Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thieves

One poem that had a big impact on my while I was in graduate school and cobbling together the first generations of the critical consciousness that I sport today was "Thieves" by Anne Perez Hattori. I took several courses with Anne when I was an undergrad and graduate student at UOG. She was by far the best professor I had, and the one who was most direct in terms of cutting through layers of colonial bullshit and ignorance when dealing with Guam and Chamorro history. When Anne speaks publicly, whether in an interview or on a panel she always has a way of taking something academic and shifting it to be something that a non-academic can engage with and feel that they should engage with. That is the key to someone who wants their work to have an impact beyond just academia. It is not about creating something that people will just understand, but about creating something that people will feel they need to respond to. This is only true if you accept the Marxist axiom about the need to change the world and not just interpret it.

Anne's academic work has changed my life and changed how I see the world. Her poetry however helped to change me first. Two poems in particular "Thieves" and "foreFathers" are poems that I use in my Guam History and English Compositions up until today.

Thieves is representative of the consistent critical lens that Anne brings to her work. It provides in just a few stanzas an entire history of the colonization of Guam and the rhetoric that was used to devalue Chamorros or justify their being oppressed. It is amazing to see how she packs so much into such a short piece. As someone who generally writes poems that are five pages long and packed with far more information, details and poetic flourishes or flounderings than you'd ever want in your life, it astounds me to see someone cover so much in such a succinct intervention.

Here below are some of my thoughts on the analysis for this poem.

Thieves:

Thieves, they called us.
Religious converts, they made us.
Said we were sinful,
naked, savage, primitive
Playmates of Satan,
native souls blackened and corrupted
by immoral appetites.

Overall this poem discusses the problematic place that a colonized people are stuck in. The colonizer comes from afar into your lands and they bring with them not only technology, diseases and weapons. They bring with them ideas, ideologies and rhetoric, all of which is aimed at providing the imperial impetus for you to be taken over and subjugated by another. There are so many ways to devalue a people as part of this process, but in general you call them heathens, savage, uncivilized and that they don't have a language, religion or even culture. In this first stage of colonization, the emphasis was religious and so the network of images and ideologies used to authorize the oppressing of Chamorros was all linked to that moral and religious universe. The souls that Chamorros have need to be saved, they need to be forced to convert to Christianity to save them from the devil and themselves.

Exterminated they called us.
Half-castes, they branded us.
Said we were impure,
racially-culturally-spiritually
Casualties of inauthenticity,
native blood contaminated and polluted
by casual miscegenation

This stanza deals with how the colonizer then interprets the effects of colonization. As a result of colonization many people died, Chamorros were forced to give up many aspects of their culture and adopt new customs, new people came to the island and intermarried with them. Chamorros adapted and accepted new changes as well. There was a give and take in this process, and even though power and feelings of domination were present, you cannot simplify it to say that Chamorros simply "lost their culture."

All of this comes from colonization, but it creates a stigma for Chamorros. When the Spanish saw Chamorros before colonization they saw them as savages, but pure savages. Now they say that Chamorros don't even exist anymore because of all the changes that have taken place. The hypocritical thing is that the Spanish were the cause of many of those changes, but they don't blame themselves for it, instead they use it as another argument for why Chamorros are inferior and should be oppressed and have their lands and lives controlled by another. The argument of the Spanish is akin to someone shooting you in the leg and then mocking you for walking funny. They refuse to take any blame for anything and any problems must be because you suck.

Infantile, they called us.
Wards of the state, they made us.
Said we were immature,
UNeducated, UNdeveloped, UNcivilized
Victims of illiteracy,
native intelligence retarded and muted
by indifferent laziness

The next stanza shows how the Americans were similar to the Spanish in terms of making excuses for oppressing Chamorros. For the Spanish it was religion but for the Americans it was civilizing and forcing Chamorros to become like Americans. The Spanish said savages, the Americans said ignorant and immature. If you know someone who is immature then you automatically think that they need to grow up or be guided in life. The Americans called Chamorro immature and then proposed that Americans were the best to force them to grow up and stop being so lazy! They didn't ask what Chamorros might want mind you since they are too immature to be able to make any decisions for themselves.

Now they tell us
we are simply, sadly, contemptibly
OVER-developed
OVER-modernized
OVER-theologized
OVER-Americanized.

UNDER-Chamoricized

The last stanza shows the contradiction of the colonial experience. When the colonizer tells you about how if you give up your language, your culture, your land and become like them you will become civilized and mature, he is lying to you. The colonizer will tell you lies to make himself fell better about what he is doing to you, but he doesn't actually want you to become equal to him or worse yet better than him. This is what some theorists call "the colonial difference." No matter how nicely the colonizer treats the colonies they exist to be inferior, they existed to be seen as backwards, as uncivilized, as problematic, no matter what they do or how they change. In the last stanza Hattori lists all the ways that Chamorros have changed to reflect what the colonizer said they should become, yet people still criticize them for not being good enough at anything. The more they become like the colonizer the more the colonizer says you don't exist anymore. The more they move away from the colonizer the more immature and primitive they become.

That is the ultimate message of this poem for me. Do not see yourself in this colonial context, you will always perceive yourself as wanting and inferior. You need to try to decolonize your view and attempt to see yourself outside of this demeaning perspective.

The most important part to starting to understand this or see things in this new perspective is to recognize who the real thieves are in your colonization.

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