Guam or Guatemala
Bolabola este. Despite the apparent fullness of Chamorro life in the United States, in particular their citizenship, they nonetheless feel in multiple ways a similar ambiguity as those on Guam in terms of their relation to “Americaness.” Their status as a non-white minority, as well as their smallness and lack of cultural visibility and invisibility of their homeland, forces Chamorro in the states to shoulder an ill-fitting and frustrating ambiguous Americaness. Although fully enfranchised “political” Americans in the states, as non-white their appeals to belong here are nonetheless constantly checked by questions that pester all non-white groups, “where are you really from?” Yet, as a small, almost invisible ethnic group in the United States, and not part of the main four American racial food groups (white, black, brown, yellow), they are even denied the simple recognition of coming from a place or region that they actually came from.
As other ethnic groups are forced to endure statements, stares and actions which require that they return to an imagined locale where they really belong, Chamorros are constantly informed that they belong to someone else’s place or even no place at all. We can see this on a 2007 episode of the comedy satire show, The Colbert Report, which featured a hilariously painful segment on Guam. The show’s host Stephen Colbert since the beginning of his show has run a regular feature called “Better Know a District,” which consisted of mock, real interviews with various Congressional representatives. The interviews would often create uncomfortably funny situations where ridiculous questions from Colbert would elicit even more ridiculous answers from the representatives. In addition to this feature, in order to accommodate the six representatives from America’s non-voting, insular and colonial areas, the show created another exceptional segment titled “Better Know a Protectorate.”
I describe this segment as “painful” because for so many Chamorros, the oblivious willingness of people in the United States to asset what Guam is and isn’t, despite their almost full ignorance of what it is and isn’t, is not something unique to a satirical interview on Comedy Central. It is rather, the way so many exchanges in the United States take place. The Guam segment, which featured an interview with the island’s non-voting delegate Madeleine Bordallo lasted for six minutes of misinformation and misrecognition which brought tears of laughter, anger and sadness to many Chamorros eyes. Through this interview however, we can see clearly the colonial wound that both Chamorros in the states and Guam feel about their relation to the colonizer and his level of knowledge.
Colbert began his interview by greeting Bordallo with an excited “aloha” and then appeared dejected when he was told that Guam isn’t part of Hawai’i. He then went on to equate Guam’s indigenous people as being a type of food, because their name, Chamorro, “sound[s] delicious.” This statement about the tastiness of Chamorros, was followed up by a statement that “Guamanians” or non-indigenous residents of Guam, sounds like a “mental disease.” This sort of lack of knowledge takes on its own infectious forms amongst diasporic Chamorros. After recounting to me a story about how a Post Office employee in Washington state, remarked that she’s always thought Guam was a brain disease, one Chamorro who has lived in the states for the past several years, had this to say, “Out here, Guam might as well be Guatemala, and in fact how many times have idiots told me I’m from Guatemala, when I say I’m from Guam! Where do they get off? We’re their fu-king territory!"
This Chamorro anger, is fundamentally however a feeling of very intense and intimate betrayal. There is an interesting expectation amongst Chamorros in the Pacific and the states, that their relationship, their knowledge between the United States and them, should somehow be equal or should be reciprocal. People on Guam, are raised up knowing plenty about the United States, learning it in schools, watching or reading about it in the media, but sadly, there seems to be little proportional response from the American end. For Chamorros in general then, their identities seem to be continually defined and dissolved through an almost pathological American ignorance. As one Chamorro stated, “Americans who come to Guam are ignorant, people out here are ignorant…The ignorant Americans, ignorant of even other Americans like us.”
This is the source of Chamorro frustration, the bind of misrecognition whereby the Chamorro isn’t supposed to be a part of America, but at the same time isn’t allowed to be from somewhere else. The connection to the United States is clear and well documented, but military bases, court cases, nor even American citizenship does not close the circle of belonging around Chamorros or around their island. In fact, the most rudimentary and pathetic claims, can be used to raze such attempts. Take for instance, this exchange between Colbert and Bordallo, where following the delegate’s assertion that Guam is part of America, Colbert responds by asking her to point it out on a map of America.
BORDALLO: …we are a US territory.
COLBERT: But you’re not part of the United States.
BORDALLO: We are part of the United States.
COLBERT: You…I do not believe you are.
BORDALLO: Well, uh let me say that our people of Guam wouldn’t care for that kind -
COLBERT: I think Guam is probably lovely, but its not a state.
BORDALLO: But we’re still US.
COLBERT: Do you live in the United States?
BORDALLO: Yes, I live in a US territory.
COLBERT: (holds up a map of the continental United States, upside down) Could you please show me Guam on this map?
BORDALLO: Well that’s upside down.
COLBERT: (flips map right side up) Now find it
BORDALLO: If you show me a world map I will.
COLBERT: Okay, but I said, are you part of the United States?
BORDALLO: That’s correct.
COLBERT: That’s correct, so, that’s correct that you are incorrect.
COLBERT: Okay. I accept your apology.
As a place which is neither the United States, nor not the United States, Guam might as well be Guatemala. With this mixture of ambiguity and smallness, Chamorro identity therefore becomes easily swallowed up and engulfed, and a Chamorro might as well be a Hawaiian or a Filipino. We can find a incredibly ignorant example of this in the “definition” of what a Chamorro is from the website Urban Dictionary, which is meant to provide “real” meanings behind slang and taboo terms. Users are able to create their own definitions for words, and gain prominence on the site based on how many other users accept or reject the accuracy of the definition.
People. Indigenous to Guam and a couple of islands north of the Philipines [sic]. Kind of lacking in cultural identity. They are basically Filipinos that speak English [sic], but are kind of Hawaii wanabes [sic]. Pretty decent folks unless addicted to ice or some other shit.
From this perspective, it is obvious why Chamorro identity is such a precarious thing in the United States, they don’t have an identity, they are simply a mixture of other more visible groups. Although one could claim that this definition is simply wrong, it is by far the most popular definition under the seven written for the term “Chamorro” on this site. The fourth most popular definition helps reaffirm this point by defining Chamorros as “Flips who deny they Flips."
In terms of how Chamorros perceive themselves, this smallness, invisibility and simple non-existence is also felt and acted upon, in terms of working to absorb or affiliate yourself with large and more recognized groups. To one young Chamorro from Guam attending school in San Diego, this situation was urgent in terms of culture and identity. To him, “we [Chamorros] have a generation which is basically looking to be anything but Chamorro. Looking for something bigger or better because our parents didn’t give them anything.” One young Chamorro, made clear to me the difficulties of simply being Chamorro in the United States, as follows:
Growing up Chamorro in the states or from Guam in the states isn’t easy if you want a Chamorro identity. No one knows where you come from, no one really cares….If you listen to what everyone else is saying you might as well be Filipino or Asian or Mexican…Our parents don’t say much about where they came from or why they left. Other minorities have stores and movies, all we have to show is the parties.