Sunday, December 13, 2009

Refusing to Be Recognized

I attended a meeting on two weeks ago of individuals who are concerned about the Environmental Impact Statement for the impending military buildup of Guam, and who are all interested in working together to read the document and then organize some sort of response to it. The meeting went very well. The EIS, which for those of you who don't know, documents (according to the military, its consultants and certain regulatory agencies) what sort of adverse impacts will take place over the next five years, due to the different projects, activities and populations that the military is proposing to bring to Guam.
The meeting went very well, because there are lots of people out there who feel daunted and scared by this document and the future it proposes to describe to us. The idea that it would take anywhere from 8,000 - 11,000 pages in order to chronicle the potential negative impacts that Guam will have to shoulder by 2014 is horrifying. It seems like more and more people are showing concern and are admitting to their fears or their pessimism about the glorious prosperity that the military buildup was supposed to bring to Guam. But, after you've seen what the EIS looks like, the sprawling amount of words, figures, chapter and potential damages, you would have to be insane not to be scared. If everything really was going to be great and fine over the next five years, then the EIS would be ten pages long, and say something cute like "Guam residents will be perturbed and will not know what to do with all the money that will be coming into their island!" But several thousand pages...Hmmm, siempre bula' binaba gi ayu na lepblo. Ti sina puru ha' minagof yan prubecho!

Reading through the EIS on your own can be a very debilitating experience. Its easy to get lost in the language, in the negativity, its so easy to feel overwhelmed with a powerlessness, that even if you may hate this line, that section, there's nothing that you can do about it. That this whole document is nothing but a smokescreen. A token given to us, which is more likely barely connected to reality, but something to keep people busy for a little while, and most importantly make them think that they have some power in the process.

The purpose of the meeting however was to band people together and start reading the EIS with the idea of preparing a response. We divided into different reading groups, each searching through the document for different themes, whether it was environmental impacts, socio-economic impacts, cultural impacts, and so on. We'll meet again soon as a whole group and in our sub-groups, and so I'm sure I'll be writing more about this very soon.

In truth, the purpose of this post is not the EIS, but rather something that I saw at the meeting. We met at the office of Judi Won Pat, the Speaker of the Guam Legislature, in her conference room. Against the wall, on a white board, someone, I don't know how, I had written something in Chamorro about the issue of war reparations. I took a picture of it, because I found it very interesting and also loved the fact that someone had left a water bottle with Che Guevara's visage leaned up against the board.

Last week, a number of local politicians traveled to Washington D.C. to testify before the House Armed Services Committee about the issue of war reparations for Chamorros who endured Japanese occupation or i tiempon Chapones in World War II. Earlier this year, war reparations came very close to being passe for Chamorros, after it was snuck into the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. Although war reparations for Chamorros (this time around H.R. 44) received significant support in the House, there were some complications in the Senate.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had two problems with the bill:
First, they were concerned about the precedence that might be set in future defense authorization bills if war claims remained on the defense bill, especially for other groups such as former POWs; Second, there was serious concern about payment of claims for personal injury to spouses and children of survivors in the case where the survivor has since passed away after the war; let’s call this group the deceased survivor heirs.

The Chairman Carl Levin offered a compromise, which according to Guam Congresswoman Bordallo was "to limit claims only to those killed during the war and to those living survivors of the occupation." Bordallo rejected this compromise, noting that there were still other options on the table, and possibly some other way of getting compensation for those who survived the war, but have died in the years since and thus would not be included in the bill. Naturally, Bordallo is walking a very thin line here, one which could kill her or uplift her politically. She's also invoking an aura of justice here, which most on Guam may agree with theoretically, but might also punish her for pragmatically.
She is attempting to get compensation for even the families of those who have passed on already or who would have already passed on by the time this eventually happens. If she gets this, it would be a significant legislative victory and also mean a lot for her politically in terms of keeping herself in office and ensuring that people don't spit on her when they see her at the Chamorro Village night market. But if it fails and the Senate's compromise is adopted, just a year or two from now, she will have to bear the anger and resentment of the hundreds who will die between now and then and who will not recognized or have their families compensated. As for the issue of justice, Bordallo it is not solely the fault of the people of Guam or their leaders that this issue has taken so long, and so we should not just blindly accept the idea that its too bad, but this is the best that can be done. Too often, Guam, its people and its political leaders, kalang mambachet pat manudu simply accept the framework that the United States proposes for everything. Whatever is offered, must be taken since we are fortunate to get anything at all. Whatever they order, we just have to do because we can't live without them, and we are powerless against them. Only the most ridiculous apologist for American colonialism on Guam would argue that Guam is in a position of power in terms of the American political system, but unfortunately most people see that powerlessness as a reason not to do anything (and not to ungak, or upset the system), for fear that you might lose even that pathetic position. My thinking of course, is the opposite, if you are powerless, then don't love it and don't valorize it, even if it does give you some shred of secure na'ma'ase identity. Instead, take some risks, and seek your own place, build your own power, even if it means confronting those from whom you feel you owe or get everything.

