Monday, April 21, 2014

Okinawan Protest Music

Okinawa's musicians provide a focus for Japanese protest against US bases

With Barack Obama visiting Japan in April, resentment at plans for the US Futenma military base is finding a musical voice
If an island of 1.4m people can be summed up in a sound, it is that of the sanshin. Where there are people on Okinawa, a Japanese island almost 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, the distinctive tones of the three-stringed instrument are never far away.

Music is deeply rooted in Okinawa's tragic place in Japan's history and the conduit for its modern grievances against the glut of US military bases on the island. As Barack Obama prepares to visit Tokyo to meet Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, later in April, the anti-war message of sanshin players such as Shoukichi Kina and Misako Oshiro is back in vogue as the subtropical island confronts its biggest political challenge since it reverted from US to Japanese rule in the 1970s..
In his mid-60s, Kina cuts a controversial figure as spiritual leader of Okinawa's activist musicians. Since the release of their first single Haisai Ojisan (Hey, Man!) in the 1970s, Kina and his band Champloose have done more than any other artists to secure Okinawan music against competition from mass-market Japanese J-pop and the more innocent musical motifs of the mainland folk genres minyo and enka.

"Our job as musicians should be to celebrate the good and do something about fixing the bad," said Kina, who some have called Okinawa's answer to Bob Marley. "That's why I hate the military bases here, but I love Americans."

Though it accounts for less than 1% of Japan's total area, Okinawa is now home to about 75% of US bases in Japan and half its 50,000 troops. Military facilities take up a fifth of the island. Obama and Abe are expected to discuss the controversial relocation of Futenma, a sprawling US marine base, from a heavily populated part of Okinawa to an unspoiled location on the island's northeast coast, as the allies attempt to lessen the island's military burden. The move is opposed by most islanders, including the residents of Nago, whose city lies near the proposed site for the new base.
The spirit of resistance pioneered by Kina is to be found in the more eclectic music of Tatsumi Chibana, a quietly spoken 33-year-old university graduate and perhaps the most visible of Okinawa's new generation of rebel artists, fusing traditional sounds with rock, reggae and hip-hop.

After a US military helicopter from the Futenma US marine base crashed into Okinawa International University in 2004, Chibana was moved to write his best-known song, Tami no Domino (People's Domino), a collaboration between his band Duty Free Shopp and local rapper Kakumakushaka.
The incendiary lyrics reflect the feeling of many residents towards the ever-present threat to safety posed by the island's 27,000 US troops and their hardware: "Surrounded by weapons in the land of disorder; what the hell can you tell me about peace in a place like this?"

Most of Chibana's music eschews the sanshin and other traditional instruments, but his background looms large, he said. "I'm always aware of my Okinawan identity when I make music. OK, so I wasn't brought up listening to folk songs, but the spirit of that old music is in mine. It doesn't matter whether I play reggae, hip-hop or rock, it's still Okinawan music."

Despite appearances at concerts organised to protest against the Futenma relocation, Chibana is reluctant to be pigeonholed. "The base issue is huge, but my protests songs aren't anti-base, so much as pro-community. I'm not interested in the ideological battles between left and right. The theme I really want to explore through my music is that no matter what happens, local people's way of life must be protected."

Like Kina, Chibana occasionally sings in the Okinawan language Uchinaguchi – an artistic choice that renders his lyrics unintelligible to many Japanese, but which exemplifies the island's historical and emotional sense of detachment from the mainland.

In the 16th century, where the sanshin's origins lie, Okinawa was part of the Ryukyu kingdom, which, while politically independent, had tributary relations with Ming dynasty China. Forced annexation by Japan came in the late 1800s, followed in the 1940s by the carnage of the Pacific war.

Less than a century after it was forcibly made part of Japan, Okinawa was the scene of one of the second world war's bloodiest battles. An estimated 240,000 Japanese and Americans died, including more than a quarter of Okinawa's civilian population, after US forces invaded in June 1945. Japanese troops distributed grenades to civilians, urging them to commit suicide or risk being raped and murdered by American soldiers.

"There are lots of songs about how terribly the Okinawans were treated in the war," said John Potter, the author of the only English-language book on Okinawan music and a prolific blogger on the subject.

Okinawa's return to Japan in 1972 – almost three decades after the war – fuelled the local sense of "otherness" from the mainland.

Not all Okinawan musicians draw inspiration from the island's bloody past, Potter said. "Many songs come back to what a fantastic place Okinawa is. Lots of artists sing about their culture and being island people, and their pride in being different."

Poverty – Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture – and the looming clouds of conflict sent many people in search of new lives overseas, creating a diaspora whose youngest members are making their presence felt on the island's contemporary music scene.

Lucy Nagamine, a Peruvian-born singer whose grandparents left Okinawa shortly before the war, learned classical Ryukyu music from her grandmother and picked up her deceased grandfather's sanshin at the age of 10.

Before settling in her ancestral homeland several years ago, Lucy often sang for Okinawan immigrants in Peru who were desperate to preserve the emotional ties with home. "Now I'm here in Okinawa, away from the country of my birth, I know how my grandparents and other immigrants felt," she said in between songs at her regular venue, a restaurant in Naha.

"In those days immigrants had nothing to do except sing and play the sanshin. It was a central part of their existence, and why music and the Okinawan lifestyle are closely intertwined, even today."
Less polemic are Nenes, a group of four whose lineup has gone through several reincarnations since they were formed by the legendary artist and producer Sadao China in 1990. Nenes perform classic Okinawan songs for groups of tourists from the mainland.

One rare departure from their otherwise "safe" repertoire is their stirring version of Keisuke Kuwata's Heiwa no Kyuka, which simmers with resentment over Okinawa's bloody wartime sacrifice. "Who decided this country was at peace," the song asks, "Even before the people's tears have dried?"
"Now that we're confronting the base issue again, this is a good time to sing about peace," said 24-year-old Mayuko Higa. "It's important that the people who come to see us perform know why it's an important subject here."

Nenes' tourist-friendly melodies can seem a world away from Kina's ceaseless quest for social and political change, an artist who implores the world's armies to swap their weapons for musical instruments. His decade-old feud with NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, proves that Japan's mainstream media and firebrand politics can be uncomfortable bedfellows.

