Last week the island lost an island icon and a Chamorro pioneer with the passing of Dr. Bernadita Camacho-Dungca or “Benit” as she was known by many. So much of what we take for granted today in terms of Chamorro pride, the Chamorro renaissance or the surge of Chamorro cultural identity is tied to what she helped to created in her life. Her list of accomplishments is numerous and something to marvel at even scanning her biography. For so many of the efforts that have helped build pride amongst Chamorros and raise their consciousness as an indigenous people, who deserve decolonization and need to protect their language and heritage, Benit was there.
She assisted Dr. Donald Topping with the development of his Chamorro language trilogy of books and is listed as a co-author/assistant on “Chamorro Reference Grammar” and “The Chamorro-English Dictionary.” She helped train the first generation of Chamorro language teachers in Guam DOE and also built the degree programs for Chamorro teachers in the School of Education at UOG. She was an activist in many forms and was involved in various protests through her membership in groups such as People’s Alliance for a Responsible Alternative (PARA) and Organization of People for Indigenous Rights (OPI-R). Most recently she was a board member for the Chamorro language immersion school Hurao Academy and a strong supporter of their efforts to get the youth of Guam speaking the Chamorro language. Finally, her words and ideas have become something that tens of thousands of students (Chamorro and non-Chamorro alike) each year memorize and say with various levels of pride and enthusiasm, as Benit was the author of the “Inifresi” which is a Chamorro promise and pledge.
I knew Benit for many years, but most of them at a distance. I first knew her just through reputation and later through various common associations. I would see her at meetings of decolonization and cultural activists. I would get added into emails chains that included her. I was familiar with her work and admired her a great deal, but over the years never sat down to interview her as I did with so many others I considered to be pioneers in the Chamorro struggle for decolonization and elevation of consciousness.
When I began to work at UOG in 2009, I began to see Benit more frequently as I became her junior colleague and would always enjoy being called over to her (usually from her wheelchair). I would bend low and manginige’ her and she would smile and laugh and usually tell me some sort of joke. Our first conversations would be about my columns for the “Marianas Variety” and later the “Guam Daily Post.” She would offer her own take on my columns, always adding in some gossip about the topic I had no idea about. These moments became very special to me, because the academic world of UOG around us would fade away and I would feel more like a child talking to a favorite aunt at a family gathering. Sometimes she would correct things in my columns, but she always did so with good humor and with an eye that I was a young Chamorro scholar with potential who needed to be nurtured and deterred on my path ahead.
I spent much of last year trying to convince Benit to allow me to do a lengthy, Chamorro language video interview with her about her many accomplishments and also to get more details about how her linguistic work with the “Chamorro-English Dictionary” and “Chamorro Reference Grammar” had been carried out. Unfortunately, this never came to pass. I sat down with her several times, writing down notes, but each time I would mention the idea of conducting a formal video interview, she would become shy and change the subject or instead invite me to watch some TV with her. Now that she is gone, those conversations are so precious to me.
In all my Chamorro language classes at UOG, we learn the “Inifresi” at the beginning of the semester, and I am always amazed at how many students remember it and can recite it. When I was growing up, we sang “Fanoghe Chamorro” in English at my school and said the American “Pledge of Allegiance” which as I got older and more critical never made sense to me. Over many meetings I had asked Benit why she wrote the “Inifresi” and she gave me a variety of reasons. The one that stayed with me the most is when she remarked that the American pledge is so abstract and so disconnected from the world. As she said “nothing that really matters in the life of a people, nothing that really sustains life is mentioned there.” For her, Chamorros as an indigenous people needed something stronger for their pledge, something that connected them to each other, to their ancestors, to their resources, to their heritage. Each semester I tell me students that, and hope that each them they recite it or hear it, they feel it in that context.
Since the death of Pedro Ogo, who was also a co-author of the “Chamorro-English Dictionary” I began to spend more time with Benit, visiting her at her house in Sinajana and talking to her about her life’s work and also the road ahead for Chamorros and their language. We discussed having a memorial or symposium to commemorate the work of Pedro Ogo, who was an educator from Rota and also reflect on the creation of that dictionary which is still used and being reprinted today. I regret that we were never able to organize something through the Chamorro Studies Program at UOG. But now with the last co-author of that landmark dictionary gone, I am determined to pay tribute to their work.
Adios Sainå-hu. Si Yu’us Ma’åse para todu i che’cho’-mu yan i bidå-mu ni’ muna’fanmemetgot ha’ i taotao-ta estaki på’go.