Saturday, November 17, 2012

Understanding Guam's Colonial Past/Present

History has a way of reminding you that what you take for granted today did not exist in the past, and worse yet, there may have been a point in the past when what you take for granted today was unimaginable. There is one quote from Robert Underwood that sums of this strange way that history can haunt people and deprive them of a feeling of essentialness with the present. It comes from his essay "Teaching Guam History in Guam High Schools" and it talks about the position of Chamorros from 1898-1941 in relation to the United States.

The Chamorro people were not Americans, did not see themselves as Americans-in-waiting, and probably did not care much about being Americans.

The US relationship during that period was unapologetically colonial. The US didn't have a colonial office as other countries did, but instead just colonized Guam through the US Navy and racist and paternalistic rhetoric/policies. The US Navy preached the glories of its nation in Guam, but Chamorros saw through this very quickly because of the way none of those glories were allowed to exist on Guam. The US Navy didn't liberate the people of Guam in 1898 from the Spanish, but actually made it so that for 52 years, they had even less everyday rights than they did under the Spanish.

Because of this Chamorros related to the US during that period through a cautious distance. They did not want to be Americans and did not see themselves as American in training primarily because the US at that time told them they clearly weren't. They made clear in a multitude of ways that Chamorros were inferior to Americans. They were like monkeys, like children. They had to be developed, civilized and whitewashed first before they could be trusted with even the pretense of being something so great as "American."

So Chamorros wanted things from the United States, but learned quickly that political belonging wasn't in the offering. So they focused their efforts on gaining political rights, protections, their own local government. They used rhetoric that sounded very patriotic, and bordered on pathetic and fawning at times, but given the degrading way the US Navy treated them and deprived them of any inherent rights, and even tried to eradicate their language and attack their culture, you can understand if they would couch their requests in respectful obedience.

All of this changed however during World War II and in the years after. When we look at the most objective portrait of that period, it looks so strange and unreal to many Chamorros today. Since the US, their passport, their worldview, their military, their popular culture and so on are so intimately tied to how your average Chamorro sees the world today, it feels impossible that there could have ever been a moment that this wasn't so. And if you are taught about that moment or learn about it, how can you react?

Once you see the thing you thought unbreakable or unquestionable, questioned right before your eyes, what can you do? Ignore it since it was so long ago? Just talk about it since there isn't anything you can really do about it? Or do you try to think of the way it might still exist today?

Until Guam's colonial relationship is resolved then ignoring this colonial history is dangerous and useless. It means that you don't understand the present because you imbue it with a unity and with an inherent purpose that doesn't exist. You want to believe that it couldn't be any different, that the things you feel or take for granted can be taken for granted and that there is truly nothing to see or think about there. In a colonial situation such willful ignorance is tragic and pointless. It means that you continue to exist in a fundamentally subordinate position and of all people you end up working the hardest to keep yourself there.

If you ever want to try to burst this bubble and attempt to grasp that colonial past and see how it relates to the present it isn't difficult. All you need to do is go get yourself a copy of a Guam Newsletter or Guam Recorder. These were the newspapers that were published before the war (there was another newspaper that was published by Chamorros for only two issues). In those newspapers the rhetoric of American colonization was regularly articulated sometimes even by Chamorros themselves. For people not familiar with Guam History but who call Guam home it can be a very surreal experience, thinking about how not too long ago this island was nothing more than an island of primitive brown children in the eyes of the US Navy and much of the United States.

I've pasted below one such article from The Guam Recorder. It talks about how while some people may have complained about how things were better before the US came to Guam, this was clearly not true!

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Ye Good Old Days in Guam – 100 Years Ago

When we hear people remark that the inhabitants of Guam were much better off and probably much happier in the “good old days” before modern inventions, conveniences and facilities for broader education, we cannot help but feel that we would like to put such people back in those good old times.

One hundred years ago, we did not have electricity with which to light our homes, not even kerosene, but had to use the coconut dip. We did not have water or sewer systems, but depended upon the rain; with the inefficient methods then in vogue for saving water, only a few days supply was available when the dry season set in, and we were soon forced to return to wells for brackish and impure water.  We had no saw-mills to prepare lumber for buildings, and such work had to be done laboriously by hand; the consequence was that we lived in houses built of a sort of basket work, and our furniture consisted mostly of hammocks and mats. We have no ice, no cold storage.

Even the land upon which we had to toil for the benefit of our rules did not belong to us, and we received but a small share of what we produced.  The cattle which were permitted to use, also was the property of the Crown of Spain, and we were not allowed to kill or otherwise dispose of it without permission of the Governor. This permission was only granted when the cattle became too old or feeble for use as beasts of burden, and even then we were allowed keep only a small portion of the meat.

Militarism was forced upon us, and for our service we received only ten Mexican dollars per year. This was practically the only cash in circulation on the island, and to make things “better”, frequently the governor owned the only store in which, perforce, we made our purchases, to the benefit of several hundred percent profit to the Governor.

All government work was done by us, for which we received no compensation except a little rice when it could be had. Very often a supply of rice could not be sent from Manila due to lack of shipping. As we were seldom idle from government work, it was not always possible to work the land and produce enough food for our needs; hence our food supply was, at times, very short.

There were few good roads, and we had neither carriages nor automobiles, and seldom even a carabao to ride. There were not transports arriving every month, bringing food, supplies, mail, and news from the outside world. We did not have the advantage of good schools, our studies consisting in learning to read and write, and sometimes not that much. As our prayer books were the only books we had to read, our knowledge of the world beyond the reefs of Guam was very limited.

The boys and girls of a hundred years ago had no opportunity to learn a trade, nor the proper way of caring for a home. They could not prepare themselves for a higher standard of living – a mere existence was all they could hope for. There was no ice plant, no ice cream or soda water, no moving picture theatres, and no money to spend if there had been such things. There was no Guam Recorder to tell people of the happenings of the island.

There were no doctors, no hospitals, no dentists, nor drug stores. Modern surgery was unknown and illnesses or even a cut usually led to fatal results.

How can any believe that people were better off or happier under those conditions than they are today with all the conveniences, amusements and possibilities or a fuller and more contented life. “The good old times” sound fine in a book, but in real life we prefer the present.

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