Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Scene of the Trauma

I will be teaching Guam History this summer at the University of Guam and so I'm trying to put together a new syllabus for the condensed schedule of a summer intersession class. As I'm trying to figure out what lectures to keep and what should go, an interesting sort of Guam history question came to mind. Which of the periods of Guam History over the past 500 years would I consider to be the most traumatic for students to learn about? In my World History 2 class (1500 CE - the present), I teach it in such a way that it is meant to be a crash course in horrible things that the First World did to the rest of the world, focusing on colonialism and how people have attempted to liberate themselves from its grasp. In my Guam History class I take a similar approach, spilling out on the floor each week a laundry list of horrible things that have happened to Chamorros and to Guam.

But amidst all the truth telling, which is the period or the story, the moment in Guam History that is the most traumatic for young people, non-Chamorro and Chamorro, to learn about in my class? There are a couple of clear front runners: The Chamorro Spanish Wars, World War II, the prewar period, the postwar period, the reduccion phase. Some strong contenders, but I consider the end of the Chamorro-Spanish Wars to be the most emotionally potent moment in Guam History and the point which is the most unconsciously traumatic for my students. It is the moment which causes them the most latent discomfort, meaning something that stretches the limits of their identity, even in ways they don’t really know how to articulate.
On the surface, one might assume that the prewar US Navy period from 1898-1941 would be the most clearly traumatic for young people given the way the island of Guam has turned out over the past century. But given my experiences in teaching and talking to students, I don’t really see that. Covering this period has its moments of tension, but nothing compared to when we recount the effects of early Spanish colonization.

In the prewar period of Guam History students learn about a side of the United States which most wish they never had to confront or know about. Uncle Sam during that period is hardly seen as the benevolent and loving paternal figure that it is today. Uncle Sam then was not even seen as a relative, not even a cruel or hated member of the family, but an obtrusive and invasive stranger. At most Uncle Sam was a neighbor who had no respect for you, your property, but would constantly see themselves as needing to take over your life and force themselves upon you and your family. Uncle Sam back then was a racist, colonialist and paternalistic neighbor, who you might want to have a good friendship with, but their unwillingness to even respect the modicum of who you were prevented you from ever feeling that sort of connection to them. This was a time when Chamorros had no rights, no protections save for what the US Navy wanted them to have and lived under the shadow of a lazy but sometimes oppressive autocratic regime. The treatment of Chamorros wasn’t as horrible as it was under the Spanish during the early years of colonization, but it is still a stark contrast to the Guam of today and contemporary perceptions that Chamorros has of their colonizer.

It is usually a traumatic time because my students learn of the local sins of the United States. Coming from an Ethnic Studies background I am always amused to hear my students talk about racism or race in class. Their logic tends to follow to points: 1. That racism is a thing of the past or 2. That racism is something which other places and not Guam struggle with. This means that learning about the local history of oppression by the United States, or even talking about racism between ethnic groups on Guam in a contemporary sense is something which always makes students uncomfortable and often times feels like their minds are onions in need of layer upon layer of uselessness peeled back.

One of the stupidest things which comes from these twin logics is that despite our own history of being treated in racist ways, we instead refer to the history of the United States, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in order to articulate their ideas about race or oppression. Guam is not alone in this regard, as MLK’s hegemonic rise as a marker of inspiration (experiencing and overcoming oppression) is part of the hegemonic rise of the US in terms of stitching together a global/universal history. The attractiveness of MLK’s story, just like Gandhi’s story is of course the non-violence of the example, the “happy ending” and the way in which the true story is not the uprising, the insurgency, the fighting of power, but rather the anonymous arc of the moral universe, always quietly bending towards justice. The different is of course the “colonial” dimension of the two examples and what kind of happy endings emerge.

One of the reasons why MLK is such an attractive example to use on Guam (as with everywhere else) is because of the way it easily sutures back up the temporarily ruptured and bleeding national character of the United States. Like most stories of bad things a nation or nation-state has done, the perceived moral core, the inner goodness, the source of the national spirit leaks out from an obvious wound. The spirit which is supposed to hold the nation together and give it all the elevated power, the feeling that it is truly something great, something that you can believe in and should give up much of your freedom and identity in order to be a part of, it bleeds out, leaving the nation weakened and pallid. But the great thing about MLK’s story is how quickly it gives you the ability to sew right back up that wound and conserve that precious spirit. The wound which remains thus begins to emanate in such a way to appear to empower the spirit of the nation. The stories of those who were once strangled and suffocated by that spirit, their souls stripped of power to feed the hoary health of the nation, they now serve to show how despite the horrible wound, the nation has survived. After all, in the histories of nations as in life, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.

That is one of the reasons why the recounting of the racism of the prewar period on Guam is never actually that traumatic. Because of the way that wound on the skin of the nation actually becomes a mark of the inclusion of the souls which were once excluded.

It becomes both a sign of potential breakdown, inconsistency, it is a very real and corporeal stain on the nation, but it can also be something to signify change, evolution, survival, an ability to adapt and to incorporate. The scars, like those on a aged, weather-beaten warrior, do not indicate any weakness, but rather the ability to consume the strength of others and to become stronger as a result.

