss this statement when I first heard it, as sad, pathetic, but harmless. Now that I have heard young Chamorros from all over California make this statement, to me, and through emails, I realize the deculturation (what some would call assimilation) that is taking place.
A sad distinction is emerging for the young Chamorros of today, which is very pronounced in the states, but also very in effect on Guam, and that is of our youth thinking of themselves as chatChamorro. They are not Chamorro, they are not ti Chamorro, they are chatChamorro, which is an ambiguous identity, which means something very important and basically nothing at the same time. In the oral history of these soldiers retuning to Guam and learning about their culture, one can see clearly how they are Chamorro-Americans, or a more appropriate construction would be American-Chamorros, or AMERICAN chamorro. Where for many many reasons they come into this world completely detached from the millennia of history that created them and their parents and so on.
So when you read about how Santos or Wesley, were "into" their culture, we must step back and realize how we all talk about this issue. Being "into" one's culture, ultimately assumes that one is outside of one's culture, or not "in" one's culture, and we have to ask ourselves, is that true? Or is this something which has been constructed and we have taken to be the truth? Are these ideas about identity truly our own, or truly represent what we want or even see, or are they part of our colonial programming? When we see Chamorros attempting to re-assert, or "discover" their roots, their culture, their identity, do we celebrate it as a resurgence, or rather critique it as falling prey to the games of the colonizer? When we see Chamorros that have been haolified, or stripped of their history or culture, do we celebrate their Chumamomorro? Which usually amounts to the tourist-like collection of cultural artifacts and symbols, such as swear words or latte necklaces. Or do we instead assert the fact that esta ha' Chamorro, lao mabense gui' na otro. That he/she is already Chamorro, but they have been convinced that they are something else. This difference may be nothing to some, but if you think about white Americans returning to their "mother countries" after generations and "finding their roots," their exploits mean nothing, because all they find in Europe is inamerikanu, or Americaness. They go to Europe as Americans and find there, pieces of their American identity. For Chamorros, the journey is the same, Chamorro-Americans return to Guam, enrich their lives not as Chamorros, but as Americans. Thus, although all these soldiers came to Guam, wanting to know more about their culture, their language, they didn't leave the island as Chamorros. Why? Not because they didn't study enough, or didn't learn the language well enough, but because they came here as Americans, and all the learning in the world, won't transform them. For their explorations to enrich themselves as Chamorros, they must start as such, they must return to Guam as such.
The process must begin as a Chamorro returning to Guam, not to "discover" his roots, but instead to understand that they were already there, much in the way Magellan and Columbus didn't "discover" anything. They are Chamorros, and therefore their roots have always been there, as well as always been theirs. The use of the word "discover" is important, because it limits the way we think about these things, making sure that we see our Chamorroness, or others see their differences as being something unknown, something unfamiliar, foreign, and in the process of discovering it, the Americaness is asserting itself as the dominant piece of their identity, making sure that whatever is discovered is assimilated into their American identity, rather than transforming the individual into something else, or even admitting to something else existing separate. (the story of the man looking for his key on the street comes to mind as I write this. A man has lost his key on the street and is looking beneath a streetlight, a passerby asks him where he lost his key, the man responds, over there, pointing to the other side of the street. Well, why, the passerby asks, are you over here? Because the man responds, this is where the light is. In this, the light is the known, the admitted, the assumed Americaness, and the lost roots, the Chamorroness is naturally the key. The finding of that key, implying the escaping, bypassing, supplanting or marginalizing of the American identity with a Chamorro one, is a daunting task, which must at times feel like groping blindly in the dark. It is far easier to look beneath the light of one's Americaness (for the key) than face the potential complications of identity, hybridity, belonging or history which exist in whatever Chamorroness one may find beyond it.)
The way Chamorro express their devotion to the United States, and therefore imagine their relationship to it, is what keeps us from understanding or truly knowing our history, from truly understanding our place in the world. The patriotism that so many Chamorros invoke to express their love or loyalty to the United States plays a huge role in preventing us from understanding that Guam is a colony, and that is bad, despite inclusion in social security or Medicare, it is bad! Baba enao che'lu, sa' hafa ti un ripapara? All the little token changes which take place, don't destroy or excuse the fact that Guam's relationship to the United States is based on racist and sometimes sexist ideas of Chamorros and Guam itself as being inferior. And all the cheap glowing letters of recognition and inclusion which the Chamorro people get every July 21st, which proclaim that they are a beautiful and important part of America mean absolutely nothing when one realizes that we are not beautiful or important enough to receive even the most basic democratic rights. (Or dignified enough to get at least the pretense of independence like the other Micronesian territories/colonies.)
Whenever I think about the place of Chamorros in America, especially those on Guam, I recall the comments made by a woman in Patricia Taimanglo's dissertation on inter-generation trauma and counseling of Chamorros. I can only paraphrase it here, but the woman in a sense says that we are only human when the government wants us to be. Annok i manaina-hu yan mane'lu-hu siha, na ma fa'chattaotao hit.
But as the lives and deaths of these soldiers in Iraq are remembered and comments are made about dying for freedom, or sacrificing to protect us, we, who know and understand war better than most Americans, are instead deceiving ourselves and believing the fictions of American patriotism and belonging, because we feel it gives us at a place at that table we have all been taught since school to love and desire. Instead of seeing how unfair our situation is and working to fix it, we justify these deaths, the deaths in Vietnam, the trauma of World War II and the daily injustices we experience based on the value such sacrifices and humiliations give us, that allow us to imagine that we are part of America. Although most would say that being an American means being part of a community in which we are all equal and treated the same, Chamorro from Guam participation in this community can only be made based on our being treated unequally. It is only by assuming the designated role of chattaotao that we are allowed to be some sort of American.
I don't have any answers really, just more questions that need to be asked...but these are real issues that we must deal with, find solutions to, or at least find ways to negotiate and mitigate their effects. Will we allow the millennia of tradition, history, struggle and peoplehood which have created us, to dissipate and fade away? Will we allow those things to become a signpost along the freeways of American identity? Or become the faded photograph or portrait of ancestors from another land or a foreign time? Will we give up these things for a passport and an identity which requires us to think of ourselves as inferior in order to be an American? Or is there a way to navigate all of this, to truly manipulate the system which for so long as manipulated us, tying us into loyal knots around the mast of a tri-colored rag. Is there a place for Chamorros in America which isn't based primarily on exclusion and abstract humanless exploitation?
Personally I don't think so, but I'm willing to engage anyone who thinks there is.