Time warped in Guam

I thought it was a great luxury and a welcome break to be invited to speak at a gathering of the University of the Philippines alumni in Guam.  I had never traveled to this part of the Pacific.  I had heard stories of entire barrios in Pampanga being transplanted virtually to Guam.  I was curious to know what life was like in an island in the middle of nowhere, so small that only a dot represents its land mass on a standard world map.

Armed with these thoughts, I flew east one evening last week and found myself in a place that could have been the Philippines had our ancestors chosen not to fight Spain and America. Everywhere I turned I saw relatives, town mates, and school mates from long ago, materializing like ghosts from a distant time horizon.  They spoke a provincial language with a distinctive accent that I associate with my childhood years.

I went to a Guamanian cockpit on the last night of my visit, and marveled at the sight and sound of bettors that I swear could have come straight from a Sunday sabong in Guagua.  I looked at the grown-up men and women I knew as children, and tried to imagine the youths that lay beneath their weather-beaten faces.  They spoke of friendships and adventures that happened nearly a half century ago. They inquired about relatives and mutual friends that have long passed on to another world.

Many came to the UP gathering to hear me speak on the Philippine Centennial.  After a sumptuous dinner of Filipino dishes, the program opened with a brief invocation, followed by the singing of the national anthem.  A young Filipina went up the stage and, a cappella, proceeded to sing a tune I had heard as a child but did not quite expect at a UP reunion – the anthem of the United States of America.

Before I could recover from the jolt, another lady quickly followed with Bayang Magiliw, and ended with Guam’s moving anthem in Chamorro language.  That eerie succession of patriotic hymns, I thought, dramatically summarized Guam’s unique situation as a society — an American protectorate, inhabited by white, Afro, and Asian Americans; postwar Filipino immigrants, and descendants from the ancient intermixture of the races: native Chamorro islanders, Spanish missionaries and soldiers, and Filipino artisans and servants from the age of colonial conquest.  

Four Guamanian senators came to join the UP alumni party that evening: Senators Salas, Unpingco, Lamorena, and Kasperbauer. Except for Kasperbauer, who is white, I assumed the rest were Filipinos.  It turned out that only Lamorena could speak a little Filipino, and only he was conscious of his Filipino ancestry.  The rest were as non-Filipino as the Caucasian senator.  Even so, they listened intently as I spoke about the events in the past that linked the destinies of our two nations.

Guam was a favorite place of exile during the Spanish times.  Many of those arrested in connection with the 1872 Cavite Mutiny were sent there.  After the Americans hastily took over the island in 1898, they continued the practice of banishing “irreconcilables” to this islandprison in the heart of the Pacific Ocean.  Apolinario Mabini spent two years here in 1901 for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to the American colonial authority.  Eighty-five years later, Marcos landed here on February 26,1986 on the first leg of a life of exile that was to be  spent entirely in Hawaii.

Guam is, in every way, almost like Hawaii.  One needs a US visa to enter it.  But, unlike Hawaii, it is not a state of the USA.  Its residents are regarded as American citizens. They hold US passports and have the right to move to any part of the US mainland, but they cannot vote for the American president.  In a different age, using a different vocabulary, one would call Guam a colony.   That is tantamount to accusing the US of committing the gravest of all anachronisms: maintaining a colony in an era of free nations and globalization.

Employment in Guam revolves basically around three major centers of activity: the US Navy and Air Force, which occupies roughly one-third of the island; the government of Guam, and the thriving tourist industry.  Agriculture is limited to backyard farming, and there is no manufacturing sector or heavy industry.  Tourism makes Guam different from other communities shaped completely by  the needs of a military base.  Even so, the island is far from being self-sustaining; Guam is battered by powerful typhoons every year, and without generous US federal assistance, it would be very difficult to keep its modern  infrastructure system in fine shape.

There is a vocal Chamorro autonomy movement that roots itself in the proud pre-contact traditions of the island.  Yet it is doubtful if it could ever muster a majority in favor of independence should a referendum on the status of the island be held.  Most residents are content to possess American passports that allow them to relocate elsewhere in the US if island living should become unbearable.  They are not burdened by emotional attachment to place, a sensibility which grows in proportion to one’s identification with a nation’s past.

At the farewell lunch tendered by the Filipino Community of Guam, UP Alumni president Jef Demeterio gave me a wonderful gift: “Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam” authored by Professor Robert F. Rogers of the University of Guam.  I started to read it as soon as my flight took off, and could not put it down until I reached Manila.  Guam’s history uncannily parallels ours, but with one crucial difference — Guam remained in American hands, but we persisted and won back this archipelago, and with it, the soul of our nation.


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