"They demanded that I drop any references to peace from my performance," Kina said, his arms in motion again as he recalls his incredulity. "I refused, of course, and they haven't invited me back since. The message for Okinawan musicians has always been that if you want to get on in this industry, then keep your mouth shut. But I'll say what I like."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Please Sink My Battleship

The movie Battleship is critically reviled and if I were a critic of film I would definitely join the party in hating it. It is a children's game that was blown up Jerry Bruckheimer style into a massive, special-effects laden, clunky, chunky and funky action flick. It lacks any delicate touches or even nuances, unless of course you count slow motion shots of epic faced characters with over-saturated color as a nuance.

The story itself should be familiar. Aliens attack the world and they are fought off. One unique aspect of the film is that it takes place in Hawai'i, usually known as a setting for fantasy-paradise jaunts of the Western, American-centered world. Or Hawai'i as a locale is often invisibly inserted into films provided the scenery for ancient jungles, humid alien worlds or lost islands. Many of these films attempt to hide the contemporary nature of Hawai'i and instead film, edit and crop the place into becoming something majestically camera ready for wasted, privileged metropole imaginations. Battleship doesn't give the reality of Hawai'i, because as with most representations, including locally based ones, they have trouble dealing with the Native Hawai'i, or the fact that Hawai'i has natives, who have claims to the land, and the island reeks with layer upon layer of injustice. But what Battleship represents in spectacular, bloated, ridiculous fashion is the militarized nature of Hawai'i. Hawai'i may be a "tourist paradise", but it is also a heavily militarized place. The US military (and to an extent the Japanese military) are the main characters of Battleship. They take center-stage in so many ways, and like a film which lingers in almost ridiculous ways on the yummy parts of their main actor or actress, Battleship is filled with gratuitous military love.

Now to be perfectly clear, I really enjoyed the movie Battleship. But I have a long history of loving terrible films. And when I say terrible I don't mean the way people glorify low-budget indie or obscure films, which achieve an intimate cult status. Battleship had plenty of resources behind it and plenty of chances to find some generally redeemable characteristics, but it is bad in a way which you could excuse as being unapologetic, as in it knows it is basically propaganda, or you could see it as a bull trying to tiptoe or tiphoof its way around a china shop, and failing miserably and destroying everything around it. It is bad in the same way that a film like The Lone Ranger is bad. Like the way Avatar was bad. The politics of it are so ridiculous, you have to marvel at what process formed this train wreck of poor politics?

But for me, these types of films can be important and have lots of critical potential, even if the creators didn't intend it. Such is the joy of discourse and the play of meaning, no matter how much a politically conscious person sneers at a film like Battleship, their assumptions don't control the potential meanings of it anymore than those who spent millions marketing the film.

Battleship is intriguing to me because even if lots of people didn't like the film, it nonetheless represents in lumbering ways, many of the reasons why militarism, militarization and military service are attractive to most societies. I began writing about this last week but had to cut my thoughts short because of other projects. But I'm returning to it now, because the line of thought keeps popping up in my head.

I wrote last week about the need to understand militarism as a complex process not a simple one. For many people who want to demilitarize or resist militarize, they reduce it so something simple and negative. They assert it, often unintentionally as something monolithic, something which has a very clear consciousness and so something you can critique and despise apart from those who participate in it as an institution (as soldiers for example). This leads to assumptions that militarism is all about violence, control, discipline, order, exploitation. Even if it is about those things, this assumption can be problematic because of the way it limits the way you can perceive the agency or lack of agency of those who join. In places like Guam where there is so much participation for the US military and for militarism as being a central facet of society, it is easy to see the reasons why people join the US military as being about the blindness or the hopelessness of people. People join because they are lied to, because they have no other options, because they mis-recognize their relationship to the United States and therefore have colonial patriotism sentiments. All of these things are true, but they are at most part true. The simplicity of this vision of the world leads to natural assumptions that those who serve in the military must do so because of their lack of agency or lack of freedom. In order to both protect those serving but also keep things simple and easier to process, you have to strip soldiers of that agency in order to keep that primarily negative portrayal of the military.

Battleship is of course a positive portrayal of the US military, and it is important because it represents so many of the ways that people see the military, militarism, military service and therefore see it as something important, natural, inspiring and exciting. What I find problematic is that the image that many who want to resist militarization have of militarism, doesn't come close to portraying the way most people see militarism. What I may see for example as a drooling, decaying, disgusting and destructive hydra that ravages all it comes into contact with, will be seen in completely different ways by most others. They may see faint traces of what I see in the ways I articulate this shared discursive formation, but will those traces motivate them to change their relationship or will it motivate them to reaffirm and reinforce it?

Many films with a military focus promote ideas of fraternity and brotherly bonds and loyalty. They show soldiers fighting for freedom and dying for ideals, overcoming incredible odds to save lives, save the day, save the country. Battleship has all these dimensions in it, but it also goes a little bit further in ways I just could not shake.

For example, the human military versus alien forces is a very common trope in sci fi films. This is usually handled very differently though. In the War of the Worlds for example, the dynamic is one of futility. Humans fight and they struggle, but ultimately they are powerless and incapable of defeating their alien foe. Only something which is completely beyond their control, something that benefit from, but cannot take any real credit for, something in their biology or the natural world is actually the true victor, the true defender of earth.

