Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mes Chamoru

During the month of March, my phone rings more than usual. It is Chamorro Month, and so every government agency, school, organization and most businesses look for some way to honor this month and display their support for Chamorro language and culture. Considering how Chamorro culture was stripped of much of its value after World War II because of a rush to Americanize; the renewed interest in protecting and promoting Chamorro culture is a very good thing.
When I ask my students at UOG, what their culture is, or what their cultures are, I always receive interesting responses. For some students, they feel like they are very cultural because they know certain practices, such as fishing, weaving, dancing or can speak the language. For most however, they feel like they don’t know their culture or don’t have it. They see the ways their parents or grandparents are and see them as having so much culture, and they see themselves as having little to nothing. For some this is sad, for others it is just the way it is.
When we think of culture we tend to see it through the things that make it visible, the artifacts, the physical activities, the rituals. These are the surface things which are the boundaries and most tangible parts of the culture, but they are not the core. As the world changes, so do these practices. Ancient Chamorros did not live the same lives for 3000 years. There were changes both big and small, and the same is true today. In truth no one has remained the same over centuries or millennia.
The core of a culture is an unnamed force, a spirit. If you wanted to, you could even call it a story. It is something that each person in that culture participates in and holds responsibility over keeping alive. It is this force that gives a shared identity to people. Even if they may practice that culture differently, the force connects them and gives them the ability to see themselves as connected to others back thousands of years. This spirit can be shared with others, and part of the problem people encounter is whether or not those who love this spirit or know it well, can be included in the culture as well? This is something each culture has to answer in its own way. Some are more open and welcoming, others are more rigid and closed.
For Chamorros, or anyone else, when you are trying to grow the love of your culture into your children, do not plant the first seeds as being the practices or activities. Remember that these change as the world changes, and so to reduce culture to practices means that you attach the culture to that time and that can cause problems. After all, according to that definition, when you change your practices you are adapting, but actually disappearing and becoming culturally extinct. To focus on the practices of a culture means to chain it to a particular form and possibly restrict its ability to evolve or grow.
Instead, you need to teach them that it is more than that, that it is something greater than all, which unites all. Culture is not something that is handed from one generation to the next for thousands of years and never supposed to change. When you teach their children about their culture, you must make clear that you are not giving it to them to keep the way it is and just give to their children. When we think about culture like this, we pretend that it belongs to someone else, and is not really ours. You must remind them that our culture is truly ours, both in ways that inspire us and ways which can frustrate us. Each generation has their own choices to make. They can keep the culture the same. They can change it as they see fit. They can lose it all and throw it away. When our culture is strong we adapt and change to protect ourselves. When our culture is weak, we try to scrub away who we are out of fear of losing something. Since World War II, we have seen in so many ways, Chamorros tragically exemplify this dynamic.
Each Chamorro month should be a time where we celebrate that story of Chamorro culture and we remind everyone, especially the youth, that this story has been told for thousands of years and now it is their turn to help write the future.

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