Saturday, January 25, 2014

Matai Si Ben Blaz

Vicente Garrido Blaz passed away recently. Although he spent most of his life outside of Guam he was for the past few decades a major force in Chamorro history and the telling of the Chamorro story. For so many the history of Chamorros has been intimately linked with the US military, first as Guam was their colony, later a battleground and now as a strategic military location. Chamorros were used to being objects, fodder, extras in the background in that story. Someone like Ben Blaz changed the way that story was told because it helped to form the Chamorro as a potential subject, someone who had reached a certain pinnacle within that infrastructure that always dictated the meaning of Guam. Now this is still tokenism. This does not mean that Chamorros achieved an ability to see themselves in a decolonized way, but within a colonized framework Blaz through his service as a soldier and his service in Congress was empowering. This is one that that people often miss when they are considering the empowering of a people. There are many ways that you can elevate the identity or revitalize feelings of community within a people. For Guam the two most basic ways are that you do so within a colonial framework, meaning that you find things to bolster the Chamorro spirit in ways which followed the teleology of Chamorros being minor American subjects and eventually being included in the United States. To put it more simply this empowers Chamorros as a minority, it accepts that the Chamorro exists within the circle of American belonging and so the future of its existence is dedicated to fully fitting within that family. The other way is the decolonial, which means to bolster the Chamorro spirit in an independent or indigenous sense and not accept that the purpose of the Chamorro today is to become American or prove they are American. Blaz was a powerful symbol within the first track, although he later came to see the need for that second track, the decolonial to also be taken seriously.

In 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the US reoccupation of Guam during World War II Blaz work an article titled "Chamorros Yearn for Freedom." It talked about his experience during the war, as a Chamorro after the war and touched on the relationship of Chamorros to the United States. It has been beautiful at times, disgusting other times. It has been rocky and contradictory and most importantly Blaz argues the final relationship between Chamorros and the United States is far from resolved. Its resolution he argues is tied not to recognition or Chamorros becoming full/real Americans, it is tied to their achieving the long-denied right of self-determination.

This is an important rhetorical move that few save for those with a critical or activist mentality appreciate. The way that Liberation Day and the war is normally remembered traps Chamorros within the first route. It makes it seem that the very existence of Chamorros, their purpose in this world is to wait for the United States to save them, to beg to become Americans and to be pathetically dependent upon Uncle Sam for almost everything. The war story is chilling and inspiring but it also reeks of these colonizing dimensions. If you think that I am being unfair in my characterization of Chamorros and their war stories, you should remember what the first Liberation Day celebration was like. It had no American symbols. No parades, no patriotism. It was a solemn Catholic ceremony. This is the way that Chamorros felt in 1945 was the best way to commemorate their experiences, not by praising Uncle Sam and bowing before him. All of the patriotism that we take for granted came much later and was created because certain individuals felt that Chamorros should be patriotic to the United States and should have a certain devotional relationship to it.

The war story has chained Chamorros to the United States and Chamorros themselves do the chaining and keep watch to make sure their chains are not broken or shaken. But what we saw in Ben Blaz was that the war story also holds the means of breaking those chains, there is a logic to it that leads to a contradiction which you cannot shake through patriotism since it leads straight into colonial realities, where the more you consider them the more patriotism seems ridiculous. Blaz eventually came to admit that even if people call July 21st each year Liberation Day, it was a liberation in an immediate sense, but not much else. It was not a liberation in the way people proclaim and worship up until today. It was not an act that should eternally commit a people to the loyalty of a country, since Chamorros remained colonized their island still a colony regardless of how many flags they brandished or sons and daughters they pushed into uniforms.

Here is the final passage of his article. 
On this, the 50th anniversary of our liberation, we will be shedding a few tears — of gratitude to our liberators; of remembrance of our brothers and sisters who suffered with us but are unable to join us; and of thanksgiving as we thank Almighty God for all the blessings that have come our way during these golden years.

