I was sitting here staring at this glaring white screen, trying to figure out what my first post should be about; there are so many things in life about which I feel passionately: art, music, animals, the environment, gaming, herbalism, crafting (specifically knitting, crocheting, and weaving with a minor amount of sewing), tea, just so many things… and it was hard to settle on any one topic that would announce my presence into the fathomless ether that is the internet while simultaneously holding some significance for me.
Then I remembered that one of my co-workers (the head of our Diversity program, actually) had approached me today because he was with a Spanish-speaking client and needed a translator.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” Yours Truly replied. He gave me an uncertain sort of laugh and then said, incredulously, “You don’t? Yes, you do – you’re messing with me.” “No,” I said with a shake of my head, “I really don’t. But she (pointing to a nearby co-worker who is of Caribbean and Mexican heritage) does.” “But she’s black!” he cried, as if Spanish speakers only come in shades of olive or brown (and let me just stop you here before you begin making disparaging remarks about the closed-mindedness of white American men: this particular co-worker is actually black, so… yes, closed-mindedness does come in all shades, genders, and colors). I called her over and she confirmed that, yes, she does speak Spanish, and that was the end of that. But later on in the day, he walked up to me and said, “I always assumed you were Puerto Rican or something. So… I have to ask: what are you?”
As offensive as being asked such a question can be at times, it’s still better than being asked if I have my green card, work visa, immigration paperwork, or – on one memorable occasion – asked by a boss whether I needed to take off from work to help my family protect our tribe in the Amazonian rain forest.
So, as the most common question I’ve ever run into in my thirty-something years on this planet, I find it fitting that it be here, at the beginning of all things. 🙂
What are You?
People need labels. I get it. We have to be able to quantify and identify everything – we can’t help it, we do it automatically, instinctively, without even thinking about it too much, really. Our eyes land on someone, and faster than lightning our CPUs are kicking out information based on data collected and compiled over our lifetimes.
No matter where I am, people have always been able to immediately register that I am part something – which in the United States typically means “Caucasian, plus something else.” In the Pacific Northwest, that “something else” is either Hawaiian, Native American, Filipino, or Japanese. In California and the Southwestern U.S., that “other” is Native American or Mexican. In the Midwest, it’s Puerto Rican, Greek, or Iranian. Northeasterners all guess wrongly with Japanese, Spanish, or Moroccan. And the South is just all sorts of confused, with Cuban, Kurdish, Mexican, Indian, Hawaiian, Native American, and – for the first and only times in my life – Cambodian and Laotian.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being part of any one of those groups – hell, you could be made up of all of those groups, and it wouldn’t matter to me. But, with the exception of a small fraction of Native American blood on my mother’s side, I belong to absolutely none of those groups. A fun truth about this world is that there is no such thing as a “pure” human race – we all share a common descent and are each the result of thousands of years of migration, conquest, climate changes, and social environments. But my entire genetic makeup is not what people are looking for. What they mean is what they will eventually work up the stones to just ask:
“What are you?”
And I answer as I have my whole life, and I trot out the entire explanation after years of having to correct people:
“I’m half-Chamorro, a Guamanian – which means I’m from Guam, which is an island out in the Pacific. No, it is not anywhere near Hawaii. It is further out, in the Marianas, which are situated between Australia and Japan.”
I used to try to use the Philippines as a landmark, but I’m sad to say that most people in the U.S. have no idea where that is, either. The general mentality is almost medieval, like the world is flat and forms a square that encompasses Mexico, the continental U.S., Canada, and only as far west as Hawaii, and beyond those borders There Be Dragons.
At any rate, that is my answer, and people tend to respond in one of the following ways:
“Hey, I know someone from Guatemala!”
“What does the Guamese language sound like?”
“Hey, I didn’t realize your name was Romanian!”
“Wow, I never would have known you weren’t from this country – you don’t even have an accent!”
“Oh, I / my relative / my friend was / is stationed at a base on Guam!”
With the exception of the last one, the rest can be laughed off… now. But when I was a child it was humiliating, as a teenager it was infuriating, and in my early twenties it was discouraging (I was just beginning to appreciate my nomadic upbringing and realize and accept that the problem was never with me but with them – to people who never step outside of their own bubbles, our tiny blue gem of a world seems as vast, limitless, and incomprehensible as space). And only recently have I been able to truly accept that people can’t know what they’re not told – I know, it seems obvious, but there it is.
What is All This Guamese Business?
CliffsNotes version: a Guamanian is a Chamorro from Guam, and the language of Guam is Chamorro. But it’s really much more than that.
What and Where is Guam?
That one’s actually the easiest question of the bunch, since I can just show you – we’re the largest and most southernmost island in the Marianas Archipelago (Guam is circled in red on the map below):
In Chamorro, the name of the island is actually Guåhan, from the word guaha, which means “have” – so the name of the island can loosely be translated into English as “We Have,” with the general idea being that the entire island was self-sufficient – the people who lived there had everything they needed.
