Saturday, December 03, 2005

If the house of your culture and history was burning down, what would you take?

My mind constantly circles around the question of, "Why Guam is the way it is today?" Its not a rare question, people seem to ask it constantly. The Pacific Daily News has plenty of answers. As do people on the radio, people who chat in restuarants. People in backyards at parties, in churches, in chatrooms or message boards. Meggai na taotao manggai este na finaisen.

But just because everyone seems to ask this question, doesn't really mean that they are interested in or seeking actual answers. The Pacific Daily News and other official news sources are very adept at asking this question and then providing an answer to it often in the same sentence (ever wonder why there is always one or two incredibly long sentences in any given news report or newspaper article? Check out Brit Hume or even Lou Dobbs for clunky examples of this). When people just out of nowhere discuss these issues, aren't the questions themselves already skewed into providing or provoking a particular answer? ("Can you believe what the politicians have done with our island?")

Some people will cling to the idea that asking questions is enough, but if the framework for your question sucks, then you will only ask sucky questions, and refuse any real answers to your questions. If suppositions that form your question come from a particular tradition or intent, then they will move you to answer, seek answers or demands answers along that trajectory. As I've written extensively on already, too often the way these questions are posed lead us to find fault only in the "local." When I say local I mean what, on a day to day level is thought to be from Guam, and not from the United States. Local in this sense has meant "Chamorro" or Chinamorro for the longest time, but given today's ethnic make-up in Guam, it could also mean "non-American" groups like Filipinos and Micronesians.

This search for answers along these lines leads us to always find and be satisfied with "ethnically qualified" answers. The problem with the government is not "politicians" although people may say that, the image that they always draw from and re-draw for others is that of "local politicians" or more accurately "Chamorro politicians." The problems with education are always ethnically marked objects such as "Chamorro teachers" or "Micronesian studes" or "ESL students."

Notions such as "politics" or "education" which are free from this taint, are always so nicely and gently and respectfully associated with the United States and therefore felt to be fine, dandy and gof maolek. So generally, unless you take into account from where you are asking your questions, you will always tend to find positive answers with the United States (more military, more Federal oversight, more English language, more patriotism) and negative answers with Chamorros and Guam (less Chamorro language, less gayu politics, less languages that aren't English, less families getting their land back so we can have "economic development"), and to me those answers are completely useless, because they privilege the United States and its interests above anything having to do with Guam.

But this limit extends even into other realms. For example, in seeking answers to "Why Guam is the way it is?" Chamorros who are searching for Chamorro answers, tend to search along pre-given, established lines of historical, chronological and cultural thought.

I wrote this to a young Chamorro recently, who I'm afraid didn't get what I was referring to when I said it:

"If the house of your culture and history was burning down with you inside it, and you could only grab one thing from which you would explain to other what we are as a people, what would you grab."

A terrible hypothetical trap, which I know is really really problematic, but it is nonetheless telling. The young Chamorro who had emailed me wanting to know more about his roots and his culture (and also, of course wanting to know why it seems like I don't like the US that much) responded that he would get stories from "the war" (although he grew up in the States, for him "the war" meaning World War II still exists without the need for qualification) or maybe stories about the Ancient Chamorros. Most Chamorro and non-Chamorros would answer the very same. Where is the value of the Chamorro? Last year I was emailed by a haole living on Guam who was concerned about the loss of Chamorro culture and history, he told me that we must regain our culture, re-learn it, and to do so we must study archeology. Also, in what type of book is Guam (probably) mentioned the most? Military histories of World War II.

To be perfectly clear before I continue, there is nothing wrong with taking these two things. There is something wrong however if we only think to take from these two areas because these are the only two areas where we think we can find anything of value for explaining who we are. We seek answers in Ancient times, prior to colonization by the Spanish because that's where anthropologists, historians, Pedro Sanchez, Robert Rogers, and too many of ourselves say that that's where the "real" Chamorros are. (bei faisen hamyo, yanggen siha i manminagahet, hafa hit?). We seek answers in World War II and our experiences there, because that was the event which not only made us Americans (as newspaper accounts from the time and people who write editorials for the Pacific Daily News maintain), but gave us the need to be Americans, which radically changed Chamorro forever, where we can conceive of ourselves as nothing else.

