Hami, i Taotao Guahan
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
July 29, 2015
On December 17th, 1901 a group of more than thirty men, primarily Chamorros gathered in Hagatna. Most prominent on their minds was the political status of their island Guam, which had been taken by the United States during the Spanish American War three years earlier. Since the transfer of power, confusion over Guam’s future hung like dark foreboding clouds. Although the American flag flew over Guam, the United States had not set up a government in which Chamorros would now enjoy the glories of American democracy. They had established a military regime which the US Navy total control over the lives and lands of Chamorros.
The group that gathered in Hagåtña represented some of the largest landholders, the wealthiest families and some of the most educated Chamorros of the day. They carried last names familiar to us today, such as Perez, Torres, Dungca, Quitugua, Martinez, Diaz, Calvo, Untalan and Sablan. The result of this meeting was a document, a petition directed towards the United States of America and its Congress, requesting that they please do away with the military government they had created and instead allow a permanent civilian government on the island. The petition begins like so,
We, the undersigned, citizens of the Island of Guam, a dependency of the United States of America, respectfully and humbly petition Congress, asking its attention to the following exposition of the actual conditions that obtain in this island.
The present government was established in August, 1899, its legal status being that of a military government of occupation, under the authority of a naval officer, the commandant of the naval station established in the island.
By 1901 it was apparent that the United States had little interest in living up to their ideals in Guam, and was going to govern the island in a paternalistic manner, treating Chamorros like children, too immature or primitive to know what is good for them. Faced with this basic contradiction of American principles, these men had to choose between an acceptance of their new American colonial status (which was actually a regression from their status under Spain) or seek to improve their status, through whatever means they could. From the language of the petition, we can see that the men who drafted it knew what they were talking about and had no illusions as to their colonial situation. Here are two quotes from the petition that I have found to be particularly important in showing the quiet, but profound critiques the Chamorros launched at the United States:
We believe that actual conditions contain grave defects, inherent in the system of government, which can be remedied only by Congressional action. A military government at best is distasteful and highly repugnant to the fundamental principles of civilized government, and peculiarly so to those on which is based the American government…
It is not an exaggeration to say that fewer permanent guarantees of liberty and property rights exist now then when under Spanish domain. The governor of the island exercises supreme power in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, with absolutely no limitations to his actions, the people of this island having no voice whatsoever in the formulation of any law of the naming of a single official.
UOG President Robert Underwood in his afterword for Penelope Bordallo Hofschneider’s book Campaign for Political Rights on the Island of Guam refers to this moment as the height of Chamorro chutzpah. An unexpected moment as we look back in time, where Chamorros spoke plainly about their colonial status, seeking some way of changing it, instead of finding ways to blind themselves or justify their colonization. There is an intelligence in this petition, an ability to see both the limits of their connection to the United States, but also the possibilities.
This document is a petition that should be given to all students in our schools to read. As an island that has been a colony of the United States for 117 years texts like this should be just as important, if not more important to our understanding of the world than the Constitution of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Things have thankfully changed over the past century, but the fundamental political relationship, that of Guam being a possession of the United States has not.
On Guam, we spend so much energy creating an illusions of our relationship to the United States. Each July for example, we imagine that the political connection that people here have with their colonizer is one based on suffering and starving Chamorros in Manenggon reaching up to the helping hands of liberating Marines, who carry with them chocolate, powdered milk, Spam and applications for food stamps. These are powerful images and moments from our past, but these are not what defines our political relationship to the United States. This is too often the moment where we forget colonial realities, cover over them with patriotic reds, whites and blues and fantasize that we are just another part of the United States.