Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why My Research is "Guam"

I'm applying for fellowships, scholarships and other forms of funding right now to help me through my dissertation writing process. It is a pain in the ass process, made much more difficult by the fact that people don't know very much about Guam and so everything I write requires lots of explainations about where I come from and why this is important, yet the page limits for the personal statements that they request are so short, I don't really have enough room to say very much after I've explained Guam and where I'm coming from.

Perhaps its like this for everyone, regardless of what their project is, namely that they feel like the page limits they are given are far too short to describe who they are and why their work is important. I'm not so sure about this, I think that this sort of generalization is too easy and too useless. For those whose communities or topics are "small" or "invisible" there is almost an excessive scrutiny when it comes to why the hell is this important. And I know that the categories of small and invisible are fluid and can mean almost anything, but they can be most prominently and frustratingly felt when the community or topic in question seems to "naturally" require something else for it to be complete.

There is a difference here though in terms of feedback for one's project being that you need to go a little deeper, or bring in some different research or perspective, and being told that your unit of analysis, requires another most likely larger or more researched unit of the same type in order for your project to work. It was almost natural for a while that whenever I discussed Chamorros and Guam in the United States, people unfamiliar with either of these words or the bodies, histories and realities that are bundled up within them, that I be told to "compare" them with other "similar" groups. So if I wanted to talk about Guam, I needed to also talk about the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. If I wanted to talk about Chamorros I needed to talk about Native Hawaiians or Samoans.

This sort of preculiar, empty position of Guam, where it constantly needs to be filled by other groups, categories or ideas in order to mean something is precisely why my dissertation has taken the form that it has. When during a two hour discussion about my project with my professors, and nearly forty minutes of that discussion is spent simply on the question of "why Guam?" then the need for my project should already be obvious. It is because Guam can be at the same time, one of the most potent and treasured American military bases, yet at the same time, mean almost nothing to people in the United States who are interested in critiquing war or militarism, that my project or what I am interested in doing is so important.

If you look at critical texts on American imperialism you will always find mention of Guam, since its seizure in 1898 along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines represent one of the key moments of the development of America as a global and imperial power. The centrality of this moment is self-serving of course, one main reason being because it doesn't count the displacement and genocide of Native Americans as "imperial" but more so as an internal and domestic form of "house cleaning." But unlike the other three territories which each are often taken up in these texts to describe different vile and immoral aspects of American colonization, imperialism and militarism, Guam is rarely or never assumed to be able to express or articulate these things. This, despite the fact that unlike Cuba or the Philippines, Guam remains along with Puerto Rico the places where American colonialism has not fundamentally changed or been given a different facade.

To make this point further, I'll share with you an experience one of my friends had recently while planning a workshop on Guam for the 2007 US Social Forum. While putting her proposal together, she had come across an existing proposal for the forum titled “U.S. Colonialisms.” She contacted the organizer to see what the content of their presentations would be and if it would be possible to join them. Interrestingly enough, none of the communities covered by this panel were from the current “colonies” of the United States, but were instead US minority communities which were using the metaphor of “colonialism” to articulate their victimization. After suggesting that Guam would be an important addition to this panel, my friend was rebuffed through the curious argument that “Look, Puerto Rico is a colony, and we haven’t asked Puerto Ricans to be a part of this. Why should we ask Guam?”

Even in this instance where the specificity of Guam is asked to be looked at, asked to be acknowledged since Guam is one of the few places where America is still formally "colonial," there is something about Guam whereby it can be dismissed and be set aside as something which isn't really the point or which doesn't really matter. Here too we see that same dynamic of Guam needing something else for it to be complete, where the fact that Puerto Rico is larger and more visible gives it the tiniest advantage in the discourse of these speaker, where it through its mention is "more" colonial then Guam, but still not colonial enough to be on the panel.

But enough of this rambling about my dissertation. I finally have a first draft of my personal statement for one of these grants and so I just thought I'd share it. Right now its at three single spaced pages and needs to be cut down to three double spaced pages by the 20th of November. Wish me luck! (Here's a photo of me not feeling very smart while writing one fellowship application.)


Life on Guam has a curiously semi or sort of American character to it. The territorial status of the island turning life there into this cruel game of being American one moment and not American the next. This manifests politically at the ambiguous and exceptional ways Guam exists in relation to the United States. People on Guam are eligible for food stamps and welfare, but can not vote for President or have a voting representative in the US Congress. Despite this lack of formal representation all Federal laws apply to Guam and supersede any local laws.

Growing up there however, this ambiguity was felt primarily through issues of culture and education. There were a million different ways in which we were American. We had American citizenship, we learned American history and culture in school, we watched American movies and TV. Yet at the same time in learning and consuming all those pieces of American knowledge and culture, we were shocked to learn everyday, that we weren’t really American. In learning about America’s 50 states, we did not learn about its five territories, even though we lived in one of them! The learning of state capitals didn’t include Hagåtña, Guam. We pledged allegiance every morning to a flag which had no start to represent Guam. And despite all the feelings of pride in being American, Guam nonetheless had its own Olympic team, as well as its own entries to the Miss World and Mr. Universe competitions.

