When I speak about the state of affairs on Guam both here on the island and elsewhere, one of the shocking statistics that I tend to bring up is the almost unbelievable rates of death for certain cancers on Guam. According to research done by Dr. Lisa Natividad, for some of these cancers, the rates of death are 40 times higher on Guam than they are for the rest of the United States.
Another statistic that I often cite is the number of Chamorros from Guam and the CNMI that have been killed fighting in America's "War on Terror." The numbers are appalling considering the small populations of Chamorros. When you combine them with the deaths of soldiers and contractors from other Micronesian islands, you have more than thirty people killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. I wrote on these deaths several months ago in my post "We Are War Stories."
Another way that death is always with me is the colonial mentality that Chamorros often use to perceive or misperceive themselves. Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote on this topic in 2005, which was published in a feminist zine Third Space. The title of the article as "Things to do in Guam When You're Dead."
What Chamorros are ensnared in today is a form of colonization deeper than territorial occupation or economic blackmail, but one which infects the very act of seeing and speaking. After centuries of colonization by Spain, Japan and the United States, an almost invisible grafting has taken upon the minds, tongues and eyes of Chamorros. What this has accomplished is the trapping of Chamorros within the fantasies, language and most importantly the gaze of the anthropologist.
It is the institutional inconsistency of anthropology, that the very thing which they seek, is the thing they destroy with their very presence. The cruelest lie that indigenous people have been told and sadly believed is that the death or dying of their culture begins with language loss or lack of inter-generational sharing, in truth it begins with the anthropologist. To put it bluntly, for indigenous cultures the anthropological gift, is the gift of death.
The presence of the anthropologist is the look of Medusa. Because of what anthropology desires (a static, intimately knowable culture), and what it represents (Orientalist, markers of mobile modernity), all anthropologists find they will kill with their very gaze.
Take for instance Claude Levi-Strauss’ research amongst the Nambikwara in Brazil. In Tristes Tropiques he writes of the guilt he felt having poisoned this innocent people by showing them modern writing. But this corruption isn’t writing or the incorporation of “non-indigenous” technology; it’s the presence of the anthropologist. Every culture anthropology “discovers” dies or begins to die by virtue of its being discovered.
In Guam, despite superficial variations, anthropological writings have all echoed the same basic mantra, “I see dead people.” Similar to what Haley Joel Osment would no doubt testify from The Sixth Sense, “I see dead people who don’t know that they are dead.” Chamorros today are trapped in such a scenario. Life or death dictated by a gaze beyond their control, yet which they are forced to live and resist within.
The imposition of the gaze and our unknowing acceptance of it as our own shows up our speech and the ways we imagine culture. When speaking about Chamorro culture, our statements always draw out an unavoidable loss. Western history and anthropology dictate that the real Chamorros, or “ancient” Chamorros died centuries ago. The rest of us live outside this temporal wall, that authenticity of being unquestionably or comfortably Chamorro always inaccessible. This epistemology affects our perceptions, becoming the gaze through which we see ourselves. Thus despite the fact that there are nearly 200,000 Chamorros left in the world, nearly every Chamorro is predisposed to say that “there are no real Chamorros anymore.”
Philosopher Giles Deleuze once said, “if you are caught in the dream of another, you are lost.” Such is the predicament of Chamorros today. The true test for the future of our people, will not how to change our culture to compete in today’s “modern” world, but how to escape the fact that we live as the embodiment of anthropological fantasies! There is nothing intrinsic about this zombie-like life, always doubting our existences. Life is only like this, because we feel forced to accept certain assumptions about how culture works; what makes it authentic, what makes us alive or dead.
But these three ways of talking about death are "abstract." They are activist in form, or academic in content. For instance when I mention the deaths rates in Guam or of soldiers KIA, I never take it to a personal level, never talk about anyone in my family who has died of cancer or been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But when I come home, death and mortality can't be reduced to these abstract frames or figures, they touch my life and my being on a daily basis.
Part of this comes from living with and helping take care of my grandparents, who are 88 and 86 years old. Both of them are in very good shape for their age, and don't require full time, 24 care or supervision, but the years are wearing on them, and the changes are discernible even from the way they were just a year ago. My grandfather for instance is the last traditional Chamorro Master Blacksmith, meaning he is the last blacksmith who creates the tools that used to be essential in supporting Chamorro farming lifestyles and represents the third generation of blacksmiths in his family. Although he is close to 90 years old grandpa still makes machetes and fosinos and other tools in his shop. But he often needs company when he's working, sometimes just to steady him when he's working so he doesn't fall over, or help walking around the shop, help handing him stuff which is too difficult for him to reach on his own.
