|Filling in the Blanks: Mariquita, a Hybrid Biography from Guam
University of Wollongong
Paper presented at the “Telling Pacific Lives” conference, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, December 2005.
Micronesia, the earliest Pacific region to encounter European technology, is one of the latest to develop a visible print-literary culture. As Mark Skinner has pointed out in his bibliographic survey, there have been stories and poems in print, mostly from Guam and nearly all from high-school magazines, dating back to the 1920s, but a concentrated literary culture (as in most other areas of the Pacific) seems to have depended on the development of tertiary education, such that literary journals and consistent production of written work with self-consciously artistic aspirations begin to circulate only from the early 1990s from classes at the reorganised University of Guam.
Micronesian writing has not followed the standard modern literary history of other parts of the Pacific, which highlight the sudden ‘boom’ in assertions of identity and protests against loss of traditional culture that were part of 1970s anti-colonial movements. It shows how varied the field of Pacific Literature really is, and how any study of the field has to take into account different periodisations of literary history and even distinct textual modes of composition as a result of differing regional histories of politics and society. There may be broad patterns of development that characterize the entire field, but the specifics of textual production must be taken into account for each island grouping.
What is evident in the case of Guam is that while historically there were anti-colonialist pressures building in the seventies, seen in the change of education policy to allow the use and instruction of the indigenous Chamorro language in schools (Underwood), the presence of the Para Pada Chamorros political group, the beginnings of the University of Guam and the founding of the Chamorro Lands Trust (Roberts 225), there was not a ‘critical mass’ of activism sufficient to act as a basis for oppositional writing of ‘us-them’ binaries such as we find in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, represented most clearly in Kumalau Tawali’s “The Bush Kanaka Speaks” or the poems of Albert Leomala.
Perhaps the first work from Micronesia to circulate beyond its local school network is a short text by Chris Perez Howard, entitled Mariquita: a Tragedy of Guam. It is typical of Pacific literary history in several ways, in that it is a personal narrative with historical import (as is Albert Maori Kiki’s ground-breaking autobiography) and appears through the University of the South Pacific, one of the engines of the Pacific literary machine. The Institute of Pacific Studies there had begun a series of autobiographies from leading Pacific identities to serve as school readers and records of the decolonization period (Osifelo, Zoloveke). What is particularly interesting about Perez Howard’s book is its distinct style. Unlike its fellows, which are often straightforward ‘go to woe’ first-person narratives transcribed from tape recordings and edited, Mariquita is written by the author himself as “one of the most difficult projects I have ever undertaken”, its difficulty manifesting itself in varying narrative viewpoints and a curious hybrid of documentary and fictional devices, chatty oral history and written formality, biography and autobiography.
Mariquita is an excellent text to teach with, since the student used to print literature and a reading culture immediately recognizes the popular romance and filmic devices and is drawn into the story, and then asks, ‘Well what’s so difficult about this?” and “How come someone educated in America and trained as a journalist could make such a mixed-up hash of it all?” Students point to the clumsy ‘cliffhanger’ tags at chapter endings that supposedly crank up suspense but in fact give the game away: “How could they possibly know that fate would so cruelly separate them?” (11) “A love that would be severely tested” (35) (Beaux). They note the strange shifts in generic mode and tone: from lyric dramatization of a fiery temperament against a ‘Pacific paradise’ backdrop to textbook language of ornithology, as Mariquita is described as a “Rufous fronted fantail, a small quick brown bird with a fantail edged in white that is constantly fluttering” (2) (Hamilton), and groan at the filmic clichés of perfect doomed lovers and the perfect pious victim. If the text is not a good instance of literary craft, or a fully developed historical work, it is, however, an exemplary case of postcolonial writing that leads directly into discussion of the general problematics of emergent literatures and the particular factors shaping this hybrid text. It signals itself as precursor to a contemporary Chamorro activism, and as such is an interestingly conflicted piece of writing and self-presentation.
