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Caption: This photograph is of Humåtak (formerly Umatac) bay in southern Guåhan (Guam). The large rock is known as "Laso Fu'a," or "Fu'a Rock," which is believed to be the calcified body of Fu'una, the creation mother of the CHamoru people. 

As I Navigate the Ocean, As I Turn the Pages

Craig Santos Perez

 

One of the most influential writers who shaped my own artistic practice is Chamoru author Cecilia Catherine Taitano Perez, also known as “Lee” Perez and “Hagan Ita” (Daughter of Ita or Blood of Ita). In 1997, Perez completed her master’s thesis, “Signs of Being: A Chamoru Spiritual Journey,” through the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. 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” (6). Her journey through a “Chamoru mindscape” traverses 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).

 

In one of the opening poems, “As I Turn the Pages,” Perez depicts the invisibility of Chamoru people in colonial histories of Guam. According to the commentary that follows the poem, Perez shares that she was sitting in the theatre at the University of Guam and listening to a lecture by a Guam history professor. The poem begins by stating how one could “rummage reams of text,” “map the margins,” and translate archival materials, yet you will “never find / recordation / of Chamorro minds.” In the vast ocean of historical documents of Guam’s history, the Chamoru perspective is drowned out, erased, and invisible. When Chamorros do appear in Guam history texts, they are simply depicted, as Perez figures in her poem, as “passive props” being acted upon (violently) by colonial powers, including Spain, Japan, and the United States. 

 

One aspect of the poem that I love, and that relates to oceanic thought and the blue humanities, is Perez’s conception of reading as a kind of navigation (and, I should note, she also mentions a “canoe” and the tradition of Chamoru seafaring in the poem as well). She writes: “I’ve read that script, I’ve scanned those books, I’ve turned the pages / one by one / forward / backward, / I’ve turned those pages / looking / sensing…” (5). This passage, to me, felt like being aboard a conceptual canoe on a journey, through the rough seas of colonial history, searching for her ancestors. Instead, she confronts absence because historians have actually written: “ʻin the end …’ / ‘in one final gasp of life …’ / ‘the last Chamorro died’” (5). The idea that Chamoru people are extinct is a common, colonial representation. However, Perez challenges this by ending the poem with a question: If Chamorros are extinct, then “who am I / who know / my self / to be / Chamoru, / and how is it / I sit here / thinking?” The poet herself is proof that Chamorus have in fact 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”). Perez writes: “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” (24).

 

This powerful poem taught me the importance of writing our own histories, our own stories, and our own poems. By sensing, listening, and looking (and reading and writing), we can see, touch, smell, hear, feel, and remember our ancestors. They will, as Perez insists, be our invisible guides through the moving and changing islands of the past, present, and future.


 

Note: "Guåhan" is the current, official spelling of the island known more commonly as "Guam." Similarly, "CHamoru" is the current, official spelling of the indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands. "Chamorro" and "Chamoru" are two other common spellings. I code switch between these different nomenclatures and stay faithful to the spellings in the sources quoted.

 

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Craig Santos Perez

Craig Santos Perez (familian Gollo) is a Chamoru writer and scholar from Mongmong, Guåhan (Guam). He is the co-editor of six anthologies, and the author of five books of poetry and the monograph Navigating Chamoru Poetry: Indigeneity, Aesthetics, and Decolonization (University of Arizona Press, 2022). He has received the American Book Award, the PEN Center USA literary Prize, and the Nautilus Book Award. He is a professor in the English department and affiliate faculty with the Center for Pacific Islands Studies and the Indigenous Politics program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.