Transformers is an interesting franchise that shows the ways in which the military itself helps to influence the creative process. If you are creating a film that will require military hardware or personnel, if your film falls in line with the way the Department of Defense wants to represent itself, than you will get plenty of resources and plenty of help. Sometimes this can even mean that changes will be made in the scripts of films to accommodate a pro-military message. Some writers and directors will make these changes on their own, but other times changes are made only after the military has made their support conditional on characters being added, taken out, scenes removed or a message shifted. In recent years, the use of private contractors in movies is not only due to their prevelance in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are regularly used because they can provide a bad guy that looks, smells and feels like they are military, but are not actually military. You can tap into the negative feelings that people feel against military culture, violence, power, discipline, while also not challenging their feelings of patriotism and "support the troops" mantras. The relationship that people have to the militaries of their societies is always significantly more complicated than what they say or admit to. Movies which make the military as an institution or even as a set of people as the bad guy can easily turn off an audience, since it might compel them to question certain things they'd rather not. The military stand, to use a familiar movie metaphor, atop the walls of a nation, guarding watching, keeping its enemies at bay. It does not sit well with people to think of them as anything but trustworthy. Audiences tend not to like being reminded of that and so often times alternative characters or groups are created

Alternatively, the military does not like to support any film which makes them appear infective or incapable, even if the threats are otherworldly or overwhelming. For those of us who remember the old school Transformers, the reboot by Michael Bay and company feels completely different primarily because of the heavy focus on militarization. The Transformers work closely with the US military and the US military fight alongside them. In the original Transformers, humans tended to be chaff that was swept aside by Decepticons, but in the most recent franchise the human soldiers fight and do struggle but also overcome the Decepticons and play key roles in saving the world. In essence they fight side by side the Autobots therefore keeping alive notions of camaraderie and fraternity, making the narrative power of the Autobots and the military flow into each other, imbuing both with greater potential strength. It is no wonder that there are so many damn American flags in the Transformers movies. It is like watching a big, long, metallic ad for American militarism.

In Battleship, things are slightly different. It is just humans against alien foes. The power of the foes appears overwhelming, but the military is able to handle it in the end, but only after lots of sacrifice and heroism. One thing that truly makes the ideology of militarism seductive is the level of excitement that is often attributed to it. The slow-motion shots, the pounding rock music, the fast and chaotic visual cuts. It is a way of life that can fill you with so much excitement, but also with fear and with dread. It is something that not all could be cut out for, living with such intensity and with loud, angry noises surrounding you at all times. This contrast between the glamorized, bombastic, intense nature of the world that militarism both offers and keeps at bay is important, especially if you consider attempting to take that style of aggressive representation into other forms of life. If you were to collect together different spheres of social life and then relate the way that they are represented through creative media, and the value that they are ascribed as needing to not be touched, critiqued or even considered in a transformative way, the rule as I see it is that the more violent and the more chaotic something can appear to be, the less likely people are to critique it. These portrayals of militarism that cram together violence, heroism, sacrifice and elite qualities help to create that ideological insulated effect. For those who live quiet lives of crawling desperation, it is easy to see militarism through that fetishistic gaze, where you move between marveling and fearing what is presented to you.

Militarism, like anything is a path in life, a set of ideological choices, that have every real ramifications in the world. Its soundtrack is more exciting than most possible choices. As a choose your own adventure it seems to offer a bigger potential slice of the world, more power, more potential respect. These aspects can't just be dismissed as "not being true," because they always possess some element of truth, and that sliver has to be dealt with, because it most likely connects the person to some of the basic parts of their identity in society.

One aspect that I found very interesting about Battleship was the way in which the old, the antiquated, the outdated comes to save the day. This is a common enough trope in war films. In a high-tech fight, usually all that is high-tech ends up being disabled and rendered useless. But that which is low-tech, from a previous era, supposedly useless is suddenly so important, so essential, it can help save the day. Take for instance one of my favorite sci-fi universes, Dune. In it people have created an elaborate force-field system, personal shields that will protect you from most attacks, but as the saying goes "the slow blade penetrates the shield." A regular blade, without any sort of advanced adornment will easily slice through what the most advanced weapons may not.

In many war films, the ancient tech that is utilized is usually Morse code. With contemporary communication  lines down or compromised down, old networks for communication, the arcane knowledge of it becomes essential in achieving victory. In Battleship the movies goes beyond the ancient being helpful, but it being what drives the final victory.

Battleship flirts with the usual tropes of alien invaders having an achilles heel, in this case sunlight. But as soon as you consider the movie as a whole, you realize that this weakness adds close to nothing in terms of the overall action of the film. If they were not sensitive to sunlight everything with the exception of three scenes, where the weakness plays a dramatic but not necessarily central role, would be pretty much the same. What this creates is a stage where aliens and humans are matched, with the aliens clearly superior, but it does have the effect of making the guts, the bolts, the hard edge of war machines seem that much stronger and tougher.

At the end of the film, all the "modern" ships of the humans have been destroyed. They are forced to rely on using an ancient battleship that has been decommissioned and now sits in Pearl Harbor as a museum. In addition to this, a squad of veterans from previous wars appear to help them start the battleship, man it, and defeat the aliens with it. The final fight is filled with a ridiculous amount of inter-generational solidarity, as the old, the very old and the young all work together, using a 70 year old hunk of metal to defeat an advanced alien enemy. The amount of messages glorifying militarism as an ideal and beautiful part of life in these part of the film are almost too overwhelming it is easy to miss them as they layer atop each other. You are meant to feel, see, taste and idolize the way militarism and militarization creates this heroic solidarity. The weapons, the tools, the ideology, the discipline that one receives now or received then, can bind everyone together, with respect, admiration and precision to vanquish your enemies. The timelessness of the ideology of militarism is double and then tripled in both technology (ancient defeating alien) and human (because of their shared service, sacrifice and commitment, they can all work together and win). The marketing is that the power you receive through this service never expires, will always be useful, will always be needed.

These fantasies are powerful, even if they aren't presented in the most sophisticated ways, that which feels universal, essential, natural doesn't have to be for it to maintain hegemony.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mes Chamoru

