A Reflection from the Chamoru Diaspora

By: Clarissa Mendiola
Our Island, Region, World
Photo courtesy of Natalie Santos Velasco

Approaching this essay, I feel it’s necessary to begin with an admission: I don’t know. My not knowing, my hesitance to embrace agency, stems from fear of not being Chamoru enough. My imposter syndrome is bred by the colonization of our people over hundreds of years, compounded by generational trauma inflicted by every imperialist who stole our ancestral land, beat our language from our mouths, and worked tirelessly to convince our people that we are not worthy. So, if I have the privilege of representing our perspective, if my voice is chosen to be amplified when our people have been silenced for generations, everything is at stake. I want to get it right, and I accept that for many, I simply will not. To be a Chamoru person in diaspora is to begin conversations about identity with a disclaimer. 

As a Chamoru person who was both born and raised off island, I feel I cannot speak with authority on issues concerning Guåhan and its people whose lived experience as a modern day colony is felt on every level, every single day, on island. I am moved by the passion, the heartache, the anger, the fortitude of those fighting on the front lines for the self-determination of Guåhan and for the collective liberation of the Chamoru people. Yet I cannot speak to that experience, because it is not mine. I suppose this is why I am partial to poetry, because poetry, as most art does, starts with the individual. And that is something I can do — I can speak from my own life, do the work of decolonizing my experience in my particular corner of the world, and I can invite you into that journey on the chance that it resonates with even just a few. My dear friend, community organizer, teacher and activist Kerri Ann Borja once reminded me in a moment of self doubt, “There’s no one way to contribute to the movement.” Pure heart, genuine love for our people, and a hunger to learn is where I begin.

To be a Chamoru person raised off island is to feel foreign no matter where you are — in the states where your ethnic ambiguity begs questioning among friends and coworkers, where you can count on being the only Chamoru person in a room in almost every context outside of your own family. How many times have we found ourselves pointing at a map to prove our existence, not just to the average American, but to ourselves? To be a Chamoru person raised off-island is to also feel foreign on the land your ancestors tilled, to have the sense that you are always only visiting, if you have the privilege to do so, and that your roundtrip ticket must inevitably take you back to another place you hesitate to call home.

My own children now mark the second generation of my family to be born away from Guåhan. I can feel the vastness of the Pacific more than ever. To be an islander in diaspora is to know distance. Back home my nånan biha would say. Back home my mom says. Back home is a refrain I simply don’t have the voice to sing. So, how then can my generation of off-island Chamorus stay connected, and how do we make our heritage and our people’s fight for self-determination real for our children? 

I believe that we must first address another question, one more foundational in nature, one to inspire the swell that might carry us further: How can I be a good ancestor? 

Consider the relevance of this inquiry. The earliest Chamoru people venerated their ancestors as living spirits that existed beyond death. They relied on those spirits for guidance in their everyday lives. Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua theorizes that this system of spirituality translated organically when Catholic missionaries introduced their saints. How might the generations that follow invoke our guidance? To be a good ancestor I have to consider what I am doing in my life, in this moment, to ease the journey for future generations. It is an obligation that we all inherit as Chamoru people. I accept that the response to this question must be answered again and again over a lifetime. 

As an off-island Chamoru I appreciate the effort of a Guam seal decal on a car, a t-shirt, a tattoo, sharing a post to an Instagram story. They are homing beacons calling our siblings to us. We must next consider: once arrived, what kind of community will we create? Luckily, in the age of the internet and social media, we have more help than ever. There are communities of fellow Chamorus awaiting our voices, our contributions. Trust that I am heeding this advice as I dole it out. Throughout most of my childhood I was a timid, average student, and I most certainly was not a joiner. I always joked in college that I was a second row student, interested but not inspired or confident enough for the first row. When I began to consider what it meant to be a good ancestor, it necessitated a complete shift. I had to put myself out there, I had to risk putting my imposter syndrome on display in order to work through it — so I could confidently plant in my sons the seeds of pride in and commitment to our people. So that they never have to question who they are, so that they are equipped to consider their own ancestorhood as they form their identities and grow up to serve our communities. 

While my Chamoru heritage was always visible throughout my childhood in the presence of a tightly knit immediate and extended family, regular fiestas, in the sounds of my nånan biha and her siblings talking story in Chamoru, my cultural awakening truly began as an MFA candidate in a graduate writing program here in San Francisco. A mentor asked me what it was that I cared about, and as I meditated on the question, I kept having the same memory: sitting at my nånan biha’s bedside in the months before she passed, an ocean away from the island of her birth, quietly listening to her speak Chamoru to my mom. I didn’t understand a single word, and with her passing, I lost the opportunity to ask her to teach me. It’s a loss I feel in my bones, one now inherited by my own children. As the years went on, I explored in my writing the experience of being Chamoru in diaspora — of longing for connection, of learning about the history of our people, of being winded by all of the pain I uncovered, of wanting to find both roots to ground me, and waves to carry me home. There in all of my work, underneath words carefully plotted across the page, is my memory of nånan biha speaking our beautiful language in her last moments on earth. 

Slowly, and with a humble and open spirit I began to reach out, creating connections with other Chamoru people in diaspora who were on a similar path of reclaiming our heritage, learning our language, creating art, and ultimately decolonizing our understanding of what it means to be Chamoru. Today, this effort is facilitated by the omnipresence of social media, which for all of its deplorable qualities, has bridged the distance between those of us in diaspora aching for a sense of community, place, home. 

I write this as the world commemorates one year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, which, amidst all of the tragedy and loss, created opportunities for connection within Chamoru communities. One of the most palpable examples is the weekly, free Chamoru language class taught by Dr. Bevacqua on island that went virtual during the pandemic, thus creating an opportunity for Chamoru people around the world to engage in the necessary work of language learning and revitalization. The community developed through these weekly classes spurred the creation of regularly held language practice groups, book clubs, a language learning group for children, a Chamoru language pen pal club, and countless friendships that exist to defy the distances that separate us. I’m reminded of human rights attorney Julian Aguon’s piece, “My Mother’s Bamboo Bracelets: A Handful of Lessons on Saving the World,” in which he declares “… no offering is too small. No stone unneeded.” And it is in that spirit that off-island Chamoru people can connect to our shared heritage and to the movement toward decolonization and self-determination. Accept that not everyone is meant for the bullhorn, and embrace that your chosen contribution — whether it is language learning, raising socially conscious indigenous children, making art, learning your elders’ stories, creating spaces for healing — is vital to our collective liberation, but first you must choose it. I wonder what might happen if all Chamoru people across the globe simultaneously asked of ourselves what it means to be a good ancestor — imagine the energy we could create, shining like stars scattered across a boundless sky, guiding the way home. 
Our Island, Region, World