Thursday, June 07, 2012

Historical Disloyalties

Wednesday, 18 Apr 2012
The Marianas Variety

 IN MY Guam History classes when we discuss the Chamorro-Spanish wars of the 17th century, I always see my students torn. In terms of the history itself, as objectively distanced from the present as possible, it is clear who the good guys and bad guys are of the story. For every Chamorro that readily accepted Catholicism, there were dozens or hundreds who resisted Catholicism and believed they should have the right to live as they wished. Although there were atrocities on both sides, in truth the Spanish were aggressors and the Chamorros were legitimately resisting. One had the right to defend themselves, while the other didn’t.

Students, Chamorros and non-Chamorros alike are torn because what they see in that war is the messy and complicated birth of the present day. They see the foundation being laid for much of what we accept as being Chamorro or an integral part of Guam’s culture and way of life today. They cheer for the Chamorros against the Spanish, but they are conflicted because if the Spanish did not win, the present moment as we know it might not exist. As a result, they might not exist either.

Although there is this urge to side with the victim, or those in history who don’t have blood on their hands, you might nonetheless feel an innate, almost instinctive loyalty to those “bad guys” of history. You might feel this because of the way we associate them and their dominance with how history has unfolded. It is only because of their sins that we are who we are.

Some would say for example that without the Spanish, Chamorros would be uncivilized brutes living in huts. We would be uneducated devil worshippers who would be ignorant to religion and therefore salvation. There are also forms of this that defend the U.S. and their presence on Guam, insisting that without the U.S., Guam would be nothing; that if we were not a colony of the U.S., we wouldn’t have gotten everything from the Internet, to air conditioning, to indoor plumbing, to capitalism.

These loyalties feel like they make sense. They feel like they are appropriate, but they truly aren’t. These historical loyalties can be damaging because of the way they skew histories, the way they make people feel as if what has happened was inevitable and couldn’t have happened any other way. There is an obvious element of truth to them. For example, if the U.S. didn’t take Guam as a colony in 1898, then it would be much less likely that people would become U.S. citizens or speak English. This historical loyalty is misleading because it makes people feel like modern religion or other things could have only arrived on our shores through colonization.

“If San Vitores didn’t come to Guam, then we would not be Christians” feels true, but isn’t really. Catholicism came to Guam in a way which could be considered the least Christian; in other words, it came by force. San Vitores and his missionaries didn’t show up on Guam one day and set up a kiosk down by the beach in Hagåtña where they passed out pamphlets about how Chamorros should accept Christ. They didn’t visit Chamorros in their homes and after they refused to convert, politely leave vowing to come back again later with hopefully some other strategy for reaching the Chamorro people. They came and asserted control over those who willingly converted and those who did not.

Catholicism’s place in the history of Guam would be more secure and less problematic if it had taken root initially not through guns and steel, but through the light of God shining through the virtue and deeds of those who claimed to be his representatives. You can argue that the times were different and that such things were common at the time, but how does that in any way make it right?

The most common historical mistake humans make is the assumption that just because it happened it must have been right and inevitable. The truth is that the history you have is never the only way things could have been. Guam could have become Catholic, “modern” and anything else without colonization. Things could have happened differently, and in cases such as this, could have happened in a much less violent, less vile and immoral way. Without this understanding, history is reduced to a story written by those more powerful, and that whatever they decided is the way things are supposed to be.

History can be troubling not only because it can reveal to you how things were; but can also end up haunting you because of the way it illuminates how things could have been, and possibly should have been.

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