One of the most influential makers of modern Pacific literature, Albert Wendt, has consistently figured the field as the repossession of indigeneity, although he has noted that all living cultures are, from their beginnings, changing, and has increasingly acknowledged the mixedness of contemporary globalised Pacific identities (Wendt). In this regard, Perez Howard’s book is a ‘classic’ work of Pacific literature, since it discovers a Chamorro presence within its hybrid Guamanian world. The US-raised Howard finds the Perez in him by going back to Guam and talking with his mother’s people. In doing so, he locates his own identity as both hybrid and indigenous.
Tracing his mother’s story is not only a personal psychotherapy, it is part of a collective genealogy of Guam that counters colonialist patriarchal records of governors by invoking the matrilineal traditions of Chamorro culture. The first comprehensive history of Guam, Caraño and Sanchez’s 1964 work, has all the signs of being produced ‘under license’. It opens with defensive statements to the effect that Guam is a melting pot of attractive people who dress like Americans and live in houses not unlike American homes. It is totally dependent on printed, therefore Spanish and American, records, and amounts to a narrative of which governor did what: evil governors cause destruction, good ones promote revival. Spain allowed agriculture to run down and prevented trade from developing by maintaining a cashless peasant economy. America brought a public health system and roads and schools. It does make the point that Naval rule by decree was not much different from Spanish colonial governance (184), and records the unproductive U.S. acquisition of around 40% of land on Guam (335-6) but otherwise tells a triumphalist tale of meliorist paternalism culminating in the Organic Act which ushered in a civil administration and limited self-government. Robert F. Rogers’ more recent work is a more nuanced and objective assessment that includes discussion of contemporary “Unfinished Quests”, but does not significantly depart from the ‘smooth’ presentation of historical narrative within the same framework of good and bad male leaders.
There is a limit to how far Chris Perez Howard can himself depart from this model with this narrative archaeology through his mother’s lineage. In so far as his book is commissioned by a modern university as a history, his project is framed by notions of official narrative, factual research and objective evaluation of evidence. A personal discovery of a mother lost in tragic circumstances might make for a compelling biography, but it might not be material for a history. A writer rediscovering his lost childhood might also not be the best person to tell this story as a history. The tensions are clear when Chris reaches the point of narrating his own birth. The continuation of a ‘cool’ third-person voice suddenly seems a forced restraint on emotional investments or evidence of an alienation that the rest of the book dramatically enacts and perhaps exorcises. “He was born on September 17, 1940, at the Susana Hospital in Agana. They named him Chris...” (38). The text moves around at the end to a more self-possessed first-person voice. In a way, this marks the transition from Chris as exiled Guamanian, to Chris as Chamorro, though as a tale of self-initiation, the end marks only a beginning.
Hallie Donkin notes his subtle hinting at the inequities behind America’s benign rule. This is most clearly evident in the one moment of racism that prompts Eddie’s defense of Mariquita (22), but is also found in passing mention of different rates of pay for Guamanians (40) and the need to get permission to marry (36). Overall, however, the text expresses a deep attachment to the American view of a Pacific Paradise improving on slack, priest-ridden Spanish rule, and disrupted by brutal ‘Japs’. With the start of Japanese invasion, the historical blindness induced by an American outlook allows the narrator to intone portentously “The evils of conquest had begun”, the word “again” echoing in its absence (49). The romance of harmonious relations suppresses a complex dynamic of opposition and collusion that finds expression in the symptomatic seams and rips in the narrative fabric of this hybrid text.
A blindness to unpalatable details and things of the past is not altogether Chris’s fault. It is endemic in the amnesia of any colony, and in this case, of a colony so long marginalized that it has forgotten its own history, and so violently attacked that traces of its history have been obliterated beyond the memory of that violence still present in personal stories. The violence of World War Two masks the violence of warfare, relocation and epidemic that decimated Guam’s population centuries earlier. Mariquita is full of signs that show absence by their residual presence: street names whose origins have been forgotten (13), photos of an Agana that no longer exists (3, 84), a Spanish bridge that marks a regime and a river no longer there (88). This is a key element in what makes the writing so difficult for Perez Howard: the speaking silences, present absences of his world. The woman whose story the book is is unknown to the narrator, and her story has no ending because she disappears.1 After the dramatic build-up of Mariquita as the saintly emblem of Guam holding out against the rapacity of Japan, her sudden absence has to be filled in (papered over) somewhat clumsily by inconclusive official reports (81-2), and we shift to the narrator’s own attempts to gather family information via newspaper clippings of his arrival in Honolulu en route to twenty-seven years of growing up in California (85-6).
