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Ask Joyce: What role does its pre-liberation history play in its culture?

  • Published
  • By Joyce Martratt
  • 36 WG
The taotaomonas (first people) were people of simplicity and resiliency on a lush island yet undiscovered by outside civilization. They survived on fish caught near shorelines and reef flats. They had gardens of root starches such as taro (in Chamorro it is "suni."), yams ("gaddo" and "dagu"), rice and breadfruit ("lemmai"). My mother, Rosario, used to tell us stories handed down how the early Chamorros were a happy lot, families helping families, healthy and living long lives. They were strong swimmers and expert navigators. Children were taught survival skills, i.e. making herbal medicine and lateen sail canoes, building homes, weaving, making tools and household utensils and fishing.

This period was disrupted when Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, sick and starving, came upon the island of Guam in 1521. The Chamorros were hospitable and fed and nurtured the Spanish soldiers. In a previous article I mentioned that the Chamorros, who were used to the one family tradition of "what's yours is mine," upon seeing iron on Magellan's ship, helped themselves to this shiny object. They saw the value of iron and how it could be used for tools. This incident brought about some Chamorros' demise. The Chamorros did not understand the hostility of the Spanish. What used to be an island of peace became an island "discovered" by the Spanish for Queen Marianna of Austria.

During the 300 years of Spanish rule, many Chamorro men were killed because the Spanish feared their retaliation. Chamorros became Roman Catholics after instructions from Jesuit padres from Spain--one, who was murdered for baptizing the daughter of the Chief Quipuha of Agana, was Padre San Vitores. Guam and its people were considered spoils of war after the Spanish-American war when Spain ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. Guam and the Chamorros went under American rule, or more specifically, under U.S. Navy control. Chamorros were introduced to new lifestyles and food habits. Some were for the better and some conflicted with the Chamorro culture. Those were the days when Chamorros became subservient; once free to enjoy their lands and environment, they were expected to bow their heads whenever they passed a member of the new command. The Chamorros adjusted but with the hope their lives would become better.

Then came WWII. The island was bombed and taken over by Japan. The Chamorros once again were forced into another way of life and more hardships. Their food was confiscated by the new rulers and the struggle to survive continued. Many were forced to build airfields, roads and trenches. Many were punished brutally and some were beheaded.
My mother, uncles and aunts were among those who were under forced labor. Their experiences were related to us, the children, and the lesson they passed on was to always be thankful for the peace we enjoy, the food we have, not to lose respect for others and not to hate. Whatever scars they have on their bodies and within served as reminders of those years.
Much of their perspective was affected by Japanese-run concentration camps; the largest group were forced to walk to Manenggon Hills in Yona, a walk they say that was like eternity. By the time people from most of central and northern Guam reached Manenggon Hills, many had died on the roadside--those who couldn't make it. The walk became agonizing--thirst and hungar, rain and mud became intermingled in the minds and bellies of the people.
My uncles were carrying their mother (my grandmother) on a platform--she was bedridden. Once at Manenggon, it was a relief to not walk but collapse on grass and dirt. Coconut meat and juice became something to quench the thirst and the hunger. Then fear became a factor once more and the people prayed when a machine gun was set up to target the prisoners.
The next American period came on 21 July 1944 when Guam was recaptured and Chamorros who made it through were liberated. The Chamorros welcomed such items as canned foods with great thanksgiving. Lifestyles and food habits changed. Here it is 2007 and as Americans, Chamorros have adopted many of the Western lifestyles and food habits and interwined those with Chamorro culture.

What I have just written is not all inclusive but bits and pieces of the Chamorro experiences-- those who died because of their protection of the stars and stripes--their beliefs of American ideals and democracy. These continue today as many of Guam's sons and daughters are doing just that - fighting for you and me.

si Joyce I. Martratt

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