During the month of March, my phone rings more than usual. It is Chamorro Month, and so every government agency, school, organization and most businesses look for some way to honor this month and display their support for Chamorro language and culture. Considering how Chamorro culture was stripped of much of its value after World War II because of a rush to Americanize; the renewed interest in protecting and promoting Chamorro culture is a very good thing.
When I ask my students at UOG, what their culture is, or what their cultures are, I always receive interesting responses. For some students, they feel like they are very cultural because they know certain practices, such as fishing, weaving, dancing or can speak the language. For most however, they feel like they don’t know their culture or don’t have it. They see the ways their parents or grandparents are and see them as having so much culture, and they see themselves as having little to nothing. For some this is sad, for others it is just the way it is.
When we think of culture we tend to see it through the things that make it visible, the artifacts, the physical activities, the rituals. These are the surface things which are the boundaries and most tangible parts of the culture, but they are not the core. As the world changes, so do these practices. Ancient Chamorros did not live the same lives for 3000 years. There were changes both big and small, and the same is true today. In truth no one has remained the same over centuries or millennia.
The core of a culture is an unnamed force, a spirit. If you wanted to, you could even call it a story. It is something that each person in that culture participates in and holds responsibility over keeping alive. It is this force that gives a shared identity to people. Even if they may practice that culture differently, the force connects them and gives them the ability to see themselves as connected to others back thousands of years. This spirit can be shared with others, and part of the problem people encounter is whether or not those who love this spirit or know it well, can be included in the culture as well? This is something each culture has to answer in its own way. Some are more open and welcoming, others are more rigid and closed.
For Chamorros, or anyone else, when you are trying to grow the love of your culture into your children, do not plant the first seeds as being the practices or activities. Remember that these change as the world changes, and so to reduce culture to practices means that you attach the culture to that time and that can cause problems. After all, according to that definition, when you change your practices you are adapting, but actually disappearing and becoming culturally extinct. To focus on the practices of a culture means to chain it to a particular form and possibly restrict its ability to evolve or grow.
Instead, you need to teach them that it is more than that, that it is something greater than all, which unites all. Culture is not something that is handed from one generation to the next for thousands of years and never supposed to change. When you teach their children about their culture, you must make clear that you are not giving it to them to keep the way it is and just give to their children. When we think about culture like this, we pretend that it belongs to someone else, and is not really ours. You must remind them that our culture is truly ours, both in ways that inspire us and ways which can frustrate us. Each generation has their own choices to make. They can keep the culture the same. They can change it as they see fit. They can lose it all and throw it away. When our culture is strong we adapt and change to protect ourselves. When our culture is weak, we try to scrub away who we are out of fear of losing something. Since World War II, we have seen in so many ways, Chamorros tragically exemplify this dynamic.
Each Chamorro month should be a time where we celebrate that story of Chamorro culture and we remind everyone, especially the youth, that this story has been told for thousands of years and now it is their turn to help write the future.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


For Immediate Release:                                                        Contact: Michelle Blas
April 7, 2014                                                                


University Theater Presents:

Pågat: A locally written and produced play about the Chamoru spirit, culture and identity

By Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua and Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero

April 24-26 and May 1-3

University Theater closes its 2013-2014 season with the play Pågat, written by local writers Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua and Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, directed by Michelle Blas, and featuring choreography by Vince Reyes of Inetnon Gef På’go. 
Pågat explores the complexities of cultural identity and change through the lives of four modern young adults and the memories of a cast of spirits, who share key moments in the history of the Chamoru people. The play is set in a latte site in the jungles of Pågat. The play also conveys the essence of the word Pågat, which means to advise or give counsel, as both the modern characters and the ancient spirits help each other work through personal struggles with identity, culture, and destiny. 
DATES: April 24-26 and May 1-3

TIMES:  Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Play starts at 7 p.m.

PLACE: University of Guam Fine Arts Theater 

ADMISSION:  $10.00 general admission, $7.50 students and seniors and FREE for all UOG and GCC students with student ID or schedule. Tickets can be purchased at the UOG box office on performance nights.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

You Joined the Military to See the World...

One thing that I often try to impress upon people, especially those who want to become activists and get involved in struggles in Guam against things such as militarization or in favor of things such as decolonization, is the importance of understanding the nature of your fight and what you are up against. One of the key advantages to considering social movements in war terms is that it helps you understand better that feeling right or being right has close to no effect on whether or not you win your battles. The only way in which that feeling of righteousness would carry any significance is if you believe that God is the ultimate judge in terms of who wins and loses on the battlefield and so strategy and planning matters little when all rests in his His hands. Sureness in your cause and the need for your fight can help bring you to the fray and keep you there, but if anything it can actually hurt your ability to strategize perceive the discursive field that awaits your interventions. You may end up believing that the best approach is to winning is to remain as steadfast and faithful to your ideology as possible and ignore clear signs around you that you are losing ground or that you are affecting little. Faith and ideological loyalty can end up feeling like it is its own set of tactics, when in truth all it represents is a means of motivating certain people, but little more.

The success or failure of your cause has everything to do with your knowledge of the ideological terrain around you, and your ability to understand those who might be allies and those who might be enemies. Faith and the security of your truth can limit your ability to step outside of yourself and understand the positionality of others. It is not an issue that your truth or cause is actually true, but even challenging the position of another successfully depends primarily on your ability to understand what might give power and dynamism to things that you want to dismantle or discredit.

For example, on Guam one thing that I am very much critical of is militarism, which can be defined in many different ways. Militarism can be the ways in which Guam as a community accepts an incredible military presence as being a "natural" part of island life. Militarism can also refer to the way in which military service is given a very high social status on the island. Militarism can also refer to the way in which there is often very little protest on Guam against American wars and imperialism despite the fact that Guam is the tip of the spear and plays a huge role in the ability of the US to politely or impolitely dominate others. Militarism is a concept that describes the relationship a community has to militarization and how natural or unnatural it perceives those manifestations to be. Militarization is a part of life, it deals with land for bases, resources going to pay soldiers, potential damage done to the environment, how a community relates to other communities, perceptions of peace and conflict. All of these things and more are tied to militarization, and militarism is the ideological framework for how communities accept, reject and adapt those things.

For example, place like Guam and Okinawa are both militarized heavily. Both of them have a significant amount of their lands that are set aside for military bases, both place a role in "defense" in the region for the US and their allies. Both places have histories of their islands being used by the US military and being sacrificed as battlefields while empires wrestle. As I have written about numerous times before there are many many similarities between the two. I even went so far last year to undertake an art project that tried to comment on their shared traumatic militarized similarities.

Two years ago when I stood before a military fence in Ginowan City on the edge of Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, I felt so at home in that moment it scared me. The grass beneath my feet felt like the grass when I stood once before military fences in Tiyan, what was once NAS Agana. The fence that I touched felt so similar to the ones that I have touched in Guam around bases in the north and the south. It even felt similar to fences I felt in South Korea. The sky in its flat blueness felt so comforting to me, I wondered if the military just went around the world taking land where the sky looked like this. It frustrated me to feel so at home in that moment, but know that what made me feel at home is shared militarization. In the same way in which when you travel if those things that are familiar give you a sense of belonging (such as franchise restaurants or domestic media), it means that you may be cheating yourself out of experiences with alterity, the supposed reason most people travel.

