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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Continued Efforts to Decolonize and CHamoru-fy My Neni’s Bookshelf

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Månnge’ Manhoben: Kin’s Day at the Ranch, By Christine Restuvog Quinata
One of Vicente’s Favorite Children’s Books

How do you decolonize a childhood? It has been something I have come to think about on a regular basis as I raise my son here. For me, reaching a new consciousness and realizing how crucial it is to preserve and reclaim my indigenous history came later than I would have liked. Understanding that our people were deserving of certain political and cultural considerations didn’t resonate until I got older. In short, knowing and understanding, deep within my bones, that my ancestry was as valid as my occupier’s didn’t hit home right away. But when it did, it felt as if everything I knew was stripped away, which was, at times, kind of painful. When you’re a mother, you want to safeguard your child from unnecessary pain in any way you know how.

Don’t get me wrong; I was raised to be proud of my heritage and to value life as a Chamorro, but my childhood was also flooded with half-narratives of our people’s history, normalized occupation and images of warfare, and ideas that somehow watered down the importance of learning my native language. It was not because my parents did anything wrong or forgot to do something right; it was because they were doing what they knew how to do. They were teaching me what they felt was important in order for me to have a good life. As children of people who emerged from concentration camps and slipped into American occupation, it was important to teach their children how to assimilate into American culture. During their time (and their parent’s time), an excellent command of English, pride in the American historical narrative, and a willingness to “forget” certain things paved the way toward social acceptance and sometimes, financial success.

In many ways, if not most ways, this is still true on Guam. We are, after all, still under American occupation. Knowing how to move forward and thrive under your circumstance is still an important skill that I am grateful to have had instilled within me. BUT, I also recognize that with each generation, we make small adjustments to spare our children from heartache, give them more confidence, and push them into adulthood more “complete” than we felt we may have been.

The collective consciousness of a people shifts and evolves. I am happy to see the direction Chamoru consciousness has been moving lately. When I read about the things many young adults from Guam are doing (both on and off-island), it makes me excited about the experiences and opportunities Vicente will have as he matures into a Chamoru man.

I still feel that books are one of the most powerful ways to instill interest and pride within my son. I probably feel this way because books were such a huge part of my childhood. If you read my last entry, then you know what great lengths I went to in order to secure books for myself.

One year, my maternal grandmother presented me with a huge stack of thin, black and white children’s books printed on cheap paper. They were Chamorro children’s books used by the Guam Department of Education within their Chamorro classes. I fondly remember reading them with my father. I remember feeling very excited when he’d compliment me on my pronunciation or if I understood a word. They were a very special set of books because they were rare. Do you know how hard it is to find a Chamorro children’s book sometimes? Luckily, progress is being made here.

Last week, I wrote about a book that I felt attached to. This week I want to share with you about a Chamorro children’s book that Vicente loves. It’s also easy to find in local bookstores or online. Månnge’ Manhoben: Kin’s Day at the Ranch, by Christine Restuvog Quinata (Illustrated by Tanya Robinson) is one of Vicente’s favorite books. It’s the second of Quinata’s Månnge’ Manhoben collection. We have both books, but Vicente is most excited about this one. The reason I love the Månnge’ Manhoben books is because in addition to having a very “current” feel, they’re well made. When I was a little girl, CHamoru children’s books were often black and white, easy to break, and while the content was wonderful, they were just too easy for an aguaguat child to destroy. Vicente is sometimes called, Typhoon Tentee, so you can probably guess what it’s like once he gets his hands on something. The Månnge’ Manhoben books are printed on a sturdy cardboard and the illustrations are bright, cute, and fun. They make kids laugh.

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This page excites Vicente so much that I sometimes have to firmly tell him to calm down. There are deer at his papa’s ranch and whenever we reach this page, he stands up and starts making his deer call, jumping up and down like crazy, and sometimes, smacks my face in excitement. ???

Vicente is a little rancher. He loves going to his Papa’s ranch. He is really impressed by my mom’s brother, who likes to hunt and fish; and nothing is more exciting to Vicente than a binådu. When we read this book, he gets very worked up, shouting out the animal names and making animal noises. I think having fun children’s books, like Quinata’s, that center around life on Guam are so important. The book is set on Guam, at a ranch. That’s exactly what Vicente does! It’s not set in some stateside park or European garden, which he might have to try harder to relate to. Having a book written for you, as a child, is a very special thing. I think that many Western parents can take it for granted as they read their kids children’s books. When you’re a little kid growing up on Guam and you’re read books that are set in the states, you absorb them differently. There is something magical about a child immediately connecting his real life experience to the one being read about. It’s exciting for them! It’s motivating.

