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Guam: We Need to Talk About the Chamorro

Guam%3A+We+Need+to+Talk+About+the+Chamorro

When Guam is brought up, some common ideas often come to peoples’ minds: it belongs to the United States, it is a strategic Naval base, an out-of-the-way tourist attraction, and maybe somewhere near Hawaii. These beliefs are backed up by depictions of U.S. military might that slam the front pages of newspapers, but the name “Chamorro” is rarely included in these headlines.
To clarify, the Chamorro people are the indigenous inhabitants of Guam. Their culture is one of traditional “Young Man’s Dances,” complex weaving patterns, houses of ifit trees, and storytelling. The Chamorro people have only one, non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, and though the Chamorro are technically U.S. citizens, they are denied the right to vote for president. Awareness of the Chamorro is built into the SHP sophomore English curriculum. Students are required to read Chamorro writer Craig Santos Perez’s Habitat Threshold, but the book does not go into detail about the Chamorro culture and experience. Only a small portion of the sophomore class in US Lit Honors are the students who read an article specifically about the Chamorro experience and history, and thus, only a tiny fraction of the SHP community is aware of this pressing issue.
In the late 19th century, Spain ceded Guam to the United States. U.S. forces remained there until it was deserted 40 years later in WWII, as the island and all of its native inhabitants were considered “Category F” – unworthy of protecting. Chamorro leaders were taken as prisoners, women were brutalized, and entire villages were displaced. But luckily for Guam, American soldiers returned and saved them, marking the annual Liberation Day Parade that celebrates the return of American troops to Guam.
But is Liberation Day really the correct term?
The people of Guam were deserted by American troops in a time of crisis, and as soon as Americans returned, so too did the military presence on the island. So too did the gentrification of the tiny island, leading to mass displacement of the Chamorro. Furthermore, growing tensions between the United States and East Asian powers like China and North Korea make living in Guam an inherent risk. According to New York Times writer Sarah A. Tolpol, “in every iteration of war games between the United States and China run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Beijing’s first strike on U.S. soil has been to bomb Guam.” With its status as one of the United States’ most crucial naval bases, conflicts with these countries jeopardizes the inhabitants of the island. As weapons technology continues to develop, the threat to Guam increases. In 2016, a report filed by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission highlighted the danger posed by China’s DF-26 ballistic missile nicknamed “Guam Killer.” It has a range of 2,500 miles (and Guam is well within that) and the island’s strategic position makes it incredibly likely to be targeted in the event of conflict.
Julian Aguon, a prominent Chamorro writer and lawyer described the “cataclysmic” effects of U.S. military presence on Guam. He said, “we are directly in the line of fire.” Meanwhile, the sacred burial ground of Sabånan Fandag was overlooked and disturbed for the construction of Camp Blaz. Remember that the Chammorro have no voting representatives in Congress. So, living in their native land is made dangerous by the international conflicts of their country whose mainland is 7,195 miles away, and yet they are effectively not represented in its government.
It’s clear the situation of the Chamorro is a pressing issue, especially as international pressure mounts, yet the group hardly receives media coverage. This can be partially attributed to the lack of interest in the island–when polled by The Peer Research Center, United States citizens were found to be unconcerned with Guam
So how can SHP, as a community that places emphasis on social awareness, act in support of Guam? I sat down with two Sacred Heart educators to help answer this question.
The first: Dr. Lisa Harper, who introduced the issue of Guam to her U.S. Literature Honors class and helped choose Craig Santos Perez’s Habitat Threshold as a required text for U.S. Literature. When asked why she chose to include the collection in the sophomore English curriculum, she said “the poetics of the book are really teachable at the Sophomore level, and the Chamorro people are really the last example of settler colonialism. So I think that drawing that continuity and drawing that through line is important in understanding indigenous voices and the space that they inhabit in American literary traditions.” She also admitted that she didn’t know the complicated history of Guam or the extent of the displacement of the Chamorro, and expressed shock at how much mainland Americans do not know. She stressed that as a mission based school, we have a responsibility to teach indigenous histories and narratives more explicitly. She acknowledged that it is difficult to integrate new material in curriculum, but also said, quite bluntly, that we cannot “shy away from indigenous stories and our history of settler colonialism.” She said that we need more diversity in our curriculum, since “education is a form of action.”
The second faculty member I spoke with was Dr. Benjamin Su, the inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access at SHP. I asked him what he knew about Guam, and he said he knew about the Chamorro and its status as a military base under U.S. control. He mentioned that “the status of Guam under the United States is a form of post-colonial power.” He elaborated, saying he studied the topic of post-colonialism for his Ph.D. His key takeaway from his education is to remember that “we are shaped by the forces and power structures around us, even if we don’t realize it.” From there, I asked him why he thought mainland U.S. citizens, including those as educated on the topic as he was, knew so little about the island. He said “it’s obviously very geographically far, but unlike other Pacific Islands like those of Hawaii that are tourist destinations, no one visits it or knows about its culture.” I asked him what he thought we could do about it at SHP, and he smiled. “What if there was a class at the Prep where a quarter of the course was given to Native American history, a quarter was given to LatinX and Hispanic American history, a quarter to Black American history, and a quarter to Asian American and Pacific Islander history?” He disclosed that the school is “looking into [this] course, [which is] called Ethnic Studies. Public schools are required to have [this] by 2025-2026.” He stressed, however, that this would not be considered a replacement for AP United States History. “These stories and histories of these people…this is U.S. history.” He acknowledged that at SHP, we don’t talk about it as much as other Pacific Islands even in the Pacific Islander Affinity space.
So, I sat down with a leader of the affinity space, Ronessa Dorsi. I asked her what she knew about Guam and she admitted that she only learned about it when she read Craig Santos Perez’ Habitat Threshold in sophomore year. “No one really talks about Guam,” she said. She explained that the Pacific Islander Affinity space hardly discusses the island, since none of its members are from Guam.
So, what can we, as SHP students, do to make a difference? Well, you heard it from Harper: “education is a form of action.” So, do your own research, bring it up in class, discuss with your peers, and ensure you are aware of this topic in order to act and make a difference.
As we spoke, Su sat back and sighed. “This is why diversity is important,” he said. Even though the Chamorro population is small, even though they are thousands of miles away, they’re still U.S. citizens just like us, and thus their stories need to be told.
Their voices need to be heard, so it’s up to us to listen.

 

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