Monday, May 12, 2014

Biba Ha'anin Mannana

Biba Ha'anin Mannana! Happy Mother's Day!

This Mother's Day I cannot help but think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Flores Lujan, who passed away last December. She exemplified for me so much of what is awesome about Chamorro culture and Chamorro women, even if at the same time she also endured under the problematic ways in which we conceive of women's power and women's roles in Guam within a Chamorro context.

With each passing Mother's Day there are no doubt so many mentions and passing thoughts of our mothers and our grandmothers as maga'haga siha and empowered and women who kept their house and their family in line. Our memories are often filled with the moments of potent female power, where women who struggled much and put up with much, seemed to fill our family lives with quiet miracles.

There are different ways in which these sorts of stories of minute female empowerment and the woman as the glue that holds families together emerges. The most commonly accepted way is that these are the traces of the old maga'haga'. These are the remnants of the power that women had before. Each of our mothers and grandmothers exudes some dimension of the way we imagined the powerful women of ole to be. There is an ancient, but vibrant beauty to this. The exploits of the the women in our family can attain a regal and epic character. The maga'haga who fought with her Spanish husband over the need to teach their kids Chamorro is like your nana who fights with your mom and dad about the need to put you in Hurao Academy. It has a way of putting struggles into a context to make them more dramatic and more potentially inspiring.

I think that this sort of way of seeing the interwoven nature of past and present is becoming more and more common, but I don't think this is how most Chamorros interpret the matriarchs in their clan. Whenever I encounter a dynamic like this I am always reminded of something from Frantz Fanon (definitely not a feminist in any way) from his text The Wretched of the Earth. He said something to the effect that we should always remember that the glories of the Ancient Aztec past do not fill the belly of a Mexican today. To put this in a Guam/Chamorro context, the stories of an ancient Chamorro woman past, do not necessarily empower the Chamorro women of the present. There are ways that it can empower the women of the present, but it doesn't necessarily equal power across generations or power through the simple remembering.

When I hear stories of empowered Chamorro women today, I am always cautious because for many the strength of their mothers and nana siha does not come from any inherited legacy of fuetsa, minetgot or sinigat. It comes from the fact that Chamorro women live and are interpreted, amongst Chamorros as well, in a patriarchal context in which their power or their symbolic vitality is still either unwelcome, unique or abnormal. A student of mine, Jon Guerrero in his masters thesis in Clinical Psychology at UOG did interviews with Chamorro men who were in the system for domestic violence. He asked them questions about why they did it, what were their conceptions of Chamorro culture, identity, Chamorro gender roles. I served on his thesis committee and really enjoyed talking through his project with him. He is planning on going on to get his Ph.D. and I think that continuing this project would be perfect.

Many of the men created an interesting dynamic in terms of the women in their lives. For the wives or girlfriends that they hit, they argued that Chamorro women in particular were bossy, were irritating, did not know their place, and made life difficult for men to be men. Several in fact argued that they would rather not date Chamorro women because other women know their place, know how a woman is supposed to act and aren't always trying to control things or assert their power. This is of course isn't true, but it shows that at least amongst these Chamorro men there was an expectation of how women are supposed to be. You can call this expectation colonial, but from their interviews it was something that they clearly experienced and witnesses in their own lives, in their own families.

Although for Chamorro women that they had dated and possibly abused they had contempt and disappointment, for those who raised them, they had nothing but praise and love and admiration. For their nana siha they argued each was the pinnacle, i mas takhilo' na klasin palao'an. These women were the way Chamorro women were supposed to be. This created an interesting contradiction. If you asked if the women they abused were strong, they would say yes, too strong. If you asked if the women who raised them were strong, they would say the same thing, strong and too strong in a different way.

The men described their mothers as putting up with so much, enduring poverty, abuse, infidelity and all other things, but still keeping close to their faith, staying with their family, not leaving their husband. The strength in these narratives comes out in so many ways, in terms of obstacles that these famalao'an had to overcome in order to keep their family together. It is here though that we can see a split in terms of the positivity of this portrayal. The men recognize in both the women they abused and their mothers a strength, a power. One manifests itself in terms of asserting, challenging and allegedly usurping, the other manifests through quietly accepting and enduring. The fact that the power of one is spoken and is heard, means it is irritating and upsetting, it becomes something negative. But the power they attribute to their mothers is resilient, but obedient, it is not spoken, it is not heard, it is only recognized.

The admiration that the men articulate for their mothers comes from the combination of their endurance of the many problems of living in a patriarchal society where their husbands had a significantly amount of control over them, something legitimized by their families, the government, the church, but also their silence over it, their sucking it up, keeping it in, and not aggressively reminding anyone of their oppression.

This is why I sometimes find the discourse on Chamorro female empowerment problematic. How many people today make the same arguments for their mothers and grandmothers, invoking in the name of an ancient system of female respect, a contemporary society where patriarchy is made more beautiful with matrilineal decorations.

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