Life on Guam was then governed and made frightening and frustrating by the constant tension between being apart from the United States, but at the same time being a part of it. Everyone knows or can at least feel in someway that there is something inequitable and unjust about this status. But at the same time, it is a comfortable status, being a distantly imagined but fortunate appendage to the richest and most powerful nation in the world. On Guam, this status is generally accepted as the natural order of things, because there’s probably nothing we could do about this, and why would we want to do anything anyways? Being a First World colony is far better than being a Third World one.

It wasn’t until I attended the University of Guam as an undergraduate that I first began to really perceive the web of power and injustice behind Guam’s political status. Former Guam Congressman and Guam scholar Robert Underwood once said that being a Chamorro is a simple life, until you ask simple questions. The University of Guam is the largest institution of higher education in the Western Pacific and as such is an educational magnet for students from East Asian countries such as China and Japan, and the surrounding islands of Micronesia, as well as Chamorro and Filipino students from Guam.

Yet the faculty of the University, comprised primarily of white men from the United States, did seek or feel the need to reflect in their scholarship, their pedagogy and their curriculum the wealth of culture and history that their students and the region itself represented. During my time there as an undergrad, I saw and felt colonialism regularly in the classroom, whether in the choices for curriculum, the privileging of certain students voices, but mainly through attitudes of much of the faculty that the local students’ inability to read and write implied they were almost a different species.

Since that time, in both academic and community terms I have been working at developing theoretical and practical ways of thinking about contemporary colonization and working towards decolonization.

On Guam, since 2002 I have been involved in a number of sovereignty and cultural groups, and as a writer and historian have helped produce numerous forms of media in the hopes of pushing the consciousness of the island to recognize the need for the island’s decolonization. During my time in Ethnic Studies at UCSD, I have researched different theories of colonization and decolonization from around the world. I used some of these readings to create the theoretical basis for the master’s thesis I completed there, as well as develop a series of conference papers on the topic. At present, myself and a number of other grad students in my department are planning a conference for March of 2008 which will provide a dialogue space on the conflicts and intersections between indigenous studies, postcolonial studies and ethnic studies. Decolonization will be one of the axes around which the conference will be organized.

Since coming to the United States for graduate school, I have had the privilege of working with a good number of diasporic Chamorro and Pacific Islander community organizations. This work has broadened my perceptions of the current struggles for sovereignty and self-determination taking place in the Pacific, and has also given me fresh and drastically different perspective on what decolonization can and should be, this time from the diaspora. To this end, I have assisted in the organization of a handful of important conferences and events in San Diego and San Francisco, to discuss and inform those in the United States about the colonization of Guam, but more importantly strategize ways in which Chamorros in the diaspora can help in the decolonization of Guam, and use theories of decolonization to change their own lives.

I feel that this background gives me the ability to teach in critical and progressive ways to a wide range of students, especially those from marginalized communities. First of all, colonization and decolonization can be productive lenses through which students of color can perceive structures of power around them and possibly challenge and dismantle them. By providing case studies and historical or contemporary images through which one can more effectively perceive the nature of power in a given space, colonialism as a lens can help students understand the processes of economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement which are taking place around them in African American, Latino American and Asian American communities.

At the same time, I feel that I have much to offer those communities whose existences continue up until today, to be colonial, and for whom decolonization isn’t simply a critical metaphor, but rather a necessary strategy or process to ensure their survival. These groups, who wait behind what I call the “Fourth World Wall” are made up primarily of indigenous peoples and stateless groups. They were missed by the age of decolonization in the previous century, or were displaced by the emergence of the current postcolonial global order. For these groups decolonization and the ability to determine their futures is still a far distant dream.

My goal is to become a professor at the University of Guam and teaching Micronesian Studies, and as such I would seek ways to incorporate decolonization as a concept and a set of potential practices, into my curriculum and pedagogy. I would do this by making clear in each class I teach the centrality of colonization and decolonization in everyday life in Guam. I would reposition decolonization from a formal governmental change in Guam’s existence, to a process which is ongoing and open, and which not just Presidents, Governors and Legislators participate in, but rather something which we are all responsible for. Colonization does not happen with the stabbing of a flag into the ground, and neither is decolonization accomplished in such a simple way. I could create in the mind’s of my students, a very active and open conceptualization, where through choices everyday that we on Guam make, we both colonize and decolonize the island. Therefore, in teaching the history of Guam, I would highlight how different social, political, economic and environmental problems on Guam can be traced in both historical and contemporary terms to the colonization on Guam, and use this framework of decolonization to see themselves as always active agents in either facilitating the continuation of these problems, or as a force in potentially decolonizing or fixing them.

1 comment:

AFlores98 said...

Hey Prim,
I just wanted to let you know that I read your essay and found it interesting and compelling. Good luck on applying for the Ford fellowship! I hope they find it as convincing as I have.


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