Michael Lujan Bevacqua
May 2, 2012
The Marianas Variety
When the Spanish first began their colonization of Guam, there must have been so many things that disgusted and bewildered them. When contact through colonization takes place, this sort of disgust isn’t simply because of two alien cultures interacting, it serves a much more central purpose. It is not a mere byproduct of contact, but something essential to the process of colonization. When the colonizer finds things that are so different and so alien to itself, it doesn’t see them as merely different, it sees them as being inhuman, abnormal, savage. These traits are what become the basis for justifying colonization and the colonizer’s presence. The savagery of the natives is the reason why they should be there, in order to help them and get rid of their pagan and backward ways.
Everything from the nakedness of Chamorro to their more open nature of sexuality to their use of human skulls in ancestral veneration would have been targets. Everything that made them different became a reason for their domination. One issue that is not discussed as much is the role that women held in society in Ancient Guam. Guam was not a matriarchy where women ruled over men, but Chamorros did believe in a clear equality between genders. Male and female leaders, who were not husband and wife, but either brother and sister or cousins, governed every clan.
The Spanish were naturally offended to see such an arrangement. In the Christian universe, even though it is no longer acceptable to say so, there is quite a bit of evidence indicating that God placed men above women. God created man first, and woman came from man (an inverse to the usual way life is thought to work). Jesus Christ only chose male disciples and so that is why only men can be priests. Part of their colonization was taking the power that women held in their families and in society and diminishing it.
The power of women did not disappear despite attempts by the Spanish to destroy it. It simply moved out of view while remaining strong within the Chamorro family. Chamorro scholar Laura Souder Betances has used the survival of the Chamorro language as a good indicator of this strength. Even though many of their husbands came from elsewhere, Chamorro women ensured that the identity and the language of their children would be Chamorro.
When the Americans first arrived prior in 1898 they felt similar, albeit more muted imperialist feelings. They saw Chamorros as harmless lumps of brown clay needing to be molded into something useful. They saw the language and parts of the culture as things that needed to be to be lost. One thing that is rarely discussed is that some governors also saw the dominance that women held in society as being something that was holding the people back. Moralistic Naval Governors would target women as being the source of the moral corruption of the Chamorro people. One Naval Governor was known was publicly humiliating women who were known for being more free in their sexuality. Another Naval Governor proposed that women who had children out of wedlock be punished by being kept in the leper colony. A law was passed that mandated that the man be in charge of the family, since one Governor felt that women were wielding too much authority over their families.
Although you can argue that women “have power” on Guam, or that the ancient Chamorro ideal of men and women being equal still persists, there are problems with this. If you read the Spanish accounts from that early period of colonization, they rarely even mention the names of women. As you read those accounts you can almost imagine the island being without women at all, since they factored so little into the mindset of the new colonizers. This absence of women was for centuries reproduced, as women were regularly written out of Guam’s history.
Part of celebrating the role of women in Guam’s history is to seek to repair that historical wrong. Although we can say that the strength of women has always been there and helped shape this island, the prejudice has left a gap.
Guampedia, Guam’s online encyclopedia recently unveiled their “Women in Guam History” project, and this is an important step in helping to truly celebrate this part of Guam’s history. Guampedia is such an important resource for anything dealing with Guam, but prior to this project only 6 of its 90 biographical entries of important Guam figures were women. Last month they published entries on 26 female figures that have each played a significant role in shaping Guam’s history. These first 26 are just a start; they have many more planned for the future. Please head over to their website, http://www.guampedia.com to check them out.