Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Heart of the Language

I've spent the past week asking several dozen people what the favorite classical music choices were of an 89 year old Chamorro man who passed away last week. It has been a strange experience on so many levels.

Jose Mata Torres, who I spent close to two years working with passed away last week. I assisted him in getting his memoir titled "Massacre at Atate" through the research, editing and publishing process. After learning he had passed away I immediately felt the need to do something to commemorate him and his contributions to the community and to Chamorro history. Mr. Torres was a host on the Guam public radio station KPRG for 20 years. His show "classical concert" pushed the boundaries of Chamorro possibility in ways that I still find fascinating. Torres was a proud Chamorro man, who felt it was very important that Chamorros keep their language alive and also keep alive a memory of their culture even if it has changed substantially from his youth. When I first met Jose Torres I admired him for his actions in World War II, when he joined other men from the village of Malesso' and they fought and killed the Japanese who were guarding them in a concentration camp. I later admired him for his dedication to seeing the story of those mighty men of Malesso' be published through his book. His unwillingness to let that story fade into oblivion, but that it serve as an important reminder to Chamorros for generations to come.

But now, with his passing there is something else that I have come to admire about him, and that is his willingness to sometimes push the boundaries on what is or isn't Chamorro. I've been writing on my blog and in my Guam Daily Post columns for weeks about this issue, about the need to push the boundaries of what we imagine to be Chamorro, and have the language expand and be the force that we use to colonize other domains which we previously thought of as being not Chamorro or the end of the Chamorro, or something which Chamorro culture or language can have no authentic connection or relation to. I have tried to challenge these Chamorro conventions for years, by translating manga comic books, writing about everything from postmodern philosophy to US Presidential politics in Chamorro, and even making a short film Pakto: I Hinekka with my friend Ken Kuper showing how to play the game Magic: The Gathering in the Chamorro language!

For me, the issue is simple, if you somehow imagine that things which are not normally Chamorro, cannot or should not be talked about in Chamorro, you are pushing the language closer to its death. If you imagine that things which are "contemporary" or come from other countries cannot or should not be talked about in Chamorro, you are limiting the language and hence the consciousness of the people. You are tying it to the past and not allowing it to evolve and move forward. You are not allowing it to change and to find new forms, more durable and relevant forms, as the people themselves change. You are basically advocating that the language be less important and less interesting, less cool, less viable today, and as a result killing its vitality for the sake of some preferred version of authenticity.

We should not be limiting what we use the Chamorro language or culture for, but expanding it. As we become more connected to the rest of the world, if we feel our existence is small, is minor, is too rooted, we won't survive the transition. We will silence ourselves and erase ourselves in a casual and pointless manner. Who we are and were and could be will enjoy eternity in the authenticity oubliette.

There was one powerful way that Mr. Torres embodied this idea of the Chamorro not sitting silently as it watched the world of potential wonder rush by. But rather that whatever is out there that strikes us in a very personal way, that we feel connected to and find a meaningful source of emotion and passion as a result, we should find ways to connect it to our language. Hearing Mr. Torres speak about classical music in the Chamorro language was such a treat, it was like nerd prom for my Chamorro nerd sotteru. It was something I would never associate with Chamorro anything, but for him, if there was room for it in his heart, then there should be room for it in the Chamorro language. This is the consciousness, the mentality, that will keep the language alive today. This is the still beating heart of our language.

Even beyond his love of classical music, Mr. Torres and I also discussed ways we could take other things he enjoyed and appreciated, literature and plays and translate them into Chamorro or transform them into Chamorro settings. We were working on a project when he passed away and I am hoping to be able to finish it in his honor.

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