Signs of being

Chamoru poetry and the work of Cecilia C. T. Perez

Artwork by Aaron Nicholson.

Where do we go from here? We are in uncharted waters, or maybe in familiar waters, unable to recognize the signs that show the way. Am I a navigator? Am I the navigator? Are we moving? Are the islands moving? Have we been following the navigator, so well-guided we don’t even know the navigator is here?

— Cecilia C. T. Perez, Signs of Being

Located in the northwest Pacific Ocean, the Mariana archipelago consists of fifteen islands, including Rota, Tinian, Saipan, and Guam, and is the homeland of the Chamoru people. For an introduction to the literature of the archipelago, the scholarship of Robert Tenorio Torres is a good place to start. His three essays, “Pre-Contact Mariana Folklore, Legends, and Literature” (2003), “Colonial and Conquest Lore of the Marianas” (2003), and “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas” (2004), stand as the most sustained critical commentaries in the field and the first serious attempts to articulate a Marianas literature. In the latter essay, Torres defines the “modern literary tradition” of the region as post-1940s writing by both Chamoru and non-Chamoru writers who write in and about the Marianas.[1]

Torres not only analyzes the most visible works by Chamorus; he also examines representations of the Marianas by outsiders, tracing what Paul Lyons terms “American Pacificism” in the Marianas (2006).[2] An important source for Torres’s commentaries is Mark Skinner’s “Contemporary Micronesian Literature: A Preliminary Bibliography” (1990), the first bibliography of Micronesian literature (of which Marianas literature is a geo-literary subcategory). Skinner lists approximately 800 works published since World War II by nearly 400 indigenous and nonindigenous writers.[3]

I hope to modestly contribute to this ongoing mapping of Chamoru poetry. This essay presents a noncomprehensive listing of poetic works, providing an overview of post-1960 Chamoru poetry. I then provide an extended analysis of Cecilia C. T. Perez’s cross-genre work Signs of Beings: A Chamoru Spiritual Journey (1997), one of the most important works of contemporary Chamoru poetry. I emphasize the interrelationship between Perez’s decolonial politics, aesthetic tactics, and multilingual crossings as she explores the major themes of Pacific poetics: indigenism, colonialism, tourism, militarization, missionization, and historiography.

*

Many of Skinner’s citations are drawn from literary journals produced by the University of Guam (UOG): Xanadu, Xanadu II, and Storyboard. Xanadu, published in 1966, featured work by students and faculty members of Chamoru and non-Chamoru descent. The journal was resurrected from 1981 to 1983 as Xanadu II. Dating from the same period as the first publication of Xanadu, one of the earliest Chamoru poetry books is Juan A. Sanchez’s History’s Four Dark Days: An Ode in Honor of the Late John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1965). This epic ode, comprised of sixty-eight quatrains, is written in Chamoru but includes an English translation by Father Andrew San Agustin. Sanchez expresses his fond feelings for President Kennedy as an ally of the Pacific nations, as well his sadness over Kennedy’s death.[4]

In the nineties, San Francisco–based writer P. C. Muñoz published two books of poetry, currently out of print and unavailable for review: The Daily Balance (1991) and Half-Truths (1995). The university also began production of Storyboard: A Journal of Pacific Imagery, published 1991–2001, 2006, and 2009 (currently in electronic format). This journal featured works by many Chamoru writers, including Anne Perez-Hattori, Cecilia Perez, Muñoz, Keith Camacho, and Tina Taitano deLisle. Recent issues include seasoned writers Peter R. Onedera and Evelyn Flores, as well as younger writers Kisha Borja-Quichocho, Fanai Castro, and Michael Lujan Bevaqcua, to name a few.

The heavy reference to university journals and unavailable titles in Skinner’s and Torres’s work, and in my own list here, illustrates that while many important books of Chamoru poetry are out of print, many other works have yet to be printed in book form. Recent anthologies have addressed themselves to this dual difficulty. Chamoru Childhood, coedited by Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Victoria Leon Guerrero, and myself, was published by Achiote Press in 2009. This anthology features poetry and prose by seventeen Chamoru writers. The Space Between: Negotiating Culture, Place, and Identity in the Pacific (2009), edited by Marata Tamaira and published by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, presents several poems by Chamoru writers Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Kisha Borja-Kicho’cho’, and Angela T. Hoppe-Cruz. As of this writing, an anthology of Micronesian literature is being edited by Evelyn Flores and Emelihter Kihleng; it will include an ample selection of Chamoru writing.

