Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chamorro California Tour

Last month I did a quick “Chamorro” tour of southern California. While flying to a UN conference in Quito, Ecuador, I stopped off in California for a few days to visit family, friends and the lively network of Chamorro groups that have formed in recent years. I flew into San Francisco and over three days drove 1000 miles from the Bay Area, to Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego. For people who live in the states, this may not seem like a great distance, but for people on Guam, this is the equivalent of driving from the northern to the southern tips of the island 15 times. This tour was a personally enriching experience as I got to catch up with people I had worked with before and see projects that I supported at the beginning see completion and success.

In Long Beach, I visited the Guam Communications Network and spent the afternoon with the staff there. GCN is the oldest Chamorro non-profit in the states. It was first started following a typhoon in the early 90’s, when communication between Guam and California was difficult with phone and power lines down. GCN collected donations for families back home and also helped relay messages from concerned family members in the states. Over the years it has worked on projects ranging from oral history recording, exhibiting Chamorro art and artifacts, conducting cancer studies amongst Chamorros.

When I moved to the states many years ago to start working on my Ph.D. I spent a year doing freelance work for GCN. I helped them with the translation of health materials into Chamorro. I even worked on creating the text and the artwork for a book that celebrated the strength of Chamorro breast cancer survivors. If you visit the GCN office you can see a collection of Chamorro arts and crafts. They even have a complete set of tools from my grandfather, Tun Jack Lujan on display there.

That same evening I visited a more recent addition to the Pacific Islander landscape in Southern California, the Pacific Islander Ethnic Art Museum (PIEAM). The museum is funded by the foundation for the late Robert Gumbiner, the founder of the health care company FHP. Much of its collection also comes from the collection that he had amassed during his time in Guam and Micronesia. The museum sticks out like a beautiful gem amidst the urban landscape of Long Beach because of the beautiful murals that grace its outer walls. As you drive by, you’ll see coconut and breadfruit trees and even a Belauan meeting house. They even have a garden there featuring recreations of latte stones, Yapese stone money and fertility statues from around the Pacific. Inside the museum features art from all around the Pacific and has regular guest speakers and artists in residences.

My auntie Fran is the curator for the museum. I was happy to connect with her and talk to her about any ways that people on Guam could help support the museum’s activities. She said that she is hoping to get more artifacts and recreations from the islands. One of my tasks this summer is to send her a machete made by my great-grandfather and also several sinahi shell necklaces to add to their already extensive collection.

The next day was spent in San Diego. I visited with the board of the Chamorro non-profit, CHELU (Chamorro Hands in Education Links Unity). CHELU has been very active in recent years and is most famous now for organizing the Chamorro Cultural Fair that takes place every March. An estimated 7,000 people attended their last fair.  

When I lived in San Diego CHELU was first being formed. They were very supportive of the activities I was organizing there involving Chamorro youth, including two conferences for the group Famoksaiyan in 2006 and 2008. I joined the board for a short time. I was very busy finishing up my Ph.D. at that time and so didn’t get to help them as much as I would have wanted to. I did co-write an Administration of Native Americans (ANA) Grant with them in order to study the state of the Chamorro language in San Diego. We were successful in getting the $100,000 grant. They have since built upon that study and gotten further ANA funding and this past year held the first formal language classes at the Sons and Daughters of Guam Club.

The highlight of this Chamorro California tour was a visit to the Sakman Chamorro, or the 47 foot, open-ocean sailing canoe that Chamorros in the states created and are currently exhibiting in San Diego. This canoe is based on the design recorded by English privateer George Anson in 1742. Mario Borja is the ma’gas of the project and with the help of a dozen or so others has been working tirelessly to recreate what was taken from Chamorros so long ago. When I saw the canoe it was being stored at Mario’s sister’s house in El Cajon and so I didn’t get to see it on the water. But from what others told me, to stand at the bow as it heads out to the open ocean is an experience second to none. I had seen pictures and video of it, but to finally touch it and see it in the wooden flesh, it brought tears to my eyes.

When Mario first began to propose this project years ago I was a big supporter. I, along with others appealed to the Chamorro community in San Diego to take up this project and support it. Donate some money, provide some tools, set aside a work area. Mario argued that this was important not only because it represented the link to our past, but also because it represented the possibilities for our future. He hoped that it would teach our children to dream again, to dream Chamorro dreams.

Initially the Chamorro community did not support his project and he had trouble finding funding and finding a place to set up his shop. I am grateful however to see that he persisted and he brought his dream, and the dream of so many others to life.

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