Saturday, July 09, 2011

A Walk to Remember Our Strength

On July 17th, myself and some of my friends will be walking 19 miles from Merizo to Manengon, Yo'na in honor of the Chamorros who endured Japanese occupation in World War II. The name of this event is "Remember Our Strength," in order to explain why we are walking and from where to where I wrote the following:

In July of 1944 Guam had been turned into a warzone. As the Japanese, recent occupiers of the island dug in, erecting haphazard defenses and brutalizing Chamorros in anticipation of an American invasion, 13 days of Americans bombs fell on the island, all with the calculated intent of destroying every structure on the island. Chamorros were caught desperately in the middle. The final weeks of World War II in Guam or I Tiempon Chapones, were filled with tales of violence and suffering. After 32 months of Japanese occupation which was difficult and trying to say the least, the final month of the war on Guam is riddled with massacres, rapes, torture, and a long collective march as 18,000 Chamorros are forced to march from almost every village to Manengon Valley in the island’s center.
The tragedy and hardship of those days soon disappears as the war story changes. Sometimes within the span of a sentence, the Japanese guards, menacing with the fear of facing a losing battle, melt away in the night, and are soon replaced with American Marines, tall, blond, God-like in the way they enter the narrative, carrying with them Spam, cigarettes, powdered milk and salvation from the Japanese. Tears of joy accompany grateful hugs as Chamorros are jubilant that their 32 months ordeal is now at an end. Each year we remember and we commemorate those tearful moments when on July 21st we celebrate Liberation Day, with solemn remembrances, fireworks, parades, beauty pageants and carnivals.
Each year the same basic elements of the war story are recounted as we remember the most impactful time in recent Guam history. But as we remember that story with the trauma of the first bombs falling in Sumay, to the uncertainty of being slapped for not bowing when the Japanese arrive, rumors of work groups becoming massacres, tired and bone-weary marches through mud to Manengon, and then finally the first sighting of the Marines, although Chamorros are the central characters of this story, the emphasis on Liberation Day always changes the nature of the tale. In the celebration of Liberation Day, in the way we memorialize the war and its end, it is easy to see the US as the hero of the story and Chamorros as hapless victims of war. When we place the end of the war at the center of how we remember it as an experience and an event, we change the nature of the struggle and the survival of Chamorros, so that rather than seeing their own strength in their actions, we see them surviving until the United States can return to finish the tale. We might call this a historical shortcircuit, whereby we celebrate, rightly many of the things the United States did for Guam and for Chamorros, but at the quiet expense of Chamorros who endured the war, those who survived and those who did not. Although we celebrate the Chamorro experience as part of Liberation Day, we do so primarily as footnotes to the American return, and as such, our elders deserve to be remembered and commemorated for their survival in and of itself.

Although all Chamorros awaited America’s return, America was not in Guam during those 32 months. Although Chamorros sustained themselves by singing songs such as “Sam Sam, My Dead Uncle Sam” there was no one else there to help them save for themselves. Symbols of America such as the Sam Song or Navy holdout George Tweed, were powerful, but were symbols, they were abstractions which Chamorros used to feel inspired. But as former Congressman and World War II survivor Ben Blaz notes, during those days of the war, the Chamorro spirit, the strength which helped them survive was far from an abstraction, but a true, real life-sustaining force. They survived through their own faith and through their own strength. It is a strength we forget too easily, and too often let be consumed within the flag folds of another.

On July 17th, 2011, members of the groups Halomtåno’ and We Are Guahan will be walking from Malesso to Manengon Yo’na in order to celebrate and pay tribute to that spirit. This walk of 19 miles will begin at the Tayuyute’ Ham Memorial in front of the Malesso Church, and pass through Inarajan, Ipan Talo’fo’fo and end at the Manengon Memorial Monument along the Ylig River.
The title of this walk is “Remember Our Strength” and while it is reminiscent of the marches that Chamorros were forced to take to Manengon Valley, this is not meant to be a re-enactment or a commemoration of any particular march from any particular village. It is instead a gesture meant to symbolize various elements of the Chamorro war experience. During the walk, stories will be shared about how Chamorros endured such a traumatic time, and each member of the march will select someone who lived on Guam during the war to march on behalf of and carry a picture or a memento of their experience. The strength which we remember in this walk is our legacy from that generation.
This walk is meant to be a homage to the strength that sustained Chamorros, and as we push ourselves today to complete that walk and as we remember the stories of their survival, we intend to discover some of that strength in ourselves.

The walk begins at the Tayuyute’ Ham Memorial which is significant because it is one of the first monuments which Chamorros created to memorialize themselves, their own experiences, in their own language. Meant specifically to mourn and memorialize the massacres of Tinta and Faha in Malesso, the monument nonetheless symbolizes an initial attempt by Chamorros to place their own value on their memory, and memorialize their hardships in their own way. Far different than many of the war memorials found on island which emphasize the military aspects of war, this monument emphasizes the delicate human tragedy of war, and the struggle to persist and live on in the face of horrible violence.
Although a walk such as this could begin from almost any point on Guam, since every corner of Guam had some experience of the war which is worth remembering, Malesso was chosen for this walk as it represents in an inspiring way how that strength of Chamorros during World War II manifested most forcefully. Over the course of 32 months of Japanese occupation Chamorros found a multitude of ways to resist the Japanese, although most of them were silent, conducted behind the scenes or said in the Chamorro language. Chamorros hid radios to keep track of the war progress across the Pacific, they sheltered and fed American holdouts such as George Tweed, and found so many other simple ways to keep themselves alive and sane during an insane time. In Malesso, after hearing about the massacres at Tinta and Faha, the people of Merizo fearing that they might as well soon be massacred decided to rise up and overpowered the Japanese in their village.

Mannengon Valley will forever be synonymous with the forced marches and concentration camps of World War II. 18,000 Chamorros were camped there at one point awaiting an uncertain future, with American bombs falling on one side and with Japanese bayonets brandished on the other. Chamorros waited there, starving, sick, tired and worrying beyond comprehension, praying that their nightmare might soon end. This area, because of that significance has long been considered sacred to that Chamorro war experience, and seven years ago a single monument was built near the Ylig River. That monument was meant to be just the beginning of a larger memorial at the site, but as of today nothing else has been built.

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