Since I started teaching at UOG, I’ve noticed a lot more students who come from the CNMI, than I can recall from when I was an undergraduate 15 years ago. Perhaps I just never noticed them before, or nothing ever came up in discussions in class which would help reveal their identities, but I’m often amazed at how many people I’ll have from Saipan, Rota and Tinian in my Guam History, World History, English Composition and Chamorro Language courses.
I guess it might be part of the decline of the CNMI’s economy, that families up there can no longer afford to send their kids straight to the states for college, but have to go to the best, cheapest, nearby option which is Guam. This new mix can make things interesting, just as having people from the other Micronesian Islands can. It can help challenge the dominance that local, Guam students feel, being the biggest and most American island in Micronesia. It can either help show them that there is another side or two to how islands can exist and how islanders can live, and not everyone need to be a pathetic territorial appendage to the United States. Even if the sovereignty that the CNMI was able to negotiate through their covenant with the US has been significantly eroded and will most likely continue to be eroded by the US, it is still an important lesson for people on Guam, to show them, at the minimum, that the helpless dependent possession relationship to the US is not the only possible way that Guam can exist in relation to them.
But there is one thing which students from the CNMI often bring into my classes, which frustrates me, and that is when they bring in the hollowed out, useless husk of a narrative of their linguistic and cultural superiority. These narratives are not brought out in anger, jealousy or rage, but always with a quiet sadness to them, a looking down on the tragedy of Guam not having any language or culture anymore. The most common way in which this narrative is phrased goes like this, “Wow, I never realized that Chamorros on Guam had lost so much and have these problems with their identities, I’m so glad that in Saipan we still have our language and our culture.”
For decades after World War II, the new Battle of the Marianas went as follows. Chamorros on Guam had the clear tactical advantage in terms of Americanization, modernization, technology. Guam was like the mecca of Americanization for all of Micronesia in the first few postwar decades. If you wanted a small taste of America, you had to go to Guam. Chamorros in the CNMI had the clear tactical advantage in terms of language and culture. While the language and parts of the culture were rapidly being lost or intentionally cast aside by Chamorros in Guam, they still remained vibrant in the northern islands. By the 1970’s, if you wanted to hear children speak in Chamorro, you had to go the to northern islands, since they were an endangered species on Guam.
But after the CNMI signed its covenant with the US, obtained US Citizenship and a whole host of other things, they began to follow Guam down the path to endangered language and devalued culture-town. The CNMI of today is the Guam of three decades ago when it was just on the verge of the language becoming technically dead, where the youngest generation could no longer fluently speak it, but only retained small bits and pieces, often times able to understand, but never able to articulate themselves in it.
If I was teaching classes at UOG 40 years ago, and students from the CNMI came, telling me that narrative, I would have to admit that they were absolutely right. The language and culture was much more vibrant in the northern islands, because Guam was too busy finding every-moronic-way it could to be more American. But today, the CNMI is in some ways slowly and in some ways rapidly following Guam in terms of losing the language. When I attended the Tetset na Konferensian Chamorro in Saipan seven years ago, I was shocked first at how many young Chamorros there did not speak the language, and second, at how many Chamorros were now willing to admit that they were losing the language. I remember when I was first learning to speak Chamorro, I would meet so many people from Saipan who wouldn’t be able to speak Chamorro, but still constantly judge the way I and people from Guam speak, as being inferior to the way they use the language. I could not fathom how they could feel such bravado and pride in something they were not actually able to prove or embody in their own lives, but they were somehow able to keep up that pretense without their brains exploding.
One reason why this is an issue for me, is that for almost all of the Chamorros from the CNMI, in particular Saipan that I have had in my classes who somehow someway whip out that narrative of their linguistic superiority, none could comfortably speak Chamorro. All could carry on a casual conversation of one or two word sentences, but if they were asked to give a speech in front of the class in Chamorro, none had the fluency to do it or felt comfortable doing so, because the language was something they only used for a handful of people, such as their parents or close relatives. Others say they can’t really speak Chamorro in a school setting, or their not used to it and can’t get used to it. When I asked one student, why she couldn’t speak Chamorro back to me even though she claimed that she could speak Chamorro fluently, her answer was that, she spoke Chamorro fine back home in Saipan, but Guam wasn’t where you were supposed to speak Chamorro and so she just couldn’t bring herself to use the language here.
The point however is that none were as fluent as their rhetoric made them and their islands out to be. For people to try and claim that hyperbolic superiority, they would have to be able to back it up in some way, and with so many students from Saipan and Tinian who just can’t speak the language, it is only a matter of time before people from the CNMI can’t pretend anymore. Rota is sometimes an exception to this, as I have had several students from Rota who appear to be pretty comfortable speaking Chamorro, but for the most part most of my Taotao Luta students speak little to no Chamorro.
To conclude all of this ranting, what makes this the most frustrating is that this hubris can very easily kill a language. You are too busy taking credit for how your island, your community speaks such great Chamorro, that it is so easy for it to slip away, it is so easy to forget to speak Chamorro and simply continue to boast in English. Guam has had its own problems with its developmental hubris since World War II. Massive changes have been allowed to take place, with no planning and without any real thoughts to sustainability of what is best for Guam, but carried out primarily because of quick short term profits or because of the impression that that is what America would do. The hubris that Guam has long felt, being drunk of its close association to the US has destroyed much and trapped us in ways we barely perceive in our lives, but is no less frustrating or dangerous that the hamaleffa wine of the CNMI.
I should point out here, that you should not interpret my comments as me gloating that in a generation or two, the CNMI, especially Saipan will be at the same level of poor Chamorro fluency that Guam is at now. My point in being irritated and frustrated at this, is because those empty narratives can do so much damage, especially when you cling to them instead of seeing what is so obvious in front of your eyes. This cheap and empty narrative needs to disappear so that both Guam and the CNMI can see the truly dire straits that our language is in. There should no illusions, no clinging to an old greatness or vitality, but see the contemporary decline in all its tragedy and sadness. That is the only point where you can gain the ability to reverse this trend, once the fantasy fades and reality hits you, that is the point where you can finally act, when you can finally work to save the thing you took for granted for so long.