Just A Few Questions

Today was my eldest child’s first day of school. He’s in first grade! We woke up excited and eager to escort him to his classroom, so much so that my husband even took the morning off so we could both meet there to see him start his first day of elementary. When I entered his little Guam Public School, I could not help but grin. I love our island’s children. The Pacific is stamped all over them, in the way they walk, talk, and joke with each other. They’re a particular brand of sneaky, happy, and funny that I have never seen anywhere else; and I love it. It makes me grateful to be a daughter of Guam. I waved to friends who were happily dropping their children and loved the happy back-to-school buzz filling the humid hallways. I loved the sound of chickens making noise in the grassy areas around the school. I loved the kids talking to a boonie dog through a chain link fence, and I even loved the scared little faces of students with tear-streaked faces resisting their first day of school.

As I guided my child up the stairs toward his new classroom, a woman with a camera crew stopped me. I’m wary of the media. You never know how they’re going to frame and edit you to fit their narrative. I am still bruised from past interviews with media about family land issues and the possible use of ancestral land for military buffer zones. Everyone wants our stories. Everyone wants to help us “tell the world what’s happening here.”

“Excuse me! Can I ask you a few questions about the first day of school?” the woman asked.

I paused, knowing much is happening on our island and not feeling like talking about it.

“About the kids? And the first day of school?” I asked, double checking.

My son was excited about the camera and looking up with curiosity. The woman gave me a friendly smile and affirmed that “yes,” it was just “questions about the children and their first day of school.”

I smiled and agreed. She asked me about the grade my child was entering and if he was excited. We proudly announced that it was first grade and we were excited because he’s officially in elementary school. She was warm and friendly and I was starting to have fun sharing about my son’s first day of school, even thinking how cool it would be to have this moment captured.

Then I froze, unprepared and stunned by her next question.

“With the threats from North Korea, have you spoke to your son about what to do if there is an attack?”

My heart raced. I stared blankly at the camera, smiling like a Stepford wife. “How to prepare?” I asked again, nervous. “Yes. Are you prepared? Is your son prepared?” I looked down at my son, who I haven’t discussed a possible bomb on the first day of school with. Why would I ruin his first day by bringing up the possibility of a Nuclear attack while away from his parents?

“No. No I did not talk to him.”

Desperate and reaching for words, I eeked out something about having faith and just trying to have a normal day. I said something about our island being threatened many times before and just doing our best, about how there was no real way to “prepare” for a Nuclear attack, about it not being like a typhoon or an earthquake. A nuclear attack…what could we possibly do that would really protect us?

The woman nodded, still smiling. I looked up the stairs at my husband, who had somehow escaped the reporter and was looking down at us. I suddenly felt like bolting. The hallway looked so long.

“What about the school? Do you feel the school is equipped and prepared in the case of an attack from North Korea? Has anything been done to help prepare you to leave your child here? Is the school ready?”

My mind was racing. I had no real answers.  I looked at the school.  It was a small village school with happy, but old classrooms. I thought about the “comfort kit” his teacher asked for. I have sent him with a “comfort kit” containing a favorite snack and extra water. I remind myself not to say that, because I will sound like an idiot.

“Ummm no.”

“What do you think should be done to prepare?”

I am no expert on Nuclear attacks. I was literally just trying to get my kid to the first grade.

“I don’t think we can prepare,” I say nervously. I tell her, while sweating profusely, that I just hope these threats force us to look at why we are in this position in the first place and that we look at our relationship with the United States. My son was holding my hand, confused.  He has heard people talking about North Korea, but I have never mentioned an actual Nuclear attack to him; and now that we were being asked about it, I felt as if I were hiding some dirty secret from him. The woman thanks me and asks how to spell my name. She asked how long I have lived on Guam.

“All my life. I am Chamoru,” I tell her awkwardly, trying to remember if I had just said anything embarrassing and struggling to recall the words I had blurted out only seconds ago. I ask her if that is all and she thanks me. I walked up the stairs to my husband, overwhelmed and suddenly anxious. “What was that about?” he asked.

“It was weird. Just awkward.”

I brushed it off, trying to focus on why we were there: my son’s first day. We sat in front of his classroom, talking to other parents. I watched my boy closely, hoping the conversation with the reporter did not plant any worrisome thoughts in his head. When his teacher opened the door, he rushed in with excitement. He claimed a blue chair, happily approached friends from the last school year, and we took pictures in a Dr. Seuss “selfie frame” the teacher had made. I stayed as long as possible before my son gently reminded me I could go. I gave him a hug, reminded him to be good, and took one last glance at him while exiting the classroom.

