Guam’s relationship to the United States begins in 1898 when the island is take as part of the Spanish American War. The Spanish had ruled for 230 years and during that time economic development had been nil. The Spanish governor of the island controlled the economy, severely restricting private enterprise, and many used their power to ensure what little money on the island ended up in their hands through their personal ventures.
The arrival of the United States represented the chance for new economic openness and so many Chamorros applauded their new colonizers. Although the United States represented itself as a nation of liberty, freedom and democracy, none of these things were allowed to exist on Guam for the first 50 years of American rule. In 1899 a Naval government was established. A single Naval governor held control over both civilians and military on the island, and was tasked with benevolently civilizing the Chamorro population.
Chamorros at this point in history lived in subsistence lifestyle, primarily bartering for things that they needed but did not grow or produce on their own. Money was primarily ceremonial and used for interactions governments and the church.
Although economically little changed structurally from the Spanish to the United States, a single man still had total control over the island, the rhetoric was markedly different. The Naval Government advocated for Chamorros to embrace new ideals of free markets and capitalism. Through speeches, through education and through public programs they encouraged Chamorros to stop growing food to feed themselves and instead grow crops, such as kapok or copra that they could sell to export merchants. They also encouraged Chamorros to stop farming, but work for wages and instead growing food, buy it from the store.
Chamorros to varying extent accepted these new possibilities. Elite Chamorros who were already land-rich, were able to invest their resources into making small commercial kingdoms, such as the Martinez family, the Calvos, the Butlers, the Bordallos and others. These families took advantage of Navy contracts and the money that was making its way into the hands of more and more Chamorros, by creating construction companies, commercial farming, entertainment venues, restaurants, general stores and taxi services. Even lower class Chamorros, were able to leverage their families’ participation in the employment the US Navy offered and use the money to invest in small businesses, such as mom and pop stores. Many of these smaller business failed however due to the fact that Chamorros did not invest everything in these business, but continued to live according to their subsistence lifestyle. Imported goods slowly trickled in and began to replace locally made goods, but this nonetheless helped to support the numerous small general stores Chamorros were opening.
By 1941, Chamorros had created an interesting hybrid of their own beliefs on economic sustainability and the models proposed by the United States. They began to invest more and more and become an island full of entrepreneurs, but always anchored by the fact that their extended families still farmed for a living, feeding and providing goods to barter.
One perfect example of this can be found during the famous trip of BJ Bordallo and FB Leon Guerrero to Washington DC in 1936-1937 in order to secure increased political rights for Chamorros. Both of these men were critical for their days, even if their critiques might seem tame compared to those that Chamorro activists take today. They represented not a rejection of the United States but both a demand that the United States set a better example for Chamorros than the hypocrisy that it exhibited on Guam, but also that the Chamorro was capable of more and could be more than just the pathetic colonial caricature the US Navy liked to propose.
Take for instance this exchange during Senate hearings on political status change bill for Guam:
Senator Reynolds: Is your island self-supporting?Bordallo: It has not been self-supporting during the Naval Administration and never will be self-supporting under the Naval Administration.Senator Clark: Was it ever self-supporting?Bordallo: Yes, sir. During the Spanish time we have more exports going out of Guam, and we only have to refer back to the history of Guam to find definite information in that respect…Senator Reynolds: Do you think that the people of Guam will ever become self-supporting?Bordallo: I believe so, yes, if given the proper cooperation from the Federal Government.Senator Reynolds: Why do you believe that?Brodallo: Because, we have been self-supporting during the Spanish time.Senator Reynolds: That has been 30 years ago?Bordallo: We still have the same soil.
This would change however, and this balanced perspective would be shattered during World War II, and the Chamorro who emerges from the rubble of a bombed out Hagatna, seemed all too ready to abandon or sell off the land instead of seeing themselves as connected to it.