Guam is an organized territory (Organic Act), which means its citizens are citizens of the United States and as such are not required to go through the immigration process or procure a visa or green card prior to coming to the continental U.S. They utilize U.S. currency and are subject to U.S. laws and federal taxes; however, the island has its own local tax system, which is managed by the Guam Department of Revenue and Taxation and is based on U.S. tax laws – this means people living on the island typically only file one return: either to Guam (if you’ve lived on the island for the full calendar year) or to the mainland. Because they are a territory, Guam’s citizens are prohibited from voting in federal elections, but because they are citizens of the U.S. by birth they are eligible for the draft – a sketchy rule my father (who lost an uncle in Vietnam, served in Vietnam himself, and after many years eventually retired from the Air Force) likes to sum up as: “We can volunteer to serve with them, we can be forced to die for them, but we get no say in whose policies we’re dying for.”
What makes this rule even more horrid is that Guam ranks higher than any other territory or state in its per capita enlistment rates: 1 out of every 20 residents of Guam is a military veteran, and the casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan have been 450% higher than the national average. Not to mention that one can fly to Asia from Guam in just a few hours, a fact that makes the island valuable for the U.S.’s military strategy (hence the large Air Force and Navy presences on the island) but which also puts Guam at risk from threats from both China and North Korea.
What is a Chamorro?
When talking about the people, the term “Chamorro” is a bit like the term “Native American”: it refers to someone who is of the race of the indigenous, native people of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (which includes the populated islands of Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Pagan). Thus, living in Guam doesn’t automatically make you Chamorro any more than living in America automatically makes you Native American.
The term “Chamorro” when used to describe a person is an ethnic identifier and something that will not change – if someone is Chamorro, they will always be Chamorro, no matter where they physically are in the world.
Then What Exactly is a Guamanian?
Because the term “Chamorro” can mean anyone from the Marianas, the term “Guamanian” is often and most commonly used to designate what sort of Chamorro a person is – a Chamorro person who was born on or whose family comes specifically from the island of Guam. To use the same analogy above, saying, “I’m Guamanian,” is like saying, “I’m Cherokee” rather than just saying, “I’m Native American.”
So, a Chamorro born and raised in Guam is a Guamanian, and so is a Chamorro who was born and raised in Colorado – provided their family comes from Guam. But a Chamorro from Saipan or whose family is from Saipan is not a Guamanian – they are a Chamorro and a Saipanese.
The term “Guamanian” is also used to describe anyone who is permanently residing on the island of Guam, regardless of their race or ethnic identity. The original Chamorro race now only makes up about half of the population of the island, so it’s not uncommon to find Japanese-Guamanians, Filipino-Guamanians, Korean-Guamanians, Samoan-Guamanians, etc.
What is the Language of Guam?
There are two official languages: Chamorro and English. The native language of Guam is Chamorro – the language of the Chamorro people, which is spoken throughout the Marianas. But the language of daily life is English.
The Chamorro language is considered a severely threatened one: before the capture of the island by the U.S., over 75% of the population of Guam was fluent in Chamorro; fast-forward about one-hundred years, and less than 20% of the Chamorro people actually speak their native language – and most of them are my father’s generation (aged 55+).
A lot of the original language was lost during Spanish colonization, when the native language began to mingle with that of its colonizers, resulting in quite a few words becoming part of the native tongue. But the language suffered its biggest defeat in Guam in 1917, when the U.S. government declared English the official language of the island and banned the use of the language for any purpose other than interpretation – dictionaries and books were burned, and the teaching of the language in schools was forbidden. The punishments that were used to dissuade and discourage people from speaking the language were not any better for children: each time a child was caught speaking Chamorro, he or she was given a citation, and at the end of the day any child who had a citation faced corporal punishment (though by 1930 the corporal punishment of children had been replaced with monetary fines). The Japanese maintained a similar policy during their violent occupation in WWII, and after the U.S. reclaimed the island in 1944, the island was forced to westernize, a process which continued to enforce disciplinary actions on those who dared to speak their native language.
The oppressive language restrictions were eventually lifted, but the damage was already done: the generations born from the 1940s onward were often raised in households where Chamorro was spoken only at home; those born after the 1970s were frequently raised in homes where only the older family members were fluent in the language, and lack of exposure and necessity made it increasingly difficult to pick up Chamorro as even a second language. My father had to get a new driver’s license in the late ’70s, and even then the Department of Motor Vehicles offered the written portion of the driving exam in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Tagalog – but not Chamorro. When Daddoo asked the civil servant behind the counter why the test couldn’t be taken “in our own language,” his fellow Guamanian sighed and replied in Chamorro: “English is here now, and this is the only way they’ll let us do it.”
Even now, almost 40 years after that moment, the language hasn’t recovered: my father and his siblings speak fluent Chamorro to one another, but I, my brother, and our cousins are not fluent – we know words here and there, some more choice than others, but we can’t carry on a conversation. There is good news for future generations, though: a law was instituted in 2013 to extend the teaching of Chamorro language and culture into grades 7 -10, and immersion schools have risen in the last decade to focus on the teaching of the language and cultural identity.
For those of us on the mainland with an interest in reclaiming our lost heritage, there are language-learning books, dictionaries, internet instructional videos, and Chamorro-language television programs available for free via the internet (like the soap opera Siha [“They”] for adults and Nihi! [“Let’s!”] for children), not to mention smartphone apps (like Speak Chamorro).
If you’re interested in learning more, I also have a growing list of Guam-related resources available here: Books, Websites, & More.