Chamorro Women and the Spanish

By Santiago Fernandez-Barrera and Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal

Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

As practitioners of Mexican culture and native Spanish speakers visiting Guam, we have quickly become attuned to a familiar tone in the Chamorro language. Guam was once under Spanish power, used primarily as a stopping-relay point for the lucrative galleon trade route. Colonized in 1668, Guam was subjugated by Spanish settlers, and Spain became a major influence in the formation of modern day Chamorro culture and society.

Plaza de Espana in Hagatna; remnants of Spanish influence on Guam. (Photo courtesy Guam-OnLine.com)

The island of Guam retains much evidence of the degree to which the society and culture was influenced by Spain. One of these influences is Catholicism, the major religion in Guam. Chamorro people, to this day, hold monthly fiestas in honor of their villages’ respective patron saints. Even some major buildings seem to have been transplanted directly from Spain as they reflect the traditional style of Spanish architecture, particularly those pertaining to the missionaries and cathedrals. To be entirely accurate, these are reconstructions, as the remaining Spanish structures did not survive WW II.

As prominent as the colonial Spanish influence has been on every aspect of the Chamorro way of life, the foundation and the fundamental values of the original, native culture in Guam have survived directly as a result of an unexpected circumstance. During their conquest of Guam, the Spanish implemented the policy of Reducción, which displaced people from the Marianas into concentrated settlements on Guam and the neighboring island of Rota. Reducción also lead to the massacre, and almost total annihilation, of the majority of Chamorro men, in an effort to weaken traditional societal and cultural structure. Countering the Spanish effort, pre-Hispanic Chamorro culture was matrilineal, limiting any absolute Spanish cultural dominance.

Tan Lourdes, a retired techa. (Photo by Paleric)

After the Spanish conquest, many Chamorro women married Spanish and Filipino settlers and were expected to conform to 17th-19th Century European ideas that a woman’s place was strictly at home. Despite not being able to exert power openly, women were able to maintain cultural structure by keeping traditions alive, most importantly through continuing to expose younger generations to Chamorro culture. Amongst these influential women emerged the techas, spiritual leaders who lead the people in the traditional chanting and prayer that form part of Chamorro folklore and culture.

During our visit to Guam, we had the pleasure of an invitation to a dinner celebration in a Chamorro family’s home. In a display of the culture’s hospitality, we were received as an extension of the family and treated to anecdotal Chamorro history. After our traditional feast, an elder of the family explained to us the Chamorros’ profound connection to nature, exemplifying the important traditions that women, and techas in particular, have been able to pass on through subsequent generations.

USC Dornsife students at a traditional Chamorro dinner celebration, including one of the authors, Iñaki (standing up). The dinner consisted of Chamorro historical anecdotes and traditional foods in a large familial setting.

It became apparent just how much influence women have maintained and exercised throughout Chamorro history. Indeed, women have played a fundamental and crucial role in the survival of the Chamorro culture during and after the Spanish colonial occupation.

Still, this may have been a different story had the Spanish planned to establish a more permanent settlement in Guam, as it was only a supply stop in the Spanish galleon trade route. Fortunately, for the Chamorro culture, the women of the island were dedicated and persistent in carrying on the fundamental traditions of Guam’s intriguing and exceptional native culture.

The authors, Santiago (left) and Iñaki posing with a Chamorro woman at the Chamorro Village on Guam.

About the Authors: Santiago Fernandez-Barrera is a junior in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences najoring in Environmental Studies. He hopes to return to his home country of México and promote environmentally sustainable business practices.

Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal is a junior in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences double majoring in Economics and Environmental Studies. His family’s agricultural history in Baja California, México, and his deeply rooted passion for the ocean, are both instrumental in his goal of practicing the aquaculture industry in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg,, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

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