This familiarity derived from the fences that have been placed around our islands and our lands is something that has continued to motivate me in my own solidarity work, to try and enhance our imaginations so that we can see ourselves as not only connected through militarization, but something deeper and greater, something that does not only rely on ways we have been displaced or oppressed.

These are connections through "militarization" through the infrastructure of military power. In terms of militarism Guam and Okinawa are very different. Okinawa is a place that appears to resist militarization, where a sizeable part of the population does not want more training, more bases, more troops, whether they be from Japan or the US. There is a strong discourse that due to their war memories and war scars, Okinawa should be an island of peace, a model to the world that war is cruel, war is suffering and the only thing that people should fight for, is to end all wars. The Japanese and American governments try to counter this and argue that the US needs to have bases in Okinawa to protect the world, but people there reject these claims and wonder why their island has to endure so much shame and exploitation to "host" this level of militarization?

Guam is in most ways opposite to this. While there are people who resist militarization we are a minority and clearly so. Guam as a community accepts the bases as far more than just necessary, and naturally sees them as things that provide security, prosperity and a chance to prove loyalty and connection to the United States. Guam is a heavily militarized place, it is a place which does not question much its role in terms of securing US interests and possibly forcing its interests on others. It is a place that doesn't question much about whether it is a good idea to have close to 30% of its total land mass be occupied by bases. Militarism is a very strong ideology in Guam and intimately tied into how people see close to everything. It is important to remember that the presence of a discourse means little in terms of understanding its relevance. For everything that I've asserted in this paragraph there are counter narratives that exist, but in general they matter little and unfortunately carry little discursive weight.

In Guam, a place where militarism is so intertwined with life, you must understand how militarism works in order to neutralize or counter it. You have to understand what about it as a way of seeing the world makes it so seductive on Guam? What about it makes it seem like the ideal lens for understanding mobility in life? Guam's relationship to those around it in Asia? Guam's relationship to the United States? An individual within their community on Guam? The community's relationship to the environment and their natural resources?

I have more thoughts on this, especially through the 2012 Battleship directed by Peter Berg and filmed in Hawai'i, another heavily militarized island. But I have some exhibit text to write for the Guam Humanities Council tonight and need to get working on that. Hopefully I'll find some time tomorrow to continue my thoughts.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Ode to Grandma


English is my mother tongue, in the sense that it is the language that I grew up with and speak most comfortably. It is my first language. It is however not my favorite language, not the best language and certainly not i mas takhilo' para Guahu.

I am a non-native speaker of the Chamorro language as I learned to speak it when I was 20 years old. It is natural for me in some ways, but still unnatural in others, primarily when talking about things that are difficult in general to express in a Chamorro lexicon. This is not only something that I struggle with, but as the Chamorro language has become more and more limited in how and where it is used, many people find themselves constantly switching to English since a potential part of their conversation is something few people have actually used the Chamorro language to convey. For example, on the rare occasions that I've tried to discuss Foucault or Derrida in Chamorro, when speaking in general about it, there is a natural difficulty, but if I take the time to write and to translate it is not that difficult at all. You can find on this blog for example several times where I've shared my thoughts about post-structuralist theory in Chamorro.

What makes speaking, thinking and writing easier is if the topic fits easily within some existing framework or lexicon for carrying meaning. If that framework has been carved out over time or there is something native in the language already which can help ease the transition, than things are that hard. But if that connection doesn't exist, things can get very difficult. This is one of the reasons that they say country music made such an easy transition into Chamorro language and culture. It was drawn from a hard scrabble agrarian lifestyle, something that both peoples in the US and in Guam shared. It was something that Chamorros felt more intimately connected to than rock, pop or jazz, all of which Chamorros enjoyed listening to, but did not feel the need to Chamorrocize them the way they did country.

For me, although English will always be my mother tongue, Chamorro will forever be my grandmother tongue. It is a language I learned beside my grandmother and through sharing her beauty and her life. I can speak Chamorro today, on this blog, to my children, in the classroom because of her patience and because of her love. There are times since she passed where the Chamorro I am using sticks in my throat and I feel overwhelmed with emotions, when certain words I use or things I hear remind me of precious moments I shared with her on my Chamorro language learning journey.

My approach to the Chamorro language was defined by the gaikinemprende that I saw in my grandmother. When I would ask grandma how to say something, she would not shut me down or tell me there was only one way to say something. She would always provide me with options, a list of possibilities. When I would ask her a question, checking with her to see if the way I was saying something was correct, sometime she would say no it wasn't, but most of the time she would say, that's correct, but it isn't the way I would say it. There is nothing wrong with how you said it, but most people don't use it in that way. Grandma instilled in me not the intolerance and myopia that so many Chamorro speakers feel when they encounter people trying to learn and speak Chamorro. She instilled in me the potential diversity in the language and the fact that people will say things differently and that there are many ways of saying things which are correct even if people don't like them and wouldn't normally say things that way.

Over the years she helped me with so many of my projects around the Chamorro language. When I would do translations for example, I would often give her sections to translate and then compare them against my own, blending hers with mine to come to something that felt special to me, because I felt as if it was something we had collaborated on together. When I was first learning Chamorro I would sit with grandma at the dining room table, playing Chamorro CDs for her, asking her to help me translate them. Since grandma's hearing wasn't very good and my audio comprehension of Chamorro was terrible, we would wander a fun maze of Chamorro translation possibility. I would tell grandma what I thought they had said and she would tell me what that meant. Sometimes she would tell me that what I had said made so sense and I would put the speaker of the stereo up to both of our ears and we would strain to decipher what Johnny Sablan, the Chafauros Brothers or Flora Baza Quan were saying. Over the years I have naturally gone back and revised our initial translations, but my understanding of those songs feels like a string of beautiful moments strung together on a necklace made by my grandmother and me.

