Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kao i Nuebu na Ma'gas, Parehu yan i Hagas?

In a few hours Barack Obama will be sworn in as President of the United States.

I closely followed the election while I was in the states, writing regularly about it on my blog, sometimes to the detriment of my other work. Watching MSNBC and reading liberal blogs, when I should have been reading about sovereignty or about colonialism. I was so caught up in the election, that when I was able to attend the Democratic National Convention in August, with a press pass and everything, it was not just exciting for me in some general sense, but more like the reward for all the hard work that I had been doing, following things in the election, writing about them and blogging about them.

As soon as I came to Guam however, things changed. It was hard to keep up with the campaigns as much, for a variety of reasons. My internet is slower and less reliable on Guam. My grandparent's didn't have MSNBC as part of their cable. But these reasons are minute, the main reason that I wasn't as passionate about the election or as engaged is an obvious one: colonialism.

I was in Guam, I was in a colony, and although there is this ridiculous patriotic veneer to the island, and life on Guam seems to revolve around whatever simple and easy ways it can become more American or feel more American, this does not extend to caring about politics in the United States or even following them closely. I found that most people knew an election was going on, but weren't following it in a way where they could actually talk about it or even fake any real interest in it.

The election operated as a sort of symbol for increasing Guam's Americaness, but naturally this symbolism was very empty. For instance, amongst my students at UOG last November. All of them were pretty much "Obama fans," although very few seemed to have any knowledge about him or his campaign other then that he's brown and sort of "Hawaiian." The election, and Guam's "place" or "non-place" in it, operated as a foil or a counter to my regular criticisms of the United States and my assertions that Guam is "not really American." So while these students didn't really know much about the election, they were very quick to point out that Guam got to participate in this election, and we know it mattered, because news media in the states reported on it!

This laziness or apathy is easier to understand when we consider that Guam's relationship to the Federal Government is not like other states. As a colony, it is a colonial relationship, which means you send just one non-voting delegate, and for the rest of the time, the Feds appear like a fat, wealthy organism that seems to overflow with cash, which occasionally send emissaries to the island to hassle the Government and tell them how corrupt or backwards they are. You don't even get the pretense of pretending like the Federal Government represents you, since you aren't really tied to it through voting like everyone else, or even the aura of powerful state representatives, Senators, Governors or Congresspeople.

So basically, the figure of the President for Guam is split into two ways. The first is that it can be a figure used to make Guam feel more American. So, as I noticed at UOG last semester, there were plenty of students there who were using Obama to feel like they were proud young brown Americans who had a bright future ahead of them too. When I had my political status forum in Guam History that same semester, two of my groups representing the political status option of statehood, mentioned that Guam's relationship to the United States will get better and improve because Obama is President, and either he'll help us, or he represents that America can change and everything can get better!
But on the other hand, whoever is President makes no difference to Guam. Both Republicans and Democrats tend to treat Guam the same way, with little interest or respect. A Democrat may be nicer about it, but Guam is still the "tip of the spear" to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Plus, even if people on Guam tend to treat America and its Government as their savior, that proves more than anything that they don't feel like they are part of it, but that it is something else, an other. So while, the President may be important to us in terms of making us feel more American, he's still not really our President, and no matter how much we celebrate being the bola' of the United States, the colonial status persists and we all deep down, even if we won't publicly admit to it, know it and feel it.

So why should we care? Its actually a very stupid question. The Government of the United States and the military have an incredible amount of formal and informal control over our lives and this island, we should care so much about what they do that it hurts. Our lack of control in this situation, our colonial status, or their lack of respect or knowledge, all of these things make clear that we should care even more about our relationship to the United States, not less.

I've definitely come down with some of this apathy since I've been on Guam. A shifting in my own consciousness from being a "full enfranchised" albeit racialized citizen in the United States, to a comfortably colonial citizen of the United States empire in Guam. I know I should care more, I know also that I should be more excited about Obama's inauguration, more engaged, but I still find it hard. I find it hard to be excited in the ways I was in the states, since when I'm on Guam my entire vision shifts and different ideas, fights, or contexts become prioritized.

