Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Life and Death of Chamorro Nationalism

In all my classes that I teach at the University of Guam, the issue of decolonization and independence for Guam always arises. Part of it is because of who I am and what I believe in. Part of it is because of what I teach and how I teach. But regardless of why, it is something that I always end have addressing either in response to students and their questions, or as a matter of wanting to open their minds up to something they have yet to consider. Part of the difficulty though in discussing these two topics is that while Guam is a colony and has been such for more than a century, the Chamorro experience of colonialism has changed so much since 1898, 1941, even 1968. The colonial difference between Guam and the United States is not as wide or as daunting or as disgusting as it used to be. In Guam in 1898, 1941, 1944 and even 1968 you could see where America ended and Chamorros and Guam began. You could see that America engaged with Chamorros only up to a certain point as human beings or as subjects worth anything, and then after that dismissed them.

Our history would be very different if World War II had not taken place, or if it had happened even just a little bit differently. In the period between World War I and World War II, the US government knew that Guam was a target and would no doubt be dragged rather violently into any conflict with Japan. The government however became deadlocked over what to do with Guam. Small attempts were made to fortify Guam in anticipation for the conflict the War Department knew was coming, but all serious moves to defend Guam or prepare Guam were abandoned. As a result Guam was "sacrificed" in the words of historian Don Farrell to the Japanese. When the Japanese invade, their tactics in dominating Guam are much more brutal and aggressive than those used by the US and so Chamorros pray for the US return and eagerly welcome them when they come back in 1944. Chamorros emerge from the war drastically different than in prior years. In 1944, they cannot imagine a world without the US at the center of it, whereas before, it really didn't matter to them if the US was at the center or not.

But what if history had happened differently. One of the things which has kept the colonial difference stark and real for some Chamorro families is the illegal land takings in postwar Guam for strategic military purposes. In the generations of Chamorro activists or fierce critics of US policy since World War II, their ranks have been filled primarily with those who lost pieces of land (maseha dikike' pat dangkolu) in order to create the many US military facilities that Guam hosts today.

What if, instead of abandoning Guam for the 20 years prior to World War II, what if the US had instead militarized it? And not just a tiny bit, but went full out and transformed Guam into the fortress some analysts imagine it could be? Strategists in the era between world wars claimed that Guam was indefensible and that it would cost far too much to attempt to defend it. What if Congressmen and Senators ignored these recommendations and instead pumped a huge amount of money and effort into Guam? What if the US used the powers they had at that time (and still have today) to take large tracts of land and build their bases and dredge the reefs and so on? What if the period of displacement had happened before war took place?

Things would be very different to say the least.

When Chamorros lose large pieces of land in postwar Guam, the loss of the land is explained and integrated into the logic of chenchule' and a great debt owed to the US for saving people from the Japanese. Chamorros felt indebted to the US for its return, and so when the prospect of giving up their land in order to help the US came up, most were grateful for the chance to give back, to do something to repay their debt. The land takings were seen as traumatic and terrible, especially by 1948 and 1949, when the war was long over and Chamorros could not understand why lands were not being returned or why lands were still being taken. But, they were not seen as something foreign. It was not something that arose in Chamorros such indignity or displeasure at how they were being mistreated that they organically created an oppositional consciousness in challenging it or explaining it. The logic of chenchule' held strong, and Chamorro understood the land takings as a greedy move on the part of the US, in the same way someone who once brought binadu to a fiesta, later assumes that this means he can borrow your car whenever he wants. Chamorros did not use the land takings as a reason to push away from the US, as others might have, because they already felt bound to them through this relationship, and so rather than breaking away, they instead sought to move closer and to hopefully cause the US to change its behavior and treat Chamorros better.

It was funny in 2009 when the dump issue (both Ordot's closing and the Layon opening) was all over the papers, and Federal judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood was wielding much power in the name of the Federal government, a possible walkout of the Guam Legislature was discussed. For those who don't know, an infamous walkout was held in 1949 by the Guam Congress in response to the US Navy's actions in Guam. It received international attention and was a small part of why the US policies towards Guam changed and the US Navy was replaced with the civilian Government of Guam in 1950.