But after those tears have stopped and have become a precious memory for us all, we must remember that the work begun by the Liberators in 1944 is not yet complete. The people of Guam picked up the torch of freedom passed to them on July 21, 1944. All who call Guam home have worked so hard and so determinedly that the entire world can see the island and its people have come so far from that terrible time of long ago.

But true self-determination and equality still evade our people. Thus, the quest endures.

Beneath is an obituary for Blaz from the Washington Post. 

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From Guampedia:

Vicente Garrido Blaz


Chamorro Soldier

Ben Blaz (1928 – 2014) was a distinguished public elected official and military officer. He lived his life in service to his country and carrying the banner of his home island wherever his service took him. Born in 1928 as Vicente Tomas Garrido Blaz, he was only thirteen years old when the Japanese occupation began in Guam. Tall for his age, he was pressed into service with various labor battalions while he helped his family survive the war as the eldest son. His experiences shaped his sense of obligation and strengthened his resolve to be of service.

Recognized for his intelligence and leadership qualities, Blaz was one of the first Chamorro teenagers coming out of the war experience to win a scholarship to Notre Dame. He began his studies in 1947 and with the onset of the Korean War, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve, attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1951 upon graduation.

He began a military career that eventually led him to become the first General Officer (flag officer) in any branch of the Armed Services who was from Guam. He served three overseas tours that included Osaka, Okinawa and Vietnam. Blaz notes that his most satisfying tour was as Commanding Officer of the 9th Marines. In a life full of twists and turns, it was units of the 9th Marines that apprehended him and a friend in July 1944 during the battle for Guam. During his military service, he was twice awarded the Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, Bronze Star and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

In recognition of his distinguished service both in peace and in combat, Blaz was promoted to Brigadier General, USMC in 1977. This represented significant personal progress as well as a significant event for his homeland of Guam. He became a role model for many young service men and women as he continued to display his leadership skill and plan for the next stage of his life.
He retired from active service in 1980 and returned to Guam where he took up farming, taught at the University of Guam and thought about elected office. During his military service, he was able to earn a Masters Degree from George Washington University and became a Distinguished Graduate of the Naval War College. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Guam in 1974.

Washington Delegate

He ran for Congress in 1982 and came up short against political legend Antonio Won Pat. Under the slogan “Right Man, Right Now,” Blaz defeated Won Pat in a rematch in 1984. He went to Congress as a Republican freshman and he was elected President of his class. He joined the Armed Services, Resources and Foreign Affairs Committees where he quickly established a reputation for a strong national defense and a strong commitment to the political development of Guam and the surrounding region. He established strong relationships and demonstrated a rhetorical style that resonated for years.

In hearings on the status of Micronesia, he admonished the Bush Administration representatives that “we are guardians, not guards of Micronesia.” In response to a New York Times editorial supporting statehood for the District of Columbia, Blaz took the opportunity to explain Guam’s situation. He ended his plea for dignity and recognition for Guam by stating “We are equal in war, but not in peace.”

These words have been used by subsequent Delegates from Guam as well as the other territories whenever matters of political development are raised. In spite of misgivings and his effort to point out the realities of Washington politics, Blaz faithfully introduced the Guam Commonwealth bill twice and advanced the cause of the return of excess lands and war reparations. His successors built upon these efforts.

Chamorro History

After Congress, Blaz continues to use his knowledge by writing and producing television programs as well as an extensive website outlining the history of Guam (www.bisitaguam.com) He produced the Nihi Ta Hasso and Nihi Ta Bisita television series that was widely viewed by visitor and resident alike. He has also written extensively including Bisita Guam: A Special Place in the Sun.
He was awarded Alumnus of the Year from Notre Dame in 1988 and Outstanding Asian American in Public Service in 1992 and is listed in numerous Who’s Who publications, Who’s Who in Marine Corps History.

He died at his home in Virginia on January 9, 2014.

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