Hi! We're Guam, Nice to Meet You

By Desiree Taimanglo Ventura

The Drowning Mermaid

December 12, 2009

Guam is a tricky place. If you haven't grown up here, figuring out how things work can be frustrating. What so many people don't understand is that the tools one might use to accomplish things where you're from may not immediately work here. For those of you who send me well-intended, but frustrated messages regarding our people, government and current situation. I ask you to be patient. While many of the problems or areas of frustration I write about may seem to have obvious, clear-cut solutions to you, that is often not the case for people here. Failure to recognize the way these things work can often hinder progress more than create it. Refusing to acknowledge them runs the risk of insulting or even exhausting our residents, particularly those in their later years.

I understand why you may think we're so much like you. According to our passports, we're American; but in so many ways, we are not. It's hard for you to research us in order to understand this because very little is written about us and our history. When it comes to understanding one another, we have an advantage over you. We've been learning about you for years. We have always known you were there. Many of you have just begun to see us.
When we visit your home, we're mistaken for everything but what we are. When you visit ours, we know exactly where you've come from. It's easy to make assumptions about why things don't work here; but there is often much that needs to be understood by those who offer up political advice for a unique community like ours. Because so many friends from the mainland have expressed curiosity regarding our relationship with the U.S., I will do my best to share. I am not an expert; and there are many people on this island who would be able to explain our political status better than I. For a more in-depth explanation, contacting one of our local Guam history professors or Chamorro elders would be more appropriate.
We're an Unincorporated Territory of the United States. Our relationship with the U.S. is, to put it nicely... restricted. We pay taxes, but we don't have a voting representative in the House or Senate. We're prohibited from voting in federal elections; but despite this, our residents may serve in the military, and have served in every U.S. war since WWI. We have one of the highest amounts of enlisted service men per capita. Most of our male population serves in the military. Many of them join in order to maintain the quality of life they would not be able to receive as civilians on this island. Many of them relocate to the mainland for that same reason. We've sought more political rights in the past, but unfortunately, our requests have always been ignored or denied by the United States.
We have passports. We can travel throughout the states without difficulty; and if we decided to settle in the states as a resident, we would be permitted to vote. If I chose to leave my home and live in the states, I would be granted the same rights as you. I lived in California during graduate school and was able to vote, received quality health care and a timely tax return. However, when I came home, those luxuries were taken away. I know how empowered you must feel and realize why solutions may come so easily to you. I felt the same way for a few years. Some of us keep asking your country for what you have because we have spent time in the states or lived there to attend school. Many of us are able to make a comparison between your life and ours; and we realize that while you may not see it, things are different. The presence of a Chili's, KFC and K-mart does not mean we have all the things you have.
One of the most interesting things about being Chamorro/Guamanian (because they're two very different things) is that despite being called an American citizen, if you're born on this island anywhere outside of a military base... you can never be nominated or elected president of the United States. There's part of me that thinks it's funny when stateside mothers end up giving birth here. Whenever it happens, I feel the sudden urge to inform the family that their child will never grow up to be president. When I see an American woman walking around heavy with child, I find myself hoping she'll go into labor just so this fact can pop up and bug her later in life. I know. It's pretty immature. I'm working on that.
Our non-voting representative in the House can serve on committees, but will never be allowed to vote on the floor. We don't have a constitution; and in 1950, our government was drafted and established by Congress without the input or consent of our local residents (you can look up the Organic Act of 1950 if you're really interested). This Organic Act is something that you really need to understand if you are trying to give us advice. You can't tell us to run to our local government, because the truth is... our local government isn't real. Our governor and locally elected leaders do not really run the island. Our island is actually run by the Department of the Interior. This means that any laws made on Guam can be reversed by Congress. The United States has complete power over us; and can legally do anything they want with the island and its people.
As you may have already noticed, most people in the states don't know about us. Most people assume there isn't anything here but military bases. Our university president (Dr. Robert Underwood) once explained that Guam has always been a popular throw away line in American comedy. You may criticize us for being slow to protest, raise hell or demonstrate as actively as citizens in the states do; but it's important that you understand our political status. Many on island have come to understand that despite it all, it doesn't matter. They have years upon years of denied requests weighing upon them. Whenever we have sought for more rights, we have been accused by many Americans and military families stationed here of being disloyal or ungrateful for rescue from Japanese occupation. Our political status is just the tip of the iceberg. There is also an intricate web of social customs and deeply ingrained religious beliefs that wrap themselves around us. On the surface, we may seem very similar; but there is much you need to know, more than can be crammed into a single blog entry.
Our island's Vice Speaker recently issued a report (Bill 66), which calls for a special election regarding the buildup and indigenous land issues. This bill was overturned in the past because our residents were not well versed enough to cast an informed vote regarding the realignment of Okinawan troops. With the arrival of the DEIS, the Vice Speaker believes our residents are now informed enough to vote. Click Here for Article
If this bill pans out and our people are given the option of voting, I plan to vote against the buildup. However, I also realize that there will be residents who view this issue differently. I know there are some of you who would vote in favor of it. We are all different. We are all motivated by different things. The introduction of this bill forces me ask two questions, both of which I have been asking myself since the beginning: 1. Are the people truly informed about the effects of the buildup? and 2. Will the outcome of this special election amount to anything?

I pray that the answer to both of those questions is "yes." It's hard to have faith in these things when you live on an island like ours. I know that, like me, many residents will wonder what this special election will amount to. Is it just like the release of the DEIS? Is it also a formality set up to maintain the illusion of some sense of control? I don't know.
Can we really take it to the United Nations and seek protection? We've done so in the past. According to UN mandates, we cannot begin the process of seeking a change in political status or law without the cooperation of our administering power. Will the United States ever cooperate? It's so hard for me to see that happening. As of now, they have declined to even sit on the UN committee that helps to influence or facilitate this process. Even the UN requires that we ask the US first. It's so easy for you to tell us that there's something we can do. It's very easy for you to run off lists of places where this has worked in the past. But we also have a past; and it has not worked for us. We are a very valuable possession to your country. We will not be easily released because we are key in the protection of you and your families.
I like to think that there's hope for something good to come out of this bill. While our island's history tells us that chances are slim, I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to vote and take an interest because sometimes getting an answer takes time. I'm going to do it because I want to believe our country has grown and learned to see things differently over the years. I'm hoping we're progressing. Like generations before me, I'm going to give it a shot, hoping that if it doesn't pan out for my generation, maybe it will for the next. Maybe by doing this now, they will look back and try to do something for the same reason I am doing it now: because I would like to see the hopes of previous generations who went through so much realized.
Our elders have been through so much on this island; and they leave behind a legacy of sad stories. They have sad stories that the rest of the world often refuses to acknowledge or pay attention to; and they have always been very resilient to it. They adapt, they keep going and most importantly, they retain their culture in order for those who come after to ease into the changes that will likely be forced upon them. These cultural traits that help us to adapt and move forward while retaining our cultural identity are the very things that might frustrate you about us. They are part of the reason this island responds to things differently than you. They are part of the reason we are still here after a history of invasion, genocide, intermarriage, occupation and colonization. I ask that before you laugh at us, call us backwards, become frustrated or assume that we're doing something wrong, that you understand that there is more going on than you see. Please be patient with us, as we have always been so patient with you.

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