As the Feds were again seen as acting unfairly towards Guam, different activists (myself included) and local leaders were discussing holding another symbolic walkout in 2009. Nothing came from this, except for lots of discussion and several posts on this blog included one of my favorites "A Guam Legislature Walkout?" The Legislature, under the leadership of Speaker Judi Won Pat (whose father was speaker during the Guam Congress Walkout), held a laughable and very embarrassingly small "forum" in front of the Federal Courthouse in Anigua where they discussed the walkout and other issues of Federal Territorial Relations. The rhetoric for that forum were far more interesting than the event itself, which was planned at the very last minute with almost no one who didn't work at the Legislature knowing it was taking place.

The coverage for the event, claimed that there might be on Guam a "rise in nationalism." Government rhetoric, especially from the Legislature seemed to be more openly critical of the US government, and so one article from the Marianas Variety identified that as a sign of an emerging nationalism. I found this analysis cute but woefully incorrect. The expression of discontent in both 1949 and 2009 are not nationalistic in nature. They do not argue the primacy of a local nation or a Chamorro nation. They do not seek to establish the alterity of said nation. In both cases, if you pay attention to the rhetoric it is still very much caught in the chenchule' dynamic. It is discontent that seeks a better deal from someone or something that it recognizes as being in charge or being better. Their discontent is expressed in terms of not being fairly, but as to what they invoke as the proper treatment, it is not human rights, it is not the rights of a people of Guam, but as people attached to the United States. They are not being treated the way people who are Americans or part of an American dependency is being treated. That is not nationalism. You can call it anti-Federalism or local antagonism, but not nationalism.

Part of the frustration of trying to push for decolonization in Guam today is that way that what should be nationalism is always entangled in Americanization. That even those who critique and challenge the US often do so from the stance of being American or not being treated as proper Americans. This means that seeing the truth of the relationship that Guam has with the US is always problematic, because even those who appear to be critical, may in many ways only be able to see the situation within an American context and nothing else. That means so many things, but in a fundamental sense it means that people on Guam will always have trouble dealing with the US, and never be able to see the relationship for what it is because of how they take their presence in the US as the basis for their ability to speak, to think, to exist and to have rights and be a possible subject.

You could say that a Chamorro nationalism was formed in postwar Guam, but it is a minor and dependent nationalism. It is one that relies on the US for existence. This would have been very different however if the counterfactual that I mentioned above had taken place.

If the US had built up Guam prior to World War II with the same intensity that it did after the war, then Chamorros would have been given a less appetizing view of US militarization. They would have seen the negative aspects first, prior to seeing its liberating potential. They would have seen these acts of land taking and dispossession in a radically different light. They would have felt the sting of losing land not as something that they are doing to pay back the US, but something is unfair and unjust in their own light. It would be something that they would not make excuses for, but struggle to find a way to rationalize politely in their minds. They would look and think about what the US has and hasn't given them, and how the US has treated them up to that point. They would feel the colonial difference as a massive gulf between them and those who are not displacing them, and it would play a huge role in whether or not they can justify this as being something alright since the US is defending us and helping us, or that the US is taking advantage of us and oppressing us.

The key point here is that the suffering of World War II and the Americanizing aspects of it would not exist yet and so all the reasons that Chamorros used to justify that them being treatment with such disrespect in post war Guam couldn't easily be invoked here. As a result, the seeds of a Chamorro nationalism might have been sown. The loss of so much land and the bringing of so much military to Guam might have created a deeper rift between Chamorros and the US, and that rift would have then changed how they interpreted their occupation by the Japanese. It could have made them become more attached to the United States, it could have made them less attached.

I often wonder how my life and how Guam would be different if an strong nationalist spirit existed. As a historian it is an interesting exercise to consider and imagine how things might have happened differently, but ultimately we are still stuck with the way in which history ran its course. But thinking about those counterfactuals can still be helpful in giving you an insight into the way things did turn out, and what factors brought things there.

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