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This is another one of our favorite pages in the book. At the end of the story, Vicente and I sit down and just name the animals (in both CHamoru and English). Aren’t the animals cute? Vicente’s favorite is, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the binådu. 🙂

So, if you are a Chamoru mother who has yet to put one of Quinata’s books on your neni’s bookshelf, I highly recommend doing so. I haven’t met a child in my family who hasn’t enjoyed the book.

A Favorite Children’s Book and My Criminal Past

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Ukelele and Her New Doll, by Carol Louis Grant

Sometimes, I think it’s easy to forget just how lucky I am to live on this island, to be raising my child here. Guam is truly a wonderful place to be. There are so many conversations about what we don’t have, that I occasionally forget to stop and appreciate all the things that Guam does have. Is it just me, or do people seem to complain all the time? Listening to other people complain can be toxic. People can put a lot of energy into listing all the things they think Guam does not have. But in truth, we have quite a bit. I am excited to see that many of my friends who are raising children on Guam think it’s important to expose their child to all that our island has to offer. Many of the parents I know seem determined to help their kids see Guam from a positive place: as a place of plenty, a place where creativity can grow and opportunities can present themselves.

One of the best ways to instill these important lessons in our children is through books. I love books. I especially love children’s books. I have had a small obsession with children’s books even before motherhood came and threw my life into a tailspin. I never got rid of my childhood library. The books I loved as a little girl still sit on our bookshelves today. My mother and I could never bring ourselves to let them go. There were too many memories and adventures attached to them! I loved reading so much when I was a kid that I became a criminal to fuel my overwhelming need for more books. I used to steal books from my school’s library.

I would spend hours hunting for books that people had not checked out in a while, then create a secret stack somewhere in the back of the library and slowly come back throughout the week to lift them.  I would also steal books from cousins or friends who I thought did not appreciate their books enough. If I saw that they were the type of child who might write or draw in their book, I would secretly “confiscate” it. If I saw that the child did not enjoy reading, I would remove the book and bring it to a place of gratitude: my room. It was pretty sick. Finally, my aunt intervened upon finding a huge stack of stolen library books in my closet. She told me that I could simply check them out or ask my parents to get me a copy of the book I liked. I tried to explain that it wasn’t just about wanting the book: it was about saving the book, rescuing it from children who did not like to read or from sitting unloved in the library! I was the patron saint of books! I was performing a good deed! I had become a “book shelter.” Still, she insisted that taking books without permission was wrong. She reminded me that stealing was a crime.  Whatever.

Now that I’m in my thirties, I still fight the urge not to “rescue” books from undeserving people or places. But having a child has given me a new excuse to hunt for and save beautiful children’s books. Today, I wanted to show you a book that has always been one of my favorites. I think it’s a beautiful story to share with your child, especially if your child is from the Pacific (or from any colonized group at all). Vicente’s godmother, Chrissy, sent us this “rescued” copy and I love reading it to him. I don’t think he understands what is happening in the story yet. I think he just likes flipping through the pages and naming things: baby, water, boat, flower, fish etc. But each time I read it, I absorb its message for myself. It acts as a reminder for me as well. After all, I am also a product of colonization. I need a reminder every now and then too!

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Ukelele receiving her new doll.

The book is called Ukelele and Her New Doll, by Clara Louis Grant. The book tells the story of Ukelele, a little girl from a beautiful Pacific Island, who casts aside her beloved, locally made, doll for a fancy new doll off of a European ship. At first, Ukelele is impressed with the new doll. However, she quickly finds that while the new doll is fancier and more exciting (because it is new, different, and framed as “better” because it’s from somewhere western) it does not work well for play on her island. It wasn’t made for little girls like her, who play as she does.

At the end of the story, she learns to appreciate her original doll. She’s still nice to the fancy doll. She doesn’t throw it away, but she leaves it sitting on the side because she learns that for a special little girl like her, she might need something different.  Ukelele realizes that the doll made on her island, for little girls like her, is just as good (if not better) than the fancy doll from the European ship.

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Ukelele ultimately chooses the doll made of local materials.

I love the story because when you’re a child on Guam, you are constantly bombarded with images of life in the Continental US. I sometimes hear children here talking about stateside products, or wearing stateside brands, as if, through the ownership of those items, they are somehow “cooler.” I love that the story reminds children to value what their home has to offer too.  You can admire foreign structures, products, and ideas.  You can adopt them when they truly work for you or please you, but it’s important not to disregard the systems, traditions, and ways of operating that are part of your unique heritage. Ukelele might be a hard book to find, but it’s such a beautiful addition to a Pacific child’s book collection. The illustrations are beautiful and the message is powerful.  What are some of your favorite children’s books?  Why?  I would love to write about them (or have your write about them).