Monday, June 05, 2006

Everyday Language Revitalization

I want to revitalize the Chamorro language. There are two main reasons, the first being that as a people our language is part of our existence and must be protected and preserved. The second being that I am lonely and want more people to speak Chamorro to and sing Chamorro with.

These two reasons tend to elicit very different interpretations. In the first we find per the declaration of the existence of a Nasion Chamoru by Angel Leon Guerrero Santos in 1992, a very political point. Language along with things such as land are the six things which constitute the vitality of a people and without any of them, that strength and existence comes into question. The second is less political, more personal, whereas the first tends to be read beneath the glowering wings of a far reaching universality, the second is containminated with a greasy particularity, a personal desire which would seem be inconsequential at the level of national consciousness.

I'll argue in this post, just the opposite.

The common view of universality tends to think of the second reason as the corruption of the first, implying a distinct difference between them, a de-linking, such as we find in different articulations of the disposition of God (Good kind, compassionate, loving God vs. Bad, evil, malicious, violent and uncaring God). One is clearly right against the other, and any relationship that appears between them is an unfortunate accident of faith or perspective. Returning to the language desire and views, these positions are not that distinct, not separate and not even opposed. It is not that when I say that I want to teach everyone Chamorro, and that I want everyone to speak Chamorro because I want to sing Chamorro songs with people, that I am corrupting its true essence as the embodiment of a people with my personal wants, my limited particularity. Rather, the truth is, that the noble universality of peoplehood and language only exists dependent upon the intertwining and the weaving together of these personal, everyday desires together.

The first point professes to be political, appears to be so, but is clearly insufficient to be political in the most important sense, the everyday sense, the material world of lived experiences and acts. The sense at which an overrarching mandate of culture, consciousness or direction such as the prescription that the existence of a people depends upon the vitality of its language, gains important everyday meaning. Without this dimension, this personal dimension, this ability to imagine myself within that statement, the universal becomes emptied, becomes pointless and something that is most often said to cover over the fact that I am not adhering whatsoever to the principles I am espousing.

We find this sadly in the gap between rhetoric and reality in the families of many Chamorro language activists and advocates in Guam. While their rhetoric fits perfectly the universal principle of language vitality and peoplehood, the particularity of their families, most importantly in terms of the ability of their children to speak Chamorro clearly conflicts. It is appalling to see how many of the most fiery activists for our language and its preservation, have not (for whatever reason) taught their kids to speak Chamorro! Siempre mana'mamahlao hao, siempre mana'manman hao nai un tungo' kuantos na famagu'on i Manmaestron Chamoru siha, ni' ti sina fumino' Chamoru. Meggaina kinu dipotsi.

These activists along with everyone else may tell everyone the importance of preserving our language and our need to pass it on, but why is it then that they don't? Why do they not embody this rhetoric in the realm where which they would seem to have the most say? Hunggan, hu komprende na ti bula iyo-niha resources i manma'estron Chamoru gi i eskuelan publiko, bihu lokkue i kosas fina'na'gue siha, ya i manma'gas ma trata fino' Chamoru kalang "fino' foreign," enlugat di i fino' i tano' Guahan. But isn't your home the place where regardless of resources or teaching materials, the language can be taught and perpetuated?

This is where the everyday world comes into play. You may be the greatest Chamorro speaker in the world, but when you look at the Guam around you, there doesn't seem to be much hope for the Chamorro language. Sure there are a few books here and there, a radio station, some talk shows, but everything attached to the language seems to be so old, whether it be "old people music" or manamko' (old people themselves). This combined with the fact that English is spoken by nearly everyone on Guam and has the ability to connect Chamorros to non-Chamorros, Guam to everywhere else and Guam to the colonizer and its glorious American dream like content, means that any fidelity to an empty universal claim about language preservation is quickly revoked or overriden, but the overwhelming presence and progress meaning of English and what appears to be the outdated and pointless character of keeping Chamorro alive.

The momentum for revitalizing our language will not come from some abstract agreement that we need it to continue to exist as a people, but from the very concrete connections we make to it.

Take the case of i kakanta Johnny Sablan. According to his biography in the second Hale-ta, I Manfayi book, he returned from the states (where he had a Billboard hit by the way "Imitation Heart") speaking little to no Chamorro. On Guam he lived with and spent time with his grandmother who spoke no English. Slowly he learned more Chamorro and she some English, and this very real experience eventually pushed Sablan to learn more Chamorro to speak with his grandmother as well as later research Chamorro music.