So when students hear about the horrible things the US did in the past, to their parents or grandparents, it is always filtered through the feeling that this is not an open wound, but rather just one of those scars for something that you must be happy you did not really feel the pain of. The worse things were, the more it can be taken as a signifier of how far things have come and therefore how grateful we should be that things have changed! The sins of the US of the US during the prewar period just become fodder for the exceptionalizing and the moralizing of America, making it part of that narrative of bad things, such as slavery, sexism, racism, genocide, which the US always feels compelled to remind itself it has overcome and left in the past.

Such is not easily the case with the Chamorro-Spanish Wars. It is something that can be easily dismissed on the basis of happening such an long long time ago, but the particular dynamics of that historical event, make it in some ways harder to neutralize and more difficult to tame the potential trauma.

One thing which makes the Chamorro-Spanish Wars different is that it cannot be viewed, except by the most ridiculous of observers as being some internal or agonistic struggle, it is a struggle between two antagonists, where one of which is knowingly oppressing the other. The prewar American period is always viewed agonistically between two antagonists. Although Chamorros and Americans are fundamentally different communities and people at this period, the eventually marriage that takes place, the inclusion that happens during and after World War II, has a way of affecting and rewriting the history that leads up to it. As a result, even though Chamorros and Americans see themselves as being fundamentally different, people tend to write of that history as being one of two lost souls seeking to find each other. Like a romance movie where people treat each other like crap at the beginning, but by the end realize that they were made for each other and only acted in such cruel, racist and paternalistic ways because they just hadn’t discovered how meant for each other they really were.

When it comes to the Chamorro-Spanish Wars, only the most insane Catholic can make a similar claim. Chamorros and the Spanish in the 17th century came from fundamentally different worlds, spoke very different languages and were heavily divided. The Spanish made claims to saving the souls of Chamorros, but there still remained the residue of the debate a century earlier where the humanity of non-Christian and non-European peoples had been challenged. The Spanish may have felt like they were in the right at that point, like what they were doing was just whether for religious or racist reasons, but changes in humanity have made it so what they did was clearly wrong.

One of the funniest things to listen to is a Catholic priest attempt to argue that what was done to Chamorros in the early days of colonization was right or was just. The accounts of the priests at that time make it clear. Some Chamorros agreed to convert, most however did not. The Spanish waged war against those who did not want to become Christians, slaughtering many, burning whole villages to the ground, prohibiting certain practices they did not agree with.

The Church often likes to dance around the issue by claiming that no one was “forced” to be Catholic, and that no one converted who did not want to be converted. That may be somewhat true, but the fact of the matter is that no one was actually given that choice. While everyone may not have been forced to accept Christianity as their new religion in their heart, in public and in their lives, they were not allowed otherwise. After the Catholic church came to Guam, you could not walk away from them to live your life as you see fit. They did not see you as having that freedom, that liberty. There was no way to say no. That, amongst many things is missing from the canonical accounts of that era and that sort of racial/religious climate. The Spanish at that time treated Chamorros as less than human and the foundation in Guam of the Catholic Church stems from that assumption. Without that horrible violence, Guam would have a radically different history. It could have still been colonized and Chamorros still suffered at the hands of other colonizers or the Spanish just during another era, but it would not be the Guam we know today.

The larger something is, the more violence it requires to come into existence. The larger something becomes the more it necessarily had to displace in order to gain such stature, such power. This is true in terms of smaller communities or socio-political organisms, but very much true for large coalitions such as nations or religions. The embeddedness of the Catholic Church and Catholicism in Chamorro culture came with a very high cost in historical terms. It did not come through early eagerness to convert, but came through horrible, disgusting and terrible violence, so much so that you could argue, as may have had, that the level of violence and deprivation committed against the Chamorro people in order to force them on the road to Catholicism, should stain and curse the whole thing on Guam. That it should be an anathema to Chamorros to be Catholic, because of how the church came to Guam and how it’s establishment here was built upon decades of painful torturous colonization, which some Chamorros accepted, but the majority of which fought against and detested.

But history and the identities that people draw from history are never that simple. African Americans will exist in great tension with the United States nation simply because the narrative of their inclusion requires an inhuman exclusion. It is not a heartwarming story of overcoming poverty and tough times to achieve the prototypical middle class fantasy, it is a story of millions of people from an entirely different continent ripped from their homes, sold into slavery, taken to entirely different land and then they and their descendants, treated like property for hundreds of years. Chamorros and Catholicism is similar. When Americans first came to Guam, they looked down on Chamorros for the obvious contradiction in their accepted of Catholicism as the book of ideas and identities that ran their lives. The Americans, a younger people and nation than Spain, thought themselves a new modern nation, strong and sturdy compared to the obvious decay and pointless decadent of the Spanish empire. Chamorros clinging to Catholicism despite it being a pagan religion in the minds of most Americans a century ago, and also because of the way it was forced into their lives, were see as ignorant and in need of proper enlightenment.

