One of the many unfortunate byproducts of Spanish-Catholic colonization is the fear of indigenous wisdom and the rejection of ideologies that used to comfort and sustain our people. Our people were taught to fear many of the things that were once considered nonthreatening. One of those fears include a wariness of the jungle and the ancient spirits many of us believe live there. There is a difference between respecting them and fearing them. My family has always stressed respect, asking permission, and existing mindfully in our island’s jungles; but the idea that our ancestors wanted to “hurt” me was rejected by both my mother and grandmother. They both taught me that I should think of them as I would any older relative that deserved my respect and humility. I should ask permission, be respectful, and if I wasn’t acting accordingly, I might be in for a deserved small punishment (a pinch, a cherished toy hidden for a while, or something like that). People that felt “hurt” or punished by the jungle were said to have deserved it for doing something wrong or inappropriate. My grandmother taught us that we were liked and protected by these men and women who came before us, who share our bloodline, and still exist on the land we now live.
I spent most of my childhood playing in the jungle along Guam’s Northeastern coast. Luckily, despite occasional family paranoia about wandering too far or lingering too long at night, my parents didn’t have a problem with it. They encouraged me to run wild and I did so (with very little parental supervision). It was wonderful. Sometimes, we’d get certain aunties clicking their tongues and warning that the kids shouldn’t be given such freedom to explore and play in the jungle because the taotaomona could “hurt us” or “make us sick.” They would warn us with stories of relatives who had disabilities or mental disorders that were “forever changed” after “playing too long in the jungle.” This might sound silly to a bunch of you, but trust me, there is always a bunch of relatives who truly believe it. I asked my grandmother about these stories once and she was very quick (and loud) about explaining that the relative in question was “like that” because “her mother drank and smoked when she was pregnant,” not because taotaomona had come and cursed her for playing beside a local mushroom.
My childhood was a happy one, and credit for much of that happiness goes to Guam’s jungles and beaches. I’ve made a point of keeping those things in my son’s life. When my husband proposed to me, I knew I had to move home. There was no way I could build a family far away from Guam, away from those memories of running around our ancestral land. But being pregnant has really brought out the colonial fears deeply embedded in the hearts of some of the people around me. There is a popular belief among many Chamoru families that a pregnant woman should not be in the jungle. We should not be walking around at night without “perfume” and should, for the nine months we are carrying, be extra careful to avoid the spirits of our ancestors.
This past weekend, I happily took my son to our family’s ranch (the same area I grew up playing). One of my relatives suggested I “not go down” because I was pregnant. Already knowing where the discussion was going, I quickly ended the conversation. I put on my shoes, loaded up my nephews, and made my way down as usual. While we were there, I did what I always do when there: enjoy myself. At one point, I ended up part of a game of hide and seek. I was crouching behind a tree with my son, whispering and laughing while his cousins ran by. While hiding, my son spotted a small collection of mushrooms growing with a swarm of butterflies around it. It was beautiful. We abandoned our hiding place to appreciate it more closely. As I bent down to take in the picture, I heard an abrupt warning: “Desiree, get away from there! You’re pregnant!” I looked up. “And so?” I retorted, raising an eyebrow and looking around before my eyes landed on the family friend who issued the threat. “I was actually looking at you thinking you shouldn’t be down here so much at all. It’s not good for you and not safe for the baby” she said, wagging her finger at me. Suddenly, other women sitting near her started chiming in, adding their stories of pregnant women who experienced complications after spending time in the jungle. I didn’t respond. I ended up smiling and distancing myself from them for the rest of the day. My deeply rooted cultural guilt couldn’t bring me to disagree with a group of older women to their face.
My girlfriends (many of whom share the same love for Guam’s outdoors) have had this experience as well. Quite a few of them have been warned of enjoying Guam’s outdoors too much while pregnant. I even have friends who had complications and were rudely accused of bringing those troubles to their child themselves by “going to the beach” or “going to the jungle” (as if the mother was not thinking of her child’s health when making it a point to exercise and get fresh air while pregnant). I would never dare to tell my aunts or older relatives that they’re wrong or that their fears were unwarranted, but I thought I would share what I know (through previous scholarship and research done on the subject for other efforts). Maybe it will make a few of you reexamine your fears. I know that learning this information forced me to take a second look at some of the things I was taught while growing up.
Death was a big part of life for ancient Chamorus. People who died remained an important part of the daily routines of those who were still living. It was important to them that the spirits of their loved ones remain with them (or look in on them from time to time) in order to protect them and guarantee their well-being. Not having the spirits of your ancestors visit you was seen as unfortunate: it meant that you’ve forgotten them or had done something wrong to chase them away. Passing away far from the island was seen as something tragic, as the spirits might not find their way back to the land in order to follow around their living relatives and help them. Dying away from Guam was scary. (I always think of this bit of information when my older relatives who have passed away off-island die. They always ask to have their bodies brought home. There’s a fear still embedded in them that they cannot be buried in the Continental US). The only spirits you had to fear were those who died of unnatural causes; those were thought to be the “angry spirits.” With the arrival of the Spanish and increase of deaths due to war and foreign diseases, some people said that more spirits to be feared emerged. But the overall belief was that being near the spirits of your ancestors or getting a chance to “interact” with them was seen as a positive thing, a blessing. It meant they were still here, acknowledging your presence and wishing you well. They were looking out for you. They were said not to visit or acknowledge people who forgot them.
When I first read this information, I immediately thought of my younger cousin. One day he wandered too far into the jungle and it got dark. The family panicked while looking for him. Just as we were going to send a group of uncles into the jungle to look for him, we saw him emerge from the brush on the opposite side of our little bbq area. I remember him being small, happy, and otherwise confused about why everyone was upset with him. It was raining and his slippers were relatively clean. He didn’t look like he was lost in the jungle for hours. When we asked him how he found his way back, he insisted that his “auntie carried him back.” He got upset when we told him that he did not have an auntie who lived in the jungle surrounding our family’s land. He was adamant that a woman he believed was related to us carried him home and made sure his feet didn’t get hurt. He gets upset when we remind him of this story. It embarrasses him (and here I am putting it on the internet! He he). When he said it, I remember my grandmother nodding and saying, “See? They are always looking out for us. That’s why you have to be very respectful of them. They can help you if you need it.”
I’m not issuing a call for all of Guam’s pregnant woman to run into a jungle and party. All I’m saying is that for me personally, being in the jungle calms me; it makes me feel happy. I went in the jungle while pregnant with my first child (like many other women in my family did while pregnant) and all our children are fine. They were not violently attacked or made deformed by angry ancestors. I believe in respecting our jungles and walking through them with reverence. I think there’s something really beautiful about asking permission from our ancestors to exist in the spaces they once thrived. I don’t plan on avoiding the outdoors because of the popular belief that my ancestors want to “hurt me.” I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe that these men and women we sprung from wish the deaths of our children. After all, they fought tooth and nail against forces they thought would jeopardize the future of our people. I don’t believe practices from our past should be feared or viewed as evil. I think they should be appreciated, studied, talked about, and preserved for our future generations. When you look at our history, fear was never a part of our relationship with our ancestors. We were taught to fear them and encouraged to avoid them when different groups of colonizers came and wanted our people to abandon their ways of operating to make way for their “superior ways.” Thinking of indigenous beliefs and practices as “evil” or fearing your heritage is a very effective way to erase our culture and traditions. That’s not something I want to be part of. Fear is not part of our Chamoru legacy. It’s a byproduct of repeated acts of colonization.