Chris is, like Derek Walcott, genetically “divided to the vein”. He has to shrug off the restrictive formation of his father’s world without denying it (indeed, there is a hidden tale of reconciliation, perhaps, with a father who has seemingly been traumatized by his wartime internment and the loss of his young wife) (86, 89). He has also to authenticate himself as a ‘local’ who can speak on behalf of a people he does not know very well. In keeping with some of the ethnological textbook titles, he has to write his story of ‘learning to be’ Chamorro. This he can best do by subscribing to the myth of harmonious hybridity: a myth that may be lived over time into some kind of reality, but which has its own limitations in being founded upon a base of indigenous identity. Perez Howard figures this in the capital city, a mix of “unlike material cultures” that somehow achieves a charming effect of “exotic chaos” (4). Its series of historical erasures and overlays give it a somewhat artificial quality akin to comic opera, but it rests on originary qualities both ethnic and natural: Agana calls forth mention of the world view of “the ancient Chamorros”, and its survival qualities are likened to the tough swordgrass “bendable and enduring” on the surrounding hills (3-4).
Such a mix of indigeneity and hybridity shows its limits in the refusal or inability of the text to gesture to the kind of oppositional anti-colonialism that has won recognition for other literary expression in the Pacific. One of Mariquita’s aunts does invoke pre-contact culture in her mention of the taotaomona ancestor spirits (21) and she is hostile to her niece’s mixing with American boys, so she has to be represented by the narrator as old-fashioned and bitter. As Ed Sinnott also observes, unlike other celebrations of indigeneity elsewhere in Pacific writing, there is no more than passing mention in this book of pre-contact civilization. As a biography, its world begins with Mariquita’s 1920s mix of movies, hula dancing, dance bands, fashions from ‘the mainland’ and hybridized Guamanian culture (18-22). As an autobiography, it begins with Chris’s return to Guam in 1979, long after his mother’s family and most of their fellows had voted to join the US in Organic Union. There is no reference to betel chewing, the sea-going culture of Micronesia destroyed by the Spanish or the impressive latte architecture pre-dating America’s interest in the islands (Rogers 31-5). Only right at the end do we find the writer embarking on a critique of colonial history. He begins by agitating for Japanese reparations, becoming incorporated into the Guam infrastructure of government, but then reflects that “the wanton bombing of the island by Americans… is to me equally unjust”, concluding that the local people lost out under both regimes (88).
One of the many silences of the text that compromises a ‘pure’ oppositionality is that due to the particular colonial history of Guam, tracing his mother’s Chamorro past does not offer Perez Howard an escape from hybridity or the text from confusion. Mariquita finds a job working for businessman B.J. Bordallo (1) and is friends with a girl from the Ada family (10). These two names feature in the post-war history of government. Her own family had members at the top of the available jobs for Guamanians in local education (13) and owned farming property. Mariquita’s mother, Mrs Josefa Aguon Perez is recorded in Caraño and Sanchez as a teacher of weaving in 1941, along with Juan Upingco, who taught fishnet making. (This sounds unimportant until we realise that trade training was the height of education at the time. We can see how traditional crafts under “benevolent assimilation” 184, became part of vocational training defined within Western terms of helping natives recover their former dignity, and weaving turns into Mariquita’s skill in dressmaking.)2 There is a quiet weight of anti-colonial critique in these details that might be picked up by a local readership, but the same details position Mariquita as part of a native elite that retained pre-colonial chamorri caste privilege by collaborating with Spanish rule as principales and interbreeding with outsiders to perpetuate a manak’kilo urban gentry (40; Rogers 36, 74). As Perez Howard mentions, his mother’s family included a line back to “the last full-blooded Chamorro” but also includes Spanish, Filipino and Chinese settlers (2, 12). This mix allows for a number of interpretations within cultural politics: ‘the last of the tribe’ and ‘the native princess’ are stock figures of colonialist romance that allow momentary acknowledgement of indigenous presence before strategic removal by death or inter-marriage; the happy multi-racial society can be both a radical challenge to racist assimilation and an apologia for colonial incursion; the mixed-race elite have been both leaders of resistance to Western domination and supporters of that domination for their own ends.