My case was similar. I grew up speaking no Chamorro whatsoever, save for a few body parts and bodily functions (fa'fa', daggan, do'do', etc.) and since we were Seventh Day Adventists, no chatfino', no cuss words. I took one Chamoru class at the University of Guam, which is no enough to even make you mildly fluent or really give you a sense of how to manipulate the language. In doing my homework for the class, I spent alot of time talking to my grandparents, asking them questions. In doing this, I realized for the first time how much my grandparents speak to each other in Chamorro. Not being able to speak or understand, the Chamorro faded into the background and was ignored, but as I learned some Chamorro through classes, I began to realize how much they spoke to each other in Chamorro, and began to realize how excluded I was from that part of their lives. Sitting at the table eating, watching The Lifetime Channel, atteding funerals, at all these places and more they would speak Chamorro and I had no idea what information was being conveyed, what social world they lived in through this language. It was a decision to find out what that world contained and to try to connect to my grandparents that pushed me to learn Chamorro and eventually I did.

For those who have lost these sorts of connections to language, the concreteness of your desire does not dissipate, but changes to how you will narrate yourself or position yourself in motion, in relation to a haunting absence. Your parents chose not to teach you Chamorro or chose not to tell you anything about Guam or being Chamorro, your inheritence from them is an absence. What will you do with it? And whether or not you consciously answer this question, it will be answered depending on what you do.

At the Famoksaiyan followup meeting a few weeks ago Migetu (Michael Gumataotao Tuncap) made a hilariously interesting comment. He said that "My pride in being Chamorro increased so much after my dad told me that I'm not black." Will you fill that absence with other content, or will you seek out what was kept from you? Is the absence the thing that enables your apathy and keeps you from acting? Is it the thing that pushes you to seek something more visible, more popularly understood to fill it (by becoming an "easier ethnicity")? Or is it something that pushes you to understand the frameworks of power and desire that produced this absence, and will you disrupt those frameworks by rediscovering that lost content?

For me, revitalizing the language is a personal and political project. The livelihood of our people does depend upon the persistence of our memory and our language, but this does not happen through cheap and empty claims of "how important our language is" alone. It needs more. It needs an everyday, intimate quality.

That is why I seriously want the language revitalized because I want more people to sing with!

One of the most exciting times at the Famoksaiyan follow-up meeting in Berkeley was after the meetings were done we gathered together in the backyard of the grandparents of the one of the new members (who had graciously cooked a fiesta for us), and with a guitar and a ukelele, sang and played together.

I had so much fun, but was a little sad. Although there were a number of people there who could play the guitar or the uk, some of them very very well, no one seemed to know how to play any Chamorro songs. The two exceptions were that Fanai knew how to play "My Island" from Malafunkshun and Vika knew how to play "Tuleti" but between me and the other Miget we only knew about 12 words from it (ummm....gi langhet...uh.....ummmm...para ta tu'lus, para ta tu'lus mo'na i galaide!)

As we sang together a collection of Reggae and Hawaiian songs, as well as a few songs composed by those playing, I couldn't help but feel a little depressed that with so much talent no one could play the guitar to lead the group in the Chamorro songs that might bind us together through an existing conceptual map, whether it be J.D. Crutch's Apu Magi, K.C. Leon Guerrero's Guam, U.S.A. or the Charfaurous Brothers Adios. At the same time however, the prospect of forming a new song, a new conceptual map was in the air.

But whether or not that new song of Chamorroness and Chamorro progressive struggles will be in English or in Chamorro will make a significant difference. If it is in English it will be the ultimate betrayal of ourselves, the final proof of our lack of sovereignty. Although it is easier for most of us to communicate in English, language goes beyond mere communication it is also an expression, and to attempt this progressive future in English only, with a few Chamorro words here or there (Malafunkshun style), means that we basically accept this second class existence, we basically accept our own impossibility, and understand ourselves and our existences as dependent upon the United States for everything. It means accepting the injustice against us that tore the language from the mouths of our parents and grandparents and maintains the desire that it stay that way.

The path to revitalizing our language is long and will be hard. I have so many ideas for doing it, and so many projects that I have planned but sadly have no resources to get them off the ground. That was one of the reasons I wanted Famoksaiyan to exist, is because it would provide the network that would bring me one step closer to the language revitalization texts and programs I want to start.

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