While leaving, I saw the principal. I asked where the news crew was from and why they were here, she tried to respond before the explanation emerged in front of me. It was our Governor, smiling happily and escorting his grand child to the first day of school. Another parent whispered in my ear from the side “he arranged for the foreign news team to come film today. Media opportunity to show that we’re all fine and everything is business as usual.” I nod quietly, staring at him waving and making a spectacle in the hallway. I quickly wiggle past the news team and our Governor, thinking of my son and turning around to look down the hallway again. The reporter’s questions kept replaying in my mind: “Are you prepared? What will you do if there is an attack at school? Have you talked to him? Do you feel safe leaving him?”

I didn’t have any of the answers for those questions. Didn’t North Korea say they would back off if the American President chilled out? Did he chill out? I don’t know. They’re all entrenched in the Nazi racist stuff over there. Are we okay now? Were we ever okay? Isn’t Guam always in danger as long as the U.S is here? I didn’t know the answers to some of those questions.  I still don’t. All I know is that I left my son. I left him there without any of those answers, and when I see him after school, I cannot wait to find out what his first day was like and hug him. I hope he gets through a single day at school without having to hear talk of war and possible danger. I hope he reads lots of books, plays lots of games, and gets into a healthy amount of trouble; and this is my wish for all our island’s children. I wish all our children a day without war hanging over them.


Faith Strategies

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite priests told me to kick my worrying habit.  He reminded me that worrying is removing trust in God’s plan.  I try, as much as possible, to remember that, but I am, by nature, a worrier.  Motherhood has only increased my tendency to worry;  but with Pale’s words in mind, I do my best to cast worry aside and approach the days as they come.  So yesterday, I did I all I could to eject myself from the dialogue about North Korea.  The night before was spent waking up every few minutes because of the planes flying overhead and the thunder storms.  My eyes kept darting around the room, making sure it was just mother nature, but I also found myself opening my bedroom door, so I could rush to my children more quickly if ever the deep rumbling turned out to be more than military exercises and thunder.  I kept trying to remember my grandmother’s description of the sound bombs make when they fall to make the distinction.

When morning came, I packed my children up and headed outdoors.  Another thing my priest once told me  (he gives lots of good advice) was that when I feel lost and overwhelmed, going out in nature helps us to ground ourselves again; so I did that.  My girlfriend and I loaded our children in trucks and took the long bumpy road past the military bases to Litekyan, the pristine stretch of beach and jungle once populated by hundreds of ancient Chamorus.  I figured the spirits of our ancestors and the startling beauty of the island would erase the seeds of worry planted inside me.  But as we were there, reminders kept materializing out of thin air.  I had to explain to my son why birds no longer sing in our jungles.  Auntie Emily, the Chamoru woman who has so lovingly worked at the refuge for years, told the children how the military had cleared and destroyed many of the ancient latte sites.  As we were driving down, planes flew overhead.  I did my best to be present, but it was hard.  I peered across the water at our sister island, Luta, and was reminded that they will also be affected should the crazy men making threats at each other not pull it together.

When we got home, I tried to play board games with my son, but he kept asking questions.  He hears the news and is very embilikeru.  He eavesdrops on the conversations occurring around him.  “Is Guam a safe place?”  “Is America bad?”  “Is Korea bad?”   I answer him quickly:  We are always safe if we trust in God, America is not bad.  Korea is not bad.  War is bad.

Later that night, I went to Chamoru classes.  I lost myself in the laughter and love of practicing my mother tongue.  I appreciated that everyone in the class was intentionally avoiding the subject, but then my phone went off.  Screen shots of Chamorus off-island promoting their personal brands and young men making light of the situation with tacky memes appeared in my messages.  I rolled my eyes.  What a privilege to be young…what a privilege to be far away.  I turned my phone off.  In ancient times, women were in charge of all battles.  Battles could not be fought with out their permission.  Battles ended when the women said so.  They would stop them before anyone was too seriously hurt.  I think about how different things would be if women were in charge.  We do not joke about war.  War is not a time to promote ourselves or beat our chests.  There is no reason big enough to kill another person’s child.  Our Lady always wants peace.

