The Private War of Pito Santos
Most chronicles of the war focus, as you might expect on the militaries involved. The great titans that clash over Guam. Not much attention is given to the mere mortals that are crushed beneath their feet on their island home below. The purpose of the Chamoru in most histories is to give texture and meaning to those titans. The Japanese are given a brutal hue, because of how they massacre the Chamorus and mistreat them in general. The Americans are giving a liberating luster because of how they save the suffering and starving Chamorus.
Tony Palomo's book doesn't challenge the overarching narrative political structure of the reality of Chamorus of his generation. He does not talk about decolonization or indigenous rights. But he does find ways to criticize it with varying levels of native humor and wit. While he does play the usual patriotic cards and sets up the triumphant ending of the book with two "liberations." One being from the Japanese, the other being from US Navy rule with the passage of an Organic Act for Guam.
This is where Palomo is very much of his generation. Their immediate concern was to rid the island of military rule over civilians, something that Chamorus had criticized since 1901, as being supposedly an anathema to what America was supposed to stand for. Especially after the rude awakening that they received when the Americans returned to expel the Japanese and began to take land from thousands of Chamorus, Chamorus were eager to find some semblance of civilized order. What they had known since 1898 was US military rule, which was passive, ignorant and could be heavy handed and very paternalistic and authoritarian. The Chamoru people welcomed Uncle Sam back to Guam with openly, newly developed patriotic arms, only to be slapped into consciousness, that their feelings were irrelevant in determining their treatment. So long as they were a military colony, the ideals and principles, the rights they could have would be limited.
But even in his triumphant ending, Palomo has moments of sobriety. He offers a reminder that even as things might appear to be improving, the realities, the racial and colonial realities still persisted. Throughout the book he regularly recounts instances of discrimination, racism and disrespect, often showcasing ways in which Chamorus overcame them or navigated them. When the Organic Act is passed in the closing pages of the book, Palomo includes quotes from the discussion in Congress, and makes clear that these new rights for Chamorus came with the caveat that America was making them no promise of inclusion. Statehood was not being promised and not in their future, despite them being made American citizens.
For many people they might skip over that party, to focus on the potential political party that was starting. But for Palomo, he filled the book with many such moments. He attempts to show that the Chamoru, despite what the colonizers have long said, isn't stupid. They knew they weren't being treated well, they knew America wasn't living up to its own previous ideals. They may have felt gratitude to the US, but patriotism was more problematic. In Chamoru the elders says, "I masångan gi hinemhom, taibali gi semnak." Which is a translation of a Spanish saying, which means "that which is said in the dark, has no value in the light." Chamorus had their own colonial variant, "I masångan gi sanlagu, taibali giya Guåhan." That which is said stateside, has no value in Guam.
But beyond these critiques, Palomo just finds ways to tell exciting and interesting stories, and not focus solely on those things that give Chamorus value in connection to others, their patriotism, their suffering. He recounts things in ways closer to the reality. There is a surprising amount of humor in a book about occupation, and this is not strange or wrong, but the truth. Chamorus did suffer, but they also told jokes and tried to make each other laugh in order to get by. Palomo's book is filled with stories like that, some short, some longer, that draw out the complicated experiences of Chamorus at the time.
One of my favorite stories from Island in Agony has to be this one about Pito Santos.