It’s Chamorro month again, or mes Chamorro ta’lo. That means that the landscape of Guam changes in some small and large ways, to bring out more of the island’s “Chamorro side.” It’s the only month of the year that you might see more Guam flags than American flags. It’s the only month that you can actually hear a large group of young people, actively debating and creating in the Chamorro language. Its also the month during which communication between grand kids, great-grand kids and their respective elders is usually at an all time high due to class assignments about Guam history. Lastly, it’s also the third most important time period for t-shirt vendors on Guam, after election season and the month of July (Liberation Day).
It can be both an exciting and depressing month. Exciting because of all the public sector, private sector and even personal energy that is suddenly put into representing or sharing kosas Chamoru siha. Depressing because one has to wonder where does all this Chamorroness go for the rest of the year? Where is it warehoused for the rest of the months? And how can be “liberate” it?
For me, as a scholar and a sort of long-time Chamorro activist, there are other reasons that I sometimes feel not depressed, but sad during Chamorro month. Much of the emphasis of Chamorro month is not Chamorro things in a broad, diverse sense, but tends to focus on arts and culture in a narrow sense. These two words “art” and “culture” could encompass nearly everything, but when transformed into actuality tend to be reduced to the performing of dances or the sale/display of artistic materials, ranging from anything from paintings to shell necklaces to woven products.
Part of the reason for this emphasis is that these are the aspects of Chamorro culture are the most ideal for a tourist and a capitalist economy and a culture which also advertises itself through harmless generosity, warmth and a desire to Welcome All Visitors Enthusiastically (WAVE)! The emergence of Chamorro dance in recent years is part triumph as many of its proponents have very real and deep de-colonial commitments and ideas. But it is also part loss, because the broad support it receives comes from the mentality of com-modifying Chamorro culture or reducing it to simple showy pieces that please audiences. Something quick, harmless and that can be consumed by a Japanese tourist, a visiting dignitary or stationed military. The artifacts and other products which people make, whether they be t-shirts, necklaces or artwork aren’t bad by any means, but they are the pieces of culture which are frankly the easiest, and potentially the least meaningful. They may be made by people who also are very committed to the perpetuation of Chamorro culture and have the most radical decolonizing intentions in mind as they create, but those intentions don’t stay attached or infused to the art or craft once it leaves the table. They don’t necessarily affect the reasons why Chamorros put so much energy into the purchasing of those products, or the showcasing them as what is Chamorro. So I’m not saying taking issue with anyone in particular, but speaking to the larger issues of how we Chamorros see ourselves and our relationship to our culture.
I attend literally hundreds of art and cultural fairs or activities each year on Guam, both in order to sell my own artwork, but also to help promote the traditional blacksmith tools of my grandfather, Tun Jack Lujan. We see thousands of Chamorros wandering from table to table, booth to booth, hunting for gifts, hunting for beautiful art, hunting for cheap shit, sometimes looking for potential pieces of their Chamorro identity. My grandfather, who can be a very negative and jaded bihu, often laments the fact that most Chamorros are only Chamorro when they have to buy gifts for people.
It’s the only time that being a Chamorro seems to mean anything to them. It’s the only time that they seem to take an interest in the culture and the people that they were born into. Furthermore these sorts of activities seem to be the only way that most Chamorros care to even represent or consciously consider what a Chamorro in the world today would mean or be. I don’t share grandpa’s mala’et na pessimism, but he does touch on an important point to consider.
Our identities as Chamorros, and all peoples’ identities are supposed to be reciprocal, meaning that we draw from things, we take from a history, a set of cultural beliefs, ideas or icons, and we use them to give our lives meaning, to represent who we are to others. Some people see this world as being limited or small, only encompassing those things which can be consider “authentically” Chamorro, dictated primarily by time and contact with other cultures, but others see it more (accurately) as an always growing force, enveloping all that Chamorros consider to be theirs.
But this is only half of the cultural equation. For at the same time that we make use of this Chamorro culture, we are also supposed to commit ourselves to the protection or the maintenance of that amorphous Chamorro universe. We don’t simply draw from it, but we remain loyal to it, we keep it alive, we help nurture it, help expand it. Our culture is never a neutral thing, but always something that each and every one of us have a role in either perpetuating and keeping alive and growing or killing and leaving to crumble to the dust they will spread around the floor of the eventually built Guam Museum.
The wisdom of my grandfather’s snark is that he recognizes that the relationship between Chamorros and their culture has, in so many ways stopped being a reciprocal one. It has stopped being something which everyone feels they play important roles in perpetuating and has been absorbed into a crass capitalist mentality. The culture is not something that I help perpetuate, it is instead something that I purchase, usually in the form of small colorful shells or sometimes bad ass t-shirts. I engage with my culture as something which is objectified, not living, not breathing, and certainly not breathing life into me or the world around me (except perhaps as color on walls or car bumpers). Culture from this perspective is found in definable objects, those with monetary values, those which come with no strings attached, and don’t seem to signify that I have any further commitment to this culture except that I put this necklace on, or that I wrap this up and send it to my cousin in Texas.
Is it any wonder then that the Chamorro language is so marginal nowadays? When you lose that reciprocal commitment, you lose that everyday feeling of responsibility to your culture or to your language, then why would anyone take the time to teach younger generations to speak Chamorro. Especially since if you do absolutely nothing they will learn English anyways! If the culture is not something that I can simply purchase and be done with, then forget it. Its too much work, too much effort, takes too much of my time.