One of the last major project that grandma helped me with before she passed away was translating Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" into Chamorro for the Guam Symphony. Grandma was already sick at this time, but she was still writing and reading everyday, and so she still loved to help me even if she was exhausted sometimes because of the cancer in her or the medicine that was supposed to treat it. As usual, I gave grandma an English translation of the lyrics and then we made our separate translations. When I wove them together, I could almost imagine us singing together to that epic song. So often, even though she is gone, when I speak Chamorro, the pain of her loss hits me. I only speak this language because of her patience, and I will always speak her spirit when I use my grandmother tongue.

I've pasted our translation below for those interested in reading it.


"Ode to Joy"
Pinila' as Elizabeth Flores Lujan yan Michael Lujan Bevacqua

Ai adai, ti este na tunåda
Maolekña ta fanuna gi mas asentådu
Yan mas na’magof na kånta siha

Magof, gefpågo chispas ginnen as Yu’us
Hagan Elysium
Manhålom hit, bulachu ni’ guafi
Linangitan, i liheng-mu!
I fuetså-mu ha na’daña’ ta’lo
Hafa nina’sahgne ni’ kustumbre
Todu i taotao siha mañe’lu

Månu nai dumeskånsa i papå-mu
Håyi ayu i gaisuette gi lina’la’
Ya Guiya i amigun i atungo’
Hayi ayu i ha gana i dibota na asagua
Maila ya ta fanmagof!
Magahet! Ayu i siña ha sångan
Maskeseha un ånte iyo-ña guini na tano’
Ya håyi tåya’ nai ha cho’gue enao
U piniti ya u suha gi este na dinaña’

I minagof todu gumigimen
Gi i sisun i naturåt
Todu maolek, todu båba
Dalalaki i chalan i rosåt
Ha nå’i hit chiku siha yan chuchumeku
Guiya ga’chong esta ki i finakpo’
I ilo’ mana’magof
Ya i anghet tumoghe gi me’nan Yu’us
Me’nan Yu’us!

Magof taiguihi i ma’lak åtdao siha
Gi halom i gefpago långhet ilek-ña
Fanmalågu, afañe’lus, gi chalan-miyu
Fanmagof taiguihi i manmanggana
Fanmatoktok, miyones!
Este na chiku para todu i mundo!
Afañe’lus gi hilo’ i ma’lak na långhet
Nai u såga’ i guaiyayon na tåta
Kao manekken hamyo, miyones?
Kao un siente i nana’huyong, mundo?
Aligao gui’ gi mas takhilo’ ki i langhet!
Sa’ siempre sumåsaga’ gi mas takhilo’ ki i estreyas

Fanmatoktok hamyo, miyones!
Este na chiku para todu i mundo!
Afañe’lus, gi hilo’ i ma’lak na långhet
Nai u såga’ i guaiyayon na tåta
Este na chiku para todu i mundo!
Minagof, gefpågo chispas ginnen as Yu’us
Hagan Elysium
Minagof, gefpågo chispas ginnen as Yu’us
Chispas, i manyu’us!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


Lumiliko' yu' gi i "Leeward" na banda gi i ma'pos na simana giya Oahu.

Un atungo'-hu, malago' gui' fuma'nu'i yu' hafa ha fa'na'a'an i magahet na Hawai'i, ya pues in hami humanao.

Ti hu gof tungo' ayu na banda. Estaba managa' ham giya Kunia, anai Si tata-hu macho'cho'cho' gi Del Monte gi fama'yan pina siha. Hu gof tungo' iya Manoa yan iya Honolulu, put i Unibetsedat yan i malls siha guihi.

Lao unu pat dos biahi ha' di hu bisita i Leeward na banda.

Gi minagahet sen gefpago este na islan Oahu. Lao para Guahu mas hu ripara i chinatpago, put hemplo i mantaiguma', i tahdong na fina'militat, ya taimanu na masasakke' ha' kada diha i tano'-niha i mannatibu na Hawaiian siha. Put este siha mas na'triste este na lugat. Ti ya-hu bumisitanaihon.

Ai adai, i pumasehun-mami nigap, ha na'gasgas i ante-ku. Ginen sanlagu yu', ya hunggan gof gaiprobechu i bida-hu guihi para i Prugraman Inestudian Chamorro. Lao ha na'yafai yu' lokkue'. Ya desde matto yu' guini giya Hawai'i, gof kalang taitintanos yu' (zombie).

Lao anai hu pacha' i asutttttt na hanom gi i kanton tasi Leeward siha. Anai mamokkat yu' gi i kanadan sagradu guihi, ha fa'tinas yu' komo nuebu. Ha na'homlo' i matitek na ante-ku.

Hu sen agradesi este. Estaba i estaon Hawai'i sesso ha tife' yu'. Lao ya-hu este na biahi na hafa hu susedi guihi, ha na'la'la' yu'. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Klas Chamoru ta'lo

I have been off island for two weeks and so I haven't been teaching my weekly Chamorro lessons, but I'm grateful that others have stepped in to take over and keep people reviewing the language even in my absence.

It is interesting how you do not realize things, or gain the ability to reflect on things, unless you encounter something that forces a contrast or a reflective moment. I have offered these language classes for years now, literally four years and although I've always enjoyed them, I never really realized the impact they could have. For me it was just teaching people who wanted to learn Chamorro, Chamorro. It was just another battlefield in the struggle against language death.

But last month my Chamorro classes at Java Junction got a lot more attention than I ever imagined, with people from all over the United States emailing me asking to join them. Several media outlets covered my classes, which felt strange to me, because they are such simple, small things. To me who wants to bring the Chamorro language everywhere and give it life in anyway possible there are plenty of other things I have going on that to me are more interesting and exciting, why was this what people were so interested in?

But the more I stepped out of myself the more I realized there was a lot of simple, but powerful potential to having these community classes. I got to experience some of this potential last week while visiting Hawai'i. My former UOG student and current Masters student in Pacific Island Studies at UH Manoa, Ken Kuper has been organizing for the past year and a half similar coffee shop meetings in Honolulu. He was the one who actually helped start my original Java Junction classes while he was attending the University of Guam. He is one of the handful of people who I have taught Chamorro to over the years who has actually gone on to pursue fluency. I got to attend his own language classes that he holds every Saturday morning in a restaurant in the Ward Shopping Center. He calls them "I Finakmata i Hila' Siha" or the awakening of our tongues.

