When Pale’ Diego Luis San Vitores came to Guam to Christianize the Chamorro people he had one very important secret weapon. I Fino’ Chamoru. Prior to his arrival in 1668, San Vitores had enlisted the aid of a Filipino named Esteban who had been shipwrecked for many years in the Marianas and had learned to speak Chamorro. While sailing towards Guam to start their work, San Vitores worked diligently with Esteban to become fluent in Chamorro, even writing the first grammar work and several Chamorro religious texts.
When San Vitores arrived, Chamorros were amazed at his ability to speak their language, something that no newcomer had ever achieved before. The Spanish often came to Guam in two distinct groups. There were those who stopped for a very brief period primarily to take on supplies, slaves or kill a few Chamorros. For them the local people spoke gibberish. The other group were shipwrecked sailors or people who had jumped ship, like the infamous Fray Juan Pobre in hopes of evangelizing the people in these islands without the light of God. If they stayed they would generally become fluent in Chamorro and integrate in many ways into the Chamorro culture of the time.
But for a newcomer to the island, such as San Vitores to arrive speaking Chamorro fluently, and discussing such abstract and different things, it created an incredible novelty around his presence and his words. People flocked to him to hear his words. It is difficult to believe that he was truly fluent and able to speak with the ability of a native speaker, but this is one of the miracles that is attributed to his journey. I’m sure that many Chamorros who came to hear him nonetheless had a good laugh at the strange ways that San Vitores pronounced certain words and perhaps some Filipino dialect from Esteban had been mixed in as well.
Regardless of all the silly like errors he might have made, they don’t overshadow how momentous an occasion for Chamorros to hear their language used by an outsider in such a way. In his speech on how the Catholic Church has saved and promoted the Chamorro language, Archbishop Anthony Apuron provides a possible version of what San Vitores might have said the first day he set foot in Guam to say mass:
Mañe’lu-hu malago’ yu’ muna’tungo’ hamyo ni’ Mañamoru na matto yu’ magi para bai fa’nu’i hamyo ni’ chalan i langhet. Lao gof impottante na en fanmanhongge gi Yini’suan misteriu siha, en kemple i Tinago’ i Lai Yu’us, ya en fanmanmatakpangi. Maila ya bai fanå’gue hamyo ni Sinat i Kilu’os: Gi na’an i Tata, i Lahi-ña yan i Espiritu Santo. Amen.
This was literally the sermon of a lifetime for San Vitores and would be for many missionaries. He spoke before a crowd of thousands, who appeared to be eager to convert and sign away their souls and the souls of their children to God.
The excitement that Chamorros felt had multiple sources. The priests were handing out gifts of iron that Chamorros desperately wanted. Chamorros also fundamentally misunderstood what they were getting into by agreeing to convert and follow the missionaries.
One of my theories as to why San Vitores would have been treated like such a superstar and why Chamorros would have flocked to the new religion comes from the choice of words that Apuron uses. “I Chalan i Langhet.” In contemporary Chamorro we would easily translate this to “the way to heaven” or “the road to heaven.” Although San Vitores and other missionaries tried to argue that Chamorros believed in “heaven” in the same way that Christians at the time did, this was most likely not the case. The use of “langhet” was San Vitores was strategic since most Christians consider “heaven” to be up there in sky, and “langhet” is the Chamorro word for it. But at the start of their mission in Guam most Chamorros did not know about this, and so to use “langhet” like that would have confused many Chamorros. They would have interpreted San Vitores’ words to mean “the path to the sky” or the “road to the heavens.” In other words Chamorros most likely believed that San Vitores was offering them the gift of flight, that he could show them how to fly into the heavens.