Friday, November 04, 2011

Political Status Artifacts...or...Things Old People Say About Decolonization

For the past few weeks I've helped organize two public forums at UOG's CLASS Lecture Hall, both of which were completely packed. A forum held in September featuring David Vine talking about Diego Garcia and Leevin Camacho talking about the Pagat lawsuit was attended by well over 200 people. The same was true for a forum on political decolonization featuring expert on the existing Non-Self-Governing Territories Carlyle Corbin from the Virgin Islands and Guam's own human rights attorney Julian Aguon. In both cases, almost every seat was packed, with some lined up watching along the lecture hall's walls. Granted, a good number of those in attendance were students who were there as part of class, but it was still inspiring to see so many people in a single place to learn about issues such as base displacement and decolonization.

While Carlyle Corbin was here last month he mentioned how impressed he was with the level of discourse on Guam in terms of decolonization. Compared to some other existing colonies, Guam appeared to be further along in terms of coming to terms with its status and working towards change it to something more equitable. He compared the types of events that were being organized, how the media treated decolonization as an issue, and even the fact that I have a weekly column in the Marianas Variety, where I can openly discuss decolonization. This far different than even his home of the Virgin Islands, where they are currently writing a Constitution, but the disconnect between the people and the process is great.

This will no doubt come as a surprise to most people on Guam, including those who are deeply involved in the decolonization discussion. We are so used to talking about how frustrating and slow moving things are here. We are used to talking about how marginal our voices are, we can't imagine that any other place could be as stubborn about resisting decolonization as Guam seems to be. Guam is such a successful example of colonialism, how could there be any other place less conscious than Guam? While even I believe these things to be true sometimes, when I hear about the other territories and colonies in the world, and their levels of apathy, I actually feel like Guam is ahead of the game. Carlyle Corbin's blog The Overseas Territories Review is a great place to learn more about what other places in similar colonial situations, and as you can see from the media in those other cases of formally existing colonialism, Guam looks pretty radical in comparison.

It hasn't always been like this though. I remember hearing the stories from the last generation of grass roots activists as to how their efforts were received by the general public on Guam. Nasion Chamoru and OPIR respectively both got plenty of empty rooms and flaccid protests, as well as jeers and sneers from friends, family and perfect strangers. They attested to different ways in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, getting people to discuss political status and decolonization seriously was so difficult and at times impossible. People would feel so intensely about something they knew close to nothing about. They would reject even hearing the most basic information about it, and refuse to even open their minds slightly to consider what was being discussed. When I entered the discussion formally, by speaking out on the internet and in public, things were different, but the spectre of that time when decolonization was a dirty word was still looming.

When the group Famoksaiyan was in full force in 2006 and 2007, members of it organized a forum at the UOG Lecture Hall titled "Decolonizing Our Lives." I had helped organize events like this before, and attended many events like this, and so while we were planning it, there was an assumption that few people would be there. The topic of decolonizing our lives, where crazy activists talk about the work that they are doing didn't seem like something most people on Guam would care about or even want to listen to. Naturally we anticipated an empty lecture hall. When the forum took place, we were blown away by the amount of people who showed up. There were enough to possibly fill two lecture halls. We had people lined up along the walls, from the front to the back, and people packed in the lobby as well. So many people from so many walks of life were there. Activists from different generations. Students. Politicians. Community leaders. Elders, youth. Plenty of Chamorros, but lots of non-Chamorros as well. It was inspiring to see, but it also made me appreciate the time I live in now.

Now, whether most people recognize it or not, the island has changed and has to admit that the discussion on decolonization is not only necessary, but can be beneficial. It is almost mind-numbing and laughable the forms that decolonization used to take on Guam. The ways in which politicians and leaders used to be almost paralyzed on the topic and react in childish ways when issues of colonialism and improving political status were brought up. The abilities for the island to criticize the US publicly were very limited and this showed very clearly in how people could not even form coherent ideas of political status change, but would instead merely puke fear of the colonizer abandoning them out into the ears or eyeballs of those paying attention. The dialogue was childish at best and had trouble talking about political status in any productive or constructive way.

But because the colonial difference persisted, even if it had been cloaked in some way, and resolved in others, the issue could not die. No matter how nice Guam is treated under the US, not matter how lucky people may feel to be an appendage of the US, at the end of the day, you are still not equal and not respected in terms of your relationship to it, and so the question will always nag at people, as to why? The colonial difference sticks out, it prevents any feeling of completeness in the relationship and so unless Guam were to somehow actually become a state, regardless of how well it will be treated, there will always be questions of why it must receive this lower and unequal treatment. So while we can laugh at the way that previous generations attempted to talk about political status or decolonization directly or explicitly, we also have to admit that the seeds of the conversation have always been there. From the drama first Guam Legislature created in 1899, to the first petition to political rights in 1901, to BJ Bordallo and FBLG in Washington D.C., to the 1949 walkout, to the Sella Bay protest, to the Nasion Chamorro sit in and protests, over the years, Chamorros have found ways of trying to address this issue, but often times cannot do so for fear of challenging the US.

A case in point is the short essay below written by Carlos Camacho who was the last appointed Governor of Guam and also its first elected Governor. Although most people would argue that the Organic Act was a step forward for Chamorros (lao ti Guahu siempre), any thinking person must also acknowledge its limitations. It did not resolve Nixthe colonial status of Guam, but actually exasperated it. It created the impression of everything being different, when at the most foundational level, very little had changed. In this essay, he reflects on how things changed with the Organic Act on a personal level, but ends with his admission that it is only a start and things must change. But in terms of political status he was still very much stuck in the time, and could not imagine that there was anything beyond what the US could give Guam.

This essay can be found in the Grey Hale'-ta book. Hinasso: Tinige' Put Chamorro.


I was studying at Marquette University when I first heard of the Organic Act of 1950. At the time, I was not very interested in political matters, but I did stop to think that this seemed to be a logical step for Guam. Looking back on those times now seems to me like looking back a hundred years...there was Korea, Hawaii wasn't even a state then and Guam...the Guam I recall at that time was recovering from the war.

When I consider what the Organic Act has meant for Guam, aside from the US Citizenship granted to the people, I like to think that it has become the "corner-stone" of Guam's governmental future. I certainly think it was an important step for us, and I remember thinking that this really was going to show everyone what and where Guam is. (I really used to have people asking me about Guam in those days. People still ask me how it is to be living on Guam but no one asks where Guam is these days. (Everyone knows.) Another thing I remember about the news of the adoption of the Organic Act was the reports on the radio and in the papers back there. I was really proud that we had made the news. They hadn't heard much about us since the war was over.

Looking at the Organic Act now, having worked within its framework as both a legislator, as an appointed Governor and now as Chief Executive responsible only to the people of Guam I feel the act itself is a very good piece of "basic" legislation, but the time is many ways, it is overdue...when some future study is going to be necessary to make the Organic Act fit a little better into our plans for the future of Guam.

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