WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 28, 2000
Guam Struggles to Find Its Roots Beneath Growing Piles of Spam
By ROBERT FRANK
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
HAGATNA, Guam -- The brochures for this breezy Pacific outpost boast of a "small island containing a world of cultures." On the main drag in downtown Hagatna, Japanese noodle shops thrive amid Dairy Queens, cha-cha clubs, Spanish-style Catholic churches and American strip clubs. There's even a Wild West-style shooting gallery that doubles as a wedding chapel for visiting South Koreans.
And what about the native culture of Guam? "Oh, gee. I'm not sure where to even look," says a Japanese concierge at the Guam Hyatt Regency. "Maybe the mall?"
Cold War Castaway
Forgive Guam its confusion. Officially, this small volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific, which has been colonized three times, is an "unincorporated territory of the U.S." Unofficially, it's a Cold War castaway looking for a purpose. For decades, it was supported by the Navy, and more recently, by Japanese tourists looking for a nearby beach and duty-free Chanel bags. Through it all, people here have patiently adopted the language, food, clothing and religion of their invaders in hopes of being accepted.
Yet now, with self-determination all the rage around the world, Guam is looking for its inner Guamanian. Local residents are scheduled to vote in July on whether to remain part of the U.S. or become independent, setting the stage for a new round of talks with Congress on the island's status. Guam's indigenous Chamorros are banding together to fight for Chamorro rights, Chamorro businesses and, most of all, Chamorro culture.
Leading the charge is the Chamorro Nation, a group of tattooed youths and tribal activists who seek to reclaim the country. Their methods are mild -- aside from staging the occasional sit-in, they give beach tours and fauna lessons.
The group has gained widespread popularity on an island searching for its precolonial roots. "We've had some tough times since Magellan landed" in 1521, says Eddie L.G. Benavente, leader of the Chamorro Nation, and a teacher at Guam's John F. Kennedy High School. "But now it's time to take control of our country and our culture."
Trouble is, after all those invasions, no one is quite sure what Chamorro culture is. On a steamy evening along the coast, the lights flicker on at Chamorro Village. A Spanish-style plaza of stalls and shops, Chamorro Village was born in the early 1990s to promote Chamorro arts and crafts and raise the profile of Chamorro culture. Tonight, only a few stalls are open -- and they're far from Chamorro.
Most sell kimonos and T-shirts. Carmen's Mexican Restaurant is dark, and the Jamaican Grille is empty. The only visitors are two Koreans sitting in the food court eating Szechuan food.
"You have to come on Wednesday nights," says Tien Bin Wu, a 67-year-old owner of a Cantonese food stall. "Wednesday night is Chamorro night."
At the far corner of the village, Jose Rosario proudly shows off his small collection of "genuine Chamorro artifacts." His store, called Che lu -- which means "brother" or "sister" in the rarely spoken language of Chamorro -- offers old-fashioned fishhooks and a collection of egg-shaped rocks that were once used in Chamorro slingshots. His biggest seller is the Che lu baseball hat.
Mr. Rosario concedes that four centuries of colonial rule have taken their toll on the Chamorro identity. Less than 40% of the island's 160,000 people are now considered "Chamorro," and most of them have Philippine or Mexican ancestors, dating from Guam's 18th- and 19th-century trading days. Most of the island's original settlers -- of Malay and Indonesian descent -- were wiped out by either disease or war with the various colonizers, which included the Spanish, Americans and Japanese. Filipinos, who are pouring into Guam for jobs, are expected to outnumber Chamorros in the next decade.
Still, Mr. Rosario says he sees a "renaissance" in Chamorro pride, based on legends and history passed down from generation to generation. A 1671 speech by a tribal chief named Hurao, who gored a Spanish missionary with a lance, has become a rallying cry for nationalists.
"Before [the Spaniards] arrived ... did we know rats, flies, mosquitoes and all the other little animals which constantly torment us?" Chief Hurao said, in a speech recounted by a French Jesuit. "These are the beautiful presents they have made us."
Later came the gift of Spam. Guam's culinary past, buried under Spanish rice, Philippine noodles and American burgers, has been difficult to uncover. The island's two most celebrated dishes -- red rice, and pancit, a fried-noodle dish -- are both Filipino. Spam is the true national mainstay, thanks to the Americans. Guam consumes more Spam per capita than any country in the world, according to its maker, Hormel Foods Corp. Guam hosts a Spam Olympics to honor new Spam recipes.
Even the celebrated Chamorro Chip Cookie turns out to be tainted. At the small cookie factory, dozens of locals mix a secret blend of nuts, dough and chocolate chips to create one of the island's best-known delicacies. The labeling on the folksy-looking boxes, written in Chamorro, says "made exclusively on Guam." But Chamorro Chip is owned by a Bostonian, Bob McLaughlin, who also owns the Boston Pizza Co. on Guam.
Dozens of Chamorros interviewed struggled to name a food that is distinctly Chamorro.
"I've got one!" says Tony Lamorena, a local senator. "Barbecued fruit bat. My grandmother used to make it." The local fruit bat, however, is a threatened species and can't be eaten. The same is true of Mr. Lamorena's other suggestion, sea turtle. "I guess we'll stick to Spam," he says with a sigh.
Seen in the Ocean
High on Guam's tallest sea cliff, two bronze figures embrace in the sunset. The statues honor the legend of the Two Lovers, a key part of the Chamorro culture. During early Spanish rule, the story goes, a fair Chamorro maiden was ordered by her father to marry a Spanish army captain. She refused, having fallen in love with a handsome Chamorro warrior. After the two tried to escape, they were chased by the Spanish army to the edge of the cliff. Rather than surrender, the two tied their long black braids together and plunged into the dark waters. On a moonlit night, locals say they can see the spirits of the two lovers frolicking in the ocean below.
They're more likely to see ice-cream cups. At the top of the cliff, a tourist lookout is perched at the edge of the Lovers Point, flanked by a Haagen-Dazs stand and postcard booth. While it's billed as a sacred Chamorro site, few Chamorros ever visit. The only visitors these days are the occasional Japanese couple who use the site for weddings.
"Who's a Chamorro, and who's not?" asks 18-year-old Menchie Canlas, a Filipino ticket-taker at the cliff. "I don't think anybody knows anymore."