Two of the first Guam History texts ever written show this tension. The Pheonix Rises, written by a priest after World War II, tells the history of Guam and Chamorros through the history of the Catholic Church on Guam, showing how intertwined and interconnected we might see the church in Chamorro lives. The historiography of this text makes clear that there is no Guam, and there is no Chamorro without the Church, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Another Guam: Past and Present, written by an American named Beardsley, savages the Spanish in its historiography, calling them out for their crimes. The book elevates the Americans and their actions in Guam, at the expense of the Spanish. So even though you could claim that “modernity” comes to Guam via the Spanish, Beardsley writing of history makes that modernity a corrupting influence, one of violence and ignorance, whereas the American variety is much better.

But all of this doesn’t really explain why the start of Spanish colonialism on Guam would be more traumatic than the beginning of the American form. In a way though it does start to address the issue. Catholicism is older than Americanization or feelings of Americanness in Guam. Much older actually. So old in fact that there are many who claim that you cannot really be Chamorro or practice Chamorro culture unless you are Catholic, since so much of what is now Chamorro culture comes from Catholicism. So you could argue that learning more about that early colonization would be more traumatic since it is scraping and digging into a deeper wound. It is ripping the scab off of a wound which you haven’t looked at or even thought about for years, whereas thinking about America is just scratching at a newly grown scab. It might cause a small irritation but nothing compared to digging into your flesh and ripping apart something which your body may feel was settled and healed over long ago.

But there is a deeper issue here and that is who the Chamorros are in both of these historical moments, and why the mistreatment they received in one, would be harder to stomach than in the other. In the case of the prewar 20th century area, we have Chamorros who have already been ravaged by colonialism and history. They have been colonized for hundreds of years and in the eyes of most, have lost everything that made them who they are. They live on borrowed time, they dress themselves in borrowed culture. They are impure, they are almost pathetic, the most venerable group of zombies in the Pacific, long dead from the musket balls of colonialism, but still shambling around pretending there is still some life in them that they can call their own. The mistreatment of Chamorros by the United States is unfortunate, but it is not really tragic. It does not really reach the narrative level of the Garden of Eden, or the fall from grace, the loss of paradise which is necessary for so many people to understand or make coherent the story of how indigenous or native people are screwed over in history.

That narrative exists however in the story of the Spanish colonization of Guam. The Chamorros that lose that war are the pure ones. They are the ones that can truly carry the mantle of being “Chamorro. “ The ones who can truly claim to have been wronged, to have lost something in their being oppressed. What makes the crimes of the Spanish worse is that they took away that purity from Chamorros. They took away their sovereignty, their very place in history. It is because of what they did, that the existence of Chamorros is always a cursed one. They are a people who can’t say that they “really” exist anymore. They have to argue for the right to have their own dances anymore. They have a language which they can preserve, but aren’t supposed to speak and shouldn’t be teaching since it might interfere with the role of English in Guam. Their own islands are not theirs.

But the key to understanding this is not that, the amount of things which the Spanish did or set into motion are worse and more cruel (even if you could argue they are), what is key is the Chamorros they were lost or damaged in the process. Here, history works in a similar fashion to how Law and Order cases work. If the woman accusing someone of rape can be portrayed in anyway as someone who should “expect” would be treated in this way, a prostitute, a sexually active person, someone who doesn’t conform to some normative idea of gender, then it creates the means for accepting and justifying what happened. The reason why this can work is because the purity and innocence which is the stuff that you identify with, the source of your ability to feel sympathy for someone wronged by another or wronged by the world, is supposedly gone. Once this is gone, everything is supposed to be permitted.

In the making of the modern Chamorro and in the understanding of them, that trauma at the hands of the Spanish is the essential, foundational trauma. It is the one which must always be revisited each moment someone asserts something of the Chamorro, and as such it works as the warden, the gatekeeper. It is that place where the Chamorro is given permission to exist in a contemporary sense or not. It is a place which appears at first glance to be ancient, wizened and therefore unimportant. Like piles of rocks, overgrown with weeds, which were once an Ancient temple and now appear like nothing more that Chia pets waiting to finish in the middle of the jungle. But as one kicks around rocks and stumbles upon artifacts, you realize that all the answers are there. All the questions, the way they are phrased, their limits and the naturalness of how they are formed, result from that place. It is therefore a place you always have to return to in order to find meaning, but one which holds horrifying potential. It holds the potential for rending everything. It holds the potential for ripping asunder the fabric of the present, for revealing the normal to be abnormal, the natural to be the unnatural. It can make the Catholicism which drips from the world around you and is supposed to comfort you, feel like an oppressive and invasive presence. The trauma of that moment, is the trauma of the Chamorro and so for both Chamorros who struggle with their identities and what it means to be a Chamorro today, but also non-Chamorros who enjoy a Guam which has “no real Chamorros” or enjoy feeling like they come from a culture which did not lose everything in comparison to Guam’s indigenous people, that is a place which can be very dangerous.

1 comment:

achakma said...

Our brand of catholocism is like no other on earth. Our experience under the Spanish is nothing less than slavery. Our experience has many parallels to the Native Americans, African Americans, Palestinian people, Okinawa/Japan and Jeju Island/South Korea. We are an occupied people with the boot of slavery, colonialism and now, corporate militarization on our necks. And still we fight!

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