So Perez Howard can figure his mother as the embodiment of all things good about Chamorro tradition, but shows that tradition as being a blend of clothing, cooking and ritual that is in part Filipino and in the main Spanish Catholic. Tellingly, the item of dress marking Mariquita’s mother as ‘indigenous’ relative to American Guamanian society is called a ‘mestiza’ (13). So, by contrast to other Pacific literatures, the arrival at a point of colonialist critique is a slow and complicated process and even at its end what is said is equivocal because the position from which it is voiced is itself a mixed one. This helps to explain why the agitation against large U.S. military landholdings after the war did not express itself as a decolonising politics, as it did in other places in the Pacific: the traditional owners were by then part of the political machine and only wanted the money, or in some cases the land to build tourist resorts on (Ray). The capitalist doctrine of ‘progress’ had displaced discourses of self-determination. These would emerge later in predominantly cultural terms.
Perez Howard’s recourse to the language of American war comics in the second half of the book reveals his own alignment with the colonial regime. It is not just that he is venting his personal anger on “the Japs” for the death of his mother; he is also admitting to the space in which he has stood for more than thirty years of his life. This is the space of his father, of ‘mainland’ schooling, of the library in Terre Haute, Indiana, of the Navy photos with their white walls and sheets and the news items that cast him as a cute exotic and erase his mother’s names, leaving her as only “a Chamorro girl” and “Mrs Howard”(85, 87). In a sense, it is this confession of alienation that gives him the authority (as the textual ‘sincerity’ of autobiography) to rediscover Mariquita and the Perez in his name, just as it is a mark of inauthenticity. It is also indicative of the similarity and difference between this piece of Pacific literature and many others, where the War is a primary point of coming into troubled modern self-consciousness (as in Vincent Eri’s the Crocodile, for example), but in this case it does not serve as a politicising reminder of indigenous good times prior to conflict, but of the paternalistic colonial Eden which supplanted violent contact and neglect under Spain and preceded Japan’s brutal occupation.
This is reflected in the book’s language. It is grounded in family oral history and framed by a dedication that unites Mariquita’s tragedy with indigenous tradition: “Storytelling was an important feature in the Chamorro culture as it was the way to remember things for years to come.” But memory is also fallible, and the gaps in the story are made up by verbal renditions of photographs, quotations from encyclopedias (27) and transcriptions of press cuttings (18). Print text preserves the memory of local identity (as it records Mariquita’s insistence on the use of a popular local diminutive of her name despite classroom corrections to the formal ‘Maria’) (1) but it also writes over orality with its own print text. Its translations from orality to print also carry a freight of memory and forgetting surrounding the Chamorro language. Robert F. Rogers notes that
By the 1890s, the people of the Marianas had lost much of their precontact culture, but the soft and musical Chamorro language was, and remains today, true to its roots….
The Chamorro language was maintained through maternal control of family life…. mothers invariably raised the children to speak Chamorro in the home, regardless of the father’s language, and thereby passed on the Chamorro heritage by word of mouth. (Rogers 102-3)
Perez Howard notes the “pompous” practice of punishing the use of Chamorro in schools on Guam (15) but has his young lovers Eddie and Mariquita greeting each other in Chamorro (7). Mariquita’s friend Marian Johnson is seen as ‘stuck up’ for preferring to speak in English (8), but only the older generation speak Chamorro alone, the rest being bilingual. When Eddie is accepted as Mariquita’s suitor, the family politely uses English in his presence and he in turn attempts a few phases of Chamorro, while blind Auntie Da receives the news with “Hu tungo’ ha” (I already know) (33-4). The book overall, however, uses very little Chamorro, since it is not yet part of the writer’s own heritage.
