When the Moon Waxes - Decolonization Before Our Eyes
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
FANHASSO. Fanhita. Fanachu. These are strong, deep words which we should keep with us as we face, whether as a community or individuals, the challenges of our lives. Reflect. Come together. Rise.
These three words come from the title of a play which I co-wrote with Victoria Leon Guerrero, directed by Cliff Guzman and was performed recently by the Chamorro cultural dance group Inetnon Gefpago in celebration of their 10th anniversary. The content of the play was a mixture of the huge collection of dances which Inetnon Gefpago has created or adapted over the years, with a story of Chamorro empowerment through the celebration of Chamorro history and culture.
Although there are many different interpretations and understandings on Guam about what decolonization is or might mean out there; some cultural (reviving practices), some political (changing political status), some fearful (turning back the clock), one of the reasons why I was so excited to work with Inenton Gefpago, one of the now numerous Chamorro cultural dance groups on Guam, is because of the way they have over the past 30 years brought about a very real example of what decolonization is.
We all know the tragedies whereby Chamorros were prohibited from practicing certain cultural forms when the Spanish colonization began in the late 17th century. The transmission of some knowledge, history and culture was radically disrupted. As a result, we do not know what those dances looked like.
But, the true tragedy of that loss is not how the dances themselves were lost, but how Chamorros from that point would see themselves fundamentally differently, and among other things, incapable of creating their own dances again. Under the Spanish and up until today, Chamorros lost their sovereignty, or their ability to see themselves as not just a distinct people, but one who is not simply battered about by the violent waves of the world, but a people who have control over their culture and their destiny.
From then on, even though Chamorros continue to exist as a people with their own language and culture, whatever happens after that moment is always tainted with the notion that it is not really theirs. Chamorros borrow new dances from other cultures and eventually make them their own. They constantly qualify their dancing as never really belonging to them, always saying that this dance isn’t really Chamorro, but comes from Spain, Mexico, the Philippines or the United States. Even though Chamorros had the ability and creativity to start their traditions anew, for centuries a set of paralyzing thoughts dominated the minds of Chamorros: that because the continuity of their culture was disrupted, they could never authentically claim these art forms again. There could never truly be “Chamorro dances” again.
Thirty years ago, that began to change. People started to research what information could be found on ancient dances.
They traveled to other islands to see what sorts of themes native various Pacific dances and chants had. Eventually new Chamorro dances were created. They were not meant to represent how Chamorros danced 400 years ago, rather each was a recreation or an homage to that era. At first, these dancers were sometimes mocked and laughed at for “making things up,” but much of that changed in time. When we look around the island today, Chamorro dances are fixtures at all public events, and there are dozens of different groups and styles to watch or join.
This is the nature of decolonization. It can start off small and something which most people resist or refuse to believe because it seems to contradict the very flow of history, but when it does happen, literally the ground beneath our feet changes, and most don’t even notice. For example, the crowds of people who snickered at the first generation of Chamorro dancers now eagerly send their children and grandchildren to join the same dance groups.
We should all congratulate the many teachers and leaders who have made this act of decolonization possible, and we should look to this as an example of how, even though the tragedies of history bear down heavy upon the Chamorro people, that trauma should not and must not define our lives.
The violence of colonization, recent or ancient, haunts a people and makes them at times feel cursed, inferior or dependent. Decolonization is something which each passing generation takes on in their own way and is at its core about the empowerment of the colonized, the instilling in them a feeling of control over their present and future. But when a true act of decolonization takes place, it is truly a marvel to witness. For it is the feeling of seeing something which was assumed impossible for so long, manifest right before your very eyes.