The little that I can do, is to try and get people on Guam engaged at the level of Presidential politics or power in relation to Guam. So in the case of Barack Obama, does he exemplify the old saying "nuebu na ma'gas, parehu yan i hagas?" In relation to Guam, will Obama be just like Bush the Second, or Clinton the Husband, or Bush the First?

Overall, it is true, that all Presidents in relation to Guam will be pretty similar. There is not much to the territories of the United States, no real reason to do anything for them, and so whatever attention Guam does get is mainly because of its strategic military presence. But there are key issues on the horizon in an Obama administration that we on Guam should be excited or concerned about.


1. Universal Health Care: When I spoke to Congresswoman Bordallo and Congresswoman Christensen at the DNC last year, I asked both of them about their struggles to get increased health care funding for their respective territories, such as getting the Medicaid cap lifted on Guam. Obama in May had said that he felt that the spending caps on the territories are unfair and should be lifted. Congresswoman Bordallo seemed optimistic about this happening, but Congresswoman Christensen seemed much more guarded. She seemed to feel that the only way substaintial increases in medical funding to the territories was going to take place, was through universal health care. Which is why she said that the two were planning to work very hard in getting fair treatment for the territories in whatever universal health care program is created.
2. The Military Buildup: There are plenty of signs, in the United States and in Japan that the military buildup could be stalled. Local representatives of the military are claiming that everything is full speed ahead, but in the next year or so anything could happen. The proposed global realignment of American troops and force projection, which includes Marine transfer to Guam from Okinawa, was a brainchild of Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush. Although Obama has kept on Secretary Gates, there is always a possibility when administrations change that these sorts of policies will either be reversed or drawn down. Last year, Obama promised to ensure that Guam benefits from the military buildup, but depending on how Obama's foriegn policy vision unfolds and how Japan responds as well, the buildup could either be reduced or cancelled.
3. Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islands: Although when I lived on Guam prior to attending graduate school in the states, I never used the term "Pacific Islander" to describe myself, the terms is now very much a part of who I am and how I identify myself politically. 2007 was declared by Secretary of State Rice as "the year of the Pacific." Last year, with the election of Obama, it, in some peoples' minds, could have been referred to as the "year of the Pacific Islanders." Hawai'i as a state, ferociously claimed Obama as its "son," and Obama's knowledge of Hawai'i's landscape, lunch plates and ability to body surf all led to strange feelings of pride amongst Pacific Islander American peoples, as if Obama was one of their own. Is there anyway that this identity that Obama himself, obviously feels somewhat, will play a role in his governance? Or perhaps allow him to be more open than most Presidents in terms of helping with or being open to Pacific Islander specific projects?

4. Self-Determination: The Democratic Party Platform for 2008 had the following line in it: We support full self-government and self-determination for the people of Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands, and their right to decide their future status. I'm sure that document contained several thousand local, regional, ethnic specific promises which party leaders or Obama people had little to no intent of ever coming through on. Time will tell whether or not this promise is worth the ink it was printed with. It would be good for local activists to try to push this issue, to see what sort of "self-determination" Obama's people had in mind. Its doubtful that its different than any other adminstration (which means its not much), but it still might be fruitful to pursue it, if only to once again reveal the face of American hypocrisy.


olihist said...

Buenas ya Hafa Adai!!

I don't know if you remember me from when you visited Hawai'i a couple years back, but I remember meeting you at one of Faye Untalan's Chamorro class BBQ's. I sometimes read your posts, which are really interesting, and even try to read your Chamorro postings sometimes, although my knowledge of Chamorro is not as strong as I'd like it to be....

Anyways, I wanted to comment on what you were saying about Barack Obama and whether his election will really mean anything for Guam or the Pacific Islands. I saw a comment on CSPAN made by an African American historian named Darryl Scott about how Barack's experiences in Hawai'i and Indonesia gave him a deeper understanding of the complexities of race, ethnicity, and culture than most Americans living on the "Mainland" can understand. A few minutes later, CSPAN interviewed Senator Dan Akaka at the Home States Inaugaral Ball, and he talked about the "Aloha Spirit" and how "Aloha" means "bringing people together."

