Sunday, July 30, 2017

Clinging to Culture

One of the aspects of Chamorro life that has frequently haunted me and frustrated me is the division between Chamorros in the Marianas and those who come from the diaspora, primarily the United States. It is a division that so much is made about in everyday conversation, which amounts to very little when you interrogate it. There is often times a perception that those from the diaspora are stuck-up, more Americanized and are completely disconnected from their culture and their identity. There is some truth to this, because much of what we get in terms of our identity has more to do with proximity and frequently than actual choices. You feel a certain way about yourself or you struggle with your identity in certain ways based on what you see around you, although there is always some element of personal agency or choice. Because of this, if you are born in Guam or the CNMI, chances are good you will generally know more Chamorro words or slang. You may know more Catholic songs. You may have a certain heavy or slight accent. You may be more familiar with general Chamorro knowledge. But in truth, for every Chamorro I have met from the states who meets the criteria for being stuck up and disconnected, I can match you with someone from Guam who has scarcely left the island, but is the exact same person, just with a Chamorro accent. Even the notion that Chamorros in the states are more Americanized falls flat quite quickly. For every stateside Chamorro that someone might call a "coconut" or "colonized" I can show you a local Chamorro would parrot the same colonized talking points, just with a chåd accent.

This is one of the ways that people in the homeland gain identity, and gain a positive sense of identity, even if they lack the knowledge or the commitment for what they are asserting. Because those in the diaspora are considered to be so empty, so vapid, and cling to whatever culture they can get, it means by default whatever minute amount of Chamorro or identity your average Chamorro on Guam holds, it glows brighter with cultural power. This does not mean that there aren't differences, but just that they are often over-stated for self-aggrandizing or self-mystifying effect.

It has been heartening to see Chamorros in the states doing more to openly and explicitly celebrate their culture, whether it be Liberation Day celebrations, t-shirts, dance groups or ethnic restaurants. What I am most interested in not any questions of authenticity or superiority, but the way that this cultural turn can help more Chamorros become critical of the colonial status of their islands and develop stronger commitments and connections in the name of helping them.


Guam' Imahe: Finding Identity Through Dance, Song and Chant
by Mindy Aguon
The Guam Daily Post
July 30, 2017

With the crowd settled in their seats, the lights dim and music fills the Star Center auditorium in Tacoma, Washington.

He sits back in amazement as he analyzes every dancers’ movement and spoken word. Normally he is back stage among the chaos, with dancers scrambling to change costumes, fix their hair and perfect their makeup between numbers.

For the first time since teaching dance, Joel Larimer is sitting in the crowd watching his teaching come to life.

Five years ago, Larimer had an idea to pursue his passion of dance and start what he calls a “backyard group.” Twenty-four dancers signed up and showed up to his sister’s three-car garage expecting to learn hula, something Larimer had studied while raised in Guam.

But as he began to interact with his students, Larimer felt something was missing.
He yearned for something more and felt drawn to research his roots.

“I was telling people our CHamoru culture is dying, yet I was contributing to that,” Larimer said.
And so began his journey to find his identity. “Something kicked me in the butt and told me 'Wake up.' I knew that in order for the culture to survive, I had to do what I had to do,” the dance instructor said.

Learning from a master

For the next year, Larimer would become the student, learning from Master Frank Rabon, Pa’a Taotao Tano and others, finding his identity through CHamoru dance, chant and song.
He had found his calling and that was when Guma Imahe was born.

“Guma Imahe – it is everything we see, from the manåmko', the famagu’on, the land, water, air – these are all treasures. These images are what will be held as a great value to us culturally as a people,” he explained.

The group’s slogan is imahe – images of the past, present and future – and Larimer teaches the values of inafa’maolek along with the language, singing and dancing.

Growing up in Guam, Larimer recalls visiting places around the island when he was a kid, wishing he could go back in time and experience life in the old days.

Inspired by latte stones and the Lenten antigu in Inarajan and the Plaza de España, Larimer felt drawn to know more, and watched as the CHamoru culture and language was slowly fading away, he said.
Life swept him away from the island and to the U.S. mainland where he took up a job in the airline industry and moved around before settling in Seattle, Washington five years ago.

