Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Comfortable Colony

It is the start of yet another school semester at UOG, hopefully this won't be my last there and hopefully I'll be able to get some sort of permanent position there in the next few months. But as always, putting together my syllabi for the start of the semester invariably gets me thinking about how the semester will unfold and of course, how it will end. For my Guam History classes that means thinking about the grand political status showdown I incorporate into each semester.

At the close of each semester that I teach at UOG, I make my students in Guam History undertake a project called “I Chalån-ta Mo’na” which is a political status forum/debate where the class is divided into three groups each of which represents a different possible political status for Guam. They spend a few weeks ahead of time researching and preparing arguments and then come together to argue over whether statehood, independence or free association is the best choice for Guam’s future. When the project is first announced most students moan about having to talk about things which they either know/care nothing about, or things which they associate with “activists.” But in the heat of the forum, the being forced to articulate your thoughts and the possibility that they in some small way might matter in terms of what direction the island heads, makes the event hotly contested. When we held our debate last year in one of my classes, we had professors from next door asking us to please keep it down since the yelling over which status was the best was interrupting students taking their exams.

The goal of this exercise is not just to inform, but also to hopefully instill some understanding about the importance of issues of political status. Guam is one of the last “official” colonies left in the world and the fact that we are so clueless about our status and so apathetic as an island to changing it is a travesty. We are a colony in denial about being a colony and sometimes it seems that our number one industry is neither military nor tourism, but rather making us excuses as to why it is either alright or necessary that we remain a colony.

This is understandable given that Guam is a pretty “comfortable” colony, but that does not change the fact that Guam’s relationship to the US is fundamentally not one of equality, but of ownership. Although Guam is the recipient of “state-like” treatment, we are not a state, we are a possession, an unincorporated territory, and so while we may want to feel that our relationship to the US is just like any state, any other corner of America, it is not, and we do ourselves little good by pretending it is otherwise.

Despite what most may think, our political status is not a minor issue, but literally affects everything on this island. Where you stand on Guam’s current colonial status and what you think (or don’t think) about what should happen next goes to the core of how you are a person of Guam. How you live here, what you feel about this place, what you think it’s capable of and where you think it should go next.

I hope that my students can take from this exercise both how political status is potentially connected to all other issues on Guam, but also that they should take a more active role in discussing it. For the most part, my students enjoy the fire and the brimstone of their debate, but once it is over return political status issues to someplace far outside their lives and their concerns. Such is the nature of most classrooms experiences, in the short-term when you are part of a group, a unit of learners, all underneath a shared educational guru, the framework of the class can go a long way in terms of determining what you feel and think. But when the class is over, and the framework is lifted and gone, the only thing that's left is ga'tot. For those of you who don't know the term it can refer to many things, but all of a sort of ephemeral nature, something which leaves a mark which can slowly disappear. It can refer to a marker on a tree, which leaves a deep cut when it is removed, or the marks left on your skin when you remove your belt or clothing which was too tight. The mark stains for a short period of time after what made it is gone, but it tends to go away soon after that. That is the way things often work with my students, when the class is over and the order of the class begins to dissipate, I can see that mark slowly fade away. The particular consciousness that they developed over the course of the class slowly falls apart and appears to return to some earlier "pre-conscious" form.

But, dialectically, I know that this isn't the case. That nothing ever returns to a previous point, a previous moment and so that even if they appear to have lost what I gave them, it can still exist somewhere. But what is always rewarding is when students don't remove what I have given them, don't chafe against it and wiggle their way out of it so its marks will go away, but instead continue to wear it proudly! They find a way of making it their own, braiding it or soaking into the flesh of their identity or their academic/political articulations. Those students always impress me and sometimes it is in the political status debate, that the way they have taken the class and its critiques into them comes out in the way they make their arguments, and the impressive way they move beyond the simple or the easy in arguing for Guam's next political status. Last semester I was surprised to see a number of students take more seriously the political status issue and this was proven to me in how persuasive their arguments were. I wanted to share my notes for their conclusions, which were for me the best part of the debate, where each group made some very solid arguments for the benefits of their particular status.

INDEPENDENCE: The US Constitution was made a long time ago and while it is a good constitution, in our group we decided to come up with our own. That is what each people in their own place are supposed to do and that is what Independence is. With Independence we would have our own laws and no one to answer to. We could prioritize Chamorro language and culture, or we could legalize marijuana in order to make money. We could open up the Marianas Trench for exploration or research. The point is that it is up to us. Right now we are stuck in the Western ways, and sometimes that is good, but we are not empowered to make our own choices. Right now we are told that Health Care is supposed to be a privilege, but what if we wanted to make it a right? Under Independence, Guam could. And for those who are worried about our defense, we can always make an agreement with the US military to keep them here. Right now the US military is here because they colonized us, but how much better would it be if they were here because we made a deal with them and not because they took our land?

FREE ASSOCIATION: If you guys don’t feel too excited about independence or statehood then FAS is what you want. We have all grown up with Guam now, and it is good right now, but we just need a little more to help us live better. The other two statuses are too hard and too many things against us. Independence and Statehood will both be too much for our small island. FAS gives us the freedom to do what we choose. It is not against anyone. We want to forge alliances with other places, but keep close to the US. We can use the US and its funds to improve things like our hospital and education, but always leave the door open to partner with close countries like the PI. Guam has always been a transit point and with FAS we would be able to develop those ties.

STATEHOOD: There is a long list of things which Guam would lose if it moved away from the US. Our passports and are student loans are just two of them. People would leave the island, our future would become uncertain. We need to choose what is best for this island and not follow the radical ideas of others. Statehood is a step in the better direction. Who can be against more cooperation and unity with a larger power which has done so much for us? We would become more stable as a state, with more money and more prestige. We wouldn’t be outside looking in, we would be a part of the American family. Who is to say anyway that if we became an independent country the US wouldn’t take advantage of us even more? At least as a State we would be inside and they couldn’t just bully us like they do others.


ChamoruBoy said...

On Statehood: It will never happen. Critical difference between how Hawaii, Alaska, and Texas becames states to Micronesia. In those states it was white settlers who overthrew the natives then petitioned for statehood and got it. In Micronesia that doesn't exist - thus the states will never ratify to let Micronesia or Puerto Rico in as a state. Sad but true, it's based on race, always was and always will be. Just from a historical perspective and looking at the current sentiment over border control, which is really just a front for racism, it will not happen. Look at Alaska and Hawaii, why is it that the natives are treated as a seperate political entity and not recognized as the state soveriegn? Why was it on the governments that were established by white settlers that were recognized? Even though we have a black president and “Equal Rights” in our Constitution, I think we are still a few hundred years from this nation truly accepting minorities as an “equal.”

Mon said...

i think it is about time that guam and puerto rico assert their independence, which cuba and the phillipines have dpoe so much long ago. yes, being independent from an economically and politically strong nation could have their downside, but having a nation. having one identity is something you should never let go.

miss universe 2009 saw miss philippines and miss guam wearing the same costumes - the Filipiniana terno. The terno, though have influences fropm spain is uniquely Filipino. I think guam is having this kind of identity crisis is a sign that the chamorros are losing touch of their identity,


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