All this being said, I've never made a secret about my ambivalence about the issues of war reparations or "Chamorro Loyalty Recognition Act" as its known in Washington D.C. On the one hand, I like the idea of thousands of Chamorros and their families getting small sums of money, anywhere from $5,000 - 20,000, depending on what kind of suffering or trauma they can claim to have endured at the hands of the Japanese. But I don't like the whole notion that this is an issue of "recognition." Compensation, restitution, reparation, these things I can handle, but recognition, which is of course the only way to get something like this through Congress, just makes my skin crawl. It implies that the missing element of the Chamorro war experience is that the United States has yet to understand or know it. That the Chamorro cannot gain closure over the issue until it is seen at last by the United States.

The recognition aspect is what is frustrating for me and should not be taken lightly. I know that amongst many Chamorro activists or those critical of the United States, the war reparations discussion trope can get so many different types of Chamorros fired up. Even the most patriotic and America-loving Chamorro can be transformed into an anti-American decolonial radical through a conversation about how many people have died while waiting to get some compensation for their suffering in the war. But, the language that must be used in order to get that compensation is all about reinventing the dependency of Guam on the United States, and making it seem like Chamorros have this emotional need to be seen by the United States, to be recognized it, that they cannot be whole or complete or make sense of what has happened to them, until an American stamp of approval has been placed on their experiences. In essence, the war reparations issues is another step in the Americanizing of the Chamorro, in ensuring that all claims to its identity can be found within the United States, that it need not ever be able to search elsewhere.

If war reparations never happens for Chamorros, that would be perfectly fine with me. If it does happen however, it'll mean one less talking point for activists, one less way of appealing to the anti-colonial and decolonial spirit in people. It won't be a mortal wound, but it will become a benchmark of benevolence and integration. It will, like by like the Organic Act, the non-voting delegate or cable TV from the states being broadcast in Guam, yet another way in which the colonial status of Guam, and fact that US law says that it owns Guam and can do whatever it wants with it can be dismissed or diminished, and that the often empty victories of inclusion can be celebrated. It will become a talking point for those wishing to counter critiques of the United States, and it would also be a way of arguing for more military presence on Guam, as a way of showing our gratitude for at last "closing the book" on this traumatic issue.

But with any long term struggle, its important to note that every victory is a potential loss, every success at the same time a failure. There are very few, if any moments which you can say is a "game-ender," everything is potentially a "game-changer" but game-enders are rare. Any society and any collection of societies, even those bound together by colonialism are so complex that what may seem like the end of an era to someone is simply the same old thing to another. The fight for decolonization has been going on for centuries in Guam and taken many different explicit forms, and so without this particular talking point it doesn't mean that the struggle is over. So long as the relationship between the United States and Guam remains one based on the idea of Guam belonging to the United States, the spirit of decolonization will persist. People may be fearful to speak of it, to afraid to embrace it, but it will be there, just waiting to be tapped, waiting for a certain context to emerge, which will transform it into something public, something critical and hopefully something revolutionary and anti-colonial.

1 comment:

Desiree Taimanglo Ventura said...

"But, the language that must be used in order to get that compensation is all about reinventing the dependency of Guam on the United States, and making it seem like Chamorros have this emotional need to be seen by the United States, to be recognized it, that they cannot be whole or complete or make sense of what has happened to them, until an American stamp of approval has been placed on their experiences. In essence, the war reparations issues is another step in the Americanizing of the Chamorro, in ensuring that all claims to its identity can be found within the United States, that it need not ever be able to search elsewhere."

Miget: I appreciated these thoughts. I feel like running around and sharing them with everyone.

As I discuss some of these issues or try to learn about them, I realize just how scary it is for some residents to come out and say how they feel. I am often scolded for expressing myself; and I can slip back into silence when people I respect or love react with silence or apathy.

Our home is worth standing up for; and it is special for reasons that were there BEFORE the presence of any occupying or colonizing power.

Our island is WORTH taking risks for, worth pissing people off for and WORTH shrugging off the fears for.

We can't progress any other way.

Thanks for writing.

- D.

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