Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Wild Western Pacific

For the very first showing of The Lone Ranger on island, I took my kids. I have been excited about the film for a long time, for a variety of reasons and was eager to watch it as soon as possible. The previews looked exciting and ridiculous like so many Pirates of the Caribbean movies. There were several key differences however that made me more excited and more intrigued to see The Lone Ranger. 

 The Lone Ranger wasn't going to be another one of those ridiculous ensemble films where the last 40 mins are just endless resolutions to the mess that the writers and directors have created by having so many famous faces. I'm also a fan of Johnny Depp, even some of his less than popular or weird roles I still find interesting. I have for the past few years had a weird fascination with Westerns. I hated the genre for most of my life because the films weren't very well made and the politics involved were sometimes terrible. I had a few films such as Dances With Wolves or Support Your Local Sheriff, that I enjoyed, but in general it just wasn't a universe of storytelling and scenery that appealed to me.

This changed however, interestingly enough through my study of Guam History. You might think that Guam History would have little connection to the Wild West of American history. But in truth, in the second half of the 19th century Guam experienced its own period of Wild West uncertainty. This was a period in Guam's history where many people walked around with knives or guns. They didn't necessarily use them very often, but men were at any moment armed with one, the other or both. The most common place that you would find violence would be around the cockfighting pit.

During this period there were different types of gangs on Guam. Alot of these gangs are lost to history, but we can assume their general scopes. The gang culture most likely started in response to the Filipinos that were coming to Guam as convicts. While much attention is paid to the political prisoners that ended up on Guam from the Filipinos and Spain, who were fomenting revolutions or at least moderate reforms, not as much is said about the convicts that were brought to Guam from the Philippines.

Their presence on Guam was not appreciated by the Chamorros. The convicts themselves didn't see Guam as an island paradise but as their tropical prison. They did not like Chamorros and did not like the Spanish. They did not assimilate into the culture the way other political prisoners or migrants did. They would instead keep their distance and survive by forming gangs. Chamorros in turn responded by forming gangs of their own. Fights would break out between these two groups, especially after cockfights and in particular when someone was accused of cheating in a cockfighting match.

The Spanish government was considered to be corrupt and Governors were known to abuse their power in order to line their own pockets or punish those who challenged them. While this makes something very relevant in terms of telling a "wild west" story, what really gives it that feeling is the way in which people felt a clear disconnect from the government. While the Spanish clearly held control over the island and Chamorros didn't, for the most part challenge that, it does not mean that they lived their lives according to what the Spanish wanted. The wild west is lawless because of the lack of a government and the lack of a stable society, since in so many ways it straddles various types of worlds. The typical Western lawman (such as the one the Lone Ranger starts off as) is someone we see as coming from "our" world. A world where for the most part law and order function and there is a social and political infrastructure that we can rely on. That lawman is our guide as we explore a world where money rules, power rules, violence and vengeance operate based on different rules, and there are borderlands between cultures, usually where a native people are always on the verge of being wiped out or disappearing.

The wild west is ultimately a thematic borderland where so many of the things that people feel are normal and take for granted are opened up and the structure of their own everyday dependency can be revealed. Chamorros in the 19th century lived in a similar way. There was a government but Chamorros existed to find ways to escape it or elude it and its gaze. A similar dynamic took place after the arrival of the Americans in 1899. But ultimately the majority of Guam existed as a place where the power of the Spanish didn't touch. From the bays, to the jungles, to the ranches, to the mountains, Chamorros imagined themselves as being ruled by the Spanish, but operated in their own independent ways. For Chamorros at the top however this was different since they drew much of their privileged and elevated identity from the Spanish presence, but for most Chamorros Spain existed in Guam only in certain moments, and the rest of the time the island was a political wilderness they inhabited.

The forced evacuation of the Northern Marianas Islands in the 17th and 18th century also provided Chamorros their own experiences of discovering grandeur and wild lands to be tamed. Although Chamorros had inhabited some of the Marianas Islands for thousands of years and other smaller islands for several hundred years, they were forced to leave them because of Spanish reduccion policies. For example Saipan was abandoned for more than 100 years, and Tinian was abandoned for close to 200 years. Only on Guam and Rota did Chamorros continue to live.

The 18th century is a time when Chamorros start to slowly and tentatively reconnect to these islands. Unfortunately they use Carolinians to travel between the islands since they had lost their open ocean navigation culture, but nonetheless Chamorros began to visit the islands again. For them these islands with their long abandoned latte stones become and histories lost to the winds become a new wilderness for Chamorros. With the arrival of the Japanese in the Northern Marianas what starts as tentative sort of dreams and sporadic visits, becomes something with economic incentive behind it, when the Japanese actually start to encourage the settlement on the long abandoned northern islands.

The type of migrant presence in the Marianas also contributes to Wild West possibilities. The Japanese had started to settle in Guam during the Spanish period and were already successful in conneting Guam to Asia in economic terms. The Carolinians had settlements on Guam and in Saipan and represented for Chamorros a look into their possible past, one that they for the most part didn't want to admit to since they had become Catholics. But at the same time they also represented a way of Chamorros moving themselves up the racial hierarchy. By looking down on the Carolinians and seeing them as savage and primitive, they could feel more modern and more civilized even if they were seen as primitives and savages and without culture by almost everyone else in the world.

The story of Jose Salas, the Chamorro serving in the local militia in 1884 who assassinated the Spanish Governor is a key piece in understanding the "wild" possibilities of Guam. While there was the same types of petty crime during this period that you find in every community, the possible conspiracy that surrounded Jose Salas hurls the emerging "nationalist" element into the fire. Chamorros were starting to see themselves more and more as being a distinct national group, although not in an ancient sense, but in a modern context alongside the nationalist building that took place in the same century through the other Spanish colonies in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Philippines.While some Chamorros resisted the Spanish in a general sense, others resisted because of their anti-colonial and oppositional identities.

If I ever get more time on my hands I would love to write a creative story set during this period.

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