I thought I share these things with you because of what you were saying in your blog about Barack Obama and whether or not we Chamorros will really benefit from his presidency. I think your points are very true, but I also think there is something that Pacific Island cultures like our own can possibly offer to the President and to the United States. The Chamorros' entangled colonial histories with Spain and the United States, and the peculiar cross-cultural interactions and suppression that have resulted from that history, is, I believe, rather unique, although in some ways similar to other Pacific Islander experiences with Euro-American colonialism. I think these experiences, as traumatic and culturally destructive as it was, has given Chamorros a deeper understanding of culture and cultural interaction that has allowed us to culturally adapt to the many changes that have occurred on our islands. What I found hopeful about Obama's inaugaral speech today was not that he mentioned us or other Pacific Islanders (which he didn't) but that he talked about how America must embrace its cultural diversity, "our patchwork heritage."

In short, I know how you feel, having been born and raised on Guam myself. I know how it feels living so many thousands of miles away from the "Mainland," and the intellectual warps that results when viewing the United States from so far a distance. Even though I'm currently living out here in Hawai'i, I have not forgotten that experience, and I truly hope that President Obama, at the very least, will acknowledge the right of the Chamorro people on Guam to choose their political and cultural destinies.

The biggest weapon that has been historically wielded against our people in the U.S. Mainland has been one of ignorance. That is something that all of us Chamorros have a duty to struggle against, for a less ignorant United States will maybe, just maybe, grant us the real freedom and democracy that we Chamorros, like all human beings, deserve.


kiita said...

This is such a rich and compelling post, I'm going to have to return to it when I'm less sleepy. But I'll say now that what you describe doesn't sound to me like apathy but rather a different affective orientation to the U.S. presidency. And that doesn't, as you already note, preclude political caring of a different sort.

I had to write two syllabi in the past days and missed out on much of the televised proceedings. On the one hand, I feel really left out because everyone else I know is caught up in an emotional high that I feel left out. But on the other hand, I feel spared. I feel like it's better for me and my thinking to have a different set of concerns than this overdetermined talk of nationalism and historical importance. (Even though I'm teaching those very topics this term -- maybe especially so.)

I'm sensing from your post the possibility of radical critique, not just on your part, but on the part of Chamorro and even Guamanian lived experience. The task may be to listen to the ways that folks engage with the U.S. [nation-state] by sustaining affective distance.

If I'm misinterpreting things, I apologize -- I'm a bit tired. :)

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Si Yu'us Ma'ase and thank you to both of your for your comments.

To Olihist: I hope as well that Obama's Pacific Islander experiences and connections will give Pacific Islander and Pacific Islander issues an edge that they never get otherwise. I'm hoping, but I think it'll depend on how much noise we make. Like any politician he's gotta be pushed, and I already see some movement in the local government to call him on his promises and not just pray that he'll come through on his own.

I definitely agree with you about the strength of Chamorro culture being in its ability to survive and adapt. I wish more people on Guam remembered this instead of getting caught up in foolish games of "what is really Chamorro?" or "who is really more Chamorro?"

Thanks for reading my blog and its nice to (sort of) meet you again.

Kiita: I'd like to hear more of your ideas on affective distance. So I hope you'll comment again.

Marianas Perspective said...

"Fan dakkot ya un mababayi" (Knock and the door shall be opened);

"Adingani ya un ma ekungok" (Speak up and you shall be heard).

"Famaisen ya un ma na'e" (Ask and you shall be given).

I strongly believe that the theme for CHANGE that catapulted Obama to the US Presidency can be quite synonymous with the call for BACK TO BASICS, as I see it. Thus, the above-mentioned Chamorro proverbs that I believe strongly capture the essence, as well as the promise of the next four (4) years. Carpe Diem, if you will, so that we apply the above innovative approach by sounding our Kulu from Guam to Saipan in a historic regional and national liberation campaign with proper democratic institutions (UN, US Congress, universities, national TV networks and media outlets, etc.). I recommend harmonizing our united front lobbying strategies, securing the most effective and nationalist strategists to articulate our longstanding issues, enlisting the right networks in DC, and unleashing our Chamorro prowess with respect and diplomacy, but in no uncertain terms.

Hafa mohon?


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