by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
Many people assume that since Guam is a small island, its history can be known relatively easily. Someone who reads a book or spends some time on this island can become an expert, since there cannot be that much to know about this tiny rock in the Western Pacific right?
This is not how human communities work however. The smallness has no relevance to its complexity, the depth of its experiences or the contradictions that give it meaning. We here on Guam don’t often recognize this. We see more value and potential in someone who studies the history of larger place, than someone who studies the history of Guam. But for those who know the history well, there is far more to this place than you can discover in a lifetime of study. Tony Palomo, who passed away this past week was a testament to that. He is someone who lived and breathed Chamorro/Guam history for decades.
When I first began to study the island’s history at the University of Guam, Tony Palomo was working at the Guam Museum. Whenever I would have questions I would make an appointment with him. I would stop by his office and we would sit for hours talking about the origins of family names, the everyday lives of Chamorros under the US Navy before World War II, the origins of the Chamorro diaspora and anything else I could think of. If he did not know the answer he was always able to point me in the right direction and give me the number of the next person that I should talk to.
He exemplified for me in so many ways the magic that a historian can create for people. You could ask him any question, any set of questions, and he could deftly move from topic to topic, recalling interviews he had done decades ago, documents he had somewhere in his files. This is the magic of a historian. The past is a chaos of events, and it can be daunting to make sense of it all. A good historian can weave it all into a compelling story, that will not only help you understand what happened in the past, but even provide an insight for what that history might tells us about what to do next.
Palomo, along with several other historians instilled in me a love of Guam History that I still keep until this day. He was never dull or bored with history, but even into his final years always smiling and joking.
He was best known for his book “Island in Agony” which discusses the Chamorro experiences in World War II. There is no shortage of coverage in terms of this period in Guam History. You have a wide array of articles, documentaries and books. Palomo’s stands out as an attempt to weave together as many elements of the war saga as possible. He sought to bring out the tragedy, the cruelty, but also the humor, the love, the complexity. In it he tried to create an homage to an island of survivors.
He always talked about publishing more books, he certainly had a lot of writings, a lot of research and a lot to say, but another book never materialized.
I have so many fond moments of Tony Palomo, but my fondest is when I arranged for him to be interviewed for a documentary “The War in Guam.” The documentary was intended for a stateside audience and so each interview was closed with a question as to what they wanted the American people to know about Guam. If they could speak directly to them about Guam, what would they tell them about it? Most people responded with requests that they recognize the Americaness of the island and stop disrespecting Guam and its people! I expected a similar answer from Palomo, and he truly surprised me.
He responded, his eye twinkling, with a half smile, that maybe he didn’t want the US to know much about Guam. So much of life on Guam is about proving ourselves to the United States and wanting them to recognize us. Although Palomo was of that generation that people (myself included) sometimes dismiss as being unable to critique the United States, he was hardly so. The value that we see to our speck of home in the Pacific is not the same as what others such as Spain, the US or Japan may see. It may not be right, but Palomo said the more they know about us, the more they see our value and take things away for their own interests. As a journalist, a politician and a historian he was aware of the contradictory and colonial nature of Guam’s relationship to the United States, but was uncertain about how to resolve it. Until Guam actually changes its political status and gets some inherent rights he said, a little friendly ignorance might be helpful in protecting ourselves.