It was a surreal experience being in a space, where the possibilities of things become more clear. It is easy to have classes in coffee shops and restaurants to teach the language. It is cheap and simple, if there is enough will to learn and someone who is willing to teach. The potential of my classes has little to do with anything I've done. It has everything to do with the way that I have helped to advocate a different technique for teaching and promoting the language. Something that more people should organically take advantage of.

Just as a reminder, my Chamorro classes are every Friday, at Java Junction in Hagatna at 12 pm for Beginner's Classes, 1:30 for intermediate.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Translating Historical Distances

"Translating the Garrido Manuscript"
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Marianas Variety

This Thursday, March 27 a very special presentation will be held at the University of Guam and titled “The Garrido Manuscript: A Unique Glimpse of the Chamorro Language in 1798.” The public is invited to come and learn about the translation of the oldest document known written in the Chamorro language, from 1798, more than 200 years ago. The presentation will begin at 6 pm and take place in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Lecture Hall at UOG. This presentation is sponsored by the Micronesia Area Research Center and the Chamorro Studies Program.

Dr. Carlos Madrid, a research associate at MARC has spearheaded the project with essential assistance from Jeremy Cepeda, a Chamorro teacher at Simon Sanchez. Lenoard Iriarte from I Fanlalai’an Oral History Project, Pale’ Eric Forbes, Rosa Palomo from the Micronesian Language Institute and myself also assisted in various ways with the translation and interpretation.

The background of the document is interesting in and of itself. In 1798, Manuel Garrido a Chamorro who worked for the Spanish Government of the Marianas was asked to translate into Chamorro an official proclamation from the Spanish Crown. Spanish and Filipino soldiers had repelled an attack by British ships in Zamboanga, Mindanao and this proclamation was meant to congratulate them for their great deeds in defense of the Spanish Empire.

The document was occasionally incomplete with the wear and tear of two centuries obscuring parts. The handwriting and spelling of Garrido presented its own challenges, as in some places the style and choices of the translator made it difficult to determine what would be the proper way to pronounce this word. Garrido was using a Spanish way of writing to give life to Chamorro on the page and it is interesting to see the choices he made and some things he invented in order to pull this off.

Translating the manuscript required working in three languages. Carlos Madrid took the complete Spanish account and provided an English translation of it. This English translation was important in terms of helping decipher the Chamorro, especially in cases where Garrido used words that were not familiar to Chamorros today. By working in this trilingual context, the team was able to develop theories as to what certain unknown words might mean. The chance to peer into the mind of a Chamorro 200 years ago, and the way that he would take one universe of meaning (Spanish) and transfer it into another universe (Chamorro), is definitely something you don’t want to miss.

The Spanish period of Guam’s history lasts for several centuries, but is not given much historical attention. As the Spanish are “so two colonizers ago” the legacy of their influence is something no one can deny, but people still aren’t sure how to reconcile with the politics of the present. The Spanish had an impact, everyone knows that, but do we determine their impact to be positive or negative? Do we look at it as a time drenched in nostalgia? Or as a time of oppression and lack of freedom? Even if we know things are more complicated than this, there is always a pull to articulate the past as one or the other, to try to keep things simple.

What I detest about the way this period is generally written of, is that Chamorros barely factor into their own history. Most historians write of this time as a changing of Governors, the heroic work of Spanish priests, and the Chamorro people are mindless extras that move from one scene to the other, without any clear will of their own. For those of you who don’t know Carlos Madrid, this is for me, why his work is of the utmost importance to the study of history and Chamorro culture in the Marianas Islands. He is not like many other historians who simply write around Chamorros during the Spanish period, he has attempted in this project and in others, to try to find the Chamorro experience, the Chamorro voice in a time of colonization and difficult religious, political and social changes.

For example his book “Beyond Distances” chronicles the stories of political prisoners from Spain and the Philippines in Guam during the second half of the 19th century. This is something most histories of Guam cover, however most histories of Guam implicitly or explicitly argue that the presence of thousands of revolutionaries and reformers on Guam at a time when the Spanish Empire was going through an identity crisis had little to no effect on Chamorros, and that they just went on with their lives. Carlos shows through events from that period that Chamorros were clearly affected by the reforming rhetoric of the time and found their own ways of protesting the abuses of the Spanish Empire in their part of the world. For example Luis Baza, sued and successfully ousted a Spanish Governor, while Jose Salas actually assassinated a Spanish Governor.  Carlos’ work shows that during this crucial period of Guam history, Chamorros were not mere bystanders, but actors, who could understand what was happening around them and found ways to express themselves or change their island for the better. 

Carlos Madrid will soon be leaving island for an exciting job in the Philippines. We have been lucky to have him here for the past few years to help us gain new insight into the Spanish period of Guam History.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Clash of the Bihas

I am exhausted right now, but it is the yinafai i gaitininas, the exhaustion of the righteous as one of my friend states. As she likes to joke it is as my blog says, the feeling that there is "no rest for the awake." This weekend I manned a booth at the Chamorro Cultural Festival in San Diego on behalf of Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam. We are in the process of developing an online Chamorro Studies certificate program. UOG President Robert Underwood sent me to California and Hawai'i to network with Chamorros and Guam clubs to gauge the interest in offering a program like this. I expected the response to be positive, but nowhere near as positive and excited as it was today. Nearly every single person who stopped by the booth signed up expressing their interest in what we want to offer.

It was a day filled with plenty of interesting moments and stories. Chamorros from all shapes, sizes, colors and levels of consciousness came up to me sharing their opinions and concerns and sometimes even offering up their dreams for our people. It was nice to see people coming together under a banner of pride. Although there were still moments of contention, one of them I would say was my most memorable point of the day.

It was late in the afternoon and things were starting to wind down. Two bihas were hanging around the table, looking at the flyers and information on the table, taking turns asking me questions. One was from the CNMI and spoke with a lovely, soft, singing songy pitch. She was amazed to hear about what Chamorros are doing nowadays in terms of promoting their language and culture and asked me a million earnest questions about the different projects Chamorro Studies is working on. She said that her two adult children were not raised up knowing much about anything Chamorro because her husband was not from the Marianas. She regretted that and was excited to see that there was still a chance for them to know their roots.

