Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Force of Culture

The play Pagat, that I co-wrote with Victoria Leon Guerrero was performed several weeks ago at the UOG Fine Arts Theater and was a huge success. Although it was performed six nights total, the last three nights were not only sold out, but hundreds of people were turned away. It was amazing to see an original local play sell out its tickets within fifteen minutes of opening the box office, and that people started to line up to get tickets two hours before the box office even opened. On the last two nights, the playwrights and the director, we all gave up our seats in order to make room for those who wanted to see the play. I’ve never been so elated to lose my seat before.

On three of the nights there were talk backs, or discussions where the audience could ask questions to the crew and the cast. The conversations were very important to me, because I got a sense of what people were seeing and feeling about the play, and how closely or not so closely their interpretations were matching the intentions the director and the playwrights had. More than one person asked why the play was written in the first place or why it was written the way it was.

For those not familiar with the play, I won’t spoil too much, the plot is as follows: in the future the Pagat area has been taken by the US military and will be used for training. Four Chamorros end up lost in Pagat after having a dream they don’t quite understand. While they are there they end up arguing and debating over so many of the language and culture issues Chamorros face today. Military service, land loss, language revitalization, changing culture, sustaining community, cultural expression and authenticity are all there.

Pagat was initially conceived when people were worried about losing access to that area and so it was written with those politics in mind, to draw attention to a place and to assist in the marking of that space as sacred, something to be protected and defended. As much of the ideological battle over Pagat had to do with Chamorro peoplehood, their place in the world, what is appropriate for a Chamorro to do, their relationship to nature and to their ancestors, this seemed like an ideal setting for holding a frank discussion about Chamorro culture.

 Culture is one of those things that everyone talks about, and people can speak very strongly about but in truth culture as a force in life constantly eludes our ability to catalogue and make consistent. As I have written about before in this column the twin towering contradictions of culture are the following, 1. We all know that cultures change. 2. Yet we also feel that cultures are not supposed to change. People will allow for cultures in change in some ways, but lament and cry inauthenticity if they change in others.

The structure of cultures, how they work and evolve is lost on most people. For example, the contemporary Chamorro cultural dance movement is often decried for making things up and inventing things. But this is how culture always works, it is always a process of social invention through which some things are rejected and others are accepted and made sacred.

Many who came to watch Pagat felt that the play was about the loss of culture and a call to arms to stop the changes that are taking place. This is true to some extent, but I was also hoping to expand their cultural notions. In our daily lives we most commonly reduce culture is faint ideas and particular practices. If you were to ask someone to write on the board that which makes “Chamorro culture,” they would list things like fannginge’ and respect or lancho and karabao.

These are all definitely parts of Chamorro culture, but this was not the way I was conceptualizing culture in the play. It we focus on culture as being things, we limit ourselves, because things can always disappear and be lost, and then you leave yourself open to cultural oblivion or native “walking dead” time. This is why for example it is so common to hear people say the following contradiction, “I’m Chamorro” and “but there aren’t really any Chamorros left.” If you envision culture as being attached to things in the world or even abstractions you run the risk of disappearing yourself if those things aren’t used or aren’t around anymore. You create the possibility for you to say you are one thing and then in the next breath deny that you exist or are living.

What I hoped people learned in small or large ways from the play is that culture shouldn’t be reduced to an anthropological inventory, it should instead be conceived of as a social and political force. One that people will of course argue over, but ultimately one that possess the means of binding a disparate and diverse group of people together and can inspire them. Culture is a force that should push people towards strength, towards sustainability. It should be a repository of their stories, their ideas, their dramas, their fights, that will empower them, help them believe in themselves as a people, push them to protect what is precious to them.

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