What started as a “backyard group” practicing in a three-car garage has transformed into a full-fledged cultural dance group of 80 members who travel the state of Washington to perform for events throughout the year.

‘The bridge’

Guma Imahe is the only CHamoru group in Washington state, which allowed them to partner with the Asia Pacific Cultural Center in Tacoma, Washington. The partnership allowed them access to an auditorium and breakout rooms to practice.

“It was a blessing, because we were trying to figure out how are we going to fit these dancers in a three-car garage,” Larimer said. “We were the bridge that connects Guam and CNMI with the cultural center.”

Over the years, Larimer has watched as his students have not just memorized dance steps or chants, but really taken the time to learn and embrace what they are taught, giving him confidence that it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“You see it in their eyes, their willingness to want to learn and proud to be part of their culture. That’s the thing that keeps me going,” Larimer said.

He expressed appreciation to the Guam Visitors Bureau for its support of the group as well as Pa’a Taotao Tano.

“There is a place for CHamorus to come and learn different things about the culture,” Larimer said.
He hopes to expand on the idea by developing a Sagan Kotturan CHamoru in Washington state. The CHamoru cultural center would offer CHamoru cooking, teaching the language, weaving and more.
Although they may be miles and oceans away from home, Larimer and the members of Guma Imahe couldn’t be more proud to be CHamoru.

“We have a small island with people all over the world with big hearts who are proud of who they are and where they come from,” Larimer stated. “I’m just adding to it with my dancers and giving them more of home in regards to CHamoru dancing and singing.”

As the curtain is drawn on the fifth-year dance recital, Larimer reflects on all of the sweat, tears and hard work that has gone into creating Guma Imahe. “It has been a journey finding my identity through dance, song and chant and I’m just so grateful to my parents, the dancers and their parents.”
While there’s no telling where Guma Imahe will be 10 or 20 years from now, Larimer said his love for the CHamoru culture and dance will continue.

“I’ll only stop when I take my last breath or I have no more dancers,” he said. “I’m very proud of what I do and I do it out of my heart.”


Chamorros in diaspora cling to culture
by Jerick Sablan
Pacific Daily News
May 25, 2016

Chamorros living outside of Guam and the Marianas have the opportunity to be back home for the Festival of Pacific Arts.

And although they live far from home, many of them cling on to the Chamorro culture.
Vicente Diaz said some Chamorros in the U.S. mainland are really passionate about keeping Chamorro alive.

Diaz said the diaspora, or dispersal, of the Chamorro people has been happening for thousands of years since Austronesians made the long journey by canoe to inhabit the Pacific Islands.

He said some people assume that indigenous people not living in their land would mean they lose their culture, but it seems the exact opposite happens.

“Just because they left doesn’t mean they stop being who they are,” Diaz said.

Bernard Punzalan, who’s living in Washington, said Chamorros living in the mainland simply create another “village” wherever they may be, including in Washington, California or Maryland.
Both men were speaking at the University of Guam on Wednesday for a seminar on Chamorro diaspora for the ongoing Festival of Pacific Arts.

Punzalan said the feeling of community with the Chamorros in the mainland provides a great support system and a way to celebrate the culture away from home. They have funerals, fiestas and help fundraise for people in the hospital just like they do back home.

Punzalan said Chamorros living outside feel they need to keep the culture even more alive because they are so far from home.

“It’s a way we connect to people,” he said.

He said people of the same culture tend to come together, and Chamorros really do come together.
Many of the people attending the seminar shared how long they’ve been away from home and the feeling they had being back, with many becoming emotional.

Punzalan said it was great to be back home for FestPac and to be able to share their knowledge and their stories.

Mario Borja, from San Diego, who was one of the Chamorros who made the sakman Che’lu that is in Guam, also presented on his project.

Diaz said the canoes of the Austronesian people were very important in the first diaspora that filled the islands in the Pacific. He said the canoe is an important symbol for the diaspora and how, even though they left home, all Austronesians people in the Pacific are connected.


