Back in September, I spent an afternoon with Håle’ Para Agupa’, a Chamoru cultural group based in the Washington D.C. area. It was an enriching and energizing afternoon. The fafa’na’gue of the group Teresita Guevara Smith organized a gathering of young and old, and I gave a presentation about Chamoru language and culture, and even a short language lesson.
Wherever I go, in Guam, the CNMi or even the diaspora, I am always encouraged to see Chamorus wanting to learn more about who they are as a people and want to do more to keep culture and language alive. After all, for a group that numbers perhaps only 200,000 in the world, we always have to ask ourselves, “anggen ti hita, pues håyi?” When it comes to preservation and revitalization of our heritage, if we won’t do it, who else will?
This is an issue that Chamorus have to confront sooner rather than later, especially in light of the fact that more Chamorus now live outside of the Marianas. The realities of cultural maintenance change dramatically whether you are talking about Guam or the CNMI, versus the diaspora, which exists in small pockets in various spots around the US.
Migration to the US actually began during the Spanish era of Guam’s history, with Chamorus leaving as whalers and eventually more than a thousand of them settling in Hawai’’I and both East and West coasts. Since World War II, most migration began initially through military service, with Chamoru communities appearing around Navy or Army bases.
In a few places these communities formed associations or Guam clubs. Sometimes the groups were formalized and had charters and boards and regular activities. Other times they were more informal. The majority of the smaller clubs existed to commemorate a particular event, usually Liberation Day or a Catholic saint or feast. The largest club, the Sons and Daughters of Guam Club in San Diego went beyond incorporation in spirit alone and possess its own physical clubhouse.
For Chamorus living stateside, these clubs or activities would often be the majority of their exposure to Chamoru cultural facets. At the Guam Society of America, considered to be the oldest of the Guam Clubs, they have an annual event called Chamorro Night. I was fortunate enough to attend last year and there was kelaguan månnok, hineksa’ agaga’ and even Matua Sablan singing his father Johnny’s greatest hits. These social gatherings provided a sense of the homeislands in the Marianas, for some who had never been.
As I’ve bounced around the US and spoken to people involved in these clubs, there is a regular worry that Chamoru youth stateside aren’t interested in getting involved in leading the clubs or sustaining them. Some of the Guam clubs that I spent time with a decade ago while attending college in the states have long been inactive.
After spending time with the members of Håle’ Para Agupa’, I feel like the solution to the sustainability problems in Guam clubs, is to move them beyond just being social clubs, and actually transform them into cultural spaces. Places not only where Chamorus gather to share food and laughs, but where they gather to share knowledge, cultural traditions, the language and songs. If we want youth to take up their heritage, we have to first teach it to them and help them understand why its important.