It is clear that this situation is changing: besides myself, at least two other Chamoru poets have received MFAs in the United States: Clarissa Mendiola (California College of the Arts, 2009) and Lehua Taitano (University of Montana, 2010). In 2008, Hawai‘i-based Tinfish Press published my first book of poems, from unincorporated territory [hacha]. My second book of poems, from unincorporated territory [saina], was published in 2010 by California-based Omnidawn Publishing. In both works, I attempt to capture my grandparents’ experiences during World War II as well as my own experience growing up in Guam and living in California. Much of my work also explores the devastating impact of U.S. colonialism on Guam’s environment and culture.

Further, in recent years, the spoken-word scene on Guam has blossomed. In particular, the Sinangan-ta Poetry Slam was created in 2005 by Jovan Tamayo, Kie Susuico, and Melvin Won Pat-Borja. Sinangan-ta (“our spoken words”) is the only spoken word and slam poetry event on the island. According to Won Pat-Borja: “Spoken word poetry is a way for our people to reconnect with the oral traditions that our ancestors practiced centuries ago. It may look a little different with stages and microphones, but it is still a vehicle that allows us to share our stories, songs, and histories.”[5]

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One of the most important Chamoru writers is Cecilia Catherine Taitano Perez, also known as “Lee” Perez and “Hagan Ita” (Daughter of Ita or Blood of Ita). In 1997, Perez published her master’s thesis, Signs of Being: A Chamoru Spiritual Journal, with the University of Hawai‘i’s Center of Pacific Islands Studies. Comprised of poetry, prose and commentary, this cross-genre, multilingual book is described by Perez as “a documentary in the form of creative writing, on the politics of cultural identity and historical memory in the process of decolonization of the Chamoru mind and senses. It is written from the self-reflexive view of an indigenous Chamoru woman writer from Guam, whose sense of physical sight is blurred.” Her journey through a “Chamoru mindscape” travels across five chapters, or what Perez calls “passages”: Hinasso (Reflection), Finakmata (Awakening), I Fina’pos (Familiar Surroundings), Lala’chok (Taking Root), and I Senedda (Finding Voice).[6]

In one of the opening poems, “As I Turn the Pages,” Perez depicts the invisibility of Chamoru people in western-authored histories of Guam. According to the commentary that follows the poem, the speaker was sitting in the theatre at UOG, listening to a lecture given by a history professor on “romantic and tragic” portrayals of Guam’s history:

In the drama
of what is called,
“The History of Guam,”
             severed from
sister homeland,
Northern Marianas,
the stage is set: 

sleepy
colonial
island,
Nanyo, extension of Nippon,
and
bastion of American democracy. 

One of many scenes
is played:

Foreign actors walk in
float in      fly in     bomb in
inseminate into
the passive props. (4)

Here, Perez asserts that Chamoru invisibility is a part of the colonially constructed narrative of Chamoru history, in which Chamorus were considered “passive props” in the struggle between various colonial powers to claim Guam. This narrative begins in the seventeenth century after Guam was “discovered” by Magellan and Spain colonized the Marianas. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and sold the remaining northern islands to Germany. Japan occupied the Northern Marianas in 1914, and a League of Nations mandate recognized Japanese control. In 1941, Japan invaded and occupied Guam for three years; however, the U.S. recaptured Guam in 1944 and occupied the Northern Marianas.[7] Guam, again, became a possession of the U.S., while the Northern Marianas came under U.S. control through a mandate from the United Nations (the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands). In 1950, Guam became an “unincorporated territory” of the U.S., a status unchanged to this day. The Northern Mariana Islands became a commonwealth of the U.S. in the late seventies, thus cementing the severing of the Mariana Islands and the Chamoru people-cum-“passive props.”

Perez’s poem continues with the speaker remembering how she’s “turned those pages” of history, often ending up at these words: “‘And in the end …’ / ‘in one final gasp of life …’ / ‘the last Chamorro died’” (5). The poem ends:

then,
who am I
who know
my    self
to be
Chamoru,
and how is it
I sit here
thinking?” 