For the answers both as to "Why Guam is the why it is?" and even "Why the Chamorro is the way it isn't? (since remember, real Chamorros don't exist anymore) we are required by the knowledge we use and too often believe to only return to these points of reference for explainations.

The reality however, for those interested, lies elsewhere. For those seeking "the Chamorro" only returning to that Ancient point, is the easiest form of symbolic genocide imaginable. It means slaughtering the island's indigenous people again and again through language, through belief and through the objects and texts you produce from those beliefs. As I wrote recently in a paper, the survival of the Chamorro means spilling. And this is survival not in the sense of a barely alive native thing, which can do nothing more than pick up the pieces of its faded existence and prepare that dying form of itself for its exhibit slot in the Museum. But survival in the sense of spilling across the borders that imply and require your death, your confinement to a particular lost time, your attachment to particulat lost practices. It means spilling across time, space and imagination, so that the Chamorro can and should be found everywhere, not just at that point where Jane Underwood says to us, "thank you for flying Anthro-Air, now that we've taken off the life of the Chamorro is now over, please use your designated "neo-Chamorro" term for the duration of the flight."

For explainations of "Sa' hafa taiguini Guahan pa'go?" while the Second World War played a big deal in causing Guam to be like this now, we should pay even more close attention to what came after the war. There are of course two approaches one can take, the local and the non-local. A decent look at either howeve, requires a fair understand of both. From the local angle, which I am most interested in now, I am referring to decisions made by Guam's politicians to structure a particular relationship to the United States (wave the flag, ayuus i bandera, wave the flag, ayuus i bandera), as well as reconstruct the island and its landscape after particular images. After World War II ended there was heavy heavy emphasis on improving Guam and the island advancing, but what were the images upon which these forward progressions and changes would be copied after? What were the notions of change which pushed Guam to have a closer relationship to the US military, or to develop a tourist market?

If someone really wants to know answers to this ever-present question, then you have to look beyond the whole "America in Asia" and "Where America's Day Begins" bullshit (which is basically the historical mindset which continues to privilege the war as a historical site, and assumes that the return of the Americans is the happy ending which "ends history"), and get into the mechanics of how the island changed after the war. A good place to start as I've recently learned is advertisements made by people on Guam to represent Guam to the United States. Also literature created by different Government of Guam agencies (tourism, education, administration, agriculture) during the 1950's and 1960's, and how they describe the road to progress that Guam is one, what are the examples and metaphors they use to draw it and to paint its progression? It is not enough to say that Guam was rebuilt after the war, but these representations clearly show how this rebuilding followed a very particular image. The postwar reconstruction was taken up by both Americans in Guam and elite Chamorros as the opportunity to rebuild Guam in the image of the United States (as seen from Guam), and what this literature makes clear is how that was imagined.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gotta give a biba for this one chelu. "Survival means spilling" thats priceless.

charissa aguon said...

Buenas Miguet,
I really enjoyed this article.If the house of my culture was burning down, I would throw myself into the ocean and put the fire out. Are we not the houses of our culture? Also, Does not survival also mean compromise/negotiation? Our history gives many accounts of our foremothers, in an effort to maintain our core values, adapting to a certain extent to imposed value systems to save what is uncompromisable. This is evident with the role Chamorru women have played in the Catholic church(emphasis of devotion to mother mary and the devotion to Santa Marian Camalen) Through a process of compromise Chamorru women maintained there roles as enculturers- a vital core value-when forced into the dominant colonial religion. Ofcourse, they where put in a position where they had no choice.They saved what they could the best way they could. However,with this example it is evident that Culture is dynamic and We are not passive participants in the preservation or perpetuation of our culture- no matter what dominant value systems are in place.What is important for me,is what was important for our foremothers and fathers-that I maintain my indeginous core values amidst the many outside influences that surround me and let it (this core) be the standard in which I judge, adopt or deflect other value systems.

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