The Evolving Guam Classroom

When you grow up as a child of indigenous ancestry, you are forced to prove your identity in a way that many other people take for granted.  You are constantly accused of not being who you say you are, who you have always thought you were.  It’s a part of the Chamoru childhood that I think many Chamorus, no matter how they look or what complexion they are, end up facing at one point or another.  On an island like ours, one that has been repeatedly colonized (and remains colonized), the idea of what makes a “real Chamoru” can be a touchy, confusing area of discussion.  You grow up accustomed to people from somewhere else saying things like: People who say they’re Chamoru are really just Spanish.  Chamorus are really just Filipinos (and Filipinos are just Spanish too).  My parents always taught me to take solace in my indigenous last name (Taimanglo).  They would always remind me that no matter what anyone said I was or wasn’t, all I had to do was look at my name.  But still, I would sometimes find myself without the right words when someone older than me or in a position of authority tested me.  And as most Chamorus already know, you will be tested.

At a certain point, most of us learn to ignore that kind of ignorance. A few months ago, one of my mother’s graduate professors published an Op-Ed in the newspaper questioning the accuracy of those who identified as Chamoru. He questioned who had the right to call themselves Chamoru and implied that, because of the blood quantum argument, identifying as Chamoru was problematic.  Most people in academia already know why many indigenous people do not subscribe to or pay attention to the blood quantum argument with its racist history and use by oppressive systems to deny native people access to their heritage and birthrights. However, Guam’s media operates in a kind of bubble wherein racism like that is often tolerated (and sometimes encouraged).  We have MANY American men who have moved here that write often about who Chamorus are, what they should do, and what is wrong with us.  In general, they are ignored.  But they’re always published anyway.  I guess a big part of us just doesn’t expect any better from people like that. When my mom and many of her classmates read the article, they were pretty disgusted.  It kind of sucks when someone you admire or like reveals what they really think of you and where you’re from.  I mean, the long and short of it was this professor was saying most of his students weren’t really who they said they were.  Now, they would never admit it to his face (because that’s not how many of them were raised to be), but they were offended.  I can’t think of single Chamoru I knew who read the article and took to it kindly.  Yet all of them also admitted that it was just “more of the same from the same old kind.”

Two of my younger cousins attended a private school where the minority was decidedly Chamoru.  As a matter of fact, out of the whole school, they were often leaned upon during Chamoru week activities or to sing the Chamoru anthem. They were kind of the school’s token Chamoru girls for a few activities.  For a project, one of them approached the teacher to ask whether or not she could cover the way our indigenous population would be affected by US Department of Defense plans.  He allowed her to do it, but fought her and questioned her every step of the way. He truly felt that the indigenous people of Guam no longer existed and that those who identify as Chamoru have no legitimate right to anything. At one point, even making her doubt whether or not she was Chamoru.  I’ll never forget sitting in a small study room at UOG with her when she said, “I think we’re actually just Spanish.”  When we spoke about this, she was confused.  “He’s really smart.  He went to Harvard and he’s really only taught in the states,” she said.  I approached the issue carefully.  Having a foreign teacher who is not supportive of indigenous people is not new, but it can hurt and confuse you when it’s a teacher you otherwise respect and like.  When a person you like and thought you admired attacks or doubts the very thing that makes you YOU, it’s unsettling.  I wanted her to stick with her line of research, but after being dismissed so abruptly throughout her attempts, she ultimately changed the direction of her project and avoided it all together.  It became humiliating and frustrating for her.  The teacher told her abandoning the idea was a “smart move.”

A friend’s daughter who attended DODEA was discouraged from covering Pacific authors in her literature class for a display board because the teacher really wanted her to cover “literature that was more significant.”  She stuck to her guns, covered Chamoru authors and got a B-. (She’s typically an A student.)   Her mom laughed and said the teacher probably wanted to give her a C but didn’t want an angry Chamoru mother coming in and telling her off.  

I thought about the stateside teachers I had growing up who said little things here and there about our people.  Hell, I even had a Chamoru teacher who said a few bizarre things about us.  I would forgive them or even half-believe them if I liked them enough.  If I felt they were jerks, I’d tell my dad and wait for him to respond with the verbal ammunition that would allow me to confidently answer them back.  Eventually I learned that resistance from people who are not from here (and even from a few who are) will happen.  I learned to pick and choose my battles and invest energy responding more carefully.

I was thinking about all of this today because the College’s English Department will be hosting a showcase in a few months.  Last year, our Showcase focused on the wide array of talent our students have (and often don’t realize they have).  It was a wonderful experience.  Students who came in claiming they had “no talent,” ended up creating these wonderful pieces that did, in fact, highlight a talent they simply had to dig out of themselves.  This year, the showcase’s theme is “Culture and Identity.”  I was excited when I heard it.   Looking over plans for the showcase made me realize that MUCH has changed in Guam’s classrooms since I was a child going to school on island.  Our kids are not in classrooms that try to brush over them as footnotes or insignificant contributors to academia. That really excites me.  We have tons of amazing Chamoru educators and open-minded teachers from afar in the classrooms these days.  I see teachers of all races and creeds excited about including alternative perspectives.  You have no idea how much this enriches and empowers native students in school. Students who didn’t like to write realize that they have a lot to write about.  Kids who think history is boring suddenly start obsessing over research.  This kind of personal connection to the curriculum was long denied to students who were not male, white, and Western.

The dismissive attitude that used to pervade is slowly melting away.  Sure, every once in a while, one of  “those guys” will pop up and publish some ugly op-ed piece;but these days, those voices don’t bother me so much.  They are, more and more, becoming the voices that end up on the wrong side of history. They’re laughed at more publicly now.  They’re ignored or dismissed in the same casual way they were once able to dismiss us in public. Pacific authors are covered in our high schools and colleges.  Conferences focusing on work and research in our region occur. Huge festivals celebrating our people are hosted and school children are brought to them for field trips.  Chamoru language competitions are hosted at the University. Native dance competitions are put on for people to purchase tickets for. Plays are being produced to highlight the Chamoru experience. Traditional Western pieces are often localized in classrooms and presented.  I never had anything like this growing up.  Students are learning to value their ancestry instead of to prioritize the voices that tell them they are not valid and that they do not exist.  I would have never guessed an English department on Guam would allow me to stray from the Western canon to celebrate culture and identity.  I would have never anticipated, while growing up, that I could open up a first-year English text and find that the majority of its authors hail from Nonwhite or Nonwestern backgrounds.  The classroom is evolving to reflect the world around it. The Guam classroom is quietly decolonizing. And as a Chamoru female, that makes it an exciting time to be teaching and a wonderful time to be sending my kid to school on island. 

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