The speaker herself is proof that Chamorus survived four centuries of colonialism, despite the “fatal impact” thesis of many historical texts. This theme of cultural survival is further articulated in a prose essay, “Signs of Being — A Chamoru Spiritual Journey,” which appears in the second section (Finakmata): 

I always come back to the idea of cultural survival. We are here. We are now. But what is it that brought us, as a people, to this point? Despite years of governance by colonial powers, our language and our ways persevere. We are not pickled, preserved, or frozen in time. We are not measurable or validated by blood quantum, ethnic breakdown, physical characteristics or DNA. We are vital, and vitalized by our tenacity and joined inner strength.

It is not in words spoken that we have been taught, but rather in the silent teachings of our Saina. What we learn is to open ourselves to the “collective memory” of our People who came before us and help us to move ahead — I Taotaomo’na. They show us how to remain in spiritual love and connectedness with each other and our homelands.

Where do we go from here? We are in uncharted waters, or maybe in familiar waters, unable to recognize the signs that show the way. Am I a navigator? Am I the navigator? Are we moving? Are the islands moving? Have we been following the navigator, so well-guided we don’t even know the navigator is here?

With my diminishing eyesight, I try to expand my vision. I have stopped looking for signs and started feeling for signs. The islands are moving, and we are being guided. I felt my first wave, felt my first star and felt my first island here in recent memory. (24)

This essay morphs into literary nonfiction, and the speaker describes a trip to the neighboring northern island of Luta (Rota) with a friend. They walk through a Latte quarry site. Latte are stone monoliths constructed with a vertical pillar and a bowl-like capstone that our ancestors used as the foundations to various buildings, such as homes and canoe houses. Latte sites house ancestral spirits, and Chamorus consider these places sacred. The speaker’s friend, Lina, leans down to a fallen capstone and asks in Chamoru: “Guella yan Guello, hafa na ti un na’fonhayan i che’cho’-miyu? What happened to make you leave your work?” The speaker believes that the fallen Latte is a sign: “It is from within the row of Latte that we feel our strength. It is the severed capstone that gives us Their message, “Ti monhayon I che’cho. We will not rest until the Latte is whole” (26).

Throughout Perez’s work, she implores Chamorus to listen to our ancestors struggling to speak through the silencing effects of colonialism. The poem “Kafe Mulinu” (Ground Coffee) begins with a “we” drinking coffee in our modern homes:

Venetian-blinded windows
encase us in
conditioned air
conditioned minds
and keep us from seeing
keep us from feeling
the surrounding sesonyan. (17)

Perez draws a link between the air conditioning of modernization and the mind conditioning of colonialism. Because of this dual conditioning, Chamorus are blinded from seeing the surrounding “sesonyan,” or wetlands, which have been “poured thick” with concrete. The moment of bilingualism in the poem is important because it signals a momentary return to seeing the indigenous surroundings. Another Chamoru word propels the next stanza:

Taotaomo’na,
our beloved ancestors
wail.
Cries from the past
whirl in the present
are hurled at our presence
but only blow at us
like a whisper.

Taotaomo’na, Chamoru ancestors, begin to wail following the linguistic invocation of “sesonyan.” The past haunts the present of our surviving presence — but do we hear their voices over the hum of the air conditioner? Perez mourns: “We leave Them in Their pain / as we heave / and take, yet / another numbing sip.” At this numbing point, the poem turns linguistically, introducing six lines of Chamoru:

Ai, mohon yanggen siña ta hungok,
yanggen siña ta nginge,
yanggen siña ta li’e

Mohon yanggen siña ta siente
na ti apman esta i ora,
siempre ti man manmatåtåchong hit (18)

Both stanzas are initiated by the word “mohon,” which expresses a desire, hope, or wish. This repetition, followed by the repetition of “yanggen” (if) and “ta” (we), creates a chantlike structure. To translate, the speaker wishes we could hear, smell, see, and feel the signs that colonialism is destroying us. If we could truly feel that our extinction is near, then we wouldn’t be sitting around drinking coffee. The poem ends: “thirsting, / groundless / sitting sipping / churning mixing / tasting / bitter with sweet.” Perez insists that Chamorus must remain connected to our ancestral surroundings and to i taotaomo’na. To do this, we must experience an awakening of our senses to indigenous roots encased within modernity and colonialism.

