What is a Constitution?

By: Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
Issues and Perspectives
Constitution Public Education Program flyer, 1979. Courtesy of the Guam Public Library System. 

For a research writing class I taught at the University of Guam, I had my students focus their research on constitutions. First, they had to pick a country and research how the country’s constitution was written and what it contained. They were not allowed to pick the U.S. Constitution, as it was the one they had all already been familiar with having largely been educated in Guåhan’s American-centric school system. The students were amazed to see how other peoples, some of them victims of colonization just like us, had crafted constitutions that represented their unique identity and values; directly responded to historical injustices; and    clearly outlined the things they wanted to protect and the rights they wanted to ensure everyone had. 

The culminating project for the course was to collectively draft a constitution for Guåhan that was rooted in research they had done about the island’s history and our people’s desires for the future. They worked in groups and each group drafted a different section of the constitution. At the end of the course, they presented their draft constitution to then Governor Eddie Calvo. 

Governor Calvo was amazed to see what the students had included and remarked that when he imagined a constitution for Guåhan, he immediately thought of modeling it after the U.S. Constitution, with a bill of rights as its main feature. But the students had wanted sections for the environment, for culture, for access to health care, for economic justice and more. They were excited to share what they had learned about the constitutions they had researched throughout the world and how our constitution could be so much more than simply a model of the U.S. Constitution. 

The United States is just one of nearly two hundred independent nations that have their own constitutions and unique ways of governing themselves based on their distinct needs. As my students discovered, it is critical to our decolonization that we see past the limitations of our colonial status and look to the world for a greater vision of what is possible.  

A constitution provides a legal and political foundation for a country. It lays out the basic principles and values for a community. It is the blueprint for what the country’s government will look like — how society will be shaped and the rights granted to every citizen. 

In thinking about a constitution for Guåhan, we shouldn’t only use the U.S. Constitution as a template. To do so would continue the colonization of the CHamoru people and their lands. We have to think outside the American box when considering what a constitution can be. 

The U.S. Constitution, when it was written, expounded lofty rhetoric about rights, liberties and equality, but in truth these rights were primarily limited to white men. As more and more historically oppressed groups sought equal rights, the Constitution was amended to grant these rights, but it took decades of community organizing, demonstrations and legal actions to make it possible. 

Many may have a misconception that constitutions are sacred and shouldn’t be changed. For the U.S. federal government this is certainly true. Despite the many issues that plague the U.S. today, its constitution hasn’t been amended since the early 1990s, and the last real fundamental change to it was in the 1970s when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age across the country to 18 from 21. 

Elsewhere in the world, however, as new challenges emerge or as a country evolves, its constitution evolves as well. Some countries, when facing problems with government corruption, have gone so far as revamping their constitutions in the name of reducing or preventing these abuses of power. 

In many countries with constitutions shaped after a period of decolonization, the oppression experienced during colonization was written into the constitution as critical to the country’s ability to move forward without repeating the injustices of the past. 

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, for example, was drafted following the end of apartheid, which had allowed a white minority to violently suppress a black majority. As the country ended apartheid, it underwent a process of truth and reconciliation that informed the   their new constitution. Into the constitution’s preamble, they recognized the injustices of the past; honored those who had suffered for justice and freedom; and recognized that the constitution itself, which granted equality to all, would function to, “Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.” 

Many constitutions were drafted as a result of constitutional conventions that were inclusive of all voices from the community. This helped to guarantee that the needs of the community were addressed in the constitution. Thus, access to health care and education are critical components of constitutions throughout the world and there are many examples in these constitutions that can help to inspire an equally inclusive process for Guåhan. 

Thus, I cannot express enough the need for Guåhan to do just as my students did when it comes time for us to finally craft our own constitution — research constitutions from throughout the world; understand the unique history and needs of our community; and work collaboratively to ensure our constitution truly allows for a just future for the people of our island. 

It is also critical that before Guåhan begins this process, the CHamoru people whose right to determine their political future was taken away as a result of centuries of colonialism first be allowed to choose their desired political status. The constitution should follow an act of CHamoru self-determination. Once this has occurred, then the community can come together to design a fair and inclusive process for drafting the constitution so that future governing document can truly serve to protect both the human rights of all who call Guåhan home and the indigenous rights of the CHamoru people. 

Lastly, we must always remember that a constitution is meant to be ours. Iyo-ta. We can be inspired by the examples of others, but we shouldn’t be forced to fit into someone else’s model. Our constitution has to reflect us, what is important to us and what we want for our children and their children’s children. Hita la’mon
Issues and Perspectives