The other biha was from Guam and had lived in San Diego for quite a while and was a former board member for the Guam Club in San Diego. She was much louder and more aggressive when she would speak and would often preface her statements with "I don't know if you are gonna agree with me or maybe you'll hate what I have to say, but this is what I have to say." She expressed her own frustration with her children and grandchildren not knowing enough about where they came from, but didn't express any regret about it the way the other biha did.

They didn't really talk to each other, but took turns talking to me until the CNMI biha asked me what my family name was. For those of you who don't know what the term "family name" means, it is a clan name, that can often carry more social meaning than your last name. For example, there are plenty of people who are Cruz, Santos and so on in the Marianas. They are not all related to each other however, but there is no way of telling just from their shared last names who might and who might not be related. The family names are an extra layer of social signification. When they are invoked, they provide more details that can be used to navigate who is related, what families have shared village histories and so on.  The family names also carry important aspects of family lore, even parts of their history they would rather not have remembered.

I told her, "Flores yu', Kabesa na Flores."

She responded, "Ai Kabesa hit! Siempre pumarientes!"

As we started to talk about the Chamorro Kabesa clan and the convoluted route by which it went from Guam, to Palau to Saipan, the other biha, the Guam biha became a little bit upset. She entered into the conversation with what had become her infamous preface. She went on to say that you know what she really didn't like about our people? The family names!

This was a shock for me. I have heard Chamorros says things that have made me want to raze the heavens. I have heard things that have made my blood boil, my blood curl, my blood turn to depressed jello in my veins. For instance, just that very day I heard several Chamorros say one thing that I have detested since I first heard people say it ten years ago when I moved to the states for grad school, "I am not Chamorro, but my parents are." To this day it hurts my marrow when I hear people say this.

But all the random strange things I have heard couldn't prepare me for a biha from Guam telling me that she hates the family name system. This is such a sacred cow, how could anyone hate it? They are just nicknames for families? How could anyone be against that.

The Guam biha continued. "You wanna know why I don't like it? Because when I meet you, I want to meet you. I don't wanna know about your family, I don't care about them. It is you I want to know."

The CNMI biha politely responded, "But your family is part of you. When you know someone you should know their family and if you know their family then you know something about them."

The Guam biha shot back, "No you don't! Don't fool yourself, you don't know anything about them. If you tell me your family name does that mean I know your grandparents? I don't know your grandparents, I know one word about them. But I don't know them. You are the one in front of me, you are the one I should talk to, just tell me your name."

The CNMI biha politely responded, "But if your parents and grandparents raised you, then if you meet someone, you are also meeting them. You are meeting a person they raised a person they taught to be respectful and friendly. Don't you think that when I meet you, with the way you act, the way you talk you represent your family?"

The Guam biha would have none of that, "No! Are they here right now? Am I talking to them? All I know about them is they are Kabesa, they are Fongo, they are Siboyas. That is all I know. Even if they were here talking, it is like they are only saying one word. Siboyas! Siboyas! Siboyas!"

The bihas went back and forth like this for a while.  It was interesting to watch. Even though they were clearly trying their best to make their points, and even if one of the bihas was raising her voice, they never actually seemed angry with each other. They seemed to be more upset with the issues involved. One biha didn't like the fact that there wasn't enough individuality in Chamorro culture, that the family network, even to the extent of family names, seemed to consume people, not allowing them to be them, but marking them as being part of something that may not really represent who they are. I chine'gue-mu ha', ti chine'guen-miyu.

The other biha seemed frustrated that people don't take seriously that fact that you are not ever truly an individual but always tied to your family. People think they are on their own, think they are only responsible for themselves, but this isn't really true. You may choose to shirk your obligations, but you can never leave behind the traces of your family in you.

In Chamorro the word to obey someone and the word to take after someone is the same, "osge'." When you say "Ha o'osge Si Tata-na," it can mean that someone looks like their father or that someone is obeying their father. This is an interesting way of communicating the fact that the way you look is only one way in which you symbolize your family, and of course it is the shallowest. By taking after someone, you are always obligated to more than just looking a certain way. You are obligated to act and behave in a way that will reflect the upbringing and family life you had.

Eventually the Guam biha changed tactics and offered up a completely different reason for why she hates Chamorro family names. She told the story of some youth who were in a Chamorro dance group in San Diego. At the start of the dance lessons, the instructor had all the youth introduce themselves and as part of that they had to say their Chamorro family name. All the kids went around giving their answers, but one kid stayed quiet and he refused to tell them his family name. When they asked if he was embarrassed because he didn't know it, the kid said no, he knew it, but just didn't want to say it.

I asked the biha, "Pues hafa mafa'na'an i familia-na? Sa' hafa mungga gui' sumangan?" She whispered to us both her reply, "Cha'ka!" which is the Chamorro word for rat. The CNMI biha whispered her response of "ai adai, that's terrible," but for me, I didn't quite take this point. There are families that are known as the "cha'ka" families. But it is not necessarily because they are terrible people as in their are like rats. It could be because they had lots of rats in their house, or even because they look like rats. In other words, to be called the rat family is not the end of the world.

The two bihas then went on to name other families with names that are not the most flattering. They listed names like chada', pao'chada', diso', bulachu, yommok, take' and so on. With this they finally found some common ground. They both recognized that if they had a family name like that it would be very painful because people could tease you and they could judge you in a negative or filthy context and only know one thing about you.

For me, the conversation was so interesting because it represented the complexity of any culture in general but Chamorro culture in particular. Most people live their lives not thinking about much, but will hone in on particular things and overthink them. Most Chamorros don't think much about the politics or the dynamics of their culture, but will instead overthink a particular part. Usually they will operate with a certain framework for understanding the things that Chamorros do and the things that Chamorros don't (which often boils down to stereotypes), but there will be some parts of the cultural landscape drenched in razor wire and surrounded by mined soil. For many that is stuff like decolonization, dancing, nakedness, communing with ancestors, chanting and other "controversial" things. But most Chamorros, even those who know close to nothing about their culture would never place family names in that category in that part of their landscape. But, the complexity of culture is that people always can and you will find people who do. So long as culture is made up of people, culture will always bear the inconsistent marks of those who participate in it.


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