I remember many years ago hitting a wall in my learning of Chamorro.
I had gotten the basics and could carry on conversations with people. I could express myself in a casual and sort of everyday way. The basic topics of how is this person doing, how is this going, weren’t any problem at all. But when the conversation would become a little bit more complex, when the subject matter got more detailed or more sophisticated the Chamorro language would politely be set side and English would prevail. Chamorro would make cameo appearances afterwards, but never ever truly gain control over what was being said, until the “adios, esta agupa.”
For me this would happen because I was still learning the language and there were still plenty of things I wasn’t sure how you were supposed to talk about in the Chamorro language. But what depressed me was that sometimes it would be the other person, the one who was far more fluent than myself in the language, who would switch to English first. It was unclear what was happening exactly, but either people were holding back Chamorro from me because they felt I wouldn’t be able to understand it, or they themselves couldn’t talk about more complicated things in Chamorro and had to resort to English to express themselves.
This, combined with the notion that too many Chamorros hold, that the language is primarily a “social language” or something you use for the spices and flavors or life, but something that doesn’t really nourish. To continue with this food metaphor, Chamorro isn’t the parts of the meal that keep you alive, it is just the flavors that make life more interesting and make you lick your lips. It doesn’t keep you alive, but it doesn’t give some nice color and extra taste to the world. People felt that it wasn’t really a big deal if you couldn’t use Chamorro to talk about “big” or “important” things. The language was just something meant for parties and gossip and songs and jokes.
I think of myself as an intellectual person in English and so the thought that somehow I would be structurally prevented from being “philosophical” or “intellectual” in Chamorro wounded me deeply. It was like all of the binary hierarchies that I learned about in graduate school. The Chamorro was external not internal. The Chamorro was superficial not deep. English and other “developed” languages were capable of carrying and conveying so much more meaning. Chamorro was stuck with being limited, marginal and couldn’t carry or convey great thoughts, just the shallow simple ideas of a shallow and simple people.
Since that time, we at the University of Guam have formed an undergraduate degree program in Chamorro Studies. This is something I have long dreamed of and I am taichi mamagof na it has finally been established. The program emphasizes students becoming fluent in reading, writing and speaking the Chamorro language, but also give them a comprehensive knowledge base regarding the history and culture of the Chamorros. This is different than previous programs at UOG, which emphasized teaching people who already spoke Chamorro in order to help train them to be Chamorro teachers.
Part of why this program is important is because it can help push the boundaries of what people conceive to be the limits of the Chamorro language. Eventually, classes will not just be taught for those wanting to learn Chamorro, but classes will exist that will be conducted in the Chamorro language, about other topics. You can take a class to discuss Guam history, gi fino’ Chamoru. You can take a class to discuss the Chamorro language, gi fino’ Chamoru. You could even take a class on local literature, gi fino’ Chamoru.
This program will be important because it will be a formal assertion that Chamorro is far from simple and that when you use it in these spaces in this program it will not be simple as well. People can go there and be challenged in their fluency in their ability in Chamorro. The perceptions of others can be challenged by what is produced there. It will go very far in deepening not just our understanding but our imagining of what is Chamorro.
Returning to years ago when I was hitting my wall. I was lost because of that switch to English. I would try my hardest to keep using Chamorro, but would become less and less inspired to do so when so many people would switch to English once the conversation got more detailed or complex. For most Chamorros they brush about against some of the most detailed and complex Chamorro out there through their relationship to the church. The rhetorical artifacts that the church produces at masses, rosaries and funerals is very abstract, poetic, beautiful. More and more Chamorros experience it today, but most don’t even understand what is being said, even if they are speaking along with it. They may be able to tell you the gist, but probably couldn’t translate it.
For me growing up on Guam as a non-Catholic, I rarely brushed up against that world. As I got older and more people died I would hear it more and more, but as I didn’t speak Chamorro until I was 20, they could have been speaking Esperanto for all I knew.
When I had the wall I keep referring to, there were many things that helped me get past it. One of them that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately are the sermons of my Uncle Tommy Leon Guerrero who passed away a few years ago. He was a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Guam and while I was growing up the church was very Americanized. It has in recent years moved towards multiculturalism and embracing diversity, and some of my relatives in the Flores Kabesa clan have helped push this. At that time you could have Sabbath school in different languages from Micronesia and Asia, and even in Chamorro. I would take my grandmother to church every Saturday and sometimes sit with her in Sabbath school and listen to Uncle Tommy’s sermons and listen to the conversations that would take place.
In some of these meetings I would struggle to keep up as they would use words and say things that muna’laolao i tintanos-hu. In those meetings early Saturday morning, my grandmother would gather with her friends and i manachaamko’-na siha, and they would talk about salvation, sin, what God wants for us, love, forgiveness and so many other things. It was both heartfelt and so abstract. It pushed my mind and pushed my own boundaries of Chamorro and helped me to finally break past that wall.
This lesson of pushing past the limits of my own learning and the perceived limits of the Chamorro language has stayed with me today. It drives my scholarly and community work around the revitalization of the Chamorro language.