How you feeling? Feeling Chamoru?

The Chamoru identity is difficult to talk about when conversations about it cannot be separated from colonization, transgenerational trauma, and the way our island has come to be home for many who are not of Chamoru ancestry (but who have developed a deep love and respect for the island and ways of people native to Guam). What many people forget is that the word “Chamoru” is used to describe both a culture and an ethnicity. The use of a single word for double purposes can fuel misunderstandings and division. I saw this happen yesterday when a friend of mine voiced her rejection of saying you “feel Chamoru” when you are not ethnically Chamoru. She explained that in many cases, when people who are not of Chamoru ancestry claim to “feel Chamoru,” they are often referring to the aspects of Chamoru culture that are comfortable to them: fiestas, cultural jewelry (GVB type of stuff), while rejecting or refusing to acknowledge the less palatable part of what it means to be Chamoru (like colonization, which has had a profound impact on the way ethnic Chamorus view their worth and the value in accessing their own traditions). This is not to say that non-Chamoru individuals who understand that struggle and work to improve it do not exist. Our supporters are many; and they are deeply appreciated. But careless proclamations of “feeling CHamoru” have an ugly way (at least on Guam) of devolving into weighing and evaluating who is “more Chamoru.” Ethnically Chamoru people will announce that they have a White friend who is “more CHamoru” than they are because this friend knows “more Chamoru words” than them or has spent more time than they have studying Chamoru history.

I have struggled with this in my classroom. I have had quite a few stateside students who love Guam, may have married into a Chamoru family, or picked up pieces of the language that will announce, very unapologetically, that they are “more CHamoru” than their Chamoru classmates. This is problematic to me, as many of my students are already struggling to recognize their own worth as sons and daughters of this island with a legitimate history, language, and culture. Many of them do not as readily reach for their history or language because they’ve been taught (or raised by parents who have been taught) that their language and history are not as important as Western histories and the English language. Seeing themselves is part of their struggle. In addition to that, they are operating within structures that send voiceless, but powerful messages, reminding them that the “West is Best.” They are also questioned every day as indigenous people, forced to prove that they “still exist” and that they have not disappeared into the footnotes of history despite repeated colonization, intermarriage, and waves of migration. Unfortunately, many Chamorus who do not have the information to help them respond to these interrogations and announcements will often start to doubt themselves, becoming convinced that maybe they aren’t really Chamoru after all. How disturbing and destructive is that?

When I hear a Chamoru person say they don’t “feel” CHamoru, I always wonder what they think “feeling CHamoru” is supposed to “feel” like. If you’re CHamoru, however you feel, as unsavory as what you feel might be to Chamorus of other political inclinations, it is how it feels to be Chamoru…because you ARE. Okay, so you don’t live on Guam. You may not be in touch with how it “feels” to live on Guam right now. You may be removed from the feelings of existing on a daily basis in a colony, but your experience far away does not mean you’re not actually Chamoru. There are many different ways of feeling Chamoru; and you can’t be offended when someone says yours doesn’t match theirs. If you ARE offended by that, it’s a personal problem that you need to reflect on. Why do you need to be included in the experiences of others to feel legitimate? You don’t need to be exactly the same to be united. The culture of Chamorus existing in different spaces and periods of time changes and evolves, saying there are differences does not mean you “are not.” It does not mean someone pointing out those differences is saying you “are not.”

I tell my students to learn their family trees, memorize their family names, get in the habit of the tedious tracing back of how you’re related to each other when you first meet another Chamoru, because by doing so, you’re reaffirming your roots, digging your feet into your Chamoru identity so deeply that nothing can shake you. There’s an actual project which is constantly being contributed to by Bernard Punzalan, The Chamoru Roots project. Punzalan is ever engaged in tracing family trees and helping others learn their ancestry. Aside from being fascinating, the work is just empowering. When people question my evolving fluency with the language, and use those questions to undermine my identification as a Chamoru, I pay no mind. It doesn’t stop me from learning. I am rooted in the knowledge of where I come from, who gave birth to me and who gave birth to the women before me. No state sider, no matter how much he/she knows about the island’s history, will ever be able to make me feel like they are “more Chamoru” than me, because I have that knowledge.

I desperately want our young CHamorus to know that, too. You ARE. If you don’t know your language or haven’t been taught your history, it’s not because you are not of this blood and of this land. There are many reasons you have been denied your mother tongue; but none of them are because you are not an actual Chamoru.

With that being said, a good grasp of your family tree is no excuse to neglect our language or history. You need that too, but like I tell my students, while you’re learning your language and history, you need not feel lesser or buy into the idea that someone else who has that information is “more than” you.

Many of our people will readily accept the idea that a White person should not walk around saying they “feel black,” no matter how passionate and supportive they are of the Black struggle. We know that being Black is not a choice, whether you are of mixed heritage or not; and we know that it is impossible for a White person to really “feel” Black, no matter how much they know about Black history. I suspect that we do not afford our ancestry the same dignity and boundaries of respect simply because we have not adequately learned about the history of our struggle, because we have gone so long being told our histories, language, and stories are not real by others. Hell, there are many Chamorus today who still don’t realize they live in a colony. We need more education, more awareness, and less tolerance of discussions that allow others to proclaim that they are MORE than what you legitimately are.

The truth is that CHamorus will exist who do not want to be Chamoru or will never find value in being CHamoru (that’s an unfortunate byproduct of our colonial history and oppression). And even if they don’t value that part of themselves, unfortunately, they are still Chamoru. Because like all other ethnicities, being Chamoru is not a choice. When someone tells you they “feel” culturally Chamoru, try to hear their intentions. Are they telling you that they have deep respect or appreciation for the land, our people’s struggles, and the history of your mothers? If so, then it might be worth welcoming that. They can be helpful to you and can contribute to the improvement of your people’s conditions. If they’re saying they “feel CHamoru” to make you feel less and ignoring the fullness and complexity of the Chamoru identity, simply remind yourself that while they may “feel” a certain way…you, most definitely, ARE (and for you, it’s not just a feeling).

You are what you are.
You don’t have to carry the burden of other people’s need to feel “the same.”
You don’t have to prove yourself.
You don’t get your status as a Chamoru revoked because you’re not fluent in the language, because you’re still learning.
You are not less than because someone has read something you have not.
Chamoru hao.
Chamoru hao.
Chamoru hao.

And don’t let me catch you saying otherwise. 😉

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