Sunday, September 14, 2014

Chamorro Christmas Nationalism

The exhibit I worked on for the Guam Humanities Council titled Sindalu: Chamorro Journey Stories in the US Military is currently on display at the Isla Center for the Arts at UOG. As part of the exhibit I've given several scholarly tours to students, teachers and veterans. Although the exhibit itself features so many stories, the interaction with these groups often yields even more stories. Sometimes people will find themselves or their ancestors in the photos. They will offer up another perspective or another facet of someone's anecdote. Sometimes they challenge things and sometimes they express their gratefulness that an exhibit like this has been put together.

I teach many aspects of the exhibit in my own classes, but I have appreciated the way the research and writing for the exhibit and then the way I have developed my talk for the tours has led me to really think about the progression of Chamorros and their relationship to the United States, through their military service. Several people have asked me about how it was structured into different themes. For me, the themes flow from one to the other and help us move in time and through the changes in Chamorro and their ideas of US militarism. Early on Chamorros are distant to the US, to its military and serve in menial and almost embarrassing positions. To then jump into the postwar years when Chamorros start to get promoted and become generals and admirals wouldn't really make sense. As a told a tour group today, if you moved the narrative in that way it might not make sense to someone unfamiliar with Guam. If an alien came to Guam, they would read the first section, early military experiences and see the racist ways Chamorros were treated and only allowed to serve at the lowest levels of the US Navy, and then not really understand why it is that Chamorros kept serving in the US military, despite having an entire generation marginalized and infantilized. If someone deprives of your basic rights and then doesn't allow you to participate in your own government, even if it violates everything the US is supposed to stand for, then this would probably counter any patriotic posters and marketing campaigns the Department of Defense could create. But since for people on Guam, participation in the US military is so naturalized, as naturalized as inafa'maolek unfortunately, and so people don't see these disconnects, they instead fill in the gaps. In the exhibit, I tried my best to denaturalize things, while also educating. Chamorros serve in the military for many of the banal patriotic reasons that are invoked, but there are many other reasons for their service, not all positive.

One thing that has really intrigued me about this project is the way in which Chamorros have become more nationalistic and culturally conscious through their participation in the US military. We know this because of the pride that they manifest so visibly when deployed and when stationed elsewhere. Chamorros and people from Guam tend to mark their space in ways that boggle others, who don't feel compelled to cover their tanks with Delaware pride stickers or fill their room with Florida flags. Military service has also given Chamorros critical national and anti-national identifications, by forcing a disconnect between them and the perceived white power dominance of the US, and instead making them feel connected to other long oppressed racialized groups. So much of this happens in Vietnam, both in positive prideful ways, but also critical alternate nationalism ways as well. Many Chamorros have stories of feeling strong affinities to their Black and Latino brothers in arms in that war, but fundamentally alienated from their white comrades in particular their commanding officers. Some such as David Lujan Sablan and Frank San Nicolas (both featured in the exhibit) joined and meet regularly with groups of Black soldiers who were openly supportive of the black power movement.

But even in terms of simple cultural and regional pride, Vietnam is also a major turning point. Chamorros in previous wars would gravitate towards each other and form their own mini diasporic deployed communities, but Vietnam changed things. One way we can see this is through Governor Carlos Camacho's famous, historic visit to the Guam soldiers in Vietnam. While so much of what he said was ridiculous patriotic platitudes, what made this event possible was the Chamorro connection, and it helped to empower Chamorros to feel pride in their heritage and helped to counter the common sense Americanization and assimilation of the time.

Below is Johnny Sablan's account of the trip to Vietnam, made famous in his song "Christmas Odyssey."
“More and more fighting sons have died. Peace, freedom, courage and pride. Forever they will roam in the eyes of the people here at home, in the eyes here at home. In memoriam I sing to you, I bow my head and salute you too. My native brothers you died in Vietnam, but heroes you are here on Guam, the fighting sons of Guam.
He went to Vietnam so to seek his fighting sons. To wish them well, the soldiers of Guam. Called out their names all over Vietnam, saying “I want to see my sons of Guam. I want to see my fighting sons of Guam.”
He said “Hafa adai, my sons, how do you do? My name? They call me Governor Camacho. I came to see you, brought a message for you, from the people of Guam, your island in the sun.
He flew from Saigon up to Pleiku, just to wish his sons there Merry Christmas, too. Danang, Nha Trang, Long Binh and Bien Hoa, too. Hafa adai, Cam Ranh Bay, Merry Christmas to you. Well my sons, you’re not forgotten, this I’m glad to say. I brought you a gift from home. Your families and your dear friends, I bring to you. They would like wish you a Merry Christmas too. Merry Christmas my sons.
They choked up and cried, they held their heads up with pride, as they gazed at their presents side by side. One young soldier said, “Mr. Governor, thank you lai! You’ve made my Christmas so great, you’ve made my Christmas so great.”
Four hundred or more soldiers he met. Jesus, Mike, Joaquin, Chu, Alfred, Antonio, Jose, Manuel and Norbert, too. Shaking hands, saying “Merry Christmas to you, Merry Christmas my sons.”
There’s Jerry and Ron, Billy and Juan. There goes Joseph, Jesse, William and Big John. Albert, Felix, Tony and Benny too. They all said, “Thank you, Governor Camacho, thank you, Governor Camacho.”
He’s a man of distinction, a man with a mission. No intervention to stop his intention. He’s a soldier of Guam. He’s a soldier of Guam.”

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