When I came home from class, I entered to see my husband’s sad face.  I ask him what is wrong and learn my in-laws have made a phone call, asking us to leave my island and live with them in California.  Leaving would be hard, expensive, and unrealistic.  Who’s gonna pay the thousands of dollars it takes for ONE flight out of here? We are a family of four, six if we take my parents.  We are too rooted here, plus…I am unhappy when living in the Continental US.  My spirit dies there.   My American friends have all been reminding me I should move, I should come live near them.  I appreciate their offer, but I also wonder… instead of moving us, can’t your country just stop making bases here that put a big red X on our back?  We could move….or YOU could.  Every time we have been bombed, it has been because you are here.

I tell my father of all the people encouraging us to leave.  His face becomes stern.  “You tell them we’ve been invaded before.  We’ve been bombed before.  We are Chamoru.”  He grabs my baby and sniffs her neck, “you tell them this baby is a Chamorita!  A maga’haga!”  I laugh and look at her little face.  She is.  She is the toughest, most dadao little girl I’ve ever seen.  I laugh, but my laughter is broken by the sudden and uncontrollable thought of a box found in my great grandmother’s house after her death.  It contained a small handkerchief with the name of a baby she lost during the war, a baby girl.  I put my girl down, unsettled.  I tell my girlfriend about this and her brother, a young man rooted in a faith, reminds me to remember the stories of our people, reminds me that we are all being testing.  I desperately want to pass this test from God, and I remember the stories as he instructed.  Why is the first story that pops into my head one of my grandfather leaving his mother on the side of the road to die so he and his siblings could stay alive?  I look at my son and feel like crying.  I try to think of another story, but it’s a story of children in a nearby island dancing beneath nuclear fallout, thinking it was snow and having their skin peel off.  I decide this strategy is not working.

I go into my room and take out the beautiful rosary given to me by a student who went on a pilgrimage to Rome.  “It was blessed by the Pope, Miss!  And it’s blue, so I thought of you.”  I wrap the beads around my hands and begin reciting the prayers my grandmother once told me could soothe any heart.  And it works.  When I am done, my heart is lighter and the stories have managed to file themselves somewhere deep in the back of my mind.

I leave the rosary out.  I do not return it to the pretty box my student presented it to me in.

“I will be needing you a lot these days,” I whisper, patting it lightly before exiting the room and turning off the light.

This morning, I stare into the jungle behind my kitchen sink, rinsing mashed aga’ off of plates.  My son makes small noises in the background, noises of Ninja Turtles loading the Turtle van with “Be Bop” and “Rock Steady.”  A tight knot sits in the middle of my throat and I remind myself to keep it tied.  At any moment, it will loosen and release a flood of tears.  My son has asked me why I am quiet, why I look sad this morning… twice:  once while I was serving him breakfast and another time while gently reminding him to keep the noise down.  I asked him more nicely than usual, which has alerted him to my sadness.  I collect the aga’ peels and walk outside, grateful to be away from his watchful eye.  I throw one peel into the jungle.  I stop.  The knot is beginning to loosen, and this upsets me.  I throw another peel, this time more aggressively, and it happens:  the knot  unravels and I am crying.

Dropping the rest of the banana peels beside my feet, I press my palms to my lips, trying to muffle the cries.  I remind myself to pray.  I call on my Saina, begging for their strength; and I lift my heart up to the Blessed Mother, as my grandmothers have always taught me to do, asking her to remember us, to intercede for us.  I hear my son calling me from inside the house, but I am not ready to look him in the face just yet.  I remind myself this has happened before.  Our island has been bombed and threatened many times.  The United States has put our home in danger many times.  They have abandoned us, made us a target for every foreign threat, occupied us…and we’re still here.  I close my eyes and think of the generations before me, their many stories have come alive in my head.  They have somehow made it possible for me to stand before this jungle, throwing banana peels from trees they once planted, despite slavery, genocide, concentration camps, and colonization.  I remind myself that if forced to relive their experiences, with a deep faith, I can get my family through anything.  I stand still for a few more minutes, waiting for God to see me through the clouds.

I turn around to find my son standing at the front door, watching me.  “Mommy, what are you doing?”

I smile and walk toward him.  “Throwing away your mess!” I yell cheerfully.  He giggles as I pinch his behind. He is pretending to run away from me while sticking his dagan out for me to grab.  I chase him back through the door.  “You’re not sad anymore, mommy?”

“No, neni.  Mommy was never sad.  Sometimes, mommies just have a lot to worry about.” I glance at my phone, it is full of messages from relatives and friends off island.  They are sending love because they “saw the news.”  I remind myself to be nice.  Why don’t I feel like thanking them for their messages?  Why don’t I feel like comforting them?