While “Kafe Mulinu” explores how Chamoru diets and residences have changed over time, the poem “View of Tumon Bay” explores how an entire village was transformed and deformed by tourism:

Big hotels
skew the view,
and as if what we’ve got
ain’t enough
the gov. wants
to build
MORE! MORE! MORE!

[…]

You talk about
TWO MILLION
by 2000 …

Let ME
tell you
something,
I don’t feel much like waving,
I DO NOT
Welcome
All
Visitors
Enthusiastically. (42)

Tumon, now the main tourist center, was one of the most prominent villages in precolonial Guam. Now it is thick with hotels, bars, restaurants, duty-free shopping, strip clubs, massage parlors, and gun shops. The “gov” that the speaker refers to is the former Governor of Guam, Carl Gutierrez, who aimed to bring 2 million tourists to the island by the year 2000. The acrostic that ends the quoted passage, “Welcome / All / Visitors / Enthusiastically” (WAVE), was a promotional slogan of the Guam Visitors Bureau encouraging residents to wave at tourists. The poem’s anger and refusal continues:

You WAVE.
My hands are
too busy
fanning away the stench
of tourist industrial waste
and praying
for that
      threatened silence
“if there were
no tourism”
on Guam.

It’s getting
so it’s hard
to find a fish
anywhere
but a hotel dinner plate
these days. (43)

To pave the way for the tourist industry in Tumon, large sections of reef along the shoreline were removed. In addition to mechanized sand sweeping, the use of motorized water recreational vehicles, soil erosion, and sewage runoff destroyed much of the fish population in the area. So the speaker prays for silence — a silence derived from another Visitors’ Bureau ad claiming that there would be a “silence of cash registers” if the tourist industry failed.

Surrounded by the effects of colonialism, modernization, and tourism, Perez feels “lost in a wilderness / not of [her] making,” as she puts it in the poem “Strange Surroundings.” Unlike “Kafe Mulinu,” in which the speaker seeks to hear our ancestors’ voices more clearly, “Strange Surroundings” also invokes Catholicism, another agent of colonialism in Guam:

I seek the one
who walks on water
to pull me from
this brackish water
and cloak me
in the finest wet air
of our deepest hålom tåno,
our deepest jungle,
to find the graces of
the Ones Who Walked Before.

Catholicism, brought to Guam by Spanish missionaries, is now the major religion of the Chamoru people, compacting over the healing powers of our taotaomo’na.[8] Again, Perez signals this movement toward indigeneity through the use of the Chamoru language. I hålom tåno, or deep jungle, is guarded by the taotaomo’na. While Catholicism may guide us toward a spiritual place, the depths of the Chamoru spirit belong to the graces of the “Ones Who Walked Before.” Throughout Signs of Being, Perez compels Chamorus to see and feel and listen to what she calls “the invisible ceremonies” of our language, our land, and our ancestors.

The poem “Sky Cathedral” explores the theme of religion more fully, as it weaves Catholic ritual and Chamoru spiritual beliefs. The poem begins by describing how “Nåna” (mother) lives “in jeweled nights, / stars / like candles / lit / in a sky cathedral.” Blending the natural world with the Catholic world, the poem then weaves into Nåna’s prayerful, Chamoru voice:

Abe, Nånan Yu'os
sen gågås Maria
ma'okte minaolek
yan gråsia siha. (61)

Within the echoes of Nåna’s voice, the speaker addresses the reader with the haunting question: “Did you see that shadow pass / and pinch me on the cheek?” While the mother’s spirit wakes her up, the speaker’s voice reaches out to the reader to wake us up. She seeks — and asks the reader to seek — what is compacted beneath concrete, what is buried beneath Catholicism, what is invisible and shadow. In this poem, however, the speaker not only seeks, she finds:

I find [Nåna]
in gualåffon
dancing light
in a field of Latte
singing dreams
to me. (61)

Gualåffon, or full moon, propels the reader deeper towards an indigenized land and mindscape. In the passage, gualåffon reflects the light of the Latte, i hålom tåno, and i taotaomo’na. By invoking a field of Latte, Perez weaves the past and the present; the following stanza powerfully captures this interweaving:

