Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
In the writing of my Masters Thesis in Micronesian Studies I conducted over a hundred interviews with Chamorros who were born in the prewar Naval colonial era of Guam history and also endured the trauma of I Tiempon Chapones, the period of Japanese colonialism in World War II. These interviews were conducted more than a decade ago, over the course of several years. Since then, so many of those I spent an afternoon with in their outside kitchen or a morning sipping coffee at Hagatña McDonald’s have passed away.
One of the most interesting memories I have from that period is my attempt to figure out the meaning of an old Chamorro fina’kuentos, empe’ finayi, or in English “saying” that one of my interview subjects had used. While speaking to an elderly man in Inarajan about the work of Father Jesus Baza Duenas in World War II and the changes of life in his village, he invoked the saying “tåya’ Båston San Jose.” I was taken back at this. I had never heard it before and wasn’t sure what it meant. In English it translates to, “there is no staff of Saint Joseph” but that didn’t really help me. I asked the bihu what he meant and he smiled, pointed at me and said I would understand it when I understood it.
As I continued my interviews I ended up asking almost everyone I spoke to if they knew what the phrase meant. Had they heard it before? Was it something they used? Båston San Jose did refer to an ornamental plant that you find on Guam, everyone agreed with that. The scientific name of the plant for those interested is “cordyline fruticosa.” But as for the fina’kuentos of “tåya’ båston San Jose” everyone had a slightly or significantly different interpretation.
For some it referred to the need to be tolerant and understanding, even if the world throws difficult things at us that make us so frustrated. For others it was a statement of how no one should believe themselves to be perfect or better than others. One lady insisted that the fina’kuentos had to have something to do with not being a gossip, since almost every other Chamorro saying deals with how terrible it is to be a gossip. The variations ranged from minding your own business, to the importance of being compassionate, to the idea that true beauty lies within, and finally that you shouldn’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Some remarked that they hadn’t heard that saying in years, while others said they had used it recently when talking about so and so in their lives. It was so intriguing to see the meaning of four simple words change as I went from interview to interview.
Eventually I began to think that this Chamorro fina’kuentos was in truth our own local version of a popular saying from the Matrix films; “there is no spoon.” In the first of the films, the main character Neo attempts to use his mind to bend a spoon. He is unable to do so. A child who can easily bend the spoon tells him, “Do not try to bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.” Was that the lesson? Tåya’ “tåya’ båston San Jose?” In searching for the true meaning of “there is no staff of Saint Joseph,” was the true meaning that there is no meaning to there not being any staff of Saint Joseph? Was this the height of zen-Chamorro philosophy?
Eventually I came to my own meaning for this fina’kuentos, and I think it is the one the bihu intended. He had been discussing how things have changed so much in the lives of Chamorros in such a short time; how before and after the war were like ha’åni and puengge. People forgot our heroic figures like Father Duenas and also forgot the value of working the land and sustaining yourself. They rushed to get rid of Chamorro things and snatched up anything that looked America. The Japanese were once our worst nightmares and now come back to this island as our honored guests. Things can change so fast, chumålamlam hao yan esta matulaika i tano’ ta’lo. Even in the varied meaning of the fina’kuentos tåya’ båston San Jose itself, I could see this shifting.
I think this bihu was reminding me, perhaps even warning me that there is nothing permanent in this world. In his own life, he had seen all these changes take place, some of them good, some of them bad, and at the end of his days, he could do nothing but sit back, marvel a little, cry a little and lament, “tåya’ båston San Jose.”