I log into facebook and see off-island activists posting angrily, indignantly, about this recent threat.  There are many “I told you so’s” and I scroll past them.  A popular author messages me, she wants to know what everyone here is thinking, what we’re saying (because you can never trust local media to tell you) and she’s not seeing many posts from people actually living on Guam.  “I only see the diaspora and haoles raising hell about it online.  What are you thinking?  What’s everyone there saying?  What are you guys doing?”

I don’t feel like answering her, but she means well and I consider vomiting out all the anger, bitterness, complete lack of surprise, worry, exhaustion, apathy, hopelessness, hope, and sadness that I (and many other friends are experiencing this morning).  I type it out and then delete it. I try again (this time, summoning a voice more rooted in political fact).  I delete it.  Third time is the charm, right?  I type a very preachy response, invoking the tone of confident allies who do not actually live on Guam.  I read it and cringe.  I sound like a bitch. I delete it, too.  I try again, letting three seconds fall between each word before typing the next.

“I, we, feel a lot of things.  Thanks for the note.  More later.”

I hit “send.”



In Solidarity with Standing Rock


Please join Guam’s women in supporting the people of Standing Rock by joining us at one of our endangered sacred sites, Litekyan, at 10am on December 10th.  We will also be hosting a fundraiser on December 17 to donate money that will be sent to the Water Protectors to help cover legal fees. The fundraiser will be at the Sagan Kotturan CHamoru on December 17, from 2pm-6pm.

I have been following the situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline closely, unable to tear my eyes away from the complete injustice of the whole situation, wondering how I can help in a meaningful way, and deeply disturbed by the many parallels that are taking place here on our island. I am not alone.  The Dakota Access Pipeline has hit a nerve for residents of Guam. There are too many similarities with our struggles to protect our water systems, sacred sites, and natural resources from the United States.   Relatives and friends who are typically nonchalant about politics or global issues seem unable to stay silent on this one.  Friends that are hesitant to own up to their feelings about the treatment of Guam residents by the United States have mustered the courage to claim their outrage over the Pipeline in front of others.

For my family, the Pipeline was at the forefront of discussions when we gathered for “Thanksgiving,” as was our situation as indigenous people.  We gathered, we enjoyed each other, we gave thanks for all our island provides, but at no point was any effort made to cover the fact that the mistreatment of native people is ongoing.  The poisoning and destruction of Native resources is ongoing; and what is happening at Standing Rock is an abrupt reminder of how the United States feels about Native people, our values, and the agreements they have made with us.  As one of my aunts so eloquently put it, “The United States is really showing us that they don’t give a shit about people like us and our home.”

I was reminded this past week that a couple of years ago, a military exercise was conducted wherein US soldiers practiced exerting military force on a hypothetical group of “Guam activists” that were holding up signs which read: “Save Pagan” and “Save Guam.”  They called the imaginary group “Hope For Guam” (or something like that).  When I saw that exercise covered on the news a while back, I was deeply confused.  Why would riot gear and all of this force be needed for a group of people who said they had “hope” for their home and wanted to protect it?  I quickly pushed away the irritating thoughts, but have been reminded of the story each day as new developments in North Dakota are covered.  I found myself thinking, “Would they do that to us if we continued to try and protect our home?”

In particular, women on Guam have been on a steady mission to spread awareness about this issue within their circles. We are losing sleep over this.  When we started connecting, working together to figure out where to channel this energy, I was deeply comforted to know that so many of my Chamoru sisters were equally restless.  Women of all ages and backgrounds have come together to try, in what ways we know how, to support the people of Standing Rock.  And I am writing this blog in hopes that you will join us.  Please read the caption beneath this entry’s main image and try to attend one of the events we are organizing.

The struggles of all indigenous communities are the struggles of Guam; and supporting each other is crucial.



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. 😉

Baby Not Murdered By Taotaomona: All is Well

My pregnant belly in the jungle. Doctor confirms that the fetus inside me has not been ripped apart by angry taotaomona. Thank you for your concern.

My pregnant belly in the jungle. Doctor confirms that the fetus inside me has not been ripped apart by angry taotaomona. Thank you for your concern.

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 outrageously cute nephews doing their duty to help the jungle by digging for rhino beetle and their larvae to destroy (while holding ninja swords)

My outrageously cute nephews doing their duty to help the jungle by digging for rhino beetle and their larvae to destroy (while holding ninja swords)

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.

My little guy, fearless and completely in his element in the place we love so much. (Our family ranch)

My little guy, fearless and completely in his element in the place we love so much. (Our family ranch)

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.