Saturday, October 06, 2012

Looking for Sumay

Sometime last year I spent a morning with some members of We Are Guahan preparing for an upcoming round of Heritage Hikes that we hoped would visit Spanish Steps, Tweed's Cave, Pagat and Haputo Beach. Our initial round of Heritage Hikes featured places that are open to the public, but have some relationship to Guam's militarization, either in a contemporary or historical sense. For later rounds we tried to choose sites on bases in hopes of testing to see how sincere the US military is that the public have good and regular access to historical and culturally significant places. That morning we went on a tour of the historic sites that can be found on Navy Base Guam, including a walk around the area where songsong Sumay used to be.

In a way, a historical tour around Naval Base Guam is actually a depressing trip. It is a tour of absence. Almost a tour of nothing, a tour of the long gone traces of something.

There is plenty of recent history on the base. It has only existed since World War II but naturally has its own story, its own tales to tell. But when you try to look earlier, in particular when you try to visit the base to find fragments or pieces of Sumay and its pre-World War II greatness or prestige it is in a way like a boring Destination Truth episode. You chase ghosts, but the ghosts aren't to be found in tucked away, foreboding or frightening places. You don't need to trek through jungle, ruins or spend the night in some scary spot in order to track them. Instead the ghosts waft right out in the open, in flat and empty spaces. When you visit the place where Sumay village was, pictures show you dozens and hundreds of houses along the water's edge, and when you travel there today, you don't find dense jungle where you might uncover some secret remnant.

What was taken from the people in 1941 by the Japanese, and later destroyed in the American re-invasion by bombs and the battle for Orote, was then scraped and scratched from the face of the earth by Navy Seabees. The whole area was bulldozed over after World War II and converted like most of what is now Big Navy, into seemingly endless rows of Quonset huts. The huts are gone by now and all that is left are huge cement slabs. Looking for Sumay today, is like looking for blood stains on a shirt which has been dry cleaned over and over again. You know something should be there, you have some nagging memory which indicates that there was blood there, but the gap between that memory and what you see before you with your own seeing eyes is just too daunting.

In the main area of Sumay village today there are a few scattered pieces of what was once there. A cemetery with about half of its headstones still standing, and then the cross from the Sumay church, which sits atop of a memorial. A sad testament to what was once the second largest village on the island of Guam.

The memorial at the site where the church once was has a large plaque. It succinctly recounts the glory and beauty of the village which was once there. It ends with the most remembered part of the infamous "Serenity Prayer."

Lord grant me the serenity to
Accept the things I cannot
Change, the courage to change the
Things I can, and wisdom to know
The difference

It is nice in a way that the US Navy is very open to letting former residents of Sumay visit the site of their old village and those with family members buried in the cemetery there can come and pray at the graves. They even recently started a Sumay day where hundreds can return to the village, and also allow several masses to take place at the cemetery each year. Because of the special history of the base, where it was built upon the carcass of Sumay, it is good that the people on that base recognize that significance and do not deny it, but nurture that tie to the community. Most base commanders struggle with the issue of where their base comes from, the shady or shaky past that it has and how it was formed, since exploring that issue can easily call into question the legitimacy of what you claim is yours, but at least in terms of Sumay, the US Navy has been very good about being open about Sumay.

But after reading the Serenity Prayer and connecting it's message to the absence of Sumay, the prayer doesn't give me any comfort. It instead feels like it is mocking me. It is like the poetic final nail being driven into a coffin. The tour, which was at first depressing and sad, now feels almost torturous. The Serenity Prayer actually feels like it's taunting me.

Sumay was lost. In so many different ways it was lost. You could even argue that it was taken. It was stolen, then destroyed and then paved over with an army of Quonset huts. And so in this case, where so much has been lost and so much as been built upon that violent foundation, conventional wisdom tells us that we need to follow the pragmatism of that Serenity Prayer. That Sumay is gone, and that even if it is tragic, sad or even wrong and unjust to how it happened, the key to living a good life is knowing that difference between the possible and the impossible, the good way of looking at the world and the crazy way of looking at it. So when I walk around Sumay, I am supposed to be saying that prayer to myself, hoping that God will give me the wisdom to see that all this is in the past and that nothing can be done about it save for sad visits to where things once were. But the more I think about that, the more I recall how truly screwed up history is, and how so many things, not just Sumay are based on horrible and tragic things that happened in the past.

I guess the Serenity Prayer is a good place to start for trying to understand what makes people activists. Differences of opinion over what constitutes those things which can and can't be done, which in life actually gets translated into those things which should and shouldn't be done. For most people on Guam, seeing military fences means shutting up, shutting down, silencing yourself or recalling all of the countless ways that you think Guam is a helpless dependent appendage of the United States. For me however, when I see those fences, I have the opposite reaction. I feel them and know the history behind them, and therefore my response is not to pray as if reciting a rosary, some droning pathetic mantra about how nothing can change and this or that is impossible. As an activist, you see the world through the need to make something possible, you exist to transgress that supposed serenity, to rip it to shreds and to challenge the world built upon some historical or contemporary violence. Even in the case of those fences, there are many ways to go about it. Tear them down, jump over them, help get people access through them, or even just ensure that they don't spread any further and soak up any more land then they already fence in.

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