The Chamorro Diaspora
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
April 23, 2017

I spent five years of my life in San Diego while I was attending graduate school there at UCSD. It was an interesting experience that truly helped to shape and deepen my understanding of Chamorros as a people today. 
We may see Chamorros as tied to home islands in the Marianas, but the reality is that more than half of the Chamorro people live in the United States in what scholars refer to as “the diaspora.”

For most of my life, I have moved back and forth between Guam and this diaspora — spending a few years in Guam and then a few years in Hawai’i, a few more years in Guam, a few more years in California and so on. Although people tend to conceive of Chamorros as being either the “from the island” or “from the states” variety, there has, since the revoking of the military’s postwar security clearance, been a constant back and forth migration of Chamorros. Individuals and families travel east for education, military service, seeking new opportunities, and they also move back west into the Pacific, because of homesickness, family obligations and even for new opportunities.

In the formation of a diaspora, people can settle anywhere they choose but tend to follow particular patterns. The Chamorro diaspora to the United States began in a limited way with bayineru siha, or whalers who left during the late Spanish and early American colonial periods. They settled primarily in Hawai’i, the West Coast and even New England. During the 20th century the U.S. military, in particular the U.S. Navy became the next means of aiding in Chamorro migration. Chamorros began to settle in places where some whalers still retained a sense of being Chamorro, but more so they settled in areas with Navy bases. San Francisco, Virginia, Hawai’i and San Diego were all places where the Chamorro population was significant even before World War II.

After the passage of the Organic Act and the onset of the Korean War, more Chamorros began to join the U.S. Army and eventually the Air Force. This changed the Chamorro diaspora even more as Chamorro populations began to grow in areas like Texas and Washington. Chamorros traveling to the states who weren’t in the military would nonetheless follow these same routes, taking advantage of family members and friends who were already settled.

At present, the Chamorro diaspora still remains structured around these large populations, but Chamorros now migrate because of perceived economic opportunities, with people seeking places that are nice to live in, have affordable housing or possible job opportunities.

San Diego is the area with the largest diasporic Chamorro population and you could call it the ma’gas na sinahi of Chamorro diaspora communities. What makes San Diego different than other areas with large numbers of Chamorros is the amount of presence they have created for themselves and to represent themselves to others. San Diego has several different types of Guam clubs, the largest of which is the Sons and Daughters of Guam Club. This club is considered to be a central location in terms of the Chamorro diasporic landscape, because unlike many Guam clubs, it has a large permanent physical space. The clubhouse is used for all types of activities, from fundraisers to dinner dances to conferences. Chamorro language and cultural dances classes are also sometimes held there. The clubhouse is even rented sometimes by non-Chamorros for quinceañeras or debutante balls for young Latinas. The clubhouse also acts like a senior center where manåmko’ can hang out and play cards and also eat lunch. 

The San Diego Chamorro community has also come to a certain level of consciousness that through the nonprofit CHELU (Chamorro Hands in Education Links Unity) it now organizes an annual fair. This past March, they held their most recent “Chamorro Cultural Fair” that drew crowds of thousands. Chamorros from across the Western United States converged in San Diego to eat Chamorro food, buy Chamorro themed arts and crafts, listen to Chamorro music and watch Chamorro dance. A highlight of the festival was the display of a 47-foot replica of an ancient Chamorro canoe, or sakman. The canoe was carved by the group Sakman Chamorro, and not only is the canoe a sight to behold, it also does sail. Mario Borja, the main carver for the project, is promoting the idea of the sakman making a voyage to Guam in 2016 just in time for the Festival of the Pacific Arts.

It is often easy to dismiss Chamorros in the diaspora as being “po’asu” or “taimamahlao” because of their distance from the home islands of Chamorros. People sometimes think of them as being a lower type of Chamorro, possessing less knowledge, less respect and, in general, being less Chamorro. I would argue against these stereotypes. Chamorros everywhere are concerned about issues of language and cultural loss. Chamorros in the states don’t benefit from having easy access to a lot of the things that people in the Mariana Islands take for granted. On Guam, it is still easy to find a place where you can be surrounded by the Chamorro language, if you live in Nebraska that might be a bit more difficult. But it is exciting to see Chamorros in San Diego working to create more regular spaces for maintaining their heritage.

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