There is an argument, and it’s a very good one, that these cultural products can help build consciousness, that they can give our people the means of feeling pride in who we are, where we’ve come from, or that they can help use represent ourselves, build up our identities, make them stronger. This is true, but, and now I’ve finally come to the point of this post, for me this is pointless, without what I feel Chamorro month should be about, and that is history.
For me, Chamorro month, if it is to mean anything must be about history. And when I say this, I don’t mean history as in: make students memorize important dates in Guam history, or have the Pacific Daily News run even more articles on This Month in Guam History by Tony Palomo. I don’t mean history as towering stack of papers with the names of dead people on them, the dates when important things happened, and multiple choice and essay questions, which sits in the corner of the room waiting to be handed out to the classroom that is Guam today. When I say history I mean, history in the true form that it takes in our lives. Imagine that infinite stack of papers, as a massive typhoon swirling all about us. Names, dates, events, ideas come and go, flash by, and everything and nothing is always capable of appearing absent and present in that cyclonic mass.
The task of the historian in the worst sense is to make that typhoon look like it’s a straight line, which you can simply write words alongside to explain everything. In reality however, history is something that is constantly swirling all around us, always giving us the appearance that we are moving, that things are changing, and yet at the same time making us feel that everything is still the same, that nothing has really changed. Most importantly from this metaphor is the idea that history is not some distant concept, but something which is always pressing up against us, something which is constantly pushing and determing what we do.
Robert Underwood, when he became president of the University of Guam, said that he was committed to the University providing “education” to its students in the most compelling form, that it be something which “enables people to deal with life from a position of strength.” This is what Chamorro month should be about. Not the simple sharing of Chamorroness as objects to be bought or as dances to be consumed with eager eyes. It should be a month in which Chamorros and Guam are helped inch closer to that position of strength and history is the key to achieving that power. History as I am thinking of it here involves the recounting and knowing of the past, but is not about the past. History as I am invoking it here is all about the present and the future. History as the force through which we know and feel who we have been, but also know and feel who we are today and what we can be in the future.
Instilling this month with Chamorro history means teaching the past in a way that productively relates to the present. That way it can provide us answers to all the questions we might have, but more importantly provides us answers to the questions we might not think to ask, or worse yet, think that we can’t ask.
Our island is in such difficult times right now, primarily because of our collective refusal to pay close attention to our island’s history over the past 100 years. We have yet to learn the lessons of rapid development with little planning. We have yet to learn the lessons of the negative impacts of increasing Guam’s military presence. We have yet to learn the lessons of American colonialism, that its not the surface of our relationship that matters, but the foundation. If we are fundamentally not equal or the same, then all the flags, quarters and stamps are nothing but tokens. Finally, we have yet to learn the lessons of our own strength, our own survival, our own power. We pack our year and our lives with constant testaments and reminders to the authority and power of the United States. We eagerly recite our lessons on how backwards Guam is, how corrupt it is, how dependent and helpless it is, and how it constantly needs the United States to save it, to liberate it, most importantly from itself.
The end result is that rather than teaching ourselves the truth of our history and our present, we instead fill our minds and our souls with simple colonial fictions. Simplistic, ridiculous thoughts that keep us in a position of powerlessness and helplessness. The American return in 1944 was a liberation. The military downsizing in the 1990’s happened because we hurt the military’s feelings and scared them away. More military means more security. The military does not damage people’s health or the environment. The military as an institution, cares about Guam and is our partner. Guam is too small, Guam can’t survive on its own.
I call these sorts of ideas “colonial commonsense.” These are ideas that bind us without our even knowing it. We treat them as commonsense and in return they shape and restrict us in particular ways. They distort our view of everything, in particular Guam’s relationship to the United States. They are the ideas upon which Chamorros and others on Guam today build their identities of dependency and helplessness, which therefore see Guam as a corrupt backwards place, which is always in need of some American presence to come and liberate it from itself. This common sense cripples us, twists our perceptions of ourselves, make us feel that we can’t really do anything without Uncle Sam holding our hand or telling us what to do. We end up twisting ourselves in so many ways, forcing ourselves into literal pretzels of dependency. Its no wonder than that whenever the United States recognizes us, even if its just to tell us that we are its weapon of war, we celebrate it!
Chamorro month should be about countering these ideas and helping release us from this colonial commonsense, which cripples us in so many ways without us even contemplating it. It should be about taking our history and transforming it into something which in Underwood’s definition, educates us, helps us see past the commonsense ways that we everyday build America up, and degrade Guam. The Chamorro side of Guam, is not just shells and latte, it is the spirit of a people, it is the dreams of a people. It is the successes, failures and struggles of a people. It should be a month dedicate to educating our island and ourselves about the Chamorro people in the hopes of helping them into a position of strength. A position from which they can make well-reasoned choices about where they and this island will go into the future.
Chamorro month should be about the remembering of previous dreams and the building of new ones. And if it were to become this, then all of those shell necklaces, dances and t-shirts might truly mean something more, might be the objects that we would hope they be.
Living artifacts or art that do not just signify, price, color or the packaging of culture into something that can be bought on the shelf at the store, but instead living breathing pieces of an epic and always evolving guinifen Chamoru, or Chamorro dream.