Mariquita swings between outrage at the unconscious discriminations of US rule (critiquing staffing, naming and language practices in schools 29-30) and active emulation of Western ways. In a telling cross-over moment, her husband responds to a newspaper column advocating assimilation by telling Mariquita “you will always be a Chamorro and you need your culture for your own identity” (40). The reader can see in this a kind of well meaning colonialist desire to hold the pedagogical upper hand and preserve difference that can validate the speaker’s own identity as tolerant ‘soft’ colonizer, that is implicit in the cute nickname ‘Tippy’ that Eddie gives his wife. Her previous defense of her identity by refusing to be named by others has now given way to a private acquiescence in her own belittlement (Tippy comes from her relative shortness so that she has to stand on tip-toes to kiss Eddie). Now Mariquita declares she wants to be “the best American and the proudest Chamorro.” (40). As the book says earlier, this wish is still possible at the time, since “Not until many years later would the Americanizing of Guam cause cultural conflict.” (7). And in the meantime the sudden shock of Japanese invasion deflects any questioning of what the author describes as “the somewhat paternalist” naval colony (23).
It is the mixedness of the text that makes it so interesting as a document of postcolonial writing. As a work of history, its appeal is its honesty in showing all its seams and holes, since firstly, it begins with the large central hole of Mariquita’s disappearance and works with the less dramatic but equally important gaps in historical memory. Fact has to be stitched together with invention (how else can we know what went on in his mother’s mind in the prison camp?), documents patched in with oral anecdotes. To construct his mother’s character, the author is forced to move across the whole family and ends up making her tragedy into a symbol of a collective “tragedy of Guam”.
It is a story typical of other postcolonial narratives of assembling materials to compensate for and express the experience of historical loss as existential void. At the same time, it is a subaltern retrieval of the bits and pieces that fall outside of official histories as the preliminary step in constructing a ‘national’ story. As such, it gestures towards the kind of seamless organic tale of origins and fulfilment of official record, but has simultaneously to embody the ambivalence of Bhabha’s colonial mimicry out of which the compromised native intellectual of Fanon’s work emerges. From that always already hybridized position the reclamation of indigenous identity and story can begin. Once the ground has been cleared by a work like Mariquita, a body such as the Organisation of People for Indigenous Rights (2002) and activist Chamorro journals such as ‘Minagahet’ can emerge.
I do not know enough of local politics to determine why Vicente Diaz makes no mention of Mariquita in his article “Simply Chamorro”. Perhaps Perez Howard is seen to claim too much credit for the post-war development of Chamorro activism, since he features his two-person picketing of Japanese ships in 1979 to claim war reparations but doesn’t acknowledge the demonstrations cited by Diaz going back to 1945 (39). Maybe he is seen as an opportunist off-islander, but then Diaz points out that much of the cultural survival of the Chamorro is negotiated by younger-generation ‘statesiders’ who return to discover their ethnic roots (53).
In terms of Pacific literature as a whole, a significant aspect of the text turns out to be the writer’s process of building up his own story to the point where he can begin to enter the wider tale of Pacific anti-colonialism. As a work of history, Mariquita is a ‘pre-historical’ account establishing (via the violent irruption of global modernity into its colonial world) the terms for its entry into history. It ending marks the beginning of its author as a protester against colonialist abuses, establishes his credentials as a Chamorro, and thereby signals the start of that phase of cultural revival recognized in other parts of the Pacific as the commencement of literary production. In one sense, the text has to be hybrid in order to enact the socio-cultural mix from which it stems, but also to embody this contradictory moment that is both closure and transition.
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