Gently then,
she strokes my hair
with moonbeam fingers
that let my strands
unfurl
and glisten
in the wind
cascading to
my shoulders
bare
that greet
the kiss
of Nåna’s hair,
shining
silver streams
that drape me
with my past. (61–62)

Hair, especially women’s hair, is an important trope in Chamoru storytelling. In the story explaining the shape of Guam, a giant fish eats the middle part of the island. Even though the men hunted every night to kill the fish, the beast successfully hid from them. One day, a group of young women tied their hair into a net and sang near a spring. The fish swam near to hear their songs; then, the women caught the fish using their net.[9] Hair becomes a symbol of protection; just as Nåna’s hair protects the speaker and drapes her in the past, Perez’s words unfurl in the glistening winds of silence, cascade in our imaginations, and drape us in the Chamoru past.

Like many other poets from the Pacific — we might think of Albert Wendt and Haunani-Kay Trask — Perez believes creative writing can be a tool for decolonization, “a process that comes over time through a development and nurturing of intellectual and sensory acuity.” Contemporary Chamoru poetry, while unique in its own ways, navigates the currents of Pacific literature outlined insightfully by Wendt in Lali: A Pacific Anthology (1980):

The new Pacific literature examines (and laments), often angrily, the effects of colonialism. It argues for the speeding up of decolonisation [sic]; the development of cultural and national and individual identity based firmly on our own ways, values, and visions. The quest is for self-respect and the forging of forms of expression which are our own. But, more importantly, like writers elsewhere our writers are explaining us to ourselves and to one another, and adding details to the faces, organs, hopes, and dreams of each of our cultures. They are helping us to understand who we are, where we are, where we came from, and where we might be going, by singing their own individual songs, by plotting their own paths through the Void.[10]

By reading the literary signs of Chamoru being, we are reminded that in the history of the Marianas, the Chamoru people have survived. How can we be dead if we are sitting here, reading and writing our once invisible stories? Beyond merely surviving, Hagan Ita calls us to see, touch, smell, hear, feel, and remember our ancestors because “their pain is our legacy.” Perez insists: let this pain guide us through the moving and changing islands; let our poems and stories guide us into i hålom tano; let us make the Lattes whole again.

In the introduction to his bibliography, Skinner describes the literature from Micronesia as “stunted” in its “infancy,” especially as compared to the growing corpus of work in English from Melanesia and Polynesia. In the twenty years since Skinner completed his bibliography, Chamoru literature has been flourishing. If the current proliferation of Chamoru writing continues, we might be on the crest of a new wave of Pacific writing.

In this 2007 video, Chamoru poet Cecilia “Lee” Perez reads “As I Turn the Pages” and “Kafe Mulinu” on KUAM News Extra, a feature on one of Guam’s news channels. The video was recorded during Mes Chamorro (Chamorro Month), which occurs every March.


 

1.   See Robert Tenorio Torres, “Colonial and Conquest Lore of the Marianas: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2.1–2 (2003): 22–30; “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 3.1–2 (2004): 26–44; and “Pre-Contact Marianas Folklore, Legends, and Literature: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2.1–2 (2003): 3–15.

2.  Paul Lyons, American Pacificism: Oceania in the U.S. Imagination (New York: Routledge, 2006).

3.  Mark E. Skinner, “Contemporary Micronesian Literature: A Preliminary Bibliography” (master’s thesis, University of Hawai‘i, Manoa, 1990).

4.  Juan A. Sanchez, History’s Four Dark Days: A Memorial Ode to the Late John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Saipan, CNMI: Trust Territory Printing Office, 1965). For an extended analysis, see Torres, “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas.”  

5.  Won Pat-Borja, personal communication, 28 August 2010.

6.  Cecilia C. T. Perez, Signs of Being: A Chamoru Spiritual Journey (Honolulu: Pacific Islands Studies Plan B Paper Series, 1997).

7.  The Enola Gay and the Bockscar — the two planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — were launched from Tinian.

8.  A literal translation of taotaomo’na is “people of before.”

9.  Another version of the story replaces the young women with the Virgin Mary, a version that reflects the influence of Catholicism.

10.  Albert Wendt, ed. Lali: A Pacific Anthology (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1980), xvi.