Navy Letters & Christmas in the Marianas
In this Christmas season of joy and celebration, I look forward to the many family gatherings, seeing my favorite uncles, aunts and cousins that have been in hiding for many months, the exchanging of gifts and all the parties, the lights and our island-way Christmas spectacle as we indulge day in and day out on the great foods, sweet treats and ice chest full of drinks that the special Christmas holiday brings every year.
I look forward to the special masses and excited to bump into old friends at church as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ into our earthly world on Christmas Day.
Though a somber year for my family, as we pray for our dear loved ones who passed this December month and for my dear brother-in-law who passed last month, it’s also a special Christmas season for my family as we are blessed by our late brother and sister’s son Franklin Villanueva’s announcement of his faithful dream to pursue priesthood.
Indeed a special Christmas celebration it is for the Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands to have a young son in pursuit of a very admirable vocation; also welcoming back home another Chamorro son, James Balajadia, who grew up in the islands, still speaks our native Chamorro tongue and who was just ordained a priest at 25 years old in our homeland of Saipan this Christmas month. A historical occasion it is for the Catholic community of our islands to have our 7th native Chamorro priest from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands serve the Lord and his faithful peoples in our islands.
As I sat in awe at the Immaculate Concepcion mass service the other evening, adoring Santa Maria’s beautiful white-laced dress, the display of fresh red roses lining her float, and the jammed packed Cathedral filled with parishioners from all over the island, I couldn’t help give thanks to the Lord for allowing us as a peoples to freely express our religious beliefs in the house of God, together as one very diverse community in our peaceful island paradise.
My mind escaped me as I started thinking about the riots in Ferguson, the senseless atrocities of war and terror in the Middle East and the destruction of Catholic churches in China. Despite what we read and hear in the news, we’re quite isolated from the world’s turmoil in the islands and we certainly do take our freedoms, rights and American values for granted.
As I sat at mass service, I questioned the pride of the Chamorro people as Americans. As proud and dedicated we are of our Catholic faith, why are we as indigenous peoples not as whole-heartedly proud of our American identity? The “American or Americanu” is still referred to the white man. I haven’t met a Chamorro identifying himself as Chamorro-American yet.
Shamefully, these were my very thoughts during mass service. Perhaps such thoughts were infused by my recent studies of my Chamorro people’s history and plight.
The Chamorro people’s “transformation” as Americans dates far back to the early 1900s when the U.S. gave the U.S. Navy governing powers over Guam, the southern-most island of the Marianas.
In fact, it was this very U.S. contact with the island of Guam that restricted the Chamorro people’s personal and religious freedoms and way of life as native peoples — regulating our religious fiesta celebrations, the ringing of our church bells, the use of our native Chamorro language and even the whistling of our peoples in our own villages.
Drifting off to a tangent, my mind leaped further into history as I thought of the reign of terror and the most violent history of the Chamorro people; who were killed and held captive in our own islands during the Spanish period in the 1600s, and, ironically, all in the name of our dear Catholic religion.
The Spanish Catholic mission to “civilize” and transform the “hearts and minds” of my ancestors into Christians, however, was welcomed with great resistance and more than 20 years of warfare by the ancient Chamorros; resulting in thousands of Chamorro lives lost, death to Spanish priests and soldiers.
With the first church established on the island of Guam in the 1660s, the Catholic religion evidently, still prevails as the dominant religion in our islands today, with beautiful and great big churches in almost all our villages.
Ironically, the colonial power of America also forcefully and rabidly transformed “the bodies and minds” of the Chamorro people in our islands. In their quest to transform the “paltry existence” and “impoverished, ignorant, and superstitious” people, the U.S. used the power of language, the English language, to Americanize the Chamorros. Interestingly, this transformation was documented in U.S. Navy letters and other naval records when the U.S. took over the island of Guam after the Spanish-American War.
In fact, it was only recently when I discovered this piece of our history. I stumbled upon a news article just a few weeks ago publicizing the newly released Pacific Rim Inquiry journal article entitled, “Navy Blues: US Naval Rule on Guam and the Rough Road to Assimilation, 1898–1941” by Anne Perez Hattori. Hattori skillfully researched and examined the cache of U.S Navy records documenting their efforts and so called “achievements” to “transform the bodies and minds” of the natives into healthy and
patriotic Americans and more specifically, to transform them so that they patriotically serve the Navy soldiers’ needs in our islands. The Navy Letters also documented using English during Christmas pageants and other special holidays to encourage and develop the Chamorro children’s “powers of expression and to exercise in public their knowledge of English.”
Through the teaching of the English language, the need to make the natives healthy, patriotic and productive was essential in order to “ultimately enable them to serve the Navy in jobs with salaries that were substantially lower than that paid to whites,” some of letters revealed.
Fast forward to the year 2014, the English language is now the first language and for most, the only language of our young generation of Chamorros, and the main language spoken in our churches, our schools, our government functions and our homes. Hundreds of our sons and daughters are serving in the U.S. military and also have died in war to fight for our freedoms and American way of life. Our people pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and we celebrate our Christmas season with Santa Claus and the lighting up of our Christmas trees.
Catholicism still remains very strong and alive in the hearts and minds of the indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands and though the “bodies and minds” of our peoples have successfully been transformed to adopt the American way of life, I question the United States’ success in transforming the “hearts” of the Chamorro peoples as Americans.
I can’t help pointing out the sense of ambivalence and bitter-sweet sentiment that exists among the Chamorro people of our American roots and identity. But why is it that we’re indifferent to our Catholic religious roots when it was the cruelest and most brutal time for us as a people?
Perhaps it is true that time heals all wounds. The Chamorro people have been in our homeland of the Marianas for 4,000 years, our Catholic roots dates back over four centuries, while our American roots only a little over a century; with the first American contact in 1898 for the Chamorros of Guam and the year 1944 for the Chamorro and Carolinian indigenous peoples of the Northern Mariana Islands.
So will it really be a matter of time until the “hearts” of the Chamorros be won as proud Americans, despite our revived awareness that the very American values we’re fighting for and taking for granted, and the U.S. relationship, laws and policies that stretch across the contiguous United States and into the vast Pacific Ocean where our 15 island chain are located may be the very culprit of our eventual demise and hence, extinction of our Chamorro identity, language and existence in our own homeland?
Time will tell of our fate as Chamorro people and as Americans in our ancestral homeland of the Mariana Islands. God blessed us with the birth of Christ on Christmas day so he can save humanity from sin and for which Christ sacrificed his life for. Giving up our identity and homelands as indigenous peoples may be our ultimate sacrifice in the name of protecting and upholding our American values.
So I write my thoughts this Christmas season in the Marianas and pray for a greater understanding and appreciation of the world and the forces around us. “In God is our trust,” I pray for foresight, courage, and
perseverance as we rediscover, nurture and perpetuate our humanity as a peoples — each with unique cultures, customs, languages, histories and identity. I pray that the birth of Jesus Christ that we celebrate on Christmas day blesses us all with the virtues of love, compassion, peace and strength as we carry on his good work and vocation, especially for the suffering, the poor, those in war and those lost as a peoples.
God bless, si Yu’us ma’asi’, Olomwaay, Merry Christmas yan Felis Pasgua!!!