When I not only see, but physically touch the frailty of my grandfather as I hold his elbow and waist as I escort him from the anvil to the vice in the shop, it forces me to, sometimes more than I want to, reflect on my place in our family, my place in this world, and most importantly my relationship to my daughter. Grandpa regularly talks about his foot which has been already stuck in the grave for decades, and in the past this was easy to dismiss, but the older he and grandma get the more difficult it is to deny their mortality.
But living on Guam, I am not just surrounded by looming, threatening death, but actual death. There are funerals every week for people who are related to me or are tied to someone I know, someone I went to school with, someone I've worked with, someone I'm friends with. There are anniversaries for people who passed away when I was off island and whose passing I sometimes didn't learn of until months or years after they were gone.
When I'm living or staying on Guam for long periods of time, I read (like most Chamorros) the death notices in the newspaper regularly. But as I have moved back in forth over the past five years and spent most of my time in the states away from The Pacific Daily News, people have passed away and I have no idea that they're gone.
Earlier this year I came on island to help tie up the loose ends for a documentary that I've been working for since 2002. I was given a long list of people to interview again, shots or scenery or people that the directors wanted taken. I visited the house of one of the elderly women that we had interviewed several years ago, to try and get some B-roll shots of her around her house or spending time with her family. I stopped by her house, I called her house and never got any answer. After asking my grandmother if she knew anything about their family, if they'd moved, it everything was alright, she told me that the person I was supposed to interview had died a year before.
Its been almost a decade since I began interviewing and doing research on the island and on Chamorro issues, and in that time many of the people that I've spoken to and who I've had the honor of listening to the stories of their lives have passed on. Last year Pale' Zoilo Camacho passed away. I first met Pale' Zoilo through my grandparents, he and his siblings had been their classmates in school prior to World War II. When I was doing my research on Pale' Jesus Baza Duenas as a graduate student at UOG, I often used my grandparents' network of friends and former classmates in order to make contacts and set up interviews.
Pale' Duenas was the uncle of Pale' Zoilo and so he was ideal for an interview, and had the privilege of speaking to him several times over the years about his uncle who was killed by the Japanese during World War II.
What I remember most about Pale' Zoilo however is not these interviews or any of the help that he and his family gave me with my research. I remember most of all i gineftao-na. His generosity. Pale' Zoilo, in his later years when I knew him, seemed to have a very real passion for farming. Every few months he would come over to grandma and grandpa's house and visit and drop off some fruits and vegetables. I chandiha ni' ha chuliyi ham, fihu i mas mames yan i mas mange.
I was touched by this generosity not just because it represented one of those touching instances of Chamorro culture, but because of the way it echoed stories that I have heard of my great-grandfather from my grandmother's side, and his generosity. When I conducted research in southern part of the island in particular, and would tell people my clans, my grand and great grandparents, people would often remark on the generosity of my great grandfather, Tun Emo' Sablan Flores. He died long before I was born, but his spirit and his love for the land and his love of sharing is something I still try to embody, even though I like most people on Guam today am addicted to my air con.
I went to a funeral over the weekend for my friend Adrian, whose grandfather passed away last week. He was a well known police officer, and a photo of him opening the door for President Richard Nixon when he visited Guam was placed near the guest book near the church entrance. At the funeral I saw literally dozens of people I know personally or know of. Since its an election year on Guam, there were plenty of current politicians and former politicians there. As I nodded to people, greeted people, caught up with people, I remembered something that was completely obvious to me when I last lived on island, and that's that the Chamorro community on Guam, which seems so diffuse and feeble all the time, still finds a way to gather and come together around death. Especially when those that pass on are illustrated through pictures from six to eight decades ago, and evoke a simpler and stronger life on Guam.
Why am I thinking so much about death today?
A few months ago I posted on the Chamorro.com main page a link that I had received from a mother who was with her five year old daughter in California where she was receiving medical treatment for a number of serious ailments. She had started a website to share with anyone the story of her daughter Karisa's treatment and struggle. Here is the link and info that I posted.
Read Karisa's Story: Karisa is a five year old Chamorro child from Guam who is in Los Angeles right now receiving medical treatment. Her mother created a website to share her story. Click here to read more.
This evening as I was updating the Chamorro.com page, I decided to click the link to see what was the latest news with Karisa. I was saddened to see that she passed away last month. Her condition worsened to the point where there was nothing that could be done and the family made the decision to withdraw support, spend her remaining hours or days with her, and then let her go in peace. You can read more about Karisa on her Caring Bridge page.
Her mother put together a musical slide show of her treatment over the past few months. As I watched it, and read the captions from her mother I was almost moved to tears.
As a father of a small baby, reading through all of the posts the mother made over the past few weeks, trying to find a way to protect and help her daughter, trying to find some way to comfort her, I couldn't help but feel scared and frightened in my own life, worried about if something like this should happen to my child.
In case it isn't obvious yet, this post doesn't have any particular point. I think I'm just